The Challenge

  • 63 339 6
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up

The Challenge

Edith Layton For Reneé Ritter— stalwart friend and constant reader Contents 1 It was a peculiar bordello. The Engl

1,314 231 950KB

Pages 404 Page size 306 x 486 pts Year 2009

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD FILE

Recommend Papers

File loading please wait...
Citation preview

THE CHALLENGE

Edith Layton

For Reneé Ritter— stalwart friend and constant reader

Contents 1 It was a peculiar bordello. The English 1 gentleman was in… 2 What did he say?” Harmony insisted. “No, 23 what did he… 3 The weather cleared to a bright, brittle day, 38 winter still… 4 They stood around the piano and sang an old 51 song… 5 Odd,” Wycoff commented to Lucy, as they sat 69 together in… 6 The Swallow, in Richmond, was a fine inn. 78 The richness… 7 It’s so?” Lucy whispered in shock, not looking 92 at anyone… 8 Lucy had gone to the library. Wycoff knew she 105 would.

9 But if he’s not a bad man,” Jamie asked, “why… 10 A mild morning blossomed into another fragrant spring day. The… 11 The two men stood at the rail of the Sarabeth,… 12 The captain’s table was lavishly set, with flowers, good china,… 13 Before Lucy could take in air to scream it out,… 14 Wycoff closed the door and turned to her, taking in… 15 I’d like a room, please, for my son and myself,”… 16 Lucy was wearing the celestial blue gown Madame Celeste had… 17 Sukey will be here,” Lucy told Jamie nervously. “You’re not… 18 We’re so pleased you accepted our invitation, especially after what…

117

137

154

168 188

202

218

237

252

265

19 But a man can change,” Gilly insisted again, striking her… 20 And they have a boy-sized curricle, Uncle said though he… 21 Wycoff always took care to dress correctly, but tonight he’d… 22 She wore a long cloak with a voluminous hood that… 23 Jamie arrived with the chocolate Sukey brought to Lucy’s room… 24 The shot went through, taking some flesh. It’s in the… 25 The hackney tore through the streets and barreled into the… 26 It was a small wedding reception held at a huge… About the Author Praise Other Books by Edith Layton Cover

281

301

314

330

345

359

375

387

Copyright About the Publisher

1

was a peculiar bordello. The English gentleman Itwas in a position to know. He was well traveled and famous for being broad-minded and so had seen all sorts of brothels: tawdry, exotic, and downright dangerous ones, too. Yet in some ways they were all the same. A man could be aroused simply recognizing their signature scent of heavy perfumes and cigarillo smoke, or by glimpsing peeks of dazzling female flesh in the low light, or from hearing the sultry laughter coming from the shadows. This place smelled of cooking and furniture polish. The lamps were brightly lit. The sound was all guffawing and giggles. And the only female flesh to be seen was on hands and faces. It seemed too homey to be a house of joy. But it was certainly a successful one.

2 / Edith Layton

“Here we are,” his American friend Geoff announced, rubbing his hands together after he slipped off his greatcoat and gloves and gave them to the maid who met them in the hall. Geoff raised his head, sighting someone he knew. “Ho! There’s my friend Mary!” he said, hurrying to the side of a plump middle-aged woman directing the maidservant where to put the coats. As Geoff chatted with the mistress of the house, the English gentleman gravitated from the hall to the blazing hearth in the front parlor. He warmed his hands as he eyed the overstuffed settees, the rag rags on the wooden floors, the porcelain dogs on the mantle, and the framed pictures of England on the flowered walls. The place looked more suited to treating a man to a cozy cup of tea than any kind of carnal ecstasy. There were seven other men crowded in the room with him, dallying with the four available females he could see. Yet none of the men seemed eager to go upstairs, though the hour was growing late and the weather outside was worsening. He couldn’t blame them. The women looked like they’d be better at feeding a fellow’s appetite for pot pies than his deepest sexual desires. They weren’t much more exciting than the cabbage roses on the wallpaper. They wore simple highwaisted gowns, in the current style. But they didn’t rise above it. Such gowns might show high, firm breasts, if the lady dared wear her neckline low enough. A woman who wasn’t a lady certainly

The Challenge / 3

would. These women wore their necklines to their chins. Sensible in such weather, but sensibility wasn’t what a man looked for in a whorehouse. The shawls round their shoulders hid whatever else might be interesting. Their faces weren’t. They were young, plain, and unpainted. Still, even wrapped in their shawls, buttoned to their noses, as innocent of rouge and powder as they were of enticements, they each had at least one fellow listening to their every utterance and another trying to make them smile. The English gentleman was amused. He’d visited the most glittering cities here and on the Continent, and at home in England. This was only a little town on a mighty river in the New World. A brave new world indeed. He smiled in silent salute to the hardihood of American men, who could be so charmed and titillated by the mere thought of what they’d soon pay to do. But he’d seen stranger things, and wasn’t particularly interested in anything the house had to offer but the simplest bodily comforts. So he availed himself of them. He edged closer to the fire and sighed with pleasure as some of the numbness left his toes. It mightn’t be exciting, but it was a good place to be on a miserable night. Icy drizzle had changed to freezing sleet that tapped on the windowpanes and rattled down the chimney, sending up puffs of steam as it hit the glowing hearth. He’d spoken only truth when he’d said he was cold to the bone and weary, and wanted nothing so much as a clean, soft bed for the night.

4 / Edith Layton

“But that’s simple enough—too simple, in fact!” Geoff had protested when he’d told him that earlier in the evening. “You think we’re so provincial here in Virginia? Well, so we are, compared to you. But we’ve more to offer than that. Today I showed you the best acreage in the district. Tomorrow we’ll see the finest horseflesh. Tonight, let me show you the best accommodations—and female company,” he added with a wink, “that we have to offer a gentleman of your distinction! Fetching young things well worth making the acquaintance of, that I promise you.” So he’d let Geoff drive him to this house at the edge of the quaint little town instead of the inn he’d seen when he’d arrived. The man had been helpful, after all, treating him as a friend on the basis of a written introduction, spending the day showing him properties, promising a look at some of the fine horses the district was most famous for. It wouldn’t do to insult him. But they’d spent the raw afternoon in an open carriage, only getting out to pace frozen acres. Now he found himself in the parlor of a bordello, wanting warmth and rest more than the temporary heat and exertion he’d find in the arms of any of the women he saw entertaining the other men. Getting old, he told himself, and smiled, remembering when he wouldn’t have wanted to crawl into any bed by himself—even if it was his deathbed—no matter what his bedmate looked like. He grew drowsy from the heat. But he wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of sleep until he got a room

The Challenge / 5

to himself, a bolt across its door, his pistol under his pillow. He was too experienced a traveler to let down his guard till then. As always, he was alert to everything that was going on in spite of his weariness. And however cozy it looked, there was something odd here that kept his eyes open, and puzzled him. The women didn’t come near him. He wasn’t a vain man. But he knew his worth. He wasn’t foolish enough to advertise it in strange lands, but some things were unavoidable. His accent announced his birth. His appearance, his background. He tried to be inconspicuous, but saw no need to travel in disguise. Besides, he was more comfortable when well washed and dressed. In this backwater, that and his quiet elegance shouted his quality. His hair was neatly barbered. He was clean shaven and conservatively dressed in a blue jacket, spotless neckcloth, maroon and mustard waistcoat over a white shirt, buff pantaloons, and shining half boots. Every stitch was set by a trained hand, each garment so immaculate it was clear they were carefully cared for by another man. Face and form, every inch of his lean six foot frame proclaimed he was a man of substance. But he was also a man who had so far attracted nothing but shy glances from the females in the room, and those quickly concealed. That would be strange for him, anywhere. But almost bizarre in a bawdy house. He was only curious about it. He didn’t regret their lack of interest. But someone else did.

6 / Edith Layton

“You mustn’t think we’re neglecting you!” his host said as he joined the Englishman again. “It’s only that I had some catching up to do, old friends and neighbors, you know. Wycoff, I give you Mrs. Mary Ames, mistress of this fine establishment.” Wycoff bowed to the rotund madam as his host went on, “Mary, here’s my new friend Wycoff, a visitor from London town. Friend, and client. Just today he bought a parcel upriver—Carlisle’s land.” “Oh my!” she said excitedly, “Here’s news indeed! We were so vexed when Mr. Carlisle gave up the place and went back to England, for it was nice to have new neighbors, wasn’t it? But he had no feel for the land, and not a scrap of initiative. He complained about the weather and the food; why, he was even forever going on about how hard it was to get a newspaper, when we have a perfectly good one, but it was the London Times no less he was talking about. Are you going to take over his house? Or is your family big enough to need more room, for he’d only three children… “Oh my!” she gasped as Wycoff brought her plump hand to his lips, manfully not backing away at the scent of onions rising from it. “Now here’s a thing, Geoff,” she rattled on to the man at her side as her cheeks grew pink. “Not many gents take a lady’s hand these days, do they?” She took back her hand and looked at it as though it had just grown there at the end of her arm. Then she beamed at her guest. “But sit down, Mr. Wycoff, please do. You must make yourself comfortable in my establishment, for

The Challenge / 7

it is our home, whatever use we have been forced to put to it. Not that what we do isn’t a pleasure for all concerned, I assure you. “Would you like some brandy?” she asked, as Wycoff bit back a grin at her plain speaking, “Lucy!” she trilled over her shoulder. “Do bring in the tray again, if you please. There’s someone here in need of your bracing spirits!” Wycoff smiled. A mystery solved. So it was Lucy she wanted to pair him with. Which was why she’d kept the other girls away. He hoped Lucy was worthy of the distinction the madam clearly felt she deserved. Having been raised properly, he could probably rise to the occasion even if she didn’t, he thought with another interior smile. But he’d rather not. Though he enjoyed such sport, he didn’t care for the kind he had to buy. And he was so tired. But he didn’t worry. Such females appreciated the coin they got more than the act itself, and so whatever happened, this Lucy would be content. And in truth, he didn’t know what would happen, because anything that got him to bed faster would be the truest pleasure for him tonight. “I don’t know what we’d do without our dear Lucy,” Mrs. Ames commented comfortably. “A help in everything, and to everyone. She sets a fine stitch, cooks like an angel—and sings like one, too! And looks like one, as you’ll soon see. She’s a dear girl, a real treasure, though I should never say so to her face for she’d certainly be embarrassed and so turn it into a jest. She has such a sense of humor—

8 / Edith Layton

but never fear! She’d never step out of her place for a second, she’s not a bit rowdy or bawdy. She has such sensitivity, though she tries to hide it, but who can hide such a fine upbringing? And why should she want to? But she always wants to put everyone at their ease, it’s her way, and shows what a lady she is. She’s originally from England, too. Why, you two should have so much in common. I’m sure you’ll get along famously.” Wycoff nodded, though his lips twitched. She was extolling the girl for a lot more than she was offering her for tonight. But who knew? Maybe that was how they found husbands for women in this part of the world. He’d seen odder things in his travels. There were more men than women here, after all, and it was a raw new land, and lonely in the countryside, too. They said Americans did things at a faster clip. He smiled at the thought of the same thing being done in London, of dowagers and chaperones offering young women to their suitors at the end of each night at Almack’s. The thought tickled him; it mightn’t be such a bad idea at that. But still…something fastidious in him cringed at the thought of this homey little woman trying to tout her whore as his possible lifemate. Then something realistic in him sneered for such scruples, reminding him who he was, why he was here, and what he’d been and done. He was no one to cast stones. “Thank you, ma’am,” he drawled. “I’m sure I’ll find her charming, as well as entertaining.” He was sure he’d find her available, and nothing

The Challenge / 9

more. But he was a gentleman, compliments came easily to his lips, and his face seldom showed more than he wanted it to. Which was why his reaction was surprising, even to him, when the woman with the tray of bottles and glasses came to them. He blinked, and frankly stared as she put her burden down on a nearby tabletop. As she straightened, she looked at him and paused for a second, too. Her face lit with a certain sudden gladness. Her eyes kindled. But she seemed to recall herself and the look in them was quickly quenched. She lowered her gaze to a bottle on her tray. “Some of this brandy, sir?” she asked him calmly in a well bred voice. “Although many of the men here tonight prefer the home-brewed sort, I recommend this. It’s come all the way from France and is the best we have.” He was glib and practiced, and so his words came automatically. His lips answered while his astonished eyes wandered over her, assessing her, coveting her, as pleasant surprise suffused him. “All the way from France, you say? Since I come all the way from England, I think yes, thank you, I’d like a taste of a fellow traveler. After all, you come from afar, too, don’t you, my dear?” It was her turn to blink. A pretty process, he mused, watching her recover her composure. But anything she did would be. She was lovely. Not as young as the other women, nor nearly as old as her employer. Not a dewy miss, nor a matron. He judged her to be over thirty, but not by much. A per-

10 / Edith Layton

fect age for him, wise enough to know her mind as well as her trade, not old enough to be jaded or disgusted with it. She’d have conversation as well as expertise. He was suddenly delighted he’d been talked into coming here tonight. He could hardly wait until they were alone and the night was theirs to do with as they wished. In fact, he found himself wishing he’d met her a year ago. Then, remembering her profession, he was very glad he had not. But for tonight? Perfection. He eyed her appreciatively. She was in the full flower of her womanhood. And a glorious one it was. She had long, dark eyelashes over those amazingly dark blue eyes. Streamers of curling chestnut hair threatened to escape from the ribbon holding it high on her head, keeping it clear of her slender neck. White skin, unlined except for some traces of remembered laughter at the corners of her tilted eyes and rosy mouth, unblemished, fine grained and pure, except for a dash of pale freckles over that delightfully straight little nose—which only served to save it from looking too severe. As though she could be with those sumptuous, plush lips of hers. Her mouth fascinated him. Her lower lip was almost ridiculously succulent, the upper bow, surely shaped by the hand of an angel. She was so vividly attractive it took him a moment to canvas her form. A bit more than average height, with much more than average delights. Slender, yet bountiful where he most wished a

The Challenge / 11

woman’s figure to be, her form made a mockery of the modesty of her proper blue woolen gown. He couldn’t wait to have it off so he could discover more. He stood straighter, wide awake now. But she was staring at him as though she couldn’t quite believe she’d heard him right. The back of his neck prickled. He felt oddly self-conscious, as though he’d misspoken. That in itself was a rarity; in a place like this, bizarre. But Americans were said to be puritanical. He hadn’t seen it himself in his travels, but he’d only just arrived in this district; maybe it was so here. Or maybe it was false gentility. Whatever it was, the entrancing Lucy had been taken aback, and he felt like a salacious fool. He shuddered at seeming to be one of those sniggering, clumsy, hot-eyed men who made women squirm. He never enjoyed insulting a female, whatever class she was. He especially didn’t want to upset this one. His comment about his taste, or rather, about the possibility of tasting her, had clearly startled her. “Did I actually say that?” he asked, wincing. He inclined his head in a bow to her. “My jest obviously lost something in the Atlantic crossing. It came out too warm by far. I only meant to be amusing. Never too familiar. Forgive me if I offended.” Mrs. Ames tittered. “As if you could, sir! We’re not offended, are we, Lucy? Of course not,” she hurried on before Lucy could answer. “Anyhow, now that we’ve embarked on this venture we must become more worldly. Now, do pour Mr. Wycoff some of the French brandy. He’s from London! You

12 / Edith Layton

two will have such a lot to talk about. Oh, but I haven’t introduced you properly! Mr. Wycoff, this is Lucy Stone. Lucy, here is Geoff’s friend, Mr. Wycoff. I presume he’s staying with us for the night. Are you, Mr. Wycoff?” “I wouldn’t wish to impose,” Wycoff said, for the form of it. “Oh, it’s no imposition!” Mrs. Ames gasped. “It’s what we’re here for. Didn’t Geoff tell you? We’re new at our trade, but we wish to prosper and word of mouth is our best advertisement. We don’t feel comfortable advertising any other way, to be sure. Well, we feel it’s a trifle…inelegant, you see. And we want to attract a finer clientele. You do understand.” His glass paused halfway to his lips. To be offended at a warm jest made to one of her girls, and yet be so blunt about her trade in front of her? He recovered, nodding. Joking wasn’t the same as setting terms of trade. The madam was right. It was business, after all. London had guidebooks listing such establishments. He’d been given handbills touting brothels in most of the larger cities he’d visited. He couldn’t remember being handed any on this continent. But the country was growing fast, sophisticated ways were probably catching on here as well. “Understand?” he said. “I do indeed. It would be unpleasant if you attracted the lower classes, for you and your guests. Very wise of you to invite your clients so discreetly. I’m sure your…staff…

The Challenge / 13

appreciates it as well,” he added with a curling smile for Lucy. “I know I do. Had you advertised and so much as hinted at Miss Lucy’s charms, I know I’d never have a chance to talk with her or have so much as a moment alone with her tonight.” He was puzzled at how Lucy’s eyes widened at him. “Well, you won’t have as much as a minute alone with her,” a male voice interrupted harshly. The man was clearly furious. He strode to Lucy and stood by her, glowering at Wycoff. He was in his thirties, swarthy and dark haired, with surprisingly light eyes. They were blazing now. His strong features were set in a scowl, his muscular body tensed, hands closed to fists at his sides. Wycoff shrugged. It was frustrating, but he’d suffered worse disappointments. He was a visitor; this fellow’s clothing, while neat enough, marked him as a local. A regular patron of the place, no doubt, who had his night with his favorite already planned. That reminded Wycoff of the true nature of the woman’s trade, a fact he had conveniently forgotten. It made her instantly less desirable. He wasn’t a man who enjoyed sharing his lovers. He’d had enough of that in his past. “I see,” he said amiably, bowing to the angry fellow. “Forgive me. I’d no idea her time was already spoken for.” “Her time?” Lucy asked, her eyes flaring, “You mean my time? And…spoken for?” she muttered, shooting a blistering look at both men. “Well, sir, my

14 / Edith Layton

time is mine to decide on. And you know it, William,” she spat to the man at her side. “You won’t have him spending time with me? That’s lovely. Since when do you say what I do!” “I was only defending you, Lucy,” he answered apologetically, though he glared at Wycoff. “There’s no need, I assure you,” Wycoff said, “a simple no would do the trick. I don’t force young women. Or old ones, for that matter. If Lucy doesn’t want to spend the night with me, she has only to say so, and I’ll understand.” The man she’d called William turned to Lucy, looking triumphant. “See? Just what I mean. The fellow acts as though you’re for sale!” “He’s from England,” Mrs. Ames cried, looking from one man to the other. “That’s why he’s so hard to understand. He never meant…! Why, how dare you even hint at such a thing! Apologize this instant, William Bellows! I won’t have such a thing said in my house. And to a guest! And in front of Lucy and the girls! Shame on you.” Wycoff looked around. They were the center of the room’s attention. The other young women had stopped talking and were staring, clearly scandalized. The other men looked grim around the mouth. Geoff looked astonished and dumbfounded. Wycoff’s head went up and his eyes widened a fraction. He looked at Lucy, amazed, as the truth of his misunderstanding sank in. Not a whore. Not a bawdy house. Whatever the devil it was, it was not what he’d thought and so blithely implied.

The Challenge / 15

He struggled with an answer for the first time in longer than he could remember. As he did, he saw Lucy’s surprise as she gauged his reactions of shock and dismay. “Your pardon,” Wycoff said, gazing at her, deciding to try to save his self-respect, if nothing else. He gambled on truth, since he was tired of lies. “I did misspeak myself. Most embarrassingly. It was a misunderstanding, entirely mine. Please forgive me. I’ll leave now and am truly sorry if I offended. It was never my intention, believe me.” “You mean London dandies always talk to women as though they were trollops?” William asked, his lips curling in a snarl. “I won’t have that word said in this room!” Mrs. Ames gasped. “Then let’s take it out of this room and this house,” William growled. “Pistols or swords, or fists, if you’ve the stomach for them, sir. At dawn or now, it’s all the same to me.” “To me as well,” Wycoff answered calmly, “but I don’t think it’s a thing we ought to settle here and now, not even verbally, before the ladies.” “Not here nor flow—nor anywhere or way. Because it’s my fault!” Wycoff’s host, Geoff, cried, slapping his forehead. “I showed you farms to buy. I promised you horseflesh to bid on…and then I said…wait, wait, let me think—aye! I promised you accommodations, and female company—in the same breath. And be sure,” he told Mrs. Ames, “I told him beautiful female company, at that! Then we

16 / Edith Layton

come here where there’s all your lovely girls, and every man here dallying with them, courting them as usual. But how is he to know that? Then we give him spirits and ask him if he’s staying the night…. Gads! What was you to think?” he asked Wycoff, dropping his grammar in his agitation. “Geoff!” Mrs. Ames groaned. “No! Say you didn’t. Why, the poor man! He’s more sinned against than sinning. What with me going on about how new we are to the trade and all. Oh, glory! Mr. Wycoff,” she said, drawing herself up to her full five feet, “We run an inn here, nothing else. The girls you see are my daughters, Harmony, Bess, and Jenny, and their cousin, Sally. Lucy here is a cousin, too, at least she was married to my husband’s cousin. Speaking of which, if my Herbert was home, you wouldn’t have been so misled. But he’s in Richmond, buying supplies, because the cost of dry goods here is something terrible. Be that as it may.” She took a breath, her bosom swelled like a pigeon’s strutting on a summer morning. “We run an inn. We haven’t been in business long, nor did we ever think we’d come to such a pass, to tell the truth. But we had some reverses, yet were able to keep the house and property. So we decided to make something of it,” she said with dignity. “That’s why we go on about how we’re learning the trade. Because we are. We count on word of mouth and the good will of friends for our custom. One day, Ames Hotel will be a byword for superior accommodations, I do assure

The Challenge / 17

you. Only of the bed and board sort, of course, you understand.” “I do,” Wycoff said, caught between rue and mirth. “But still it was unseemly and unconscionable of me.” He bowed again. “I’ll take my leave and hope you find it in your heart to forgive me,” he added piously, but he looked at Lucy as he said it. Those glorious lips were quirked upward; he saw merriment sparkling in her midnight blue eyes. The man standing at her side noticed, too. His dark face grew darker still when he saw Lucy fighting back a smile. “A man sees what he wants to see,” he said dangerously, “and what he’s used to seeing, too, I think.” “No, not at all, my fault, I assure you!” Geoff cried. “I only meant to recommend the facilities, and since all the men enjoy the girls’ company here…. Ah! I’m doing it again! I beg your pardon.” “I blame no one,” Wycoff said smoothly, “and would be pleased if no one blamed me. But that, I imagine, is too much to hope for.” Mrs. Ames and others in the room, released from being onlookers by the drama of the moment, chimed in to say how they didn’t blame him, not one bit. But Lucy didn’t say anything; she just kept measuring him with her eyes. William only glowered. Wycoff stretched out a hand to him. “Come, sir, can you bury the thought of pistols, swords, and fists, and take my hand instead?”

18 / Edith Layton

Grudgingly, as though he realized he’d look churlish if he didn’t, William stuck out a hand. The two men shook hands briefly. “I can’t wait to tell my Herbert of this,” Mrs. Ames said with relief. “I’m sure he’ll laugh himself to jelly.” “Or want to pound me into one,” Wycoff murmured. “No indeed,” she laughed. “He’s got a ripe sense of humor, he has. It’s been the salvation of us, to be sure. Now, please, make yourself at home. Do have another glass and feel free to stay before the fireside long as you like. We’ve a bedchamber for you when you’re ready, if you wish it. Now I’ll just see to my other guests, if you don’t mind, for it’s getting late, and we close the doors when all our guests are in—and our visitors are out,” she added with a pointed look at William. “Only two gentleman are staying over,” she told Wycoff. “The rest, as Geoff said, are here because of the girls…” She colored up and added quickly, “I mean to say, my daughters and cousins. I’ll have to mind my tongue in future, too, won’t I?” She shook her head. “Come along, William,” she said briskly, “the clock struck the hour and you know the rules.” William stood still as she bustled off to announce the hour to the other men in the room. They groaned and laughed, but began to make their farewells. “Good night then,” William muttered. “Will you see me to the door, Lucy?”

The Challenge / 19

“I can’t believe you’ve forgotten the way,” Lucy said coolly. “Goodnight, William.” “I will see you tomorrow,” William told her, gave a jerky bow, turned and left. “Was that a threat or a promise?” Wycoff asked Lucy after William flung on his greatcoat, marched to the door, and stormed out into the night. “He’s a nice man,” she said quietly, staring at the door, “he really is. He’s just—ah well—it doesn’t matter.” She looked up at him and smiled. “But now tonight. It was shocking, and I shouldn’t say so, but also really comical. And will get funnier in the retelling, I promise. What a stir you made. I think you’ll become a legend. The gentleman from London who came to Virginia and thought Mrs. Ames ran a…” She frankly grinned, and then tilted her head as she regarded him. “You really thought I was a—well—you know?” He smiled, “A definite ‘you know’. Although I thought you far too well bred for your choice of profession. I’m sorry if it embarrasses you, but so it was.” “Was it the way I’m dressed? Or look?” she blurted. “No. It was the way you were presented to me, like offering a hungry man a whole dinner on a plate…and such a beautifully prepared one, served with relish and spice. No—please,” he said as the color rose to her cheeks, “I don’t want to apologize again, but there was no way to answer that—honestly, at

20 / Edith Layton

least—without risking offending you, so I had to joke. You do see?” She nodded. She saw that, and more. He’d be more than an anecdote to remember. At least for her. He’d come and set everything on its ear in more ways than by his amusing misunderstanding. He’d reminded her of the life she’d once led, and showed her the world that lay outside this door. It was more than the fact that he was so devilish attractive. After all, there were handsome men aplenty. It was everything about him. His elegance. His maturity. He was a decade older than she, perhaps, young enough to still be in the prime of his life, old enough to find her young. His masculinity, the hard strength of him clearly displayed by his fashionable close-fitting clothing. The simple pure contours of that face of his, the high bridged nose, firm lips, those interested eyes that turned down at their corners and looked at a woman as though he were seeing to every corner of her soul. The way those two vertical lines to the sides of his mouth deepened when he smiled, showing his age, but also his ready humor. His cleanliness, the shining light brown hair swept back from that high forehead. His sophistication. The place he had obviously come from and the memories he brought back. And the way he studied her, assessing her, approving her, awakening her to what he was obviously thinking, making her feel alive in every way and in every part that had been sleeping for so long.

The Challenge / 21

He wanted her. He let her see it. Perhaps he wouldn’t have if he’d hadn’t thought her a whore. Perhaps he would have, he was that sure of himself. And that able to get away with it, she’d bet. He was tall and lean, almost severe. But the strict, clean lines of his face could be made warm and human by that slow, curling smile. She’d seen it happen, and found she wanted to see it again. “Consider yourself entirely forgiven,” she said. “I asked for your reasons, didn’t I? Well, I suppose any further discussion of it will take the same risk. So let’s forget it, shall we?” “Done,” he said. “I can’t promise not to say things that make you blush, because I will praise what I find praiseworthy. But I can promise I’ll never knowingly offend you again. I give you my hand on it. Will you take it?” It sounded like he was offering much more. It was nothing he said, and everything because of the way he said it. He extended one long hand. It would be rude of her not to accept it. She took his hand, and caught her breath as it closed over hers. Sometimes when she crossed the room on a cold day and touched the doorknob she felt a tingling shock. This was much more than that. She felt it to her elbow, and further, to her heart. She looked up at him. His eyes had widened, too. “So, Mr. Wycoff,” Mrs. Ames said, beaming at the two of them, “you’ll stay the night with us?” “Wild horses couldn’t move me from here,” he said as he reluctantly let Lucy’s hand go, lamenting

22 / Edith Layton

the fact that he’d been wrong in his first estimation of the place. Even as he rejoiced in it. Which was exactly how Lucy was feeling, though she bitterly regretted it, because he was a passing stranger, used to more and better. And she had nothing but her responsibilities and plans and couldn’t let anything get in their way. Not even fascinating strangers. Especially not fascinating strangers.

2

did he say?” Harmony insisted. “No, what What did he do?” Bess demanded. “You two were alone talking together for so long!” “She won’t tell us that!” Jenny giggled. “Who is he?” Lucy’s ten-year-old son, Jamie, who’d been sleeping in the trundle bed beside Lucy’s, asked soberly. Mrs. Ames’s daughters grew still, looking selfconscious. They were piled on Lucy’s bed, strewn around it like pastel pillows. It was late, but they refused to go to their own beds. They’d ducked a good night to their mama, but followed Lucy upstairs in a line like so many goslings and poured into her room when she opened the door. Jamie sat up, groggy but suspicious. The girls had forgotten him. Or had been too eager to gossip

24 / Edith Layton

to care. Children were usually not seen or heard. But Jamie was different. Few people thought of him as a child. Jamie himself certainly didn’t. “He,” Lucy told him, smoothing back his sleeprumpled hair with a gentle hand, “is just a fellow these silly geese think is interesting. Go back to bed, my love.” “Oh, a man. Of course they would. Good night, Mama,” he said on a sleepy sigh, and settled down again. “And good night to you too, love,” she said. “Go to sleep. The girls were just leaving.” “Leaving?” Bess squeaked. “Jamie has to sleep,” Lucy said, “so you have to go.” “Then you’d better come to our room with us, Lucy,” Bess hissed, “because you won’t get a wink of sleep until you tell us all.” “Too true,” Jenny said, giggling again. “It’s late,” Lucy said softly, pouring water into the bowl on her night stand. “All the guests are abed, the house is locked for the night, and I’m weary. Time enough in the morning for chat, I think.” “Think again!” Bess laughed, getting to her knees on Lucy’s high bed. “We can’t wait till then,” she whispered. “He’s the most exciting thing that’s happened ’round here since—since Polly Feltcher broke her leg. No—since Georgie Natwick had to court her at home because of it, and she had to marry him two months later!” “Yes!” Harmony chimed in, and then lowered

The Challenge / 25

her voice. “Tell us. Is he truly moving here?” “No!” Jenny said with a hastily muted laugh. “More important—does he have a younger brother?” “He bought Carlisle’s place,” Lucy said, picking up her washcloth, “but as for the rest? I don’t know and I don’t care.” “Oh, what a fib!” Bess caroled. “You were listening to his every word like it was Scripture.” “And looked into his eyes as though your future was there,” Harmony sighed, hugging one of Lucy’s pillows to her breast. “And maybe it is, Lucy! So don’t tell us you don’t care.” Lucy paused, damp washcloth in her hand. “Well, of course, I care,” she said thoughtfully. “Having a new neighbor would be exciting. Oh, don’t groan. I agree he’d be more than just a new neighbor. We’ve never had one like him before. But I’m not being coy, I really don’t know if he plans to stay. He’s wealthy and is investing in lots of property. He’s buying horses, too. But he may just be investing. He really didn’t say. He asked more questions than he answered, and I dared not ask him more than he volunteered. He is a guest here, after all.” “But did he really think you were—I mean…” Jenny lowered her voice even more as she glanced at Jamie under his coverlets. “I mean that we were all—you know…harlots?” She got the word out, turned beet red and started giggling, setting all the girls off. Lucy’s smile was clear to see even in the stingy

26 / Edith Layton

glow of one lit lamp. “Yes, he did. But who can blame him? Geoff made a muddle of it, bringing him here after bragging about all the beauties he’d meet. Of course, the mere sight of you delicious creatures”—she ducked her face into the washcloth to hide her grin—“confirmed it for him.” This sent the girls into whoops. Lucy’s expression grew stern. “Enough! Out with you now. Jamie has to sleep and so do I. You can stay up all night blathering, but I’m not young as you are, I need my rest.” “Old Mother Lucy?” Bess snickered, “Do pull the other one! Is that why Mr. Wycoff couldn’t take his eyes off you? Ho!” “I’m not joking,” Lucy said. “Shoo! I have work to do tomorrow. If you don’t clear out you’ll wake your mother, and then where will you be?” “We’ll be quieter, we promise, we won’t wake her,” Bess pleaded. “But I will—if you don’t leave instantly,” Lucy said, her hands on her hips. “Now, out!” “We just want to talk,” Harmony wailed, straggling after the others as they moped to the door. “He was so handsome! Well, too old to be that, I suppose. Past thirty and something at least. But fascinating. And rich! And you’re the only one who knows anything about him.” “Then no one does, because what I know could be put in a thimble and it would still leave room for a thumb. Out!” Lucy commanded. “I mean it.” She stood at the door like a sentinel until the last one of

The Challenge / 27

them reluctantly left. “But a very interesting thimble it would be,” she whispered to herself after she shut the door behind them. “So tell me!” Jamie said eagerly as soon as the girls had left, popping up from his covers, eyes shining. “His name’s Wycoff, and he’s English, like you, and rich as can be. But what else?” “Like me—and your father, God rest him,” Lucy said absently. “And how do you know his name?” she asked with mock surprise, because she knew. He’d knelt on the stairs behind the banister, just as she’d done as a girl whenever there was glittering company downstairs. He was so like her, this wonderful son of hers, she thought tenderly. He even looked like her, poor lad, with those freckles on that straight nose of hers, and her father’s, and his father’s before. At least he had his own father’s inky black hair and brown eyes. But they were set in his mother’s face. She found that regrettable, except the brain behind that face was very like hers, too, and so perhaps there was hope for him. If he could grow up, as she’d had to, she corrected herself. Because once upon a time she’d been a dreamer like his father, too. She’d dreamed that her handsome, laughing, feckless young husband could make a fortune in the new world, as he’d vowed to do. She’d dreamed he loved her as much he said he did, and would take care of her forever, seeing to her and their son. Dreamer that she’d been, still she’d never dreamed he wouldn’t do that, or that he’d die too young, leav-

28 / Edith Layton

ing her to fend for herself and their child, alone. She was cured of dreams now. Jamie was ten, and though his head and his hands hinted he’d follow his father in his size, he hadn’t started growing yet. Except in that amazing mind of his, which had never been a proper child’s. But he still was one, and she would again resist the impulse to speak to him from her heart as though he were fully grown. Most people would; most thought children were only small adults. Who better than she to know how untrue that was? Hadn’t she thought she was old enough to choose her own way all those years ago? And she’d been much older, and see how that had turned out. She sighed for the past as well as the present when she saw Jamie’s vivid face turned expectantly to hers. “I know some things,” Jamie said with an air of mystery, and none of sleepiness, so she knew he’d heard every word spoken in the room just now, too. And most said downstairs. “Tell me more! He looked clever. That’s why I can’t believe he really thought you and the girls were like Mrs. Christie’s chickens.” “Jamie!” Lucy gasped in shock. He knew what Mrs. Christie’s house outside of town was really used for? And that the men who went there weren’t looking for poultry, but flesh for an entirely different appetite? “Ah—hmm,” Jamie said nervously, his eyes wide. “Ahem, indeed!” Mrs. Ames said from behind

The Challenge / 29

Lucy, adding a “tsk” for good measure as she glared down at him. “I’ll wager you can taste the laundry soap already, you little rogue.” Lucy was used to having no privacy. But tonight the amount of traffic through her room seemed almost laughable. “Everyone knows,” Jamie said, undaunted. He might worry about his mother’s opinion, but he had Mrs. Ames’s measure. “In fact, everyone says they’re so glad you run a good, respectable place,” he added innocently, “because they say our village would look worse than no account if we only had Mrs. Christie’s, and not your fine hotel to brag about.” “It’s a good thing they appreciate it,” Mrs. Ames said, forgetting her wrath as she preened. “The gentleman’s settled in his room,” she said, turning to Lucy, “and very pleased with the accommodations, too. Well, but the blue room, don’t you know. I brought in extra comforters, though he doesn’t need any. Not with the way we stoked up the fire for him. Nothing but the best for such a man, for he must have friends of equal rank to recommend us to…. Do you think he has any? Ranking, I mean.” “Well, he looks like a fine gentleman and acts like a lord,” Jamie said, “but he said he’s a plain ‘Mister’, didn’t he?” “Oho!” Mrs. Ames said wisely. “I wish I had a penny piece for every lord and lady who pass themselves off as such here. Prices go up when a title goes on, and don’t they know it. Not to mention we fought two wars with them, and there aren’t many

30 / Edith Layton

folk hereabouts who appreciate hobnobbing with those that style themselves as nobs. Too many thought they were better than other men in the old days. Too many still do. No, a fellow would be wiser to leave his title home on his door knocker.” “They say Mr. Winthrop over in Heightstown was a real lord in England,” Jamie mused. “They say it ’cause he does!” Mrs. Ames chuckled. “I’ll bet my best Sunday boots he isn’t even a Winthrop.” “But you said it was best they forget their titles.” “That’s only if they’re visiting,” Mrs. Ames said. “Those that stay can give themselves airs over what might have been. What is, is always a different matter.” Lucy sighed. Jamie was as wakeful as a tree full of owls now. Mrs. Ames settled herself in a chair, ready for a nice long chat. But Mrs. Ames was her employer as well as her husband’s cousin. Lucy couldn’t just turn her out, as she had her daughters. “Did Mr. Wycoff say when he was getting up?” Lucy asked. “As I recall from when I was a girl, gentlemen like to rise at dawn so they can go riding at first light. At least, they did at home. They like a nice big breakfast before they go, as well…” “Oh!” Mrs. Ames surged to her feet. “I’d best have a word with the girls. We’ll need more eggs for certain—I’ll send Harmony to gather them before first light. Best send Jenny over to Mrs. Pratt’s for bread early, too,” she muttered to herself as she went to the door. “I’ll have a look at my stores. Good

The Challenge / 31

night, Lucy. I’ll see you first thing in the morning, too, I’m sure.” It was as close to an order as Lucy ever got, but she was glad of it as she closed the door behind Mrs. Ames. “I’d think a gentleman would like a nice big breakfast after he got back from riding,” Jamie said blandly, “but maybe Englishmen are different. Or at least maybe their stomachs are.” The idea of anyone walking, much less riding, after one of Mrs. Ames’s enormous breakfasts was too much for him. He giggled. “Oh, yes,” Lucy said lightly, “they eat seven courses and then go riding, which is why they have to come here to keep buying new horses. You’re too clever by half. Now stop laughing and start dreaming. I cleared the room twice for you, the least you can do is go to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning. Good night.” He chuckled as he sank back under the coverlets. “Good night, Mama,” he yawned. “You’re too clever by half too, you know.” She was, she thought as she went behind the screen in the cover of her room and drew off her gown. She shivered as she dropped her nightgown over her head, and braided her hair quickly, with numbed fingers. The fire in the hearth had gone to embers; the room was striking chill. Mrs. Ames wasn’t cheap with her, but she wasn’t a valued guest whose possible rank merited a blazing fire at this hour. No one knew that better than Lucy. She was

32 / Edith Layton

the one who did the bookkeeping. A blazing hearth at this hour was a waste if a bed had coverlets. Body warmth kept a body warm after midnight. Lucy glanced at Jamie’s trundle and knew from the stillness there that he’d already fallen asleep. She doubted it would be so easy for her. She climbed into her high bed and snuggled down into the feather tick, ignoring how cold the sheets were. Her body heat would warm them soon enough, and her thoughts were warm enough to raise her temperature tonight. Now that she was alone, she could think about their elegant visitor. Oh, but he’d been attractive! It had been a long time since she’d seen such a man. The intelligence in those long eyes. Tall and well made, wide shoulders and a neat leg. She did like to see a man with a fine pair of shoulders without a matching stomach or beam to balance them. She didn’t do more than look, but she tried not to stare. Not only because she was too well bred. Because she was sure he’d notice. He didn’t miss much. He was every inch the visitor, a traveler, a man not of this place and time, although from a world she’d once known. He’d been exciting precisely because he was so obviously transient, so impossible to ever really know. A dream man, in fact, here for an hour that had changed her whole day. He’d looked at her with pleasure, too. When he’d thought she’d been offered for sale to him he’d gazed at her with possessive delight, appraisal, and bold, appreciative lust. His eyes weighed her, found her

The Challenge / 33

desirable, and promised wicked moments of shared carnal pleasures. He looked as though he could deliver every unspeakable thing he was thinking of. It had been shocking. It was delicious. Other men looked at her with lust, of course. There weren’t many eligible women here; she was a widow and only two and thirty, after all. But she seldom looked back at any of them with anything but regret, because they didn’t attract her. Or if they did, then she had to ignore them, because they didn’t attract her as prospective fathers for Jamie. She had learned good sense, and practiced rigid selfcontrol. William was well enough in looks, fairly well educated, and growing plumper in the pocket. He was decent, respectable, and Jamie could tolerate him. William looked at her possessively these days, too, and with lust, though veiled. She didn’t mind. Until tonight. One glance from the English gentleman had set her body tingling as all these months of seeing William had never done. Still, William’s attentions made her feel like a desirable woman again and had nearly made her consider taking the name and protection he kept offering. So tempting to be loved again. So inviting to allow herself to think of marriage. And so foolish. Because with the name and the protection came loss of freedom. She could live with that, she had before. But she had Jamie to think about. She owed him more. His charming, reckless father had given him life and a heritage, and little else. Dashing, so handsome in his uniform, he’d swept what he claimed was the

34 / Edith Layton

prettiest girl in the district off her feet, and then off to the new world. He gave up his commission in the navy soon after they married, telling her he could only make their fortune that way. “A fortune? I don’t need one!” she’d protested with perfect honesty. “It was the uniform I married,” she teased. “I don’t know if I’ll stay with you if you take it off.” “Oh, really?” he’d laughed. “Shall we see?” he asked, stripping off his jacket and bearing her back on the bed for those all too brief, breathtakingly intimate moments they shared. She told him a fortune wasn’t necessary for her. She hadn’t known it wasn’t for her. But then, she hadn’t known him very well, after all. Even now, she didn’t miss Francis so much as the memory of the laughter and excitement they’d shared. In truth, she didn’t know much more of him than that. They’d had that little time together. How could she have known how he burned to show his brother he could surpass him? The naval career, the lovely young wife, the quest for a fortune, it was all to show his family what a second son could do. He couldn’t do more. He hadn’t time. His ambition was no match for the lung infection he contracted in the new world. If he hadn’t had the Ameses as distant relatives there for her to apply to, Lucy didn’t know what she’d have done. She knew what to do now. She was determined to get back some of what her husband have given up. For Jamie. Lucy thought of numbers now. She added them

The Challenge / 35

with the same ritual care other women used saying their nightly prayers. Two more years working here. Only two, and she’d have the fare. A few years’ work in England and she’d have the fare back, if she wanted to leave again. But she might not have to. She couldn’t stay with her mother. Her mother was widowed herself now, and living with her brother. It wouldn’t be fair. It also wouldn’t be likely. Her mother had never forgiven her for rejecting her choice of a son-in-law, a proper, ordinary suitor who couldn’t hold a candle to the most dashing stranger Lucy had ever met. Her mother’s letters were still filled with recriminations and regrets. But she and Jamie might be asked to live with her late husband’s family. They were wealthy and had an estate with room for a dozen impoverished widows and their sons. Lucy remembered a grand house and beautiful grounds. Jamie’s grandfather was gone, his uncle was married, but had no children yet. The baron Hunt was relatively young and would have his own sons one day. But Lucy was sure he’d be impressed with his long-lost nephew even if he had a pack of sons himself. She’d written to him about Jamie, only stopping when she got the iciest of polite replies, and no invitation. Mothers were fond, and letters could lie, but she knew if the baron got one look at Jamie, he’d see his worth. He’d have that look, Lucy vowed. Jamie would go home. He’d meet his grandmother at long last. More important to his future, he’d meet his uncle. She’d see to the rest.

36 / Edith Layton

Not all the rest, of course. She couldn’t afford to send him to Eton, where his father had gone, not if she sold her skin along with her body. She’d show him what his father had opted to leave, and tell him it had been for the sake of his future. Then at least he’d know where he came from and value his history. If nothing more, she’d do that. Seeing the elegant Mr. Wycoff tonight showed her what she’d left behind, too, Lucy thought, slow warmth creeping through her tired body, easing her wakeful mind. A world of balls and parties, of new clothes and devoted servants. She’d never been rich, but her father had been squire of their little village, and they’d lived moderately well. Deliciously well, compared to now. But Papa was gone now, and she wouldn’t ask Mama to fund her rash daughter, who’d made her own bed—as she was reminded in every infrequent letter. Still, she wasn’t Cinderella. She helped the Ameses run their hotel, true. But working for one’s bread wasn’t such a shame here as it would be at home…. At home, she thought, sleepily amused. She’d lived here ten years and still thought of England as home. She was still homesick for it. And she’d only herself to blame. For believing herself in love and not knowing love meant responsibility. For thinking love was all feelings and excitement, laughter and adventure. For trusting, and giving all her trust to one man—who’d carried her away to a new world and a new life. She turned on her side and curled into a knot

The Challenge / 37

almost as tight as the one in her chest, remembering life before she’d left home with Francis all those years ago. So she thought about Wycoff and his knowing smile instead. And mused about what else he might know. It had been so long since she’d allowed herself to think of those dangerous feelings. But what was the harm now? Now she knew the difference between dreams, wakeful or sleeping, and reality. Eight years since she’d been held by a man…amazing, she thought drowsily. Though Francis had been little more than a boy then, hadn’t he? She began tumbling down the dark well to sleep. But then, her poor Francis might always have remained a boy, even if he’d lived a thousand years instead of only the five and twenty he’d been given. At least, she couldn’t imagine him ever being anything like the man she fell asleep smiling about.

3

weather cleared to a bright, brittle day, winter The still resisting early spring. Mrs. Ames’s English guest didn’t come downstairs until the sun was well up. Even then, he didn’t seem anxious to go riding. He asked for pen and paper instead, wrote a note, and then went out to the stables, but only to ask Alfred, the stableman, to find a boy to deliver the note to Richmond for him. Only then did he stroll back into the house and the breakfast room, where Mrs. Ames was hovering over her chafing dishes of shirred eggs like an anxious hen herself. “Mr. Wycoff!” she said happily. “Do sit down. We’ve eggs and bacon, sausages and beefsteak. Hotcakes and bread. Kidneys, cold meats, and porridge.” She frowned. “No kippers, I fear.”

The Challenge / 39

“Fear not,” he said, picking up a lid from one of the dishes and sniffing appreciatively. “I don’t like them. The rest looks delicious, thank you.” But several pairs of eyes peeking from the kitchen doorway noted that he only ate eggs, a bite of bacon, and toast spread with butter and honey. “Have I come down too late?” he asked Mrs. Wycoff when he finally put his napkin down. “I see everyone else has cleared out.” “Oh, no!” she said, flustered. “It’s only that Mr. Caswell’s customers are farmers and he had to leave early to go on his rounds. And Mr. Booth was bound for home and could hardly wait to set out. We accommodate ourselves to our guests and not the other way round. On that score, is there anything else we can do for you? Perhaps you’d like to go riding? We’ve horses for our guests.” “Not today, thank you,” he said pleasantly. “But I did think to have a look around the area. Alfred said he has a gig he could lend me. I wondered—is there anyone who could accompany me? To tell me who lives where, and something about the history of the place?” “Well,” she said, concentrating hard, “it’s too bad my Herbert’s not back yet. There’s Alfred, of course, and…” “I thought perhaps,” he said, smiling slightly, “I might ask your cousin Lucy. As further apology for my disgraceful error yesterday. I’m still ashamed of myself for it. I thought a ride in the sunshine, perhaps stopping off to have some luncheon. Of course,

40 / Edith Layton

if she’s otherwise engaged, I wouldn’t think of disturbing her.” Mrs. Ames hesitated. “But—Lucy…alone? With you?” He shook his head. “I’m well served for my foolishness the other night. I regret my previous misconception should lead you to imagine I mean any harm to her. It would be an open carriage, a local jaunt in broad daylight, perfectly acceptable at home. Is that considered fast here?” “No, of course not! And I never meant that…” Before she could start forgiving him at full tilt, he interrupted, “Mrs. Ames, I leave it to you. Would my request be a burden to her? What do you think, my dear lady?” Mrs. Ames beamed. “Oh, what a treat, sir!” Jamie exclaimed as he clambered up to the back of the gig Wycoff had waiting in the drive. “When Mama said I could come with her, I don’t mind telling you I was delighted. Oh, I’m James Stone, sir, though most people call me Jamie. Pleased to meet you.” Wycoff checked, but only for a heartbeat. “I am at your service, Master Stone,” he said affably, as he gave his hand to Lucy to help her up onto the seat beside him. Not so much as a flicker of surprise that she had a son showed on his face. “No school today?” “On Saturday?” Jamie said, “I should think not!” “Ah. One does forget the days of the week when

The Challenge / 41

one travels,” Wycoff mused. “What would his mother have done if it had been a Friday?” he asked Lucy pleasantly. “The books,” she answered as easily, “or helped with the wash. No, I’m joking.” She laughed at the arrested look in his eyes. “I’d have come. This should be so much fun for Jamie.” “We’ll try to make it so for his mama, too,” Wycoff said as he started the horse down the drive. “There isn’t much to point out,” Lucy said as they bowled down the lane. “Only three near neighbors and a oak split by lightning. We did have a yellow dog with three legs, but the poor thing died of old age last summer. We’re only a village. Town has an inn and a barber, as well as two general stores, a tavern, Geoff’s land offices, and a lawyer.” “A split oak?” Wycoff said with interest. “Now, that’s a thing a man doesn’t see every day.” She grinned. She really had the most sumptuous mouth, he thought. That lower lip especially. The bright sunlight only made her more attractive, pointing out things he’d hadn’t seen clear in the lamplight. Those faint cinnamon freckles were a rare sight for him. He was glad they weren’t in London. If she were in London they’d be the blight of her existence, banished by fashion, lotions, and poultices, no doubt. Now he could see they were dashed across the bridge of that delightful straight nose, a few sprinkled high on her cheeks. They looked as though they’d taste delicious. “You’d like to see our oak?” she asked, her head

42 / Edith Layton

to the side, watching him. “You’re a botanist, are you, Mr. Wycoff?” “I appreciate a beautiful flower, to be sure,” he said, turning to her with frank and hungry appraisal in his eyes. She laughed full out. “Lud!” she said, her eyes laughing too, “A genuine double entendre, unless I miss my guess. We don’t get many of them hereabouts.” “Indeed? But how delightful for me. They’re commonplace at home. I’m pleased to please you so well,” he said. “A London lady would merely titter, and blush, becomingly.” “My tittering is sadly rusty,” she said with mock sadness, “and my blushing only makes my freckles stand out, so I’ve given it up. Would ducking my head shyly do?” “Not if I couldn’t see into your eyes,” he said. She fanned herself with one hand. “My word! I haven’t had such veiled flirtation in so long I think the blood is rushing to my head, depriving me of my wits!” She looked at him seriously. “Mr. Wycoff, no doubt you’re expert at it, but as I said, I’m sadly out of practice. Do you think we might just talk, as people do?” He cocked his head to the side, studying her, a gleam of real appreciation in his eyes. “As people do? Few women I meet speak so frankly,” he said with approval, “and that’s not flirtation, my dear, only honesty. I’m out of practice with that myself. But I’ll try, I promise you. And I’m a man who keeps my word.”

The Challenge / 43

He did. They engaged in bright, friendly conversation. He enjoyed himself enormously. The boy didn’t add much; he sat on the back seat of the gig grinning like a setter with his nose to the wind. Or so his mother laughingly told Wycoff. She delighted him. The breeze whipped ringlets from her chestnut hair, covering her face so she had to keep pulling it back. He found it stimulating, like watching her through a bright mahogany veil. She glowed, entirely. “Well, there it is,” Wycoff finally said, stopping the horse in front of the abandoned farm he’d bought. “I’d ask you in to have a look ’round, but it’s empty as my stomach is right now. Mrs. Ames generously suggested we stop at her competitor’s for luncheon, since we’re closer to that inn now than hers. I suspect she also wants you to spy out the menu for her. So would you care to join me?” “The inn?” Jamie cried, “On the main road? They have fifteen rooms. My friend Horace works there. Can we go, Mama?” “I’d love to,” Lucy said. “They say they have the most excellent stew. Let’s see if it’s true! For Mrs. Ames’s sake, of course,” she added piously, ruining it with a peal of laughter. But that was her way, Wycoff thought as he set the horse moving again. She was free with her laughter. It wasn’t what he was used to. Ladies at home smiled rather than laughed aloud, well-bred British girls simpered rather than chortled. That might be why he preferred women who weren’t so well-bred. Or once

44 / Edith Layton

had, he corrected himself, remembering a London lady with casual manners and fine morals who’d changed his tastes in females altogether. Lucy was British, too, and well-bred. But free-spirited. Still, Mrs. Ames had been right, there was nothing bawdy or rowdy about her. But everything sensual, although he’d swear it was all unknowing. He decided it was time someone let her know. Wycoff reclined in his chair as their waiter cleared the table. They sat in the common room of the inn, in an alcove near a blazing hearth. They’d worked their way through soup, fish, stew, chicken, and meat pie, sauces, savories, and breads. It was no wonder Jamie excused himself to go seek out his friend in the kitchens even before dessert was served. Wycoff found the food delectable, but enjoyed seeing Lucy devour it even more so. She ate the way she laughed, with mannerly gusto. He found such an unabashed appetite deliciously erotic, the more so because it was all unwitting. She’d paused when she’d seen him watching her eat. “This is all in the nature of an investigation, you understand,” she’d said seriously, her fork full of meat suspended midair. “I usually only have a crust of bread and glass of water for luncheon. Then I have the soup and fish and meat.” A smile peeped through her solemn expression, then she slowly erupted in laughter. “So,” Wycoff said now as they sat waiting for dessert, “we’ve seen the entire metropolis, all seven-

The Challenge / 45

teen houses of it. And the split oak. You’ve told me about the neighbors. All except one. Yourself.” “Oh. Well, what can I say?” she answered, looking down. “Everything,” he said, watching her. “Since I know nothing about you and got into too much trouble before with my guesses, I think it’s only fair you tell me firsthand. You come from England. You have a son, but I saw no husband. You might start with that—that is, if you care to. Because if it’s a tender topic or an uncomfortable one, I’ll understand, I promise you.” “Well, you needn’t think there’s anything smoky about it!” she said, looking up, startled. “I was born in Kent, and raised there. I married—in a very grand church ceremony, too—when I was nineteen. My husband, Francis Stone, was brother to Lord Hunt.” But now her liveliness faltered and she went on more slowly. “We came to America ten years ago. Francis had the notion of improving himself more than most younger sons can—at home, at least. He tried the Navy, became a lieutenant. But he hated it, resigned, and came here to make his fortune. He didn’t, as you can see,” she said simply, not looking at him. “When he died, eight years ago, his cousins here took us in. They did very well by us, too,” she said, raising her chin. “No, really,” she insisted, though he didn’t say a word. “They treat us well. I don’t work very hard at the Ames Hotel. Bookkeeping, general planning and such. They’d give us room and board even if I

46 / Edith Layton

didn’t do anything at all. They did before they tried to run a hotel. So, there you are. No, there I am. And you?” She said it fast, so she could say it and move on to hearing his reply. She was dying of curiosity. She assumed he was unwed, or Geoff would have mentioned something about his family. She knew he was wealthy, and well traveled. But she didn’t know much else about him, and he wasn’t forthcoming about himself. They’d chatted all morning, but now she realized she knew no more about him than when they’d met. Except that he was good with words, and better with boys, because she could see he’d won Jamie over completely. But he was best with women, because he’d a way of making a woman feel important and fascinating in his presence. It’s the way he looks at me, she mused, as though he’d never seen anything so lovely in his life. Though one look at the man showed that couldn’t be true. He’d always traveled in good company; you could hear it in his conversation and see it at a glance. He’d taken off his fine beaver hat and good wool greatcoat to show he wore a dove gray jacket, buff pantaloons, and burgundy waistcoat. His neckcloth was tied simply but elegantly. But it wasn’t his clothing, his clean light brown hair, or even his tall, fit frame. Nor even the watchful eyes—that she’d noted were dark hazel and not brown after all. The only thing off center about his appearance was a slight bend to that high-bridged nose. It only gave him more character. As if he needed more.

The Challenge / 47

The man was striking in the quiet force of his personality. It had been so long since she’d met anyone like him. It was delicious sharing easy conversation with him, bliss when she made him laugh, if only because it showed she could dent that calm reserve even a little. Or could she? She wondered if he ever did anything he hadn’t planned to do. In truth, she was actually a little afraid when he grew still and watchful with her, as he was now. Not of him. But of her reaction to him. Because she couldn’t remember having felt this way before. Or at least not since she’d been young and free. When she could have afforded to be. Not like now. Now, there was Jamie. Now there were her fears and expectations for him, compounded by all the long years of worry and regret she’d had for her rash decision to wed. Now there was too much experience and too many years of loneliness, far too much on her plate for her to trust a strange gentleman, no matter how warm the look in his eyes, or how ready his wit. He was after all, on a journey. She was readying herself for one. They were met in passing. She had to keep reminding herself of that. He wouldn’t want any entanglements beyond the casual rumpling of his sheets. The only casual thing she could indulge in with a man was conversation, no matter what his voice and eyes suggested. “And so,” he said, ignoring her question about himself, “you plan to stay on at Mrs. Ames’s?” “I plan to stay on until I can go home to visit

48 / Edith Layton

England.” She had the pleasure of seeing the surprise leap in his eyes. “I’ve worked a long time to that goal. My mother’s long widowed and living comfortably with her brother now. I didn’t wish to burden her. But I mean to go back and stay long enough to let Jamie see where he came from and meet the rest of his family. And let them see him. It may be his uncle will decide to provide for his future in some way—so far as I know he has no issue himself. He’s no less than a baron, you see. I confess I haven’t heard from him in many a year. Still, the Ameses would know; they’re distant relatives, and they’ve never mentioned anything of the sort to me. So I hold a hope for Jamie’s sake. If his uncle sponsored his schooling it would be enough. But he’d have to meet Jamie to know what he’s capable of. I’m going to bring him home so they can meet.” “Is that why you never remarried?” he asked curiously. “Your pardon,” he said when she stiffened, “I never meant to pry—no, there’s a lie. I did. Forgive me.” She shrugged. “There’s nothing to forgive.” She gazed at him steadily, with effort. “Except, of course, for the fact that you still haven’t told me a thing about yourself.” He smiled. “Simple enough. We have a lot in common, apart from shared laughter. I too was married. I’m a widower. I have a son and daughter at schools in England. I married young. My boy’s ready for university,” he added proudly. “His merit means I need use no influence to get him into the school I,

The Challenge / 49

my father, and his father before him attended. I wish I could see both children more often. But even if I were home I’d only be able to see them at end of term, or on their vacations. We don’t keep our children at home as long as they do here, you remember. But since I’ve been here and seen how close families are, there have been times I’ve regretted that.” He gazed down at his plate as though seeing something else in the pattern on it. “I came here as part of a plan for improvement, too. But now I’m here I also find I don’t know my future. My plans were up in the air,” he added softly, raising his eyes, bending closer, so close his knee grazed hers as his hand closed over hers. “But they’re coming further down to earth every day—every hour—every minute, actually.” She didn’t know what to say. But she certainly knew how she felt. She reveled in his admiration, even though it set her heart racing like the girl she knew she wasn’t anymore. “Ho! Apple pie!” Jamie cheered as he came back to his chair, following a maidservant bearing desserts. “Just in time,” Wycoff told him, sitting back, “Another minute, and I’d have devoured the treat.” The look he bent on Lucy was rueful but bright, letting her guess exactly what treat he meant. They drove back in silence. Jamie was quiet because he was full to bursting. Lucy seemed lost in thought. Wycoff kept still because he was very good at gaug-

50 / Edith Layton

ing other people’s moods. That was why he could immediately see how enraged William Bellows was at the sight of Lucy getting down from the gig when they arrived in front of the Ames house. The front curtains were pulled back and showed his face clearly as he stood at the window looking out to the drive. It amused Wycoff. He made no comment as he let Lucy down, before he and Jamie drove around back to return the gig to the stables. Lucy got down slowly, and walked to the house even more cautiously, with some uneasiness. She too had seen the furious face at the window. She didn’t owe William anything, and knew she hadn’t done anything wrong. But she’d been thinking of all the wrong things she could do. It made her defensive when William cornered her as she entered the house. “Did you have a good time?” he asked tersely. “Well enough,” she said coldly. “I’m a free woman, William, neither a slave or a bondwoman, I remind you. Or a promised woman either,” she added. “Oh, aye. Who better than I to know that?” he said with a growl in his voice. “But I remind you that you don’t know what that gentleman out there is—or even if he is a gentleman at all. All you know is that he’s a visitor, and will probably be long gone before you ever find out what he is.” She gave him a small smile with no joy in it. “Oh, but I know that. Believe me, William, that, at least, I know too well.”

4

stood around the piano and sang an old song They about lost love and betrayal in the green fields of England. Not that everyone at the Ames Hotel was from England. The children were born Americans and many of the guests and staff had emigrated from other places. But English was everyone’s language and most knew the traditions of Old England as well as their own. And treasured them, which was odd in a country that had so recently been at war with England. But America had only been its own master for a generation. So there was still something about English spoken with an obvious upper-class accent that inspired either instant obedience—or hostility. It hadn’t been a decade since the last war with Britain. The great war before that one had changed history.

52 / Edith Layton

It had been over for almost fifty years but was still within living memory. That could have been why William Bellows, born in America, was brooding, when he wasn’t glaring at the English guest. That, or the fact that Wycoff stood so near Lucy while they sang, his smooth baritone blending with her melodious voice, weaving sinuously and seamlessly in and out together in perfect harmony. That, or because sometimes they put their heads together, literally, on a rippling run of phrase. Or because Wycoff never took his eyes off Lucy—and that Lucy grew a pleased, little flustered smile, then quickly concealed, whenever she took notice of it. Which was every three minutes, by William’s careful count. Just as he thought it probably had been all through dinner. A dinner he hadn’t been able to find an excuse to attend, because he wasn’t a guest at the hotel. A fact he’d never resented so bitterly as now. Lucy always looked good to William, but tonight she looked radiant. She resembled a medieval princess in her rose gown. It had long sleeves and a high waist, and her figure was shown to advantage by the way the gown’s soft folds caressed her. She’d dressed her hair so it fell in ringlets on one shoulder. The firelight brought out the copper in it, and cast golden glimpses on her flushed cheeks. His admiring thoughts were suddenly rudely interrupted. “He looks grand, doesn’t he?” Jenny sighed close to William’s ear. She was whispering to her sister. But William knew who “he” was. The

The Challenge / 53

girls had been watching their English guest as closely as he had, if for different reasons. William had dressed in a plain but proper suit of clothes tonight. Brown jacket, maroon waistcoat and buff pantaloons. He thought he’d looked very well when he set out from home. He might as well have been invisible. He looked like a sparrow alongside Wycoff, he thought in chagrin. If the man dressed like a peacock in order to draw glances, he could feel superior to him. But Wycoff didn’t have to be colorful. He knew how to be striking. He wore his severe black jacket slightly opened so it could be enlivened by glimpses of his blue and gold waistcoat, and had on black boots with gold tassels to draw attention to the flawlessly fitted gray pantaloons on his long muscular legs. “Grand, he looks just grand,” Harmony whispered back to her sister. “I wish I was just five years older.” “Or Lucy was five hundred years older,” Jenny giggled, “’cause no one can be a patch on her, and don’t he know it!” William ground his teeth. He spoke up as soon as the last strains of “Greensleeves” had faded. “Cards?” he asked gruffly. “Cards? How selfish of us!” Mrs. Ames cried. “We’re taking up the evening with song. But it’s been so pleasant…Of course, if anyone wants to play cards, we’ll set up tables at once.” Mrs. Ames looked at her guests, a weary horse trader half-drowsing by the fire, a farmer and his

54 / Edith Layton

good wife resting overnight on their way up to Washington, and a fellow who sold textiles on his way south. The usual gang of local lads who spent their evenings goggling at her daughters were banned tonight. The farmer rose to his feet. “Cards? Above our touch, and past our bedtime already. We just got caught by the pretty music. Thankee kindly anyway.” “Well, if there isn’t going to be any more singing…” the salesman said when the only answer from the horse trader was a snore, “I’ll be glad to oblige you. Try your hand at piquet?” “I thought whist,” William said, “a game we often play here at night. Right, Lucy?” he added with emphasis on the we. “But I’ve too much to do tonight to join in,” Mrs. Ames said, “and Herbert’s not here. Perhaps…Mr. Wycoff? Would you care to take a hand?” “Ordinarily, I’d be happy to,” Wycoff answered, though his slow drawl hinted that he found the prospect exciting as cold porridge, “but the drive this morning and then the longer walk Jamie took me on this afternoon have taken a toll. All that fresh air, to say nothing of the exhilarating company! It’s made me think of little but bed. I’m afraid I’d toss the game away by bidding nothing but hearts tonight,” he added with a small smile for Lucy. “And when I play, I do play to win.” William’s eyes narrowed as Lucy’s widened. “But thank you for the offer,” Wycoff told

The Challenge / 55

William, with a sketch of a bow. “Some other time, perhaps?” “You’re staying on here, then?” William asked. “Certainly,” Wycoff said, though he wasn’t looking at William, but at Lucy. “Although you’ve a house just a few miles down the road from here?” William asked belligerently. “Even if I had two,” Wycoff laughed. “I’ve no staff, no servants, not even my valet with me. I’m a useless fellow, Mr. Bellows. Can’t turn a hand to a thing by myself. But I’ve found that most things worth doing are much more pleasurable done with company,” he added, looking at Lucy. “Except for reading, of course. But even there, a fair hand to turn the pages and plump up my pillow, or a soft voice to spare my eyesight. Now, if I had one of Mrs. Ames’s admirable staff at my personal beck and call, I’d certainly be tucked up in my own bed tonight, happier than any man has a right to be. But since I don’t—I must live in hope, mustn’t I?” Lucy stifled a gasp. And then a grin. That was the most outrageously seductive thing any man she’d ever met had ever said in polite company. So evocative her skin tingled. And he’d watched her all the time he was saying it, with such a warm, amused look. She went over what he’d said, lost in admiration at the sheer audacity of it, as charmed and flattered as she was made nervous. He was cool, smooth, and polished as her looking glass, and she had to remind herself that he probably gave back as much of his true self as it did.

56 / Edith Layton

“No cards tonight,” Lucy said, looking at him, “no games of any sort for me, thank you.” Wycoff seemed amused by the veiled rebuff, inclining his head as if in acknowledgment of the hit. She nodded, pleased at his reaction. “So! I’m going to sleep, and you are too, Jamie,” she said to the empty air at the head of the stairs. “Good night, everyone. It’s been a long day. Unless there’s anything else you need of me, Cousin?” “No,” Mrs. Ames said. “It’s my bedtime, too. The company’s so interesting the time just flew by. But if any wish to remain here, stay long as you like,” she hastily assured her remaining guests. “Only be sure the fire’s banked if you’re the last to leave. We aim to be a fine hotel. But we try to treat you all as guests in our home.” “Now that would be a fine motto for over your door,” Wycoff said, “or on your stationery.” “Why, so it is! Do you really think so?” Mrs. Ames asked, turning to him, all aflutter. It was William’s chance to see Lucy alone. He seized it, and Lucy. “I need to talk with you,” he said, taking her by the wrist as she passed him on the way to the stair. “What?” she said, looking at her wrist in annoyance, and then at his face with growing alarm. “What is it?” “Not here,” he said. “Is something wrong?” she asked, suddenly alert.

The Challenge / 57

“Yes. Come with me. The library.” She hurried along the hall with him, and threw open the library door. It was a glorified name for Mr. Ames’s office, which had some books and ledgers, and a few shelves of novels the girls had finished reading that Mrs. Ames thought guests might like. But there was a fireplace glowing with the small fire kept burning every evening in case a guest should wander in. In the same hopeful spirit, a lamp on the desk was lit. The scant light gave the little room an intimate feeling the salon had lacked. It would have made Lucy nervous if she wasn’t already so worried. Dimly lit rooms gave men ideas. William was a man she’d been trying to keep in the light. “Tell me!” she begged him. “What’s wrong?” “This!” he said and, snatching her up in his arms, pressed a kiss on her lips. It was as unexpected as it was unpleasant. William’s mouth was hard and wet, the skin around his mouth bristly because of the lateness of the hour. It hurt. His grip was strong, and his scent tonight, Lucy noted as she struggled against his chest, something like wet wool and tallow. They’d kissed before, brief polite little salutes she never let deepen for fear he’d get carried away. There was no fear of that for her. But it was never like this, with him grinding his mouth against her lips trying to wedge them open by main force. She gritted her teeth and shoved. “There!” he said, finally releasing her with every evidence of satisfaction. “That’s what was wrong,

58 / Edith Layton

and now it’s right. Enough, Lucy, my girl,” he said, straightening his jacket. “I’ve asked for your hand before, now I think you need me to demand it.” She stared at him. His dark face bore a look of triumph. “Are you run mad?” she asked. “Or have you been drinking? What gives you the right to do that? Who gave you permission to mishandle me? What in God’s creation do you think you’re doing?” She advanced on him, her voice rising with every word. It was his turn to stare. He stepped back as she came forward, retreating before her accusing pointed finger. She tapped the front of his jacket when he finally stopped, because the next step would have taken him right into the fire. “What is the meaning of this, William Bellows?” she demanded. “Well, I thought…I mean to say…Well, I have asked you to marry me time out of mind,” he said defensively. “We’ve known each other all these years, and there you were simpering like a girl for that Englishman, and we both know you’re a grown woman of thirty odd. Well, there it is,” he said, turning to aggression again, because it had sounded like whining, even to him. “Time for you to make up your mind, my girl. That fellow wants nothing but someone to warm his bed before he gets out of it and moves on to find another. He said as much. I thought you were better than that. I thought maybe you needed to hear I offer you more.” “I am better than that,” she said, her eyes kin-

The Challenge / 59

dling with blue fury, “As you should know. If you don’t know the difference between flirtation and…If you thought I…!” She stamped her foot. “I will ask you to leave right now, William Bellows, without another word—if you ever want one from me again, much less aspire to my hand. Which I will keep at the end of my own sleeve, thank you very much. Oh! I am so angry at you!” she shouted. “Good night!” “Lucy…” “I said, good night.” He gave her a curt bow, spun on his heel and left. She stood rigid, hearing him telling the salesman he had to leave and so couldn’t play cards, hearing him say good night to all. She didn’t relax until she heard the front door close. Hard. Poor William, she thought. She’d once contemplated marrying him…well, at least, thought about it. And how dare he! She wasn’t doing anything but flirting. She’d no more hop into Wycoff’s bed than she’d marry William. It was no crime to think about…Was it? She put a hand to her forehead. If she wasn’t going to marry William or succumb to imagined pleasures in a fascinating stranger’s embrace, then she’d better get busy and do what she’d been planning so long, even if it wasn’t exactly time yet. She’d been dawdling too long. There was just enough money to get there now. She could swallow her damnable pride and ask her mama for house room until she found a way to earn her way back again.

60 / Edith Layton

Time to go, if she really meant to. And if not? Then there’d be time enough to marry William or another like him and live out the rest of a tepid, longing life. Or leap into bed and burn there with a rake like Wycoff, to have something to remember for the rest of that longing life. Something to remember? the small voice that ruled her asked. Like a baby? Another child to raise, only this one born out of wedlock, oh clever Lucy? She sighed. She was so weary with wrestling with the problem. Time to go to bed at least. Alone. “Now what’s to do?” Wycoff asked as he strolled into the library. “Everyone’s left.” “I thought you were tired,” Lucy said to cover her surprise and embarrassment. “So did I,” he remarked. “But once I was left alone I found myself amazingly alert. But to what purpose? There’s no one to play cards. No company at all, except for the fire. And all it says is ‘crackle,’ with an occasional sigh. Your sigh is much more interesting, if only because it has the promise of more in it.” “You hear promises in everything,” Lucy said, without thinking. “I never met a man who presumed so much on so little encouragement.” “Unlike the worthy Mr. Bellows?” he said with interest. “Now, I’d thought he just presumed much more.” She winced. He’d seen, then. “Yes,” she said, “and see how well that was received.” “Yes,” he said, coming to stand by the fire beside

The Challenge / 61

her, “but I thought perhaps that was as much because of the way he presumed. There is such a thing as skill and timing. Of expertise. Lovemaking isn’t a grab and run affair, if it is to be an affair of any interest.” “It’s not to be at all—at least not for me. Not with William or any other man,” Lucy said wistfully, looking straight at him. He was so very attractive, she thought sadly. There’d been the attraction the moment they’d met, and it was only growing stronger. She wanted to simply step into his arms and take whatever he was offering. She’d never had an affair. She’d only known Francis, and that was something altogether different. This man tempted her; he was a living manifestation of the lovers of her fantasies. The kind of male who made her pulses beat like the crickets on long summer nights as she tossed and turned. The kind that made her shiver with more than cold on all those long winter nights. But those phantom lovers were gone with the light. That was the best part of them. She didn’t want a real lover who’d leave her with the dawn. Francis had, but he couldn’t help that. And she’d been alone so long since. She’d mused about possibilities, of course. She was a grown woman and a widow, and so no other man in the future would ever have to know. But she would. Even if she dared taste forbidden fruits, she didn’t need a lover who’d leave her with another child, and was wise enough to know there wasn’t a really effective way to prevent that. Maybe there was one, or so it was whispered.

62 / Edith Layton

But maybe was too great a risk. And just trying that sort of thing would make her like one of Mrs. Christie’s women, at least in her own mind. “No,” she said aloud. “It can’t be, I’m afraid.” “Just so,” he said softly, “so don’t be. Afraid, I mean. There would be nothing but pleasure in it.” He touched her cheek with his fingertips. “Do you deny you’ve thought of it?” She raised her eyes, unaware of the sorrow he saw there. “No. But all I can do is think of it, you see. I’m not a girl, Mr. Wycoff. Nor are you a boy. You’re a man of the world. If I were you, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be exactly as you are. But though I might feel that same temptation, I don’t have that freedom. I never will. I have responsibilities. And morals, I suppose.” She shrugged one shoulder. “That isn’t saying I’m any better than you. Women have to have morals, so I really haven’t the choice, have I? And life is all about the choices we make.” She looked at him directly and spoke that way. “I’ve had fun flirting with you. But know this, it can never be more than that. I’m sorry. Please don’t tell anyone, but the truth is I’m very sorry.” Now he smiled. “Honesty,” he mused, looking as curiously pleased as sad. “Truth, no matter how hard it is to say? I’ve seldom encountered truth, not in all my travels, though I’ve been looking for it just as long. There was once a truthful girl I knew in London…but that was it. So she was a girl, with no womanly wiles. You’re a woman with no use for them. You present me with utter honesty. A rare gift

The Challenge / 63

from a woman, or a man. I should know.” He took one of her ringlets between his long fingers to toy with, watching her closely. “But, now, ‘never’ is a foolish word for such a very wise woman to say,” he said gently, and tugged just as gently at the ringlet he held. It was as though he were pulling her with all his might. She was surprised, she was frankly shocked. But mostly because she didn’t try to resist, not even after her recent experience with William. This was not William. He was nothing like William. She’d never encountered anyone like him, except in forbidden dreams, and so as if in a dream she raised her lips to his as his head lowered to hers. So easy to pretend she had no will. And then she wasn’t sure she was pretending. His lips were warm, and what she felt on them was so delicious she sighed again, and stepped into his embrace as he took her in his arms and held her for his kiss. It was stunning. Dark and sweet, and overwhelming. She could only feel, her senses stirring, quivering to wakefulness as if after a long sleep. His long body was unyielding against her own, but his embrace was not. It was such a pleasure to be held so tightly and yet so carefully, so tenderly. His scent was clean and fragrant with woodsmoke, brandy, and good soap. His mouth held rich liquors she’d never tasted. Her lips parted to take his tongue, and it was only a gentle teasing that set her shivering, and then a deeper promise and then…

64 / Edith Layton

She opened her eyes as his arms left her. He stepped away. Only one step. Everything that had been in his kiss was in his eyes. “No, ‘never’ is not a word for us. If only because you don’t know how it can be for us. Good night, Lucy. Dream of me.” If she could ever sleep again, Lucy thought dazedly, long after he’d left her, without another word. She didn’t turn to see him go, or she’d have known he didn’t want to leave. It took every ounce of his steely control to act as he’d done. His calm had been pretense, and hard won. He almost hadn’t been able to drag himself from her. That was shocking to him. And wonderful. Wycoff strode away quickly so he wouldn’t be tempted to go back. For once, it was more than the lovely lips he’d tasted or the promise of the generous body he’d felt pressed against his own. It was the spirit that moved her that moved him more than he could remember—and he had so much to remember. Tonight he wished he didn’t. Wit, honesty, sensitivity, and morals too? And freckles, he thought with the first genuinely tender smile he’d felt on his lips in a very long while. She’d been scented like heliotrope, too, the flower that reminded him so much of her eyes. And those lips had tasted just as good as they’d looked. Incredible. He asked her to dream of him. He began to believe she might be the one he’d been dreaming of. A new woman found in a new world. He had hope at last…

The Challenge / 65

but he was too wise for that. He had hopes. He’d leave that for now. He had too much to remember, after all. William stalked to the Ames’s stables to retrieve his horse and ride home. His memories of the night were bitter, and he had words, plenty of them—only no one to tell them to. His mother would be sleeping by the time he got home, and they weren’t words she’d like to hear. Or maybe she would. As much as she wanted grandchildren, she didn’t want him to marry. A wife meant someone in his bed, of course, but also someone else in her kitchen and parlor, and then it wouldn’t be her house anymore. He knew that. They both did. So when he did marry, it would have to be a grown woman and not a girl who’d expect more, and nag or weep over less. And if a woman, why not one who set his blood afire? One who could give him sons, and make the getting of them a pleasure. He needed sons. Lucy had a son, she needed a husband. Why couldn’t she see that? All that nonsense about taking Jamie home to see his father’s family. If they wanted him, they’d have sent for him long ago. It was foolish dreaming, nothing more, and he’d been halfway to convincing her of that. Then Wycoff had appeared, an attractive stranger, fascinating because he was a stranger, to tempt her from reason. Or to his own purposes. Whatever they were, they wouldn’t be honest, William would bet on it. If they were, everyone would know the man’s history and plans for the future. No one did.

66 / Edith Layton

Wycoff came from England. He bought land and horses in Virginia. But he didn’t tell anyone more than that. More important, he didn’t do more than stay at the Ameses and court Lucy. For what? No carpenter, mason, or architect had set foot on his newly acquired property. The man himself said he had no staff, no servants, not so much as a valet for those fancy clothes of his. He had only eyes for a pretty woman, and a tongue as suave as Satan’s. As to women! Lucy was well enough, and William burned for her, but a man like Wycoff would have met many more dazzling beauties in his travels. Richer ones, more experienced ones—William grew jealous just thinking about them, the kind he’d never get a chance to meet. All his travels were in his letters; his office was his home and his business kept him there. But the Englishman could and did go everywhere. So why would Wycoff want Lucy now? For only now, of course. A brief affair that would ruin William’s chances with her forever. And ruin his plans for her forever. She was a widow. That was his limit. He wouldn’t take second place twice. He didn’t blame Lucy. Any woman would be charmed by the man. William stormed into the stables to find his horse. “Ho, Alfred. Give me a hand here, the saddle’s slipping,” he called, finding the stableman not there. He blew on his chilled fingers and slipped on his riding gloves. “Where is the blasted fellow? Oh, woke you, did I? Well, it’s a foolishness to sleep while there’s still guests afoot. Tighten that strap

The Challenge / 67

and raise the stirrup, or I’ll find myself in the dirt. It’s too cold to walk home.” “Thought you’d gone, sir,” Alfred said, bending to the task. “I’m used to young Jed staying up nights. But he’s to Richmond, and I’m on my own here.” “What’s he doing there?” William asked idly as he mounted his horse, delaying the ride home in the cold. “Delivering another message for Mr. Wycoff. The lad’s been there and back twice for him this very week. Gets paid well enough for it,” Alfred grumbled, “but I’m left on my own the while.” “Richmond?” William asked, holding the horse still. “Why? I thought he was on his own here.” “Aye, but he’s got someone important to him in Richmond he keeps sending to.” “Important?” William sat arrested. He’d been thinking of wives. He thought of them again. “Aye, so he says,” Alfred said, “Someone he says he don’t dare make a move without, leastwise. Joked about it with me.” “Who might that be?” Alfred asked. When Alfred didn’t answer, but only kept rubbing his chin and yawning, William reached into his coat and pulled out his purse, adding, “And where?” “Well,” Alfred said, brightening. “I disremember. But I think,” he said as William took out a coin, “I could think on it. Aye…now it comes to me.” Another coin was flung down at him. “Perkins. At the Swallow,” Alfred said with satisfaction as he slid the coins into his pocket.

68 / Edith Layton

“And is that a man or a woman?” William asked, because the name meant nothing to him. He frowned in disappointment at money wasted. The Swallow was a good inn. Too good for the absent valet, but it could be the Englishman’s lawyer or such. Or if not a wife, then a fiancée—or mistress? The back of William’s neck tingled. “A man. But there’s a woman mighty interested, too. Leastwise she pays that rascal Jed extra coin to know what news he bears. Which don’t do her much good,” Alfred chuckled, “’cause he don’t dare break no seals, even if he could read half of what’s writ. But she knows Mr. Wycoff well and wants to be sure she don’t miss nothing about what’s happening with him. She’s a real beauty, Jed says, so it’s a pleasure talking to her, even if he got to invent things to tell her most of the time, so as to keep standing there sniffing her perfume.” “And her name? And direction?” Alfred scratched his head and looked vague. It rained gold in the stables that night.

5

Wycoff commented to Lucy, as they sat toOdd,” gether in the front parlor in facing chairs by the window, enjoying the last of the early spring sunlight like two tabbies on a windowsill. “I didn’t know I looked so lethal. But flattering. I hadn’t thought I’d terrified him that much either.” Lucy laughed. “William went to Richmond on business, my friend, and not because you two didn’t get along…” Her eyes grew wide. “Unless you had words I didn’t hear?” He didn’t seem to hear her question. “‘My friend’?” he echoed her words softly. “Is that true, do you think, Lucy? Do you consider me to be one? I’d like that very much.” “Friends? Yes, of course,” she said too quickly, turning her head aside. The look in his eyes made

70 / Edith Layton

her acutely aware they were alone. But not for long. The scent of cooking was so strong she knew dinner wasn’t far off. Otherwise she wouldn’t have stolen these moments alone with him. Their shared kiss had ended any hopes of easy familiarity with him; he was too dangerous to dally with. But she couldn’t resist his company. She’d passed the parlor on her way to dinner, saw him sitting by himself, and stopped to chat. She’d done something like that every day, in many places around the hotel. He’d been here a week. A week of meetings by chance. He stopped inviting her out of the hotel with him after the first three times. “Even mighty Caesar was only offered the crown thrice,” he’d told her with a shrug. “But you’re prettier than he was,” he’d added, “so remember I’ll be here, and the offers to walk out with you still stand—and you may take those silent offers as given ones anytime you care to.” “But I have work.” “And time off,” he answered calmly. “We could go out for dinner, spy out the inn for Mrs. Ames again, if you like. We could go out for luncheon too. We could take long walks, rambles, gambols down the road. Not exactly a round of dissipation, I’m sorry to say—you cannot know how sorry I am to say it, actually. But the best we can do at the moment, under the circumstances. Just a chance to be alone. We could go for a drive, or a walk, or a stroll down the lane if you wish.” She wished. She didn’t dare. Not alone. And she couldn’t always use Jamie as a shield. A widow had

The Challenge / 71

more freedom. That made it harder for her to keep her reputation, and if she lost that, she’d have no future at all. She had an even harder time resisting herself when it came to him. Her heart had been sealed so long, but even apart from the prospect of more of those devastating kisses…Oh Lord, but they had a good time when they were together. At breakfasts, and after. At luncheons and dinner and through the long evenings. And whenever she could find the excuse to stop and chat with him. He was so clever. Mature and kind. Well read and more widely traveled than any man she’d ever met, and, miracle of miracles, he expected a woman to have opinions. They talked about books, music, plays they’d seen. Life as it had been when she’d been young. Sometimes, if prodded, he spoke about himself. Few facts, scant ones, but enough to give her a picture of his life, and why he wandered so far. He didn’t say anything about his late wife. But neither of them spoke much about intimate feelings. Not when they could be—and were—so often interrupted. By Mrs. Ames, or her daughters, or Jamie, all of whom thought the sun rose and set on their new guest. Instead, he entertained them all with stories about his travels and his homeland. When he did, the years fell away for Lucy. He made her laugh, he made her think, he made the breath catch in her throat when he looked at her the way he was doing now. With speculation. With amusement and wistful lust, and always with what seemed to be such

72 / Edith Layton

complete understanding of her feelings that it terrified and thrilled her. It made her believe too many things were possible. The possibility of laying her burden down at last, sharing it with another who cared as much for her as she did for him. The possibility of making love to a man again. The kiss they’d shared remained on her lips, no matter what they were talking about. But possibilities were one thing; she dared not hope. She reminded herself of the facts again. She only knew what he told her about himself; she didn’t know his friends or family. He might have dropped down from the moon, when all was told. She’d only his word for the rest. But some things were immutable. She was going home. He was traveling through. They could only be friends. And they were. She shared him with Jamie, the girls, the guests. It wasn’t enough, but it had to be. She had few illusions. And absolutely no room for fantasy. She would not allow it…. Unless. Unless he planned to stay and needed a wife, and wanted her for that, and had enough money so that he could take her and Jamie home to England with him to visit, so Jamie could meet his father’s family before she began a new one with her new husband. Him. The thought sprang free, bold and whole. It had been lurking in the back of her mind for days. But it was such a dazzling dream she’d dared not entertain it before, and couldn’t now, here before him in the daylight.

The Challenge / 73

So she tried to avoid his steady gaze and said brightly, “What did the architect say about your new home? You were gone with him all day. If I’m not being too presumptuous inquiring, that is, of course. But I thought it was a thing a friend might ask.” “You noticed my absence,” he said with satisfaction. She noticed everything about him. Today he was dressed all in biscuit and bone, his boots shining, his gleaming hair brushed back. She was wearing her best gown. The blue one. He’d seen her rose, and the gold one. She was glad spring was coming because she’d already run through her inventory of good clothes for winter, and had a limited number of shawls to disguise the lack of variety. But he may not be here in the spring, she thought, and watched him as though she was afraid he’d disappear now if she didn’t. “A friend may ask anything,” he said. “The architect was happy to report no woodworm or dry rot. The well is pure, the foundation sound, the windows fit, and the roof most definitely is on.” “So, you’ll be moving in soon?” she asked, horrified at how her stomach grew cold as her spirits went flat at the thought of having no excuse to see him every day. He hesitated. Her eyes flew to his face. She couldn’t read his expression. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Oh,” she said, because she couldn’t think of another thing to say. He didn’t fill up the silence.

74 / Edith Layton

“Well, then,” she finally managed, her heart beating too fast, “I suppose you’ve decided to move on?” “No,” he said, “I haven’t decided anything, that’s the thing. Not about the house. Or my future.” His voice grew low, his gaze tender; he leaned forward. He took her hand and covered it with both of his. She was so surprised at the contact, so involved with feeling the size and dry warmth of his two hands on hers, it took a moment to make sense of his words. “Only a week, my dear,” he whispered. “We’ve only known each other a week. Astonishing. As startling to me as it is to you. But so it is, and the thing is, I have to be sure before I say anything more significant to you about my emotions and our future. It won’t take long. I haven’t the time to waste, for one thing” he said with a rueful smile. “I’m easily a decade older than you. Precisely because of that, I can’t act the lovestruck boy I suddenly feel like. You do see?” She couldn’t breathe, much less speak. “You do, that’s the most amazing thing,” he said before she could form a sensible word, his hands tightening over hers. “I think there’s not a thing I can say to you that you wouldn’t see. I don’t say condone, or excuse. But you’d see it. Astonishing.” “I think you see more than there is,” she snapped, sliding her hand out of his. Because what he said was too close to what she’d been thinking. She looked up and saw the rebuke in his eyes. Rebuke, and disappointment. She lifted her head.

The Challenge / 75

“And even if you didn’t, it has only been a week, as you said. We only met a week ago, and you say such things to me? To even hint at them? My lord!” She laughed shakily before she could go on. He blinked, startled. “I mean I’m surprised. I mean I’m not. I suppose I’ll have to be honest with you,” she went on doggedly. “I won’t act the shocked young miss, because you know I’m not one. So I’ll skip over the denials and protests.” She forced herself to look straight into his eyes. “I know what you mean. Too well. But you have to know what I think. I made a promise to myself a long time ago. I’ll never throw my heart over a hurdle and dash after it again. Never.” “You married in haste?” “No.” She shook her head. “I married hastily, in that I let my heart rule my head, and never stopped to listen to my good sense.” “You parents objected to the marriage?” “They had a suitor picked for me they liked better. But they liked Francis well enough. What they knew of him. They said I should think about it a while longer. My first season, my first beaux. And in that uniform…He was an officer in the navy, and never did a uniform so well become a fellow. All the girls sighed for him; I was tickled because he sighed for me. For me! With all my freckles and lack of social experience. He was so breezy and bright, he took nothing seriously—but me. He danced over things other men stumbled through. He was so

76 / Edith Layton

attractive, different from any man I knew. It was like a fever with me. I met him, and caught it, and couldn’t think straight for a moment after that. “Well, the long and short of it was that it was a short courtship, a glorious wedding, and a difficult marriage. Don’t misunderstand, I loved him. But not what became of us when we left England. Which we did soon as he could arrange it. That changed everything. I didn’t want to come here, you see. I didn’t want to leave home at all. Once he got here, he left me to have our baby, and set out to make his fortune on his own. I can’t say how it would have been had he stayed with me. We hardly got to know each other.” She looked away. “It wasn’t his fault,” she said sadly. “A wife must go where her husband leads, that’s the way of the world. I ought to have known. Had I listened closer I’d have heard his longing to be off around the world to find his fortune the moment we first spoke of his future. But all I listened to was my heart. And all that foolish thing kept rattling on about were longings of a very different kind.” Her face flushed as she heard what she said. She lowered her eyes, freeing him from that deep blue gaze. “I loved him. But I was just a girl and didn’t know what love entailed. Not his fault, not really, never think it. He was just a carefree boy. I married with a hasty heart and have repented at my leisure.” She looked away, and he saw the moment that light and laughter came back into her face. Her son had entered the room.

The Challenge / 77

“But you can’t repent everything,” he said softly. “Something fine did come of it. Minds are for higher reasoning. Hearts speak of bodily matters. We need both in this life, working in tandem. Don’t abuse a faithful servant. You might try listening to it again. Your heart won you something wonderful, didn’t it?—Give you good evening, Master Jamie.” Jamie grinned and executed a proper bow, because he’d been allowed to dine with his idol, and wanted nothing to change that. His face was scrubbed, his hair damp from recent combing. His jacket, Lucy noticed, was suddenly too short in the arms, because she could see more of his wrists than the day before. His reddened hands were becoming too big for his boy’s body, the wrists rawboned in contrast, making him look so very vulnerable. Her heart clenched. Yes. This was worth it all, every bit of it. She nodded at Wycoff, and he smiled. They’d discussed the thing and settled it without a word. Her heart leapt again as she realized it. Rebellious, wicked thing, she thought, and tried to steady her heartbeat. But it kept thumping at her ribs, as she kept reminding herself a week, only a week, a week, only a week, in tune with the beating of her foolish, susceptible, treacherous heart.

6

Swallow, in Richmond, was a fine inn. The The richness of the furnishings in the front room proclaimed it was for persons of quality. The furniture was from the old world, the floors were solid oak from the new, dappled with carpets from the east. It was quiet and elegant and, like all such establishments everywhere in the world, it did not give out information about its guests. “I’m sorry,” the clerk at the desk told William without a trace of sorrow, “but it is against our policy.” William took a coin from his pocket and laid it on the polished desk. The fellow just looked at it. William sighed and took out another—but didn’t put it down. Because he finally saw exactly how the fellow was looking at the first one. As though it had

The Challenge / 79

thousands of little legs. William scooped up his coin. “Look you,” he said through clenched teeth, “all I want is to know something about this ‘Perkins’ who’s staying here. I mean no harm.” “I never said you did, sir. But I cannot. If you’d wish to leave a note?” The clerk motioned toward another desk across the room. “Yes!” William said eagerly, and headed for the desk. But he’d no sooner seated himself, pulled out a sheet of paper, picked up a pen and uncapped the inkwell, than the thought struck him. He laid down the pen, a snarl on his lips. He couldn’t address a note simply to “Perkins.” Was it “Mistress,” or “Mister”? Or, since it might be an Englishman, something with a title in front of it? He laid down the pen, defeated. But only for a moment. If he could find the stableboy messenger Alfred had talked about—but he never took notice of bondsmen or servants. Alfred’s unhelpful description of “a likely lad, about yea high, with a ready smile” didn’t help. And who was to say the lad was still in Richmond? But William was determined. He vowed he’d find this “Perkins” Wycoff kept writing to, and in that way find more out about the man who was well on his way to seducing Lucy. That was all it could be, William was sure. A seduction. Wycoff surely had little else in mind. Well, who wouldn’t want her? As a lover. But as a wife? Only a fellow like himself, who lived in the area and couldn’t travel far to seek elsewhere would take such as Lucy to wife. She had charm and allure,

80 / Edith Layton

to be sure. But she was a woman with a child and no money, and handsome as she was, not in the first blush of youth. Not a bride for a fellow with Wycoff’s funds. Certainly not one for a man of his obvious background. Which was education, breeding, money—and mist. A lack of information to hide what he really was. He obviously meant to be gone as soon as he got what he wanted. Which was what William wanted, but he was willing to offer his hand—if Wycoff didn’t get her body first. William strode back to the desk. “Tell me,” he asked the clerk, “do you know a lad named Jed who regularly delivers messages to this Perkins? Now, that’s a thing you can spill, surely. Jed’s naught but a servant, after all.” “So I would, sir,” the clerk said sweetly, “but I am not in the habit of conversing with servants, unless they work here, of course.” “He also delivers messages to a magnificent-looking female who lives here,” William said through clenched teeth. “Surely you’d take note of such? Look,” he added as the clerk raised his chin and sniffed as though he scented a long-dead thing, “I’m not here to play games with you. I’ve got a golden boy ready to walk into your pocket for the information.” He saw the clerk’s eyes. “Aye, whatever you tell me isn’t worth a quarter of that, and we both know it, but I’m in a hurry.” The clerk considered. “Now you mention the lady…I may know the fellow of whom you speak. And the lady. Would you care to wait until she

The Challenge / 81

passes by? But I can’t say how long that might be. You see, I must ask her if she wishes to be made known to you.” “Fine,” William said abruptly. He looked around the room, and finally settled for a chair near the hearth in plain sight of the desk. He sat, waited, and watched. It did nothing to improve his temper. The guests that swanned in and out of the Swallow were obviously well off. Their luggage was the finest, their clothing, too; even their servants dressed in obvious style. William’s eyes narrowed. He had such money, and soon would have more, but his business was such that he couldn’t afford to leave it. He couldn’t travel and show off, and earn admiration for it. He grimaced. If Lucy could see him as he could be, they’d have been married and she’d have produced a swarm of sons for him before Wycoff ever set foot on their shore. But some day… “Sir?” a voice intruded. The clerk stood before him. “The lady of whom you spoke says she’d be willing to speak with you. She finds herself curious about your errand.” William looked around, but saw no beautiful female. “Where is she? Oh, aye. The money. Here. Now, where is she?” The clerk gestured to the side. “The first private parlor, sir.” “And her name?” “That’s for her to give, sir. Go right in. She’s expecting you.” But William didn’t expect the vision he saw

82 / Edith Layton

when he eased open the door after a throaty voice called “enter” to his tapping. She was glorious. Hair the color of early dawn curled around her lovely face. She had white skin and huge blue eyes with lashes that cast shadows on her rosy cheeks. Her lips were full and very pink, and when she smiled, as she did when she saw him, her teeth were white. She had a deep bosom her low cut gown showed off as much as it could, considering the magnificent pearls that lay across that generous expanse. The scent of spring flowers was everywhere. William felt like the stableboy he’d been told about as he stood gawking at her. His elation soon canceled out his awkwardness. He grinned. Now, this was worth every hard-earned bit of gold he’d paid to meet her. She was incredible. But obviously no lady. Because hair, skin, lips and eyelashes were all painted to perfection. No decent female used cosmetics with such a free hand. Now, why would such an obvious doxy be connected with Wycoff? William’s heart leapt up, and he sketched a bow. “Madame,” he said suavely, “I believe you may have some information that could be important to me.” She arched that swanlike neck. “Indeed,” she said haughtily, managing to look down at him from where she stayed seated. “Now how may that be? I was told it was you who might amuse me.” Now he saw movement behind her, saw the dour maidservant standing in the shadow of her mistress, hands crossed at her waist, scowling at him.

The Challenge / 83

His smile vanished. He swallowed hard. She looked like a tart, but spoke with an aristocratic English accent. Highborn English ladies could be eccentric. “Your pardon,” he said politely. “I may have misunderstood. My name is William Bellows. I’ve come to inquire about a person residing at this hotel. A person who has some connection with another I’ve met. I was told you were interested in this person, too…” She didn’t speak. He felt perspiration under his arms, and hoped it didn’t show on his forehead. “Indeed,” she finally said, “A great many persons involved, I perceive. May I hear some names? As well as the reason for your interest, of course.” Either she would or she wouldn’t, no sense wasting more time. He said it fast. “I want information about a Perkins who regularly receives messages from a man named Wycoff.” “Why?” He wasn’t sure of his manners in front of quality. But he was a good man of business, and lady or not, it seemed to him they were discussing business now. “Because Mr. Wycoff is interested in the same young woman I’m interested in—very interested in. And we none of us know much about him.” She smiled. “Lud! Mr. Bellows, it seems we’re interested in the same thing. ‘Mister’ Wycoff, is it? Is that how he styles himself now? Yes, well, we do have a lot in common, you and I…” She mused a moment, and then fixed him with a cold blue-eyed stare. “How much is it worth to you, Mr. Bellows?”

84 / Edith Layton

He frowned, unsure he understood. “We share the same interests,” she said bluntly, “but where I come from, information is worth something.” He smiled again, more broadly now that he realized he’d been right all along. “We come from the same place then. Money is something we can negotiate. I have deep pockets.” “Good,” she said. “I don’t. But I do have something priceless. All the information you need. Have a seat, Mr. Bellows, and let’s do some trading.” Spring was returning, twilight lingered now before turning into evenings enlivened by the shrill cries of the first peepers. There was a fresh, green scent in the air. But it was still too chilly to stroll after dinner. The guests at the Ames Hotel sat in the parlor, but no longer had to hug the hearth. Mrs. Ames and her husband, newly returned from Richmond, their old friend Geoff, and their other guests were smiling as they listened to the hotel proprietor’s daughters quizzing the elegant English guest. “How awful!” Harmony cried eagerly. “You mean she sailed into the ball covered with feathers, like a painted Indian, because she couldn’t afford jewels?” “No,” Wycoff said, smiling, “because they were the latest style.” “How many plumes did she wear in her hair?” Bess asked.

The Challenge / 85

“Don’t tell her,” her sister Jenny giggled, “or we won’t have a goose with a tailfeather left to its name.” “I’m not such a goose as to wear poultry feathers in my hair,” Bess protested. “But peacocks are poultry, strictly speaking, aren’t they, Mr. Wycoff?” Cousin Sally asked. “Yes,” he said, smiling at them as they hung on his every word. “But very expensive poultry,” Lucy warned them. “So before you start plaguing your mama to buy any for the yard, remember they don’t lay eggs you can use, they screech all through the night, louder than any roosters, and they’re so dim they make barnyard turkeys look bright.” “Very true,” Wycoff laughed, “and the ladies seldom wear peacock feathers except for masquerades. They use dyed plumes from egrets and herons. One, or two, usually. This lady I was telling you about used five, dyed a shocking shade of pink. She caused such a stir she made everyone forget she didn’t own so much as a garnet. But I never said she looked well. If she’d worn fresh violets in her hair she’d have caused less of a sensation, but looked much better. That’s what clever young ladies do.” “There,” Mrs. Ames said comfortably, nudging her husband. “What did Geoff and I tell you, Herbert? He’s right one, is our Mr. Wycoff. You listen to him, girls, and you won’t go wrong.” Wycoff looked up, startled at the compliment.

86 / Edith Layton

He inclined his head in a semblance of a bow. “Thank you, Mrs. Ames, but I only spoke truth. Less is more when it comes to being a lady. Which is not to say that more can’t be delightful, if it’s done right. It’s all in the attitude…and a man’s tastes,” he added in an undervoice, for Lucy’s ear’s alone. She smiled. He held court here in the parlor every night now. The girls, the guests, they all gathered ’round to hear him. It made her know that she wasn’t the only one entranced by him—only the only one leery of being so. “Did you ever wear flowers or feathers in your hair, Mama?” Jamie asked, recalling her from her doubts. “Yes,” she said, thinking back. “I used to wear flowers.” She touched a tiny rosebud on her pretty floral-printed muslin gown. “Real ones. Not because I had no jewels. Feathers were for older ladies. But I wore flowers sometimes. Violets, roses too. Once, I wore lilacs, I remember. They were so pretty and smelled wonderfully, it was like wearing my own bottle of perfume, the scent whirled around with me when I danced.” She grew a faraway expression, remembering. “The only thing that made me sad was when I undressed for the night and took them off. They were soft and wilted, dying. After that, I made sure never to wear the more fragile blossoms, like lilacs, or laburnum.” “What’s laburnum?” Bess asked. “It’s a brilliant yellow flower that grows down in a chain, like wisteria,” Lucy said. “They’re every-

The Challenge / 87

where at home this time of year, dripping from trellises and hanging over eaves.” “At home?” Jamie asked quizzically. She looked at him, dreams of the past and hopes for his future darkening her eyes to midnight blue. “Well, so it was to me, my love. I confess, nights like these, when it starts to smell of spring, I get a bit homesick because there’s nothing like springtime in England. You’ll see, one day.” “Ho! There’s a bouncer. There’s nothing like springtime here!” Mr. Ames exclaimed in his booming voice. It was a big voice for a little man. He was a short, bald, plump, smiling fellow, the perfect sort to welcome guests and make them feel at home. Or so his wife had argued when they’d set up the hotel, and now he played the role. “I beg to differ, Mr. Ames,” Wycoff said with a smile to take any criticism from his words. “I agree with Mistress Lucy.” “But you always do!” Bess giggled. “Because she’s always right,” he said blandly, making them all laugh. “A remarkable woman. But in this case, she’s right. I’ll cede autumn to you Yankee Doodles,” he said and glanced to see if he’d made Jamie laugh. He nodded, pleased at Jamie’s laughter, but was serious when he spoke again. “In truth, in all my travels, I’ve never seen such color as in your American forests in October. But springtime is English.” He smiled at their expressions. “You see, every Englishman loves his garden and crams it full of

88 / Edith Layton

flowers. Every tavernyard, farmyard, every inch of every little townhouse plot in London is bedecked with blooms in spring. In the countryside the fields are filled with daisies and poppies, meadowsweet, more than I can name. Bluebells and daffodils everywhere, the hedgerows bloom with wild roses. Even the farmer’s fields are brilliant. Acres of rapeseed and mustard are spread like yellow blankets, so bright that even when it rains the earth looks drenched in sunlight.” The company was silent. Wycoff seldom showed his emotions, but that was longing, pure and simple, on that elegant face. Lucy looked at him, their eyes met, and in that moment, it was clear they were thinking the same sad thing. And more. The girls’ eyes widened, and Mrs. Ames give her husband another elbow prod. “Well, I’d say you make a case for yourself, Mr. Wycoff,” Mr. Ames said. “But wait until you see what Virginia can do with May!” “If he’s still here by then,” a voice said from the doorway. William stood there, posed dramatically. He looked tired, travel-stained and rumpled, but curiously smug. “It’s only a month from now,” Wycoff said, watching William carefully. “I see no reason why I can’t be here.” “Do you not?” William asked whimsically as he strolled into the room. He noted the seating arrangements, his face stiffening when he saw Lucy sitting close to Wycoff’s side.

The Challenge / 89

“Good evening, everyone,” William said, stripping off sweat-stained riding gloves. “I’ve just returned from Richmond town. A very interesting trip. Early in the spring for a fishing expedition, you might say. But you know,” he said playfully, “it was a good one.” “Then do tell us,” Mr. Ames said jovially. “Have a glass of something bracing, because it looks as though you’ve come straight from Richmond town, at that.” “Indeed,” Mrs. Ames said, staring at his mudcrusted boots and dusty breeches, “without washing up first. Mr. Bellows, I’m surprised at you. What would your mama say?” William’s dark face flushed, but he showed a gritted smile. “That I was remiss. I beg your pardon. But it’s a long trip from Richmond to my home, and your hotel was on the way. Do you want me to leave, then, and not hear of my success?” he added, with another significant glance at Wycoff. Lucy frowned. William was too jubilant. There was too much malice beneath his words; even his pleasantries sounded like a threat. He looked the way he had the night she’d sent him away for forcing his kiss on her. Except for his eyes. They looked as they had just before he’d grabbed her. “Then tell us,” Mr. Ames said amiably, “because I think Mr. Wycoff and I are done with our wager. He’s picked England for spring, I’ve wagered ours is just as good or better.” “A wager, is it?” Wycoff laughed, “Mr. Ames,

90 / Edith Layton

you’re a betting man? What does your good wife have to say to that?” “I say he’s safe in wagering with a gentleman, Mr. Wycoff,” Mrs. Ames said merrily, “but who’s to decide the winner?” “And I say,” William said loudly, coming to stand in front of Wycoff, his voice harsh, “that it’s best to know who you’re wagering with. Because it is not ‘Mister’ Wycoff at all, is it?” he asked Wycoff. “It’s my Lord Wycoff,” he said, with a great mocking bow. Lucy’s eyes went wide. “Yes, my lord Hathaway Wycoff, the viscount Wycoff, baron Dalhousie,” William went on triumphantly, “though I hear he prefers to be called Wycoff by his friends. But never ‘Mister’ Wycoff! Unless, of course he’s in America. A well-known gentleman in England, a common fellow here, though. And so he prefers it to be—in every way.” Lucy stared at Wycoff. “It’s true?” she asked him. He nodded, his eyes still on William. “What? But why not tell us, then?” Lucy breathed. “Because,” William answered for him, jovial as Mr. Ames now, “I suspect he didn’t want you to know who he was.” “Why?” Lucy asked Wycoff again, her brow wrinkling. “Because he’s married, my dear,” William said, in a parody of Wycoff’s usual expression. “Married,

The Challenge / 91

and famous in England for his women, his amours, his affairs, even so. His seduction of every female who takes his fleeting fancy.” Lucy’s hand flew to her heart. Wycoff’s face went taut. The room was deathly still.

7

so?” Lucy whispered in shock, not looking at It’s anyone but Wycoff. “With all we spoke of, all you told me…you didn’t tell me that? Oh no, please don’t tell me that.” “Do you want him to tell you or not? Make up your mind,” William said with a harsh laugh. But no one else smiled. The Ameses, their daughters, cousins, and guests seemed frozen in place. William sneered. He hooked his fingers in his waistcoat, looking smug. But he shifted from foot to foot as the silence grew. Wycoff had eyes only for Lucy. He could see her freckles standing stark against her sudden pallor and his own color paled a little. “Why?” he finally answered. “You want to know why I style myself a ‘mister’? It was a simple mistake. I went on the way

The Challenge / 93

I’d begun. When I came to this country a year ago the customs officer at the dock was harried. In his haste shuffling papers he said an absent farewell to a ‘Mister Wycoff’. The porters picked up the name with my bags. I didn’t correct them and soon found it was less complicated to be known as such here. I also discovered it made me feel freer than I had in a long while. More like everyone else, less burdened with the past. I forgot, in time, I suppose…No.” He smiled ruefully. “There was that, true. But there was also the fact that I soon realized there was some antipathy toward those who styled themselves noblemen here. Or if not that, then outright mockery. It was much easier to be like everyone else. I didn’t try to conceal my finances, though, did I, Geoff?” “No!” Geoff called out, “Plain pound dealing all the way, sir…I mean, my lord.” “But you concealed your true self,” William insisted. “Did I?” Wycoff mused. “But a seasoned traveler never likes to stand out in any fashion, because he can’t get a honest view of the world he’s visiting that way.” “And you thought I’d be less honest if I thought you were a nobleman?” Lucy blurted indignantly, seizing upon the lesser part of his deception, rather than the larger issue of his marriage, glad her anger was rising to tamp down the hurt and confusion she felt. The look in his eyes gentled. He tilted his head

94 / Edith Layton

and gazed down at her as though she was the only one in the room with him. “No. It’s just that it wasn’t time to change it with you, was it? And timing is everything in this life. Well, think on. What a coxcomb I’d look if I suddenly told you, ‘By the by, and to boot, I’m a viscount, my dear.’ I didn’t want it to look as if I was trying to influence you with it. But it wasn’t part of any plan. You know I was living from hour to hour with you.” She nodded slowly, lowering her gaze, silenced by his answer, and embarrassed at the way everyone in the room was looking at her and Wycoff. She needed to believe him, in that at least. And it made some sense. But not to anyone who didn’t know what had been going on, all unsaid, between them. William knew and it made him angrier. The look in Lucy’s eyes was not the happy fantasy that had kept him warm during the hours he’d been madly riding back, hurrying to lay Wycoff’s deception at her feet. “A neat story,” he said with derision, “and not likely. Why do you think he really went on that way when he came here?” “I imagine you’re yearning to tell us,” Wycoff drawled. “Too right!” William shouted. “Then go on,” Wycoff said, “but pray lower your voice. There may be people sleeping somewhere in the district.” William flushed. “You came to these shores as a mere ‘mister’ because…” “Well, but many English noblefolk do,” Geoff interrupted with spirit, “seeing as how some folks

The Challenge / 95

here still have a problem dealing with them, given the late hostilities, and such.” “No.” William growled, “Say rather, given my lord’s proclivities and such.” Someone gasped, the room went still again. Lord Wycoff rose to his feet. “Do go on,” he said, looking down at William with no expression on his face, and ice in his eyes. The difference between the two men was stark. Wycoff was the taller by several inches and older by several years. William was stockier, and much more excited. His dark face was flushed, his black eyes snapped with anger. Wycoff stood facing him, composed and quiet. But somehow, it was he who was the more dangerous looking. It made William bluster. “Your infidelities are common knowledge,” he told Wycoff, “Ha! Famous, is the word I heard. Or infamous. They say your wife plays fast and loose, too, and that neither of you mind the other’s unfaithfulness. That don’t make it any better—maybe in England it does, but not here, I promise you. But that’s not the worst! To lie to Lucy! What you planned for her is contemptible.” “So I lied?” Wycoff said too quietly, the only hint of his emotion the way he bit off each word. “Indeed. Tell me what I had planned.” “Simple enough,” William said, unconsciously backing a step. “You came here looking for an American wife.” “But you just said he was married,” Geoff said in confusion. “Exactly!” William said triumphantly.

96 / Edith Layton

“The fellow’s run mad,” Mrs. Ames remarked to her husband. “His poor Mama. It comes from her not letting him marry earlier, mark my words, just as I told her, a man needs his outlets.” “A second wife,” William hissed. They all stared at him. “It’s not like you don’t know about such things,” he said. “What about Mr. Fairchild, eh? And the stir when his wife came from Liverpool to confront him and his innocent but false wife, and their three children. That was a nice moment, wasn’t it? Or all the talk about Mr. Booth? He pulled up stakes and moved that poor girl who thought she was his wife and her babe to the middle of nowhere when the rumors about his true marriage reached his ears. Far from that poor girl’s ears too, he hoped. It’s common enough. You all know it.” He faced them like a hellfire preacher on a Sunday morning. “Some get away with it. That’s why others try. Divorce’s almost impossible in England, murder’s too risky. What’s a fellow to do if he’s tired of his wife, then? He sails away to us, that’s what. It’s a big country with lots of room to get lost in. He takes a new name and a new bride, and who’s the wiser, thinks he? Sometimes, no one.” “Sometimes not,” Geoff said, shaking his head. “When he dies, death notices get put in the papers, and then heirs come out of the woodwork, even from across the sea.” “But what does he care by then?” William asked triumphantly, looking at Wycoff. “He’s had his fun. The trouble comes to his new family. It’s just such

The Challenge / 97

care-for-nothings who do such vile things. Like my lord here, who came looking for a country wife, one he could hide away to see to his comforts until the day he died, with her none the wiser than his wife in England.” “I see,” Wycoff mused. He chuckled. The sound startled his listeners. Lucy raised her bowed head and tilted it to the side, trying to see his expression better. Wycoff gave her a particularly sweet smile before he turned his attention back to William. “Very clever of me to use my real name, only just sans the title, then, isn’t it? Where did you come by this glorious scheme of mine?” “I just met with Lady Truesdale! In Richmond,” William said triumphantly. “She saw you with a young woman in Richmond, and heard about your liaison with her. But that girl had a father and brothers. It was obvious what you were planning because you sheered off after you met them. In fact, Lady Truesdale said you tried to engage her attentions the moment you saw her, but were foiled because she knew you by sight and knows of your wife, too. The one thing you didn’t count on…” He stopped, because Wycoff was now laughing outright. “You’ve met up with Annie Truesdale?” Wycoff said, grinning. “Where is the baggage? Probably halfway back to England with what you paid her. She’s a clever bargainer. My man Perkins was at the same hotel with her in Richmond. He was waiting for me to send for him when I found a place to settle.

98 / Edith Layton

She was waiting for someone to fund her, or so he wrote to tell me. Good for her, someone ought to profit from this folly.” There was the sound of giggling from the front hall, and a merry and exquisite face peeked in the doorway. The lovely female standing there raised a gloved hand and curled her fingers in a childish wave, until her laughter bubbled up again and she used that little hand to cover her mouth. William’s head reared back. “Good evening, Annie,” Wycoff said. “Won’t you come in? No? Don’t blame you, my dear. Why in the world did you bring her, Bellows?—Ah. As witness, of course. But why did you come, Annie? Probably one step ahead of the bailiffs, as usual?” Wycoff sighed. “‘Lady Truesdale’ is an actress fallen on hard times, Bellows. She was stranded here in America when she parted with her acting company. Her face is her fortune, but unfortunately her acting is not. Oh come, Annie, don’t pout. It’s hardly a secret. I always said if you had a voice as lovely as your face you’d have made Mrs. Siddons leave the stage.” She blew a kiss off her glove to him, and Wycoff turned his attention back to his listeners. “I met Annie in Richmond, true. But that’s the only thing true about her knowledge of me.” “Deny that you’re married, then!” William raged. “I won’t.” Wycoff said. Now Lucy did gasp. Wycoff gave her a small, sad smile. “Have faith,” he told her softly. “I don’t have

The Challenge / 99

to deny it,” he told William, “because I did have a wife. But no longer. She’s dead, six months past. It’s a matter of record. English papers carried the notice, it was noted in The Gentleman’s Magazine and other journals of record. A carriage accident, in the Alps—far from where I was at the time, by the way, if that’s to be the next insane accusation.” “But you were married when you arrived in America,” William said, grasping for leverage as he saw his expensive house of cards crumbling. “So I was,” Wycoff said, raising an eyebrow. “Now I’m not. Your point?” “But—but—you were unfaithful all those years!” William stammered. “What’s that to the point?” Geoff cried. “If it’s even true. See here, Bellows, you’ve overstepped yourself. Accusing Mr.—Lord Wycoff, of all sorts, when he’s done nothing improper since he got here but put your nose out of joint.” “Right. I’m that ashamed of you, William,” Mrs. Ames said, “stirring up hornet’s nests to sour a good thing for our Lucy, because it looks like you won’t get your way. Shame!” “I was only trying to protect you,” William said, staring at Lucy with wild eyes. “Oh, William, I know,” Lucy said wearily. “I suppose I should thank you for it, though I can’t. Because the way you went about it was wrong, small, and mean spirited. I’m a woman grown, with a mind of my own, and I’ll thank you to remember that, too. You should have come to me with the

100 / Edith Layton

information, not made such a scene. I give you good night, William, and ask that you don’t return here for a while, at least. I’m very angry with you.” He took a step toward her. “Very,” she said, and he stepped back. He nodded, gave them all a furious look, and marched out of the room. The tips of his ears colored as Jamie burst into applause, and the girls started to giggle. “Enough of that, my boy,” Wycoff told Jamie quietly. “A gentleman accepts winning as graciously as losing. Bellows!” he called. He left the room, striding past Annie Truesdale and a neatly dressed man standing beside her in the hall. Wycoff stopped William by the door. “Before you go. A word, if you please.” William paused, with one arm in his coat. “‘Vile,’ I believe you called me?” Wycoff said. “Let me see, you also called me ‘contemptible,’ did you not? And insulted the memory of my late wife? There’s more, but I’ll let the rest pass. This is certainly enough. Name your seconds, and your weapon. I’m at your service.” William stared up at him. Wycoff bowed. “Yes, I am inviting you to a duel, sir. A formal challenge to a more regular form of combat to pay for the insults you attacked me with.” William gaped at him. Wycoff’s eyebrow lifted. “Don’t tell me you require the tedious business of a glove or a glass of wine in your face? They’re only used to add to the

The Challenge / 101

insult, and we don’t need that here, do we? I’d prefer to be discreet. Think of the women, and the children, if you please. And so?” “But—dueling is illegal,” William blurted. “Yes. It usually is. But it’s never stopped me before.” “I—I—” William stammered, regretting his always hasty tongue. “Me neither!” he said loudly, when he saw the contempt on Wycoff’s face. “You’ll find me willing.” “Then, swords, sabers?” “No. I’m a fair shot. Yes, pistols, then,” William said recklessly. “And I don’t need a damned second. I’ll face you now.” “I meant a close friend,” Wycoff said with outsized patience. “One who could consult with a friend of mine to be sure the matter is arranged as gentlemen.” “I know that,” William said quickly, “but who will you call on? Geoff? Mr. Ames? They’ll spoil your sport.” “Perhaps, perhaps not. Do you want to ask them to try? I doubt they’d think well of you for it, whatever their views on dueling. I won’t trouble them either. Perkins here would be glad to assist me, I think. Thank you for bringing him, by the way.” The slender, soberly dressed man who had been standing in the hall stepped forward and bowed. “Of course, my lord. And I was not brought by Mr. Bellows. I heard his inquiries, saw he’d taken up Miss Truesdale, and so engaged a horse and fol-

102 / Edith Layton

lowed them to you, thinking you might be in need of my services.” “Very good,” Wycoff said. “Thank you. You were right, as usual.” “Perkins?” William scoffed. “He’s naught but your valet.” “Valet, man at arms,” Wycoff said. “He’s seen me through much. You protest because he doesn’t bear a title? I suppose we must seek another to second me to your satisfaction.” He raised an eyebrow in mocking inquiry. William scowled. “Then Perkins is acceptable?” Wycoff asked too sweetly. “Or is that you decline my challenge?” “Never!” William said. “Send him to me tomorrow, then!” “No,” Wycoff said, “Perkins will meet with your second at some neutral place. That’s the usual arrangement. You can send word to him here when you decide the time.” “Done, then,” William said, flustered. “It’s only that I’ve never dueled. I mean,” he lied when he saw Wycoff’s eyebrow go up, “at least, never by such rules before.” “Are you sure you’ve used a pistol before?” Wycoff asked gently. “Sure as I’m sure of eye,” William said through clenched teeth. He clapped on his hat and stormed out the door. “He’ll cheat if he can,” Annie Truesdale commented. “Beware.”

The Challenge / 103

“Annie, you wretch, what are you doing here?” Wycoff said with amusement. “Usually you take your money and run.” “I run out of money too quickly,” she said cheekily. “Thought I’d try my luck with you again, too. Well, but he wanted someone to swear to it, and was willing to pay me extra for my time. Do you blame me?” “No, needs must go when the devil drives. But I’m sorry, my dear; as you heard, my interest is otherwise engaged. As to that, Perkins let me know by letter that you’ve been uncommonly interested in me and my affairs. Now why is that?” “I suppose I was miffed when you turned me down. We would have been lovely together…but as you will.” She shrugged, sending the fine feathers on the hood of her cape drifting around her face. “When I saw you take up with that chit in Richmond and drop her as fast as you took up with her, I became interested. She said you were talking about buying property and settling down, as though you were a single man. Until you twigged to her past. What this? says I to myself. The Lord of Adulterers refusing the favors of a delicious tart? Because she is a tart? Then he really is thinking of settling down? And he with a wife as famous as he for sporting? I didn’t know she’d died, my condolences,” she added belatedly. “Thank you,” Wycoff said solemnly. “I suppose it’s true, for otherwise you wouldn’t have said it, and invited people to look it up,” she added hopefully.

104 / Edith Layton

“It is. And so you were interested in my courtship because you thought there was money to be made from it. You thought I was trying to set up a harem?” “No, only to take another wife, like the fellow said. And too,” she said, dimpling at him, “I held out a hope you might change your mind and settle for a female who knew what she was about. I’m faithful so long as the money comes in, and you have enough to see me to the next century. And I wouldn’t have minded sharing the honors, especially with an ocean between your first wife and me. Even without one, for you’re an attractive fellow, my lord. Money isn’t everything—but to find it and pleasure in one package? I knew it was too good to be true.” “It was too bad to be true,” Wycoff said. “Going to try your luck with Bellows now?” “Why not?” she said with another shrug. “He or whomever else I can find.” “Good night, then, and good luck, though I’d suggest you avoid me in future. I won’t seek retribution, but I’m not best pleased with you.” He turned from her. “Perkins, there’s a room next to mine, bespeak it please. I’ll see you later. I’ve much to do now.” “Indeed, so I perceive. I hope you may settle matters.” “I shall earnestly try.”

8

had gone to the library. Wycoff knew she Lucy would. She had too much courage to run from him, too much pride to go to him, and there was too much her clever mind would realize had been left unsaid. And she certainly wouldn’t want to share what she had to ask with the gathering in the front parlor. Everyone was still there discussing what had happened, now further titillated by the presence of Annie Truesdale, holding court in their midst like the society lady she was capable of playing—in a parlor, if not on a stage. “Better than charades, singing, or cards, I seem to have turned Ames Hotel into a playhouse,” he said as he came into the library, easing the door quietly closed behind him. “Are you angry with me? I didn’t mean it to happen. You must know that.”

106 / Edith Layton

Lucy kept staring down into the small fire in the hearth that had been laid to take any chill from the night. She was standing before it, hands folded. He looked down at that meekly bent head, knowing what was going on in it, hating that—knowing there was nothing meek or mild in her thoughts, prepared for that. “Look at me,” he asked softly. She raised her head. There were no tears on her cheeks, and none glittering in her eyes. But she was very pale, her indigo eyes the only color in that lovely face. Annie Truesdale was dazzling in her brightness and color. Lucy was no shy violet in comparison. Rather, he mused, she was like a lily or a camellia: sumptuous but pure, and overwhelmingly sweet. No artifice about her, on her face or in her heart. She deserved the truth. Even though he didn’t know if his hopes could survive it. “I’d like to take you in my arms and let my lips speak for me,” he said, “but even if you’d allow it, there’s too much that has to be said. Yes. I’m truly a widower, let that fear out of your heart. Yes, I’m actually a nobleman; it means something to me, but is nothing to us. Yes, I was an adulterer. And yes, I’d give anything to be able to deny it.” “Did you try to? Maybe not with me,” she said, her eyes searching his, “but with that other girl? With any woman? Were you really seeking a second wife before your wife died?” He hadn’t lied, he yearned to take her in his arms, kiss that troubled brow and then those soft

The Challenge / 107

lips, and then…. Every word he said now would make that less possible. He wanted her. Lies wouldn’t help. Truth wouldn’t either. He looked away, into the fire. That was where his thoughts would take him. Leaping shadows from the fire gave his face its only expressions. His silence told Lucy more than he knew. Her heart sank. He took a deep breath. “I married young,” he finally said, “and well. It was where my family’s wishes, fortune, and heritage led me. She was handsome in her fashion, clever, and well bred. I didn’t dislike Harriet, nor did I love her. Neither emotion was expected of us. I thought we would grow to love. I was, as I said, a young man. A practical, dutiful one. And an idiot, as it turns out. “We had a boy in short order, and then a girl, with some difficulty for Harriet. There were no more children, the physicians said it wasn’t likely. I was, if not happy, then at least content. And still young, I remind you. As was Harriet.” A muscle ticked in his lean jaw as he composed the words, as few as he could say and tell it. Lucy stood still, eyes on the fire, waiting for him to go on, bracing herself. The words she kept hearing in her head were the ones she’d heard Annie Truesdale say to him in the hallway. “Too good to be true.” Yes, so he was, and so her foolish futile dreams had been, of course. When he spoke again, it was softly, and to the flames.

108 / Edith Layton

“We were staying in London. One day I came home to find she’d entertained a lover. I met him leaving her bed. She confessed, telling me he was not the first, nor would he be the last. She was neither ashamed nor contrite. It was her option, she said. I had my heir, didn’t I? It wasn’t possible for her to have another. She’d done her part. Now it was time for her to enjoy herself, and that meant taking lovers. Not for sensual pleasure. She didn’t care for the act that might bring her to it and never had done, she confessed, no matter who was involved. But because it was the fashion, it was exciting and amusing. And her right, as she saw it. As her friends saw it. And as her mother had promised she could one day. “What was I to do? Divorce is next to impossible. Literally. You know that. I had other options,” he said with a travesty of a smile. “I could argue with her. I could beat her; many men in my position would. I could take her to my country estate and lock her in her rooms. I could become a monk. I considered all my options. Except for beating. Only a swine would hurt a woman, or anyone who hadn’t an equal chance of hurting him back. In any event, I cannot, could not strike a female.” He shrugged. “And all it would have netted me was a beaten and unfaithful wife. Because none of my other options worked. “Three years,” he said too casually. “Actually three and a half years of celibacy. It wasn’t easy. Although I no longer desired her. But I didn’t find it easy. Monks at least have God to comfort them of a lonely night. I had nothing but suspicions. Because

The Challenge / 109

she continued to flout me at every turn. It shrivels a man, body and soul. So,” he said, turning from the fire to the dark unknowable depths of her eyes. “I finally let her go. And went my own way. We both were unfaithful, yes. You look at me with such big eyes,” he said a little savagely. “The world didn’t end. Society didn’t even blink. It was the fashion. The thing to do when there’s nothing else to be done for many of our class.” “That woman, she called you the lord of adulterers.” His eyebrow raised, his lips quirked. “Lucy, you eavesdropped? Let she who is without sin…” he misquoted waggishly. “Well, but I’m flattered you cared enough to. Annie flattered me, too, or hoped she did. No, my sins were more modest. Well known, but not so spectacular. My affairs weren’t so numerous as they were notorious, and that’s the truth, however it diminishes my reputation.” She gave him no answering smile. His own faded. “It’s only that some men are luckier in their associations, or desires,” he said seriously. “They either keep taking and discarding nameless women no one they know will ever meet, except at a brothel or in the streets. Or they settle down with mistresses in comfortable, long-lasting liaisons, just as though they were second marriages. I did neither. I…kept seeking. For what I never found. So there it is.” “No, it isn’t,” Lucy said, “You didn’t answer my question.” She ducked her head. “You don’t have to, you know.”

110 / Edith Layton

He made an impatient gesture. “For God’s sake, give me that much at least. You deserve to know whatever you would. What is it?” “Mistresses weren’t common in my circles,” she said, embarrassed, but determined. “At least, I don’t think so, but of course I’ve heard of such things. I asked something different.” She hesitated, then looked him fully in the eye. “Your wife was gone when we met. But…were you looking for another wife while she still lived? Would you have done that? Gone from adultery to bigamy?” The fire hissed and sighed, dying, because it was very late. His jaw clenched. He paused, as though fighting some inner battle. Then, visibly, gave up. He shrugged. “Yes. I’d have done that. I was ready to become a bigamist if it meant I could know love just once in my life.” He heard how that sounded, threw his head back and laughed, but there was selfmockery in it. “Poor, misunderstood philanderer. But I never enjoyed it, you see. It was always a lonely, guilty pleasure for me. I just never allowed myself to see that.” “You finally saw it because of that girl you mentioned?” Lucy asked quickly. He checked, surprised, and stared at her. “The one you said was a girl with no womanly wiles?” she persisted, reminding him. “The one you told me about when we were here last. When you said I was a woman with no womanly wiles?”

The Challenge / 111

“You remembered that, too?” he asked, obviously pleased. She remembered everything he’d ever told her, but she wasn’t going to tell him that now. “No,” he said, “I told you about my friend Gilly. She married a man I’m now pleased to call another friend of mine. I was thinking of something—different.” He paused, knowing he couldn’t discuss it. It wasn’t a thing he was proud of, though it had set him on the path to live a life he could be proud of. The woman he was remembering had been a pretty creature, married some years, flirtatious and bored, he’d thought, and well up to snuff. She’d actually seduced him. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a likely candidate for an amusing temporary liaison. He’d never been more wrong. It was pleasant until the end of the act they’d spent weeks building to. But when he’d drawn back from that final embrace, troubled because she’d grown cold when it had been too late for him to do anything but go on, she’d wept, inconsolable. Appalled, he’d tried to comfort her. And learned she’d taken him only to spite her husband, and had never wanted any man but that stupid fellow who’d betrayed her. He’d felt dirty under his own skin. No other woman had shown him anything but delight. She’d been desolate, railing against herself, hysterical, beating her breast, tearing her hair. He’d had to

112 / Edith Layton

restrain her from hurting herself. She’d cried as though her heart had been broken. He supposed it had been. He’d helped do it. That was what changed him, sent him on his mad quest to America. Not the girl he’d mentioned to Lucy. She’d been a young woman with no pretensions and great difficulties. He’d liked her and wondered if he’d love her one day. He’d wanted to help her and had seen the possibility of her helping him in the process. Because his last liaison had been with that unfaithful wife. It had unmanned him. He’d been celibate since. Not from lack of bodily desire. But because now he needed his mind, heart, and body to agree. They had not. Until now. Now he had to be careful, because the look in Lucy’s grave eyes chilled him. “No, not her,” he said quietly, telling her as much of the truth as he could and still remain a gentleman, and a man. “I saw myself through the eyes of another woman, one who used me as I used her. It made me see the emptiness of it all and the life we led. Too many women,” he agreed. “But don’t get the wrong idea. I assure you I didn’t go to orgies, or want to. I was monogamous in each liaison, which was fidelity in a fashion. Gads! What a conversation.” Her eyes kindled. “It’s all right,” she said bitterly. “I was married. People seem to think that makes me able to discuss any personal physical matters, be able to face any unseemly thing.” He winced. “I don’t expect you to discuss unseemly things.” He saw her expression. “But you

The Challenge / 113

think it’s unseemly, don’t you? It is. I suppose that’s why I’ve lost you, isn’t it? Yes, right. How could I?” He corrected himself. “I haven’t actually any claim to you, have I? But you must realize I was contemplating making one.” She ruthlessly quashed the surge of hope she couldn’t help feeling. “It must have been terrible for you. But it makes no difference, or rather, it makes all the difference. However you came to it, you were adulterous.” “Was,” he said. “Why do you think I uprooted myself, went into exile? I’ve been celibate a long while…Gads! That sounds like begging, doesn’t it? Maybe it is. But I’ve been seeking, not wenching. I may yet surpass my three year record—oh, sorry, speaking of such virtue is unseemly too, I suppose?” She didn’t smile. Head down, she paced away, talking as though to herself. “I’m not a very religious person. That’s not it. Well—not entirely. And people can be redeemed for most sins right here on earth. That’s what they said in Sunday school. So that’s not it, either.” She wheeled to look at him. He stood so tall and strong, so powerful in pride and carriage, seemingly able to carry the world on his shoulders. But she was done with seeming. “Why didn’t you tell me straight off?” she demanded. “For some reason I wasn’t eager to introduce myself as a famous libertine,” he said with a twisted smile. “And I wanted to start with a clean slate. I do, Lucy, that much I promise you.”

114 / Edith Layton

“Promises and lies,” she muttered. “I’m accustomed to those. That’s just it! I tell you straight out I can’t risk myself or Jamie. I’m here, miles from home, alone, with only myself to protect him. Because I leapt without looking. Francis was well intentioned too. But see what happened? A husband shapes a woman’s life. I suppose it works the other way ’round too—just look at your marriage. But I can’t afford to take any more risks. Oh, Wycoff—I mean, my lord—you must know how much I enjoy your company. I’m honored by your attentions…” Her eyes widened. “I haven’t misunderstood? Your—intentions were not…?” “They’re honorable,” he said. “I’m surprised you’d choose me for such attentions, with your advantages and the whole world in front of you,” she said honestly, “but I believe you. There’d be no point in your dissembling now. But all the untruths and omissions that went before…” “I’d choose you because of who you are, Lucy,” he said. “I see in you a friend as well as a lover. There were no lies between us. Only omissions. I’d have told you all my past life—when I was surer of you. I never lied.” “I won’t either,” she said. “It’s my past as much as yours. I’m flattered, and so tempted, believe me, even knowing what I do.” He saw her shivering, and reached out toward her impulsively. His hands dropped away as she went on.

The Challenge / 115

She shook her head. “But it can’t be. Because even a kindly man can be a despot; look at poor Francis. I don’t mean he was a bad man, but he had absolute control over my life and changed it forever. I can’t allow that possibility again, unless I can be sure…” Her voice faltered, thick with suppressed tears. “But if even the most innocent man can fail me…And you are, you admit it yourself, so very far from that.” She paced away again. She hadn’t realized how many hopes she’d placed in him. He’d come into her life like a shooting star, suddenly, illuminating her world, exciting and inspiring her. That had happened before. But the only arguments against Francis had been that she hadn’t known him very long, and that her mother had hopes for a favorite of her own. There’d been no forewarning about his constancy. He’d no dark history with women. She’d heard him talking to his friends. His only intimate experiences with women had been those many young gentlemen of fashion or young officers in the Navy might have had. Women in London, women in port. From what she’d heard and overheard of his reminiscences, all women he’d bought. Reprehensible, yes. But they’d been few, and far between. With no pretensions to his heart. But Wycoff! Lucy stared into the dark and saw another bright dream fade. When she faced him again she couldn’t actually see him; there were too many tears in her eyes. That was good. She didn’t know if she could say what she had to if she saw his expression now.

116 / Edith Layton

She didn’t want to hurt him. Or herself. But she couldn’t hurt Jamie. And as for herself, had she learned nothing? She knew what had to be said. “You didn’t tell me your title until you were forced to do so. Then I discovered your other one, ‘Lord of Adulterers.’ I understand, but it can’t change what I fear. Too much in the past, for you and for me. Certainly too much for Jamie.” She cleared her throat so she could go on. “I’m sorrier than you can know. But there can’t be any more for us.” She gathered all her courage, threw her shoulders back. “Because I can’t trust you.” He stood still, silhouetted by the glow of the dying fire. When he spoke again, his voice was infinitely sad. “But Lucy, how can you trust a man, if you don’t give him your trust?” That was a question that had no answer but the one she gave him. She shrugged, gave him a tremulous smile, and left the room quickly, while she could, before he saw the tears she felt streaming down her face.

9

if he’s not a bad man,” Jamie asked, “why Butaren’t you talking to him anymore?” “What nonsense. I talk to him,” Lucy said, trying to avoid Jamie’s too bright eyes as she continued making up his bed. “‘Good morning’ and ‘Yes, these are delicious eggs’ isn’t talking, Mama, not the way I mean,” Jamie insisted. “That was all you said to him at breakfast. That was yesterday. You haven’t spoken to him since, have you? You don’t talk to him the way you used to do. Not since William said those awful things about him. You don’t laugh and joke together like you used to, either. Everyone notices, the girls and Mrs. Ames, too. It’s like you don’t see him even when he’s in the room. He knows, too, I can tell, even though Mrs. Truesdale keeps talking and making everyone laugh.

118 / Edith Layton

Except him. And you. And last night? After dinner? You said you had a headache and had to go straight to bed. But you didn’t, because I saw you reading.” “I felt suddenly better—oh, bother!” she said, and sat down on the side of his trundle bed. “That’s a lie, and we both know it. It’s just that—look, Jamie—Lord Wycoff isn’t a bad man. But once he might have been. Not evil, in the sense of being a murderer or a thief, of course, or I wouldn’t let him near you. Nor would any decent person be his friend, and you know he has many of those. The man makes friends faster than a dog can pick up fleas,” she muttered, and then colored slightly as she saw Jamie’s expression. “It’s hard to explain,” she said abruptly, rising to her feet again. “I told you it’s a matter best left to grown-ups.” “Because he had too many lady friends?” “Well—yes,” Lucy said, “and no. He had them at a time when he wasn’t supposed to have any. You know what adultery means, Jamie, and don’t pretend you don’t.” “But he’s not married now.” “I know, but a man’s past can often predict his future. I suppose I feel I can’t trust him anymore.” “Well, he seems like a good man now. Bess thinks so, and Harmony and Jenny. Even cousin Sally, and she don’t approve of much. And so does Mrs. Ames, and Geoff, and Alfred and…” “I know what they think!” Lucy said, cutting him off. “They’ve told me often enough.” “Do you hate him now?”

The Challenge / 119

“Good heavens! No!” “So, then if it’s only because you think you can’t trust him…” Jamie tilted his head to the side, watching her. “Then don’t. But why can’t you be friends anyhow? See, I know Johnny Tate would steal my marbles if I turned my back. So I don’t. But we’re still friends.” “This is different,” she said again, in a stifled voice. You don’t want to run into Johnny’s arms and stay there no matter what your good sense tells you, she thought. “It’s a matter between adults,” she said, “and a thing a woman grown would understand better than a boy. I don’t hate the man, nor do I want you to trouble yourself about it. Now, enough. Time to go to breakfast.” She knew she hadn’t heard the end of it. But he stopped talking and left the room with her. She didn’t want to lie to him. She paused. “Jamie?” she said. “Try to trust me.” “I do, Mama. I just wish it was different.” “I do, too,” Lucy said, and took his hand as they went down the stair. But breakfast wasn’t out on the sideboard, though it was time, and the smell of porridge and bacon was thick in the air. The other guests were milling around the dining room, looking at the empty sideboard in confusion. Except for Annie Truesdale. She was chattering and laughing. “No breakfast? And no Lord Wycoff?” Annie Truesdale asked Lucy sweetly now, “Whatever is going on, one wonders?”

120 / Edith Layton

“Two wonder, too,” Lucy said tersely, and made straight for the kitchen. “What’s happened?” she asked as she pushed open the kitchen door to see Mrs. Ames, the girls, and Cook in a huddle. “The most dreadful thing you can imagine!” Mrs. Ames cried. “Just awful!” Harmony agreed with relish. “Lord Wycoff and William are fighting a duel, even now!” Bess said dramatically. “With guns and swords, down in the west meadow, by the creek,” Jenny said, “over you!” “Not over Lucy, though she was likely the one who precipitated it,” cousin Sally said reasonably, “and only with pistols.” Lucy’s hand flew to her chest, because her heart seemed to be trying to leap out of it. “And my Herbert is acting as second for William,” Mrs. Ames announced, “which is prestigious, to be sure, though I’d rather he were acting for Mr. Wycoff…I mean, Lord Wycoff.” “But William’s a hunter! A keen one. He knows guns, and…oh God!” Lucy cried, and fled out the door. She raced out of the hotel and went pelting down the graveled drive, toward the road. She heard the gravel crunching, and turned her head to see Jamie trotting at her side, but didn’t spare the breath to try to stop him. She did dare a glance at the sky. Dawn was when men met to duel, and the sun was already rising. She ran faster.

The Challenge / 121

The morning fog was shredding, rising in misty streamers toward the sun as it climbed higher in the sky. The giant oaks the men stood under were still in bud, but the grass they paced on was already green. The birds were caroling their first spring songs. That, and the gurgling of the stream rushing by, were the only sounds until the first man spoke. “Damnation!” William said. “A gentleman, is he? Then why is he keeping me waiting?” The other man pulled out his pocket watch. “Ain’t. We’re early, is all.” “Then why did you bring me here so soon?” “It would look shabby if you was to be late, William. Looking good is what this is all about, isn’t it?” Mr. Ames asked. “Not that any of this makes a speck of sense, as my good wife said. That wasn’t all she said, mind,” he added gloomily. “I don’t doubt in the end she’ll make this go even worse for me than it will for you here today. Though that’s hard to believe, I grant.” William spun around. “What? I ask you to second me and you agree, and yet you think I’ll be the one to fall? Are you forgetting who brings you pheasant every autumn? Ducks in the spring? Not your English guest. I’m a marksman, and well you know it.” “Pheasant and duck don’t take fifteen paces and fire back,” Mr. Ames said, shrugging. “Wycoff’s had to leave England twice, Italy once, too, to wait till things cooled down, and it ain’t ducks they were after him for bagging.”

122 / Edith Layton

William went a shade paler. “What? What’s this? How do you come by such knowledge?” “Curse my tongue,” Mr. Ames said. “I never meant to let it slip. But it was Perkins who told me when we were arranging matters.” “Why didn’t you tell me when we were?” “Well, so I did, at least I said he was famous for dueling, but you were on fire to face him and what was I to do?” “You might have told me. Did he kill his men?” “Those times, yes. There were lots of other near things, but they don’t prosecute when he only maimed his man.” “Who’s to say that’s the truth?” William scoffed, though he looked anxious as he peered to see if Wycoff was coming. “Perkins is paid by the man.” “Well, I’d say it was so, because Perkins didn’t seem too anxious to have your apology. He’s acting as physician because he’s capable, due to his war experiences, and you didn’t want Dr. Cutler to know. But Perkins has done it so many times for his master in such matters, it’s nothing to him. A sad, sad state of affairs. When I said you’d never back down and crawl to Wycoff, like you told me to, Perkins shrugged it off like it was a walk in the park he was arranging for his master, and not a duel to the death. And he’s that fond of the man. So, I suppose the only thing left for me to do is ask what you want me to tell your Mama—if…” William stared at him. “You have made out papers and such, to see to

The Challenge / 123

her care if the worst happens, I suppose?” Mr. Ames asked. “Perkins said as to how I should ask you, and I confess it slipped my mind until now.” “Damnation!” William said, his hands fisted. “A fine time to tell me! Not that it would have changed my mind. I’ve everything in train. But apologize for speaking truth? I think not!” “Apologize so you could go on living, I’d think,” Mr. Ames mused, “because there’s truth and there’s truth, William, and well you know it. I know about you and the regular appointment you keep with Mrs. Christie’s girls every Tuesday night. But if it vexed me for any reason I’d remind you about it on the sly, and not in front of Lucy and everyone you knew.” William’s face turned dark again. “Since you’re such a fount of wisdom, I wonder why you didn’t tell me this yesterday, when we were arranging this meeting.” “You were in a taking, William, you know how you get. No one could tell you the time of day. I tried to say it was wrong on your part. Not that arranging to slaughter you—in a gentlemanly way or not—was right on his part, but it’s a thing I can at least understand. You did insult the man and no denying.” William went back to pacing. “Aye,” Mr. Ames went on, “pistols or swords, it wouldn’t make a difference. I’m against dueling, a cruel waste of life, says I. Perkins says no one in England would be fool enough to cross Wycoff, and

124 / Edith Layton

he was only sorry that you didn’t know everything about his master’s reputation before you started up with him. But one thing he did say was that Wycoff’s a fair man, he’s given up as many challenges as he’s took up. If the other fellow admitted his mistake. Not too many men able to do that cleverly, though. Most let their anger dig their graves. I’m sorry about this, William. So I said yesterday, so I have to say today. You were a good neighbor.” “I am a good neighbor,” William said with a growl, pacing away. The sound of carriage wheels stopped him. He looked up, his face now faintly tinged the hue of the grass he stood on. But he squared his shoulders and waited. The sound of laughter drifted toward them, and then Wycoff appeared, parting the mists like a curtain with his entrance. He was bareheaded, his greatcoat opened so that it swung behind him like a cape, and when he spied William, he bowed. “Exactly on time,” he said with satisfaction, consulting his pocket watch. “Very good. Good morning, Mr. Bellows. Mr. Ames, I give you good day. This shouldn’t take long; I hope to be back in time for breakfast with none the wiser. Then, alas, I’ll have to leave, because I’m sure word won’t be long getting out. I only ask that you keep the matter close until I do leave, Mr. Ames. I have some farewells to make. I hadn’t planned to leave Virginia just yet. But needs must when the devil drives.” He shrugged. “I’m sorrier than you know to have to leave your fine hotel so soon, and so precipitously.”

The Challenge / 125

“And I’m that sorry to see you go, my lord,” Mr. Ames said, bowing. “It’s by no means certain you will have to be the one to go!” William shouted. He heard how his voice sounded in the quiet morning, and fell silent, scowling. “By no means,” Wycoff agreed, but his smile denied his words. “How vexed your poor mama will be with me,” he went on pleasantly as he began stripping off his gloves. He raised one hand before William could speak. “Either way. If I succeed, certainly. But just as certainly if I do not. For then you’ll have to leave the country, or at least the district, for a long while. A bad business all the way ’round, but what’s a man to do?” He shrugged off his greatcoat. Perkins caught it, and folded it over one arm. “After all, I was insulted, most grievously,” Wycoff said as he began unbuttoning his tight-fitting jacket. “I suppose you were so flushed with victory after you heard what our dear Annie Truesdale invented you couldn’t wait to confront me. But I do wish, for both our sakes, that you’d thought about it for a moment. It would have saved me so much bother.” “So it would,” William grudgingly agreed, as he fumbled with the buttons on his own jacket. “I should have waited…” he muttered, wishing he’d left on his gloves to the last, too, realizing the cool morning air had numbed his fingers. Wycoff checked. “Indeed? So you admit that?”

126 / Edith Layton

William looked up. His words had been taken wrong, but now he saw how they might serve him right. “Oh, aye,” he grumbled, “I was vexed, so I shot in the dark without sighting down my barrel first. For that, I’m sorry.” “And not for insulting my late wife?” Wycoff asked curiously. “Oh, as to that, I never meant…I didn’t think. I’d no wish to insult a lady’s memory,” William said gruffly. “I didn’t even know she was dead! For that, I’m sorry too.” Wycoff inclined his head. “Very gracious of you. And so. All that remains is the matter of your insulting me.” William glowered. “I spoke only the truth as I saw it.” He paused, and swallowed hard as Perkins approached him with a long, polished wooden case, which could only contain dueling pistols. “The truth as you saw it?” Mr. Ames said quickly. “But William, you saw it through a woman’s eyes. And one bent on mischief.” “That’s true, and for that I am truly sorry,” William said, though it sounded more like a snarl than an apology. “She needs her neck wrung!” “Well done!” Mr. Ames cried gladly. Wycoff looked up, interested. William did, too, but he was confused. “See, my lord?” Mr. Ames said. “There’s no need to uncase those fine pistols, is there? For here’s our William saying he’s sorry for the misunderstanding, sorry for insulting your late wife, and

The Challenge / 127

sorry for confronting you with false accusations. Don’t that settle honor? What more do you want?” William looked up from the case Perkins had unsnapped to Wycoff for his inspection, his hopeful expression badly concealed. But now Wycoff’s easy smile faded. He looked at William gravely. “Yes, many a sorry, all drawn, like bad teeth. I need something a bit more sincere. Those were, you’ll admit, very small sorrys. I was insulted. I should like to hear something from Mr. Bellows indicating that he is actually apologizing for it.” William was silent, his jaw working, as he stared at Wycoff. “Because he certainly would ask as much of me, I think,” Wycoff added softly. The silence grew. The men waited. A cardinal suddenly trilled on a branch high above, its song all about spring and mating, and new life to be. It was ironic to hear as the men gazed down at the pistols in their velvet-lined case, knowing their song would be about endings, and death. “I apologize,” William said in a choked voice. He glared at Wycoff. “I wish I’d found something true to say, something current, that I could prove. And I should have said the rest in private. But as for insulting you in front of all on the basis of that bitch’s lies, that I apologize for. Only that!” Mr. Ames’s and Perkins’s eyes swiveled to Lord Wycoff. Wycoff smiled, and started buttoning up his jacket again. “Fair enough. At least, it is enough for

128 / Edith Layton

me this fair morning. Such a tranquil spring morning, no need to cut up the peace of it.” “But, my lord!” Perkins gasped. “To leave the ground without firing a shot? Even with an apology, it is not done.” Wycoff paused. William’s face grew still. “I believe it can be done, Perkins,” Wycoff said after a moment’s thought, “After all, we’re not in England now. As to what’s done, strictly speaking none of this is comme il faut. Our estimable friend Mr. Ames is a worthy gentleman, and Mr. Bellows’s second, but he’s not a peer of mine, as the rules would have it.” “Well, but a valet is no peer of mine!” William shouted. “But all men are equal here, are they not?” Wycoff asked gently. “So. I take it you’d prefer to have a shot at me, for the look of it? A waste of gunpowder and time, I’d think. But I’ll oblige if you insist. Except, sometimes, a thing done for the form of it has a way of becoming real. Still, so be it, if you wish?” William paled, but shrugged, in a bad parody of nonchalance. “It’s your duel, your decision.” “I’d prefer breakfast.” Wycoff said, “I’m devilish sharp set. Agreed, Mr. Bellows?” “Agreed,” William said on what sounded like a sigh. “We can send the carriage back empty since there are no injured parties,” Wycoff commented. “Good thing we came here on horseback, it’s too fine

The Challenge / 129

morning to waste inside a coach. Will you ride back with me, Mr. Ames?” “Well, I don’t know,” Mr. Ames said uneasily, “I’m William’s second, am I supposed to go with him? What’s the custom?” “I’m going home,” William said angrily. “You may ride with the devil if you choose.” “Close enough,” Wycoff laughed. “Come along with us, Mr. Ames. I can’t wait to taste your good lady’s breakfast. I scented popovers in the air as I was creeping out of the hotel.” “The best in the county,” Mr. Ames said comfortably. Wycoff inclined his head, then strode ahead to untether the horse he’d tied to a tree. Mr. Ames strolled along behind with Perkins. He looked back to see William fling himself up on his horse and go galloping away. Only then he did he dare start grinning. “I said it all right, didn’t I?” he asked Perkins in an excited whisper. “Perfectly,” Perkins said. “You were right,” Mr. Ames exulted. “If I’d said it yesterday, it would’ve made no matter. But on the dueling ground, it took the wind right out of his sails. Well done! Did his lordship know about it?” he asked, lowering his voice as he eyed Wycoff. “He did. It’s a thing we’ve done before. His lordship never sees the need for violence if a little forethought can prevent it. And it was clear to him that Mr. Bellows was not aware of all the ramifications of a duel.”

130 / Edith Layton

“Aha! Good job! Was anything I told poor William true?” “All of it, Mr. Ames.” “So I was a good second then, wasn’t I? Too bad the other chaps didn’t have ones like me, eh?” “Some did,” Perkins said quietly. “But we are pleased this encounter ended in this manner. My lord did wish to stay on here for a spell, you see.” Lucy’s slippers were soon soaked with dew; she could feel every sharp pebble and deep rut on the soles of her feet as she ran down the long drive. She kept one hand on her chest to stop her breasts from bobbing out of her gown, the other to raise her hem from the wet, and kept going in a queer little jog, because she wasn’t used to running. But William was a marksman—he always bragged about it. And Wycoff was an English gentleman who likely never did more than collect guns. The thought of Wycoff being shot kept her going, though her breath soon became short, her heart thumped like thunder in her ears, and the pang in her ribs began to feel like a sharp knife. But not so sharp as the thought of Wycoff dying here, because of her. Because William had been acting to protect her, win her, influence her—it didn’t matter. It was her fault. The thought that she’d hadn’t had a decent word to spare for Wycoff since William had accused him was more painful still. She reached the road and kept going at a ragged, wavering pace, the vision of that elegant clever face

The Challenge / 131

before her eyes now clearer than the actual world in front of her. That reality was beginning to waver, obscured by increasingly brilliant spots of light. Her heartbeat sounded like galloping horses, overlaid by the buzzing in her ears. She staggered. A moment later a strong arm was around her shoulders. She looked up, and with her last sob of breath fell against him, her head against his chest. “Not—too—late!” she gasped, “Thank—God! I’m not—too late!” “What’s happened?” Wycoff asked, sounding as panicked as she was. “He—didn’t—kill—you!” she panted. “You’re alive.” She felt his arm tighten around her shoulders. “I’m alive. No one was killed. Who told you?” “Every-one. The girls—knew. Everyone,” she sighed, content to stay held close to him, not opening her eyes, because as her breath came back, so did her reason, and she knew she’d have to step away in a moment—maybe two. “A duel” Jamie cried, as he raced up to them, “and I missed it? Did you kill him, sir?” “No one was killed, I said, you bloodthirsty little devil,” Wycoff teased. “Now, shoo home, and tell everyone it was all a hum. Nothing happened. Mr. Ames here was merely showing me some horses. Right, Mr. Ames?” “Indeed, so I was,” Mr. Ames said as he rode up to them. He held his horse, looking down at Lucy and Wycoff. “Come along, young Jamie,” he said,

132 / Edith Layton

“there’s room for you on Charger’s back. Give me your hand, ah—there you go. Let’s give the lad a treat, eh, Mr. Perkins? We’ll race to the front gate, shall we? I’ll see you at breakfast, my lord.” There was another rumbling of hooves as two horses pounded down the road toward the hotel. Lucy stayed where she was until the last echo of their hoofbeats faded. Then, with great dignity, and equal reluctance, she drew out of Wycoff’s embrace. “I must look a fright,” she said, gazing at her slippers, not caring what she looked like because she knew too well what she felt like. “You look rumpled and winded, windblown and all in disarray,” he said. She heard the smile in his voice. “Which happens to be very exciting to me. ‘A wild civility do more bewitch me than when art is too precise in every part,’ as the poet said. ‘A sweet disorder in the dress, kindles in clothes a wantonness.’ In my breast too. Herrick’s not my favorite poet, but he was right. You look delectable, my dear.” “Well, you should know about disorderly females,” she snapped, and winced. Her eyes flew to his. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I spoke about my appearance to keep from thinking about what almost happened to you. Tell me, what happened? How did it end?” “With civility on all sides. Bellows allowed he was too hasty in his pronouncements, and begged my pardon for it. I forgave him. I can’t say we’re all sweetness and accord now. But no one was hurt, or will be.”

The Challenge / 133

“Good,” she said in relief. “William’s an excellent shot, you see.” “And you were running to intercept the bullet before it found its home in my breast?” “I was running in hopes I could stop matters before they started. I have some influence with William, you know.” “And none with me?” She ignored this. “I’m so glad it was resolved without bloodshed,” she said prissily. “Yes, mama,” he said, laughter still clear in his voice, though something else was glittering in his hazel eyes and he gazed at her. “We will play nicely now. Won’t we?” She knew what he was about to do by his words, and the amusement in them. She saw him lower his head. Saw the gleam in those eyes before he closed them as their lips met. She had enough time to protest, or move away. But didn’t. She knew it would be the last she would take of him. And so she took it. So glorious to stand wrapped in his arms. So wildly exciting to take all of his kiss, to feel his breath come out in a rush against her mouth, to feel his tongue touch hers and then probe deeper, to lose herself entirely in the sweet darkness of his kiss. To let his big hand slide up her back, and around to cup her breast. To shiver against him and sigh with regret as she finally caught her breath and stepped away. His hands fell away. It was in her eyes before she

134 / Edith Layton

said it. His own narrowed and grew dark, and darker still when she spoke. “It can’t be,” she said, shaking her head, letting the windblown tumble of it hide some of her face. “I worried about you, true. I care for you, true. But I can’t have more. Not only because I can’t trust you—but because I can’t trust myself with you. It is the way it is. Please don’t try to change my mind, it will only make it worse. We’ll have to live close at the Ameses’, but we can’t be close. Do you see? Please,” she begged him, “please do see.” “I do,” he said simply. “I have a thousand arguments, and even more promises I could make to you, and I’d keep every one of them. But you don’t want to hear them. I could, I think, even so, seduce you. Not because I’m so good at that. Because you are, you know, halfway there already, my dear.” Her head shot up. She swiped the hair from out of her eyes. His face was solemn. “Not because you’re a light woman, or because you’re a widow,” he said, to kill her protests before she could form them. “But because you’re a woman grown, and one with fire and passions, however you subdue them. Because you know how it could be between us, and because anyone can find a thousand reasons for doing something they really want to do. But I can’t demand your love, or respect, or trust. And I find that’s equally important to me. I can only win those things, and you refuse to let me try. “My past,” he said, rubbing his forehead, “defeats my present and destroys my future with

The Challenge / 135

you. I’ll leave Ames Hotel at once, of course. I have another home, you know. No sense in distressing you—or myself. And trust me, I’d be sorely distressed to see you every day and have to hear your false greetings, and see you avoid me at every turn. Better I leave. But I won’t stop wanting you.” His horse stood grazing a pace away. He gathered up the reins. “The ground’s damp,” he said. “Ride back with me now, as innocently as Jamie went with Mr. Ames. Will you?” She nodded. He lifted her into the saddle and swung up in back of her. They rode back to the hotel in silence. He held one arm around her to steady her, but never touched her in any other way. However, it was not innocent. Not for him, and not for her. It couldn’t be. So when he dismounted and lifted her down, he paused, holding her eye to eye with him for the space of two heartbeats. His arms were steady, he held her as easily as he would a glove. But his voice shook, a little. “Good-bye, for now,” he said. She didn’t answer, she couldn’t. Because she didn’t know if that was a promise, or a pleasantry. Nor did she know if she was relieved, or deeply grieved. Lord Wycoff left the Ames Hotel the next morning. He left a joke with the Ameses and a wink with Annie Truesdale. He gave a smile to Jamie, a bow to the girls, and one long, last, lingering look at Lucy. She watched him down the drive, saw him take the

136 / Edith Layton

turn down the road, and didn’t move from the window until she was sure he wasn’t going to look back again. Only then did she walk away from the window, telling herself she had chores to do. She did. But they didn’t fill her time or her mind. Just one guest had departed, but the hotel had never felt so empty. Nor had her heart. “He’ll only be down the road in his new home, I expect,” Mrs. Ames said, after a look at Lucy’s expression. “True, it’s a few miles and a fair walk, but you can always take the gig if you want to visit.” “I won’t be visiting,” Lucy said, trying to pin a bland expression on her face. It was simple to look happy, or angry. Uncaring was a hard emotion for her to pretend. She didn’t deceive Mrs. Ames. “Well, he’ll come calling here, I don’t doubt, so it makes no never mind,” Mrs. Ames said, and bustled away. But he didn’t, and a dull week dragged past, filled with rain and memories. The weather changed abruptly, the sun reigned as spring came in with a glorious rush. Flowers burst from the earth, the trees were radiant with them, birds rejoiced, the bees were spring-struck and silly, staggering from one bloom to another. It was hard for anyone to feel gloomy in such weather. But Lucy managed.

10

morning blossomed into another fragrant Amild spring day. The Ames Hotel was empty except for Cook, in the kitchen, and Lucy, in the little parlor she called an office. The windows were opened to let in the breeze and chase out every memory of winter. It didn’t lift the chill from Lucy’s heart. She missed him. It was more than the pleasure she’d found in his company. She missed the nervous surprise on seeing him each day and the anxiety of wondering what to do about him every night. There was no word from or of him, no gossip, no rumors. She refused to ask. But there was nothing to distract her from thoughts of him now. Jamie had gone down the road to school. The guests were all out for the day. The Ameses and the girls were at their various duties on the grounds. A warm floral breeze riffled the pages of the ledgers

138 / Edith Layton

Lucy had been trying to work on with little success. She couldn’t add up anything. Her thoughts kept flittering away to him. There wasn’t another man like him in all of Virginia. It wasn’t just his looks which were so superior. Nor even the look of him, which was unique. He drew the eye and held it for reasons beyond his appearance, elegant though it might be. Many men were more handsome, others dressed well, some were even as nice in their manners. But none had that knowing expression. Or such wit, such a way of looking at a woman—with calculation that should have offended, but nevertheless left her shivering with expectation. Lucy snapped the ledger shut. He was gone. She’d best get used to it, since she was the one who’d sent him away. If she hadn’t, she’d have been his, and they both knew it. If she’d been his for an hour, it might have ruined her for life. If she’d accepted a life with him—it could have been even worse. She couldn’t live with a faithless man. She’d lived with a feckless one, and see where that had left her. She stood and reached for her shawl. Enough remorse. Enough remembering. A walk, then, to blow the cobwebs from her brain, but a walk in the opposite direction from his new estate. She’d have to avoid that path in the future. To see him would be to want him, and the best way to resist temptation was to avoid it. But only for a little while longer, because the ledgers she’d been trying to balance had shown the hotel was making money at last, and her wages

The Challenge / 139

were rising with it. She’d only a year or so left to go here. Then she’d have enough money saved to go home to England with Jamie. She thought about going to her room to snatch up a bonnet to prevent more freckles, but discarded the idea. Freckles were the least of her worries now. She needed fresh air. Lucy marched to the front door and threw it wide, letting in bright spring sunshine—and William. He loomed in the doorway. She stopped in her tracks. “I surprised you,” he said, taking off his hat. He bowed, more formal with her than he’d ever been. “Sorry. I was just about to raise the knocker. May I come in?” “No one’s here,” she said, without budging. “It’s a hotel, no one will think the worse of it if I do come in.” “Fine,” she said, drawing her shawl about her shoulders, “go in. I, however, am going out.” “Fine,” he said, clapping on his hat again. “May I give you escort? I have the gig.” “I’m just going for a walk. It’s a lovely spring day.” “So it is. So we’ll walk.” They hadn’t gone six feet, in silence, before he spoke again. “You’re angry about the duel? No one’s the worse for it.” “I’m annoyed, not angry, William,” she said, keeping her face turned from him. “I was hasty. I told Wycoff I regretted the way of it. It’s settled. Where is he now, by the way?”

140 / Edith Layton

“Gone, to his new home. A week past. Didn’t you hear?” “No,” he said, suppressing a smile of satisfaction. “I’ve been busy. Haven’t been able to get my nose out of the house. This is my first free day, and even so I have to go back soon. I passed the old Carlisle place on my way to town, though. There’s no one living there.” She shrugged. “I expect he’s waiting for new furniture to arrive. He did say there was nothing worth living with in the place. He’ll probably be there shortly; he’s gone home, he said.” “He’s gone from the hotel, at least,” William said smugly. “So,”—he glanced down at her as she paced beside him—“things will go back to the way they were.” She didn’t honor that with a reply. She strolled on, looking to the side of the drive, pretending great interest in the patches of violets at her feet, wishing he’d go away. “Oh,” he said after they’d gone another few yards. “My errand. I came because I was on my way back from town. I picked up something for you there.” She stopped and turned, her eyes blue fire. “I do not want gifts, William. I can scarcely speak with you, I certainly don’t want any peacemaking presents.” She paused, remembering she’d have to live in the district with him for at least another year. It tempered her anger. “Let it be for a spell,” she said, “please just let it be.” “I’m not such a dullard,” he said, his ears turning red. “I picked up the mail for the hotel. There’s a

The Challenge / 141

letter for you, and a small packet with it. It looked important. Simmons let me deliver it. I thought you might like to see it sooner.” “Oh. Thank you,” she said. He took a letter and a small parcel from his coat and handed them to her. She took the letter, planning to open it when she was alone. A glance at the handwriting and crest stamped in ruby wax made her eyes widen. Forgetting William’s curious gaze, she undid it immediately and quickly scanned the boldly written lines. She blinked, and read it again. She looked up, eyes radiant, grinning like a girl. She hopped up on tiptoe and gave his cheek a quick peck. “Oh, but this is too wonderful,” she laughed. “It’s beyond wonderful,” she cried. “This settles everything. This makes everything all right again. This is more than I hoped for. Oh, thank you, William! Good-bye!” She spun in a circle, like a child at play. Then she remembered herself. She snatched the parcel from his hands, and laughing, rushed back to the house, slamming the door shut behind her, leaving William to stare after her. In her glee, she simply forgot he was there. They stayed in the parlor after the guests had gone to bed. Mrs. Ames let the girls stay up, too. Even Jamie was there at Lucy’s side, though it was past his bedtime. But they doubted he’d have slept in any case. They couldn’t, not until they talked with Lucy. They’d been in a fever of impatience all day, but couldn’t have a conference while they had guests to

142 / Edith Layton

attend to. This was too important to wait until morning. They sat in the parlor and mulled the thing over, the letter passing from hand to hand, held as carefully as a page of true holy writ. Lucy and Jamie sat together, Lucy glowing so bright Mrs. Ames said she thought they might be able to read a book by her light. “You’re welcome to stay with us forever, you know,” Mrs. Ames went on seriously. “We’re that fond of you. And to be sure, you serve a vital purpose in the running of this place. But we’d never hold you back if it was in your best interest to go. We can manage fine now that we’re back on our feet.” “It looks good, I grant,” Mr. Ames put in, not very jolly because he was so deeply concerned, “but is it best for you? Or only what you want to do?” “Very different things,” Lucy nodded. “Yes. I know that.” “Females take fancies…” he began. “Lucy knows her mind,” his wife said. “She’s clever as may be. It does look like just the thing. But it’s a big step and no mistake. Are you sure, Lucy? You’re not just influenced by what’s happened around here lately? No sense dressing it up. The truth is, a dashing fellow can sweep a girl right off her feet.” She wagged a plump finger at her daughters. “A fellow like his lordship can unsettle a girl’s mind, no matter how sound it is.” “Aye,” her husband said. “So all we’re saying is you might want to take some more time to make up your mind.”

The Challenge / 143

“I’ve had all the time I need,” Lucy said. “This is exactly what I want, what I want for Jamie, and what’s best for everyone. I’m not a girl. That’s just the point. I feel time passing, and so it is. Now’s the time I must act. Wisely, of course. But who of us knows what’s right at any time? We have to take chances. I feel I must take this one, now. I’ll never get a better opportunity, I think.” She gazed at them all tenderly, as though already seeing them painted and in a frame, hung for her to study in fond memory. “My dear cousins—no, not mine, except by marriage—but you never acted otherwise, and you are so dear to me.” They’d never seen her like this. She’d always been startlingly lovely. But now she looked younger, as though some invisible film had been lifted from her, allowing her true self to emerge. Years before, they’d met their cousin’s distraught new widow. They’d come to know a competent, hardworking, practical woman. In time, they’d seen her generous spirit and shared her gift of laughter. But now, suddenly, they saw the girl she must have been in England, the pampered squire’s daughter. She looked confident and self-assured. Jamie gave her a sleepy smile. “Mama knows what’s best. I can’t wait, though I’ll miss all of you. I can’t believe it, either.” “Believe it,” Lucy said with a smile, pushing the hair back from his forehead. “Well, then,” Mr. Ames said, slapping his knees, “there we are. You’re going. We’ll miss you.

144 / Edith Layton

Understand that we’ll welcome you back at any time.” “I don’t know what we’ll do without you,” Mrs. Ames sniffled, scrabbling in her pocket for a handkerchief. “I can do the ledgers,” Cousin Sally said, “and the girls can take over Lucy’s other tasks.” “Oh fiddle!” Bess protested. “Of course we can do her chores. But it just won’t be the same here without you, Lucy.” The other girls chorused their agreement. “When will you leave?” Mrs. Ames said, mopping her eyes. “On the first fair tide!” Lucy laughed. Then she sobered. “I mean soon as I may. I’ll have to find when the next ship will be leaving, arrange passage, and then find transport to it.” Mrs. Ames gasped. “Lucy, you can’t mean that? You can’t just pick up and go—alone.” “I won’t be alone,” Lucy said. “I’ll have Jamie with me.” “Jamie’s a fine lad,” Mrs. Ames protested, “but no protection for a woman alone.” “Mama won’t be alone, I’ll be there,” Jamie said. “And I suppose you can save her reputation? A well-bred female traveling across the ocean, unaccompanied except by a child?” Mrs. Ames said, scandalized. “The very idea!” “I’m not a girl,” Lucy said. “No, but you’re a beauty,” Mr. Ames said,

The Challenge / 145

before his wife could continue arguing. “A woman without escort is fair game to men of a certain sort. A pretty young one is just asking for trouble, and she’ll find it. And a pretty young widow? Ho.” “See?” Mrs. Ames exulted. “My Herbert don’t open his mouth to say ‘boo!’ about women’s affairs, but when he does, it’s best to listen. You’re going to be hobnobbing with your noble brother-in-law when you get to England. Haven’t seen him in years, right? So you don’t want to set a foot wrong. Who knows who’ll be on that ship?” “We’ll have to find someone else to accompany you,” Mr. Ames said ponderously. “You and Jamie can’t go alone and that’s that.” Even Lucy didn’t argue when he used that tone of voice. Besides, she thought resignedly, he was right. “So you’re going, no matter how soon. But what shall you tell William?” Bess asked, leaning forward, eyes sparkling. “I’ll write him a note, telling him just what I’ve told you,” Lucy said. “Like to see his face when he reads it,” Harmony said, and giggled. “And—uhm,” Mr. Ames said, clearing his throat, “what will you tell his lordship? Lord Wycoff, that is?” They held their breath, waiting for her answer. “I’ll send him a note, too. Telling him the truth, of course,” she said with a shrug. “What else?” They all sighed.

146 / Edith Layton

The Ameses sent out inquiries and found Mrs. Oliver’s name by the next evening. “Geoff said she lives just outside of Richmond and is free to travel,” Mr. Ames told Lucy, “a respectable party by all accounts. Middle-aged and comfortably situated, and eager to go back to England. She’s got a brother there she visits whenever she can.” “Wonderful,” Lucy exulted. She’d been worrying, wondering how long it would take to find a companion. She could pack and be gone in a day now. “She’s eager—if you pay her fare,” Mr. Ames added. “She’ll pay the way for her own maid, but she’s set on that.” Lucy blinked. “I should say not!” she said angrily. “Then you’ll have to wait until high summer, or maybe beyond, to find someone who just happens to be going to England,” he said. “There’s not that much traffic from here to there till then, and so say all. See here, my girl,” he added, his voice softening, “you said Lord Hunt sent you three tickets, which is only right and proper, seeing as you need escort. You and Jamie can only use two.” Lucy’s face flushed. It was true. But she’d planned to cash in the extra ticket, using the money for expenses once she got to England. She begrudged giving up that windfall. “Couldn’t we make some more inquiries?”

The Challenge / 147

He shrugged. “As you will. I’ll delay answering Mrs. Oliver, and ask ’round some more to see if we can’t find another answer.” Lucy got another the next morning. William arrived at the Ames Hotel early. “William, whatever are you doing here at this hour?” Mrs. Ames asked when he came in as they were having breakfast. “Is your mama all right?” “She’s fine,” he said gruffly. “I was just on my way to town and wondered if I could have a word with Lucy.” “Of course,” Lucy said, and wished she could have left for England the day before. “Is it urgent?” Mrs. Ames asked curiously, “Or would you have time to take breakfast with us?” “Not urgent, no,” he said. “Thanks, I will.” But he didn’t eat much. He just sat watching Lucy, biting back smiles like a fond uncle waiting for a favorite niece to open her Christmas present. When the last guest left the table, and the last Ames had reluctantly straggled from the room, he leaned forward. “Still mad at me?” he asked. “No,” she said. “We’re friends too long for that, I think.” He nodded, satisfied. “Thing of it is that it’s time I broadened my horizons,” he said, sitting back. “My business goes to England, no reason why I can’t, too. At least for a spell. I heard your rich brotherin-law, the baron, sent you fare. I was surprised and that’s a fact. Well, everyone says they’ve a rich and noble rel-

148 / Edith Layton

ative in England. Much good it does them. But this one came through. I heard you’re looking for someone to accompany you there. Well—here I am.” Lucy answered with a gasp—then a prompt and flat, “No! I mean to say, it wouldn’t do. It would give rise to speculations. We’re just friends, William. Were you to be my companion, it would look like more than that.” “It could be more than that,” he said, “and you know it.” “Thank you,” she answered through clenched teeth, “but I’ve no plans for that sort of thing now. First, I have to bring Jamie to meet his uncle and settle his future. Then, and only then, I can think about mine.” “Then you may have to wait until the boy’s a man,” he said with a pronounced sneer, rising to his feet, “because there’s not many folk around here with either the funds or the notion to go to England so easily. Unless you’re waiting for a certain English nobleman to decide to go home, so he can accompany you?” Lucy shot to her feet. “How dare you!” “Well, it looks like that,” William countered. “Everyone knows the Ameses are asking around for someone to go with you. They got you some respectable female—and you turned her down. It looks like you’re just waiting for him to find out and offer his services,” he added, not having to say whom he meant. “As it happens, I did not turn down the lady,”

The Challenge / 149

Lucy lied. She said a silent farewell to the extra money. Staying here now was impossible. “I’ll be going to England as soon as may be. With Mrs. Oliver, of Richmond.” The Ameses hugged Lucy and Jamie, kissed and wept over them, and waved handkerchiefs at them until their coach disappeared out of sight. Jamie waved back, his expression somber and a little fearful. But when the coach reached the main highway, he bounced up and down on his seat. “I’m off to see the world!” he laughed. Lucy sat silently looking out the window, watching as they left familiar fields behind, perhaps forever. They looked more like burning bridges to her. She might see the Ameses again. But eligible men measured time differently than fond relatives. She knew she was leaving behind all hopes of ever seeing one particular elegant face again. At least while he was still single. She felt a huge, painful lump in her throat. She sat back, faced forward, and looked backward, and knew all her regret was nothing compared to the regrets she’d have had if she’d followed her heart and not her head, again. It didn’t make it any easier. Mrs. Oliver had arranged to meet Lucy at an inn on the main highway. “My dear Mrs. Stone,” the short, round woman said, when Lucy introduced herself. “How charm-

150 / Edith Layton

ing to meet you. It is too dark to travel further today. So, tonight, we rest here. Tomorrow you can bespeak lodgings at the Swallow, a very fine hostelry in Richmond. I will take you ’round to show you the sights.” She eyed Lucy’s gown. “How glad I am I told my dressmaker I would drop by before we sailed. I’m sure she can do wonders for you. Richmond fashion is not London style, but it is closer to it than…” “Mrs. Oliver,” Lucy said firmly, thinking of the expense of staying on in Richmond for a week and her hard-earned store of coins, “tonight I must stay here, of course. But tomorrow I expect to board the ship for England.” Mrs. Oliver’s slightly protuberant eyes widened. “Good heavens! Of course not. It takes time to prepare for such a journey. You can’t know, of course. But I, who have traveled so often, do. A few days to rest, a few days to buy staples, a few more to—” “Mrs. Oliver,” Lucy said, straightening her spine, no easy task after hours in the jostling carriage, “the Sarabeth sails tomorrow. There’s not another bound for England for another week and if the weather changes, maybe not for longer. If you can’t go with me, I’m sorry for it, but I didn’t come all this way to go to Richmond. I leave for England tomorrow.” Mrs. Oliver caught her breath. Then she shrugged, an unpleasant smile on her tight mouth. “Indeed. But, I remind you, she sails at noon. You’ll have to wake in a few hours, and travel like the wind

The Challenge / 151

to get there. I doubt you can make it in time.” “I can try,” Lucy said grimly. Lucy rose before dawn, splashed cold water on her face, and struggled into her gown. Her body still ached from yesterday’s hard traveling, and she was bleary from lack of sleep. She took her cape from a peg on the wall and left the room, groping down the narrow stair in the waning moonlight, and made her way to the outbuilding. When she returned to the room, she lit a lamp, yawned, and went to wake Jamie. She paused, her hand almost on his shoulder. His face was rosy in the lamplight. He was still young enough to glow with sweet warmth in his sleep, as when he’d been a babe. His hair was damp with perspiration and lay on his forehead. There was a smile on his lips. There in that instant, Lucy saw Francis again, reborn. There was her own youth and all her hopes, all embodied in this one dear, fragile little soul. Her heart filled with tenderness. Her weariness vanished. She was buoyed by resolve. It was time to take him to his destiny. Hers would follow. Jamie woke in an instant, and leapt to her every request. He was ready to travel in half an hour. Then he watched as Lucy did battle with Mrs. Oliver. “If you can’t come, I understand,” Lucy repeated, as they stood by the carriage in the growing sunlight. “But I can’t wait any longer.” “If I do not have my maid count everything in my luggage, something important may be missing,”

152 / Edith Layton

Mrs. Oliver said, the same way she’d said, “If I do not have something to eat before I travel I become most vilely ill” a half hour before. Her long-suffering maid gave Lucy a sympathetic smile. “Done, ma’am,” she said. “All’s present.” “Good,” Lucy answered. “Now get into the coach, and we will leave.” “But there is the matter of my medications,” Mrs. Oliver said. Lucy’s last straw snapped. She turned and walked to the coach. “Good day, Mrs. Oliver,” she said, “I am leaving for England.” Lucy, Jamie, Mrs. Oliver, and her maid rode in hostile silence, broken only by Lucy opening the window to shout “Faster!” to the coachman every so often as they drove along the dusty road. She smelled the sea before she saw it, and began smiling. When the coach stopped, she fairly flew from it. She took Jamie’s hand in one of hers, lifted the hem of her skirt with the other, and rushed down the dock to the shipping office. “The Sarabeth?” the clerk said, “Why, there she is, ma’am.” He gestured to a window. Looking out, Lucy saw a beautiful sailing ship, slowly heading toward the horizon. “I must be on it!” she cried. “Can’t you do anything? Oh, please! Please!” The clerk hesitated. Lucy was obviously distressed. Her hair was out of its pins and curled

The Challenge / 153

riotously around her flushed face; her long-lashed eyes were wide and blue as the deepest part of the sea she was staring out at. “You could swim,” Mrs. Oliver said with a titter as she entered the room behind her. “I can signal them with flags,” the clerk said quickly, “if you don’t mind taking the longboat.” “I don’t mind swimming, if I have to,” Lucy said fervently.

11

two men stood at the rail of the Sarabeth, The watching the water sparkling blue and green in the sunlight. The breeze was strong enough to have made the sails snap, but they were furled. The ship was at anchor, halted, waiting for some last late passengers to board. The longboat taking them to the ship was being readied to set out from the shore. When the light, warm wind shifted, the two men at the ship’s rail could catch the scent of flowers drifting out from that distant shore. It was so intense it overwhelmed the saline smell of the sea. “A hard time to leave, in the spring,” Lord Wycoff mused. Perkins’s face was bland. “We are not yet unpacked, my lord. It is not too late. We could take that longboat back.”

The Challenge / 155

He was rewarded by one of his master’s infrequent real smiles. “No,” Wycoff said, “there’s no point. We sail for home and it’s better that way. Can you see me lying about that great house in Virginia by myself, so near and yet so far from my desire, languishing like one of those romantic poets you’re so fond of? Or dashing about the countryside at midnight, to no purpose, on my wildest horse, making a grand show of my despair? I’ll leave that sort of behavior to my lord Byron and his set, thank you. No, I’m for home. Past time, anyway. Traveling’s educational, but a man who can’t stay at home has closed his mind to himself.” “I should have thought,” Perkins said slowly, picking his words with the same exquisite care he used when he picked his master’s apparel each day, “that the lady would be more amenable to your persuasion in person. Most females are.” “But she isn’t ‘most females.’ Precisely why it’s so important that I proceed carefully. If I am to proceed at all. Some things are futile. A wise man knows the difference between desire and desirability. I hope to be that wise, although…” Wycoff looked at his valet consideringly. “You’ve known me these past ten years…” “Twelve and a half,” Perkins said quickly. “Indeed. And in that time I’ve showed you a side I myself am not too fond of.” “I am aware, my lord.” “Are you?” Wycoff smiled, “Well, I thank you for knowing that. But in that time, I’ve come to

156 / Edith Layton

know you, too. I value your opinion and discretion equally as much as I do your taste in clothes.” He paused. “I have a difficult time deciding why you put up with me. But I’m grateful for it. How many men would so willingly follow me to each end of the earth whenever I decide to cast myself off? There I was, a year past, sending you notice to pack our bags and come with me to America on the next fair tide. And there you were, within the hour at my side, without a question or a word of hesitation or complaint. I wonder why you bother.” “You’re a good master, my lord,” Perkins said simply. “And, I admit, an interesting one. You might not believe it, but my profession can be a dull one. Being employed by you satisfies that wanderlust and quest for excitement. It is not only that. I have found you to be a just and equitable man.” “High praise,” Wycoff said, “but misplaced, perhaps. I’m no hero. I believe I may be the opposite of one, in fact.” “I dislike disagreeing with you, sir. But I must. You carried certain messages for His Majesty when we traveled on the Continent during the late war. Your discretion and bravery were often called upon. You challenged Mr. Bellows for personal reasons. But other duels you took part in were not staged because of any personal quarrel of yours, but rather required of you, on order, for the sake of our country. You always acquitted yourself with honor in spite of the danger to yourself. I consider that heroic, my lord.”

The Challenge / 157

Wycoff made a dismissive gesture. He leaned on the rail and stared back to shore, watching the ship’s longboat set out at last. “Other men did more. Before you call me heroic for risking my life, consider it just may have been that I didn’t care about preserving that life. And some of those challenges were conducted for the sake of my lusts, and nothing more. “But this time,” Wycoff said quietly, watching the sailors in the distance plying their oars, “it meant more. Much more. What I was going to say before is that you’ve known me a long while. But the man I discovered myself being when I was with her was more like the man I once was, long, long ago. That man—or boy, I suppose—had potential for being good. For being true to himself and whomever he devoted himself to. He was someone you never met and I scarcely remember myself. But I found echoes of him in her company. She did not, however. And who can blame her? Lord, but I’m tired, Perkins. Tired of traveling to no purpose. Tired of being so damnably persuasive, especially since it never got me what I needed, only what I wanted.” “But leaving now, my lord? It’s not like you, if I may say so.” “It’s very like me,” Wycoff said curtly. “I’m still full of plots and plans, never fear. I’m leaving—so she can see me more clearly. And I, her. I’m keeping a watch on her, as you may have guessed.” “Mrs. Truesdale hinted there was more than her interest in Mister Geoffrey and Mr. Bellows keep-

158 / Edith Layton

ing her at the Ames Hotel,” Perkins said primly. “Yes,” Wycoff said, with a slight and twisted smile, “I made arrangements before I left. Alfred’s fond of earning the odd extra coin, too. Geoff’s determined to see me happy, since my investments have made him a rich man. And the Ameses are determined I should have her, ‘when she comes to her senses,’ as Mrs. Ames says. The problem is she’s never left her senses. I’ll see her again, one way or the other, when the time is right. The other problem is that it may never be. I won’t become a supplicant, Perkins. Such a man inspires only pity. So if it’s not to be—I’d rather know it from afar. That much pride is left to me. Or that much idiocy. I sent her a letter; be sure I’ll send more. We shall see. In any event I’m leaving because I don’t think any good can come of my staying now. For me, or her.” He went still, watching the longboat come aside, thinking of her, bitterly amused by the way he thought he saw her in every woman now. He blinked. Because now that the longboat was beside the ship, he could see each of the four incoming passengers clearly. One was a boy, beside himself with excitement. He was pointing out every feature of the ship to the women with him. One was obviously a maidservant, dressed all in gray. One was a heavyset, overdressed female of a certain age. She was gripping the boy’s hand tightly, to save herself or him from overbalancing the boat in his glee. The other was a younger woman, as excited as the boy, windblown

The Challenge / 159

and wide-eyed as the breeze threw back her hood and scattered her shining chestnut hair. Lovely. She was lovely in her disarray. But then, she always was. Wycoff straightened, staring. Disbelieving. She was looking up at the ship when their gazes met. And locked. He gazed at her with absolute, incredulous delight. And Lucy looked up at him with absolute shock and utter disbelief. Lucy stumbled coming aboard. It had nothing to do with the pitch and sway of the longboat. A sailor held the rope ladder still for her as she climbed up to the ship. A long, strong hand gripped hers firmly, supported her, and helped her stand when she got there. That was when she stumbled. Because she couldn’t look at anything but his face. “How—how did you know?” she gasped, staring at him as though he was an apparition, unsure of whether to celebrate or rush back to the longboat. “I only sent the letter to you yesterday!” “The same time I posted mine to you,” Wycoff said, looking at her with bemused delight. “But I couldn’t have gotten yours. I left the district a week ago.” “Then—you didn’t know?” “Know what?” he asked, his gaze on her, devouring her. “Don’t toy with me, my lord,” she said, her wits returning. She stood straighter. “I book passage

160 / Edith Layton

home, and arrive on the ship to find you here to greet me? I see! You have a fine way of arranging things to your advantage, don’t you? Mr. Ames told me about that encounter he had with poor William before the duel you engineered with him. Frightening him half out of his wits before he could make a move! I felt such a fool,” she added indignantly. “You had that entire episode under control, and still you let me worry about you.” “I wouldn’t have if I’d known you knew about it,” he said. “When I did find out you were worried I confess I was too flattered to do more than be pleased by your concern. But this? You think I arranged this? My dear, I would have, if I could have. But even I have my limits, and some sensibility. You said you didn’t want to see me again. I accepted that. I told you I was going home, and so I am. That’s all it was, and all there is. But now you’ve got me thinking. Perhaps you changed your mind? Arriving so late, and yet in such good time? “My dear,” he said with a growing grin, “I never would have thought—but how delightful! You engineered this happy meeting? You came to your senses, discovered my whereabouts, and followed me. That is wonderful. I am flattered!” But he was obviously more pleased by the way her eyes sparkled and her cheeks grew pinker than the sea breeze could account for. “You told me you were going home,” she accused him. “Everyone thought you meant to your new home, down the road.”

The Challenge / 161

“Then everyone ought to have asked me what I meant,” he said sweetly. Before she could frame a killing retort, Mrs. Oliver, just arrived on deck, cleared her throat loudly enough to drown out the gulls wheeling overheard. Lucy turned. The woman looked at her meaningfully. Lucy frowned, not understanding. When Lucy didn’t answer, Mrs. Oliver looked up at Wycoff, simpering. “My lord,” she said, echoing Lucy’s greeting, but with obvious satisfaction at using his title. She bobbed him a bow. “It’s clear that meeting you has robbed Mrs. Stone of speech. But as we are to be fellow travelers, and life is more informal aboard ship, allow me to present myself. I am Mrs. Oliver, sister to my lord Ffolkes, the baron Ffolkes, of Hudley Hall in Wessex. When I heard Mrs. Stone was going home I offered her my company, since a lady of any reputation cannot travel alone. At least, I wouldn’t hear of it.” Wycoff bowed. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, “since it does appear that Mrs. Stone is indeed robbed of words.” “I was not robbed of words,” Lucy protested. “I was just trying to find the right ones. Me, engineering this,” she said, rounding on Wycoff, who was looking very pleased. “I’m shocked at such conceit! I didn’t know you were going to be here,” she said furiously. “Nor could I have known you were to be here,” he answered. “What does bring you here, if not my humble self? I thought you were planning to visit England in a few years, not a few days.”

162 / Edith Layton

“It’s nothing to do with you,” Lucy said quickly. “I got a letter from Lord Hunt, my late husband’s brother.” Her joy overcame her indignation, and now her eyes shone with pure happiness, her voice softening as she spoke in awe—as though she still didn’t dare believe it. “He wants to meet Jamie. He sent me funds for our journey. We moved heaven and earth to get the last berths on this ship, the first one we could find leaving for home. I couldn’t wait another hour, much less week. They asked us to come.” “Wonderful,” he said honestly. “That is, indeed, wonderful.” She searched his face and saw nothing but sympathy and honest understanding in his eyes. She lowered her own as she felt that concern awakening a kindred feeling in her. It was more disturbing than seeing his lust, more thrilling than mere desire. He was calling to her again. On an even more dangerous level. “Lord Wycoff!” Jamie shouted as he was handed aboard just behind them. “This is famous! What fun! Did you know he’d be here, Mama? Was this your grand surprise? I’ll bet it was. Thank you! What a good trip this will be!” “No,” Lucy began to explain—but stopped, dumbfounded. Mrs. Oliver looked as though she’d been stung by a bee. She went rigid, her eyes widening and rolling up, her face growing ruddy. “Lord Wycoff?” she said weakly. “And you knew he’d be here before

The Challenge / 163

we set out?” she asked Lucy, appalled. Wycoff heard the horror in her voice. “No, she did not,” he said. “I was merely jesting.” His face suddenly was wiped clean of all expression but a faint, mocking smile. “I give you good day, ladies. Don’t trouble yourselves. The ship is small, and I’m too large to avoid. But I promise you I’ll do nothing to cause you further distress. Good morning.” He tipped his hat and walked away, Perkins following at his side. “May I come along, sir?” Jamie cried. “Mama, can I go talk with Lord Wycoff?” Wycoff turned to look, absolutely no expression to be read in his face. Lucy nodded. “You may, Jamie, if his lordship doesn’t mind.” Wycoff’s smile was cool, though it warmed when he looked down at Jamie. “Mind Jamie’s company? Never. Come along, my boy,” he said. “We’ll show you some interesting things we’ve discovered aboard this fine vessel. Have you met Captain Kelly? No? Then let’s remedy that. I’ll see him safely back to you,” he told Lucy without turning his head, and strolled away. “You let the boy go with him?” Mrs. Oliver hissed. “Very foolish! I visit England frequently, I know the on dit of the ton. Every bit of gossip. Because one must know how to go on with those she meets in society,” she added piously. “I tell you, Lucy, the man is a rake! A hardened case. A married man famous for his affairs. His name is a byword for…for…”

164 / Edith Layton

“For his dealings with women,” Lucy said wearily. “I know, he told me. Jamie isn’t a woman. Lord Wycoff has been kind to him. Let it be, Mrs. Oliver. By the way, Lord Wycoff’s a widower now.” “I know, I do read the papers,” Mrs. Oliver said, pulling herself up on her highest ropes, “but a leopard does not change his spots.” “He’s a man, not a leopard,” Lucy said. “Let’s not quarrel. He gave his word not to distress us, let’s not do it for ourselves.” “His word?” Mrs. Oliver scoffed. “That sort of gentleman’s word is only good for his own pleasures.” “I know,” Lucy whispered, watching Jamie skip off with Lord Wycoff, the tall man smiling down at the boy by his side. “I know.” “Then why are you allowing your son to traffic with him?” Mrs. Oliver persisted. Lucy took a deep breath. Mrs. Oliver would be rude to anyone she considered inferior. “I allow Jamie to go with Lord Wycoff because he is a gentleman,” she said clearly, “and because, to judge from my experience of the journey here, I get sick at sea. I won’t be able to keep Jamie company for most of the trip. I won’t even be able to leave my cabin. Who is to companion a restless young boy, then? You or your maid? I hardly think so. Then who else? Better he has a nobleman to imitate than a common sailor, I’d think. And so it shall be.” She was very pleased with this speech. But Mrs. Oliver only seized on the first part of it.

The Challenge / 165

“You were sick on your voyage here?” the older woman asked. “There’s no need to worry about that,” she said with a laugh. “I myself suffer dreadfully from the motion of the sea. But since a noted physician in London gave me the cure for it, I’ve not been bothered once. A spoonful of his elixir at the start, two before dinner, and the same before bed. You’ll think you were traveling on glass. I have a few bottles with me. I’ll give you one for only a dollar. I paid much more.” “Ladies?” a young sailor asked as he approached them and bowed. “We’ll be setting sail now you’ve come aboard, and the captain thought you might be more comfortable in your cabins.” “Good,” Mrs. Oliver said, as they headed for the narrow flight of steps that would take them below deck. The passageway was dim. The cabin the sailor led Lucy to was tiny, with just enough room for her bed, a trundle for Jamie, a chair, and a small wardrobe with a looking glass above it. All the furnishings were tacked or nailed to the walls and floor. Lucy noted some effort to make the space homey: There was a rag rug on the floor, a lamp, and a plank bolted to the wall under the porthole, obviously meant to be used for a desk. “Just like home,” Lucy murmured with an attempt at a smile. “Snug, but acceptable,” she heard Mrs. Oliver say from the cabin next door. “Ginny, start unpacking,” she commanded her maid. “I shall have a lie-

166 / Edith Layton

down, I think. Oh, take this bottle to Mrs. Stone when you’re done. And return with a dollar, if you please. Lucy!” she shouted, though her room was only next door. “I’m sending Ginny with your medicine. Remember, a tablespoon now, two before dinner, the same at bedtime. The journey will fly by.” She’d be lucky if she lived through it, Lucy thought miserably. She swallowed down the brackish taste in the back of her mouth, remembering the wretched hours she’d suffered through all the way to America. She’d suppressed the memory firmly, until now. She’d been seasick every morning, afternoon, and night, the days melting together into one miserable blur of nausea and queasiness. Francis had laughed and said she’d get her sea legs in time. She hadn’t even gotten a sea bottom. He’d left her to the mercies of the maid she’d had then. He’d come back to the cabin now and then to offer sympathy, shake his head, and leave again. Francis had been a naval officer and loved the sea, if not the occupation. Knowing something he enjoyed only made her vilely ill had made it worse for her. She’d suffered from self-disgust, seasickness and loneliness. Lucy sat down on her hard bed and tried to calm herself. There was no other way to get home, unless she learned to fly. She smoothed her hair back from her face with shaking hands. The journey might well be a horror. She might be ill all the way. If by some miracle she wasn’t, there was the fact that she’d probably have to see Wycoff every day. The storms

The Challenge / 167

and tempests in her heart might be more turbulent than any the ship could encounter. Either way, she’d feel sick. It was a question of which was worse, pain in her stomach or her heart. She took a deep breath. It was unfortunate. But it could be borne. It was very much the same as her life had been this past decade, after all. She’d get through it, all of it. Because she had no choice. “Mrs. Stone?” Mrs. Oliver’s maid asked from the door. “I’ve got the medicine for you.” “Thank you,” Lucy said dully. She rose and searched in her reticule. She gave the girl some coins. “I hope it’s worth it,” she said, eyeing the ugly brown bottle. “My mistress swears by it,” the girl said enthusiastically. “Never has a wink of trouble sleeping no more. Sleeps through the night like a babe, and takes her nap every day rain or shine. Gives me rest too—for I get my time off that way,” she said with a grin, quickly suppressed, before she backed out the door. Lucy uncorked the bottle, wrinkling her nose at the smell. It tasted bitter as her thoughts, but she swallowed it, hoping it would work. And not just because she dreaded weeks of seasickness. Fencing with Wycoff would be difficult, but she found she didn’t want to miss a moment of it.

12

captain’s table was lavishly set, with flowers, The good china, and gleaming crystal. “First night out,” Mrs. Oliver whispered to Lucy as they came in the door to his cabin. “Soon as we reach the open sea this will be packed up and we’ll be eating off plain crockery and drinking from mugs. No one minds if that sort of dinnerware slides off the table and crashes to the floor in bad weather. Let’s hope we arrive in two weeks instead of three, or the food will be stale by then as well.” “Ladies,” the captain said, bowing as he greeted them. “At last we meet. Forgive me for not being available sooner; duty prevented me.” He gazed at Lucy. “Mrs. Stone?” he said, pulling out the chair at his left for her. “Mrs. Oliver?” He indicated a chair down the table his first mate was holding out. “And

The Challenge / 169

Jamie, I thought you might enjoy sitting beside your friend Lord Wycoff tonight.” Lucy barely heard the rush of introductions. Servants didn’t eat at the captain’s table, and so there were only seven passengers seated, and only three she didn’t know—an elderly couple and a prosperous-looking man. Wycoff, dressed more elegantly than she’d ever seen him, looked magnificent—as though he were going to an evening at the opera in London. He sat across from her at the captain’s other side. Too close for her comfort, but too far to talk with comfortably. But talking wasn’t an issue with Lucy tonight. She felt sleepy and satisfied, drained of all the tension and fear she’d been plagued with for days. Even Wycoff’s splendor couldn’t unsettle her this evening. She was on her way home at last. And miracle of miracles, the ship was underway, and she wasn’t sick. She’d never felt better. Mrs. Oliver’s potion did indeed make their passage feel like traveling over glass. She turned and gave the captain a smile for something witty he’d said, something she’d almost caught. His eyes kindled, and he smiled back at her. Such a handsome fellow! she mused as he raised his glass for a toast. Dark black eyes, curling ebony hair, young and dashing, he might have been a pirate in some other life, with a sword held between those gleaming white teeth, not just a fork, with a bare bronzed chest to show, and not just a white shirt…. “Mmm?” she said, with a slow smile for something Wycoff asked.

170 / Edith Layton

“I asked how you were feeling, but I see you’re a born sailor,” he said. “Oh no.” She smiled. “I almost didn’t live out the journey here. But this—this is—this is an extraordinary voyage. I never felt better.” “Thank you,” the captain laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment. So tell us, Mrs. Stone, where are you bound, if I may be so bold as to ask? More important, to me, at least, when will you be returning? Because I aim to be sure there’s room for you. Every ship needs a lovely lady to grace her cabins, and not just her masthead.” Lucy smiled at him, pleased he admired her looks. After all, she’d worn her best gown tonight, the rose one. Or was it her blue? She felt too lazily content to look down and see. “I thought females were unlucky aboard ship,” the prosperous-looking man down the table said. “So those who are married tell their wives to discourage them from sailing with them,” the captain said, “out of fear some other dashing sailor will lure them away. Sea-faring men are known for their taste in women—and their appeal to them. But if the ladies were unlucky, be sure we’d never name our ships for them. The Sarabeth is named for my own mother. In fact, my great-grandfather, who founded our shipping line, named his first ship the Cristabel, after his first love. And when I wed,” he added with a wolfish smile at Lucy, “my next ship will be named for my true love.” “Interesting,” Wycoff drawled. “Too bad we

The Challenge / 171

landlocked fellows don’t know the ladies prefer that sort of tribute. We wouldn’t waste so much money on diamonds and rubies.” “Well, hold on there!” The elderly lady laughed. “I’m sure Captain Kelly didn’t mean that!” There was laughter, there was wine, there were jests and toasts. There were savory soups served in silver tureens. Lucy felt as if she’d stepped into another world, as far removed from the life she’d lived these past years as the ship itself was removed from the shore. The conversation became as murmurous as the sea, floating around her, lulling Lucy instead of challenging her. Mrs. Oliver was blessedly silent. Jamie was chatting with the first mate. The captain was amazingly charming. It was a little too warm in the cabin. The wine went right to Lucy’s head, slowing her tongue and her wit, leaving her only with a soft smile and easy laughter. The captain didn’t seem to mind; he was soon telling her all about himself, as she sat, her chin on her hand, watching him with wide and dreamy eyes. Wycoff couldn’t stop frowning. Well, too bad for him, Lucy thought with drowsy triumph. Spoil-sports never have fun. She was pleased to see him looking gloomy at how much fun she was having. Well, not exactly having fun. Having ‘content,’ actually, because she seemed to have slowed down and was growing ever sleepier. “And so?” the captain asked her. “I beg your pardon?” she asked him sweetly.

172 / Edith Layton

“I noticed you didn’t eat very much tonight,” he said, indicating the table, where to her slowly dawning amazement, tarts and jellies had replaced the fowl and roasts. “I thought…perhaps a stroll about the deck before bed would suit you.” “So it might,” Wycoff said, rising, “and so Mrs. Stone has already agreed to accompany me on one this evening.” “Ah. Too bad. But there’ll be other evenings,” the captain said, rising from his seat. Lucy got up, too, feeling sorry about it. It seemed things always ended just when you were getting comfortable. The captain kissed the hand she offered, and offered her more with those amazing eyes of his. She stared back at him until she found her arm being taken in a firm clasp. Not the captain’s. He was bidding her good night, and she was being walked out the door, and up some steps. She walked in silence, until she felt cool air caressing her face. She looked up and was surprised to see the enormousness of a never-ending starry night wheeling over her. She blinked. Her eyes stung with a sudden stab of pain, but she couldn’t look down. Wycoff was holding her chin up to a lantern’s blazing light. “My God!” he breathed, placing the lantern back on its peg. “What the devil! I never guessed that you…how long have you been taking that vile stuff?” “What vile stuff?” Lucy asked, trying to pull away, tears from her irritated eyes trickling down her flushed cheeks.

The Challenge / 173

“Opium,” he said, with disgust, “or pure laudanum. Same thing.” “Opium?” she squeaked, the shock of his words penetrating the fine fog that had compassed her mind. “I don’t take opium. I don’t take anything!” “You did tonight.” “No,” she said forlornly, because the air was clearing her mind and she was trying to hold on to the warmth and certainty she’d just known, “I took nothing. Wine, with dinner, yes. Some soup, too, I think. Did I have a slice of roast? I think so. Peas. Something brown on a bit of toast. A taste of something jellied. Wine.” He scowled. “Mrs. Oliver’s medicine for the seasickness tasted so bad I needed something to get the taste out of my mouth,” she said defensively. “Soup—Oh, I said that, and…” “Mrs. Oliver’s medicine?” he asked quickly. “How much, and where is it?” “In my cabin,” she said. “Oh, where are we going?” She felt herself being propelled forward by a strong, warm hand on the small of her back. That hand became an arm wrapped around her waist when she stumbled. She felt herself being led down some steps. “Downstairs again?” she squeaked, almost missing her step, and being hauled back upright. “But we just came up. Not so fast! I’ll trip, I’ll fall…” She opened her eyes to see the interior of her cabin. She swayed on her feet when she found her-

174 / Edith Layton

self suddenly standing without that comforting arm around her. “Oh. We’re back. Jamie’s not here yet? Oh. Then you mustn’t be in my cabin, what will people think? That’s why I have Mrs. Oliver with me, so people won’t think. Ugh! Don’t wave that under my nose, I said it tasted vile.” “How much did you take?” She wrinkled her brow, thinking mightily. “She said a tablespoon at the start, and two before dinner, to prevent the seasickness. Oh, Wycoff, but I did suffer such seasickness when I came to America! I never left my bed, or my basin. She said two tablespoons and I was so afraid it would happen again I took another to be sure. And half another. It worked! It didn’t happen again, I wasn’t ill at all. But something is the matter, isn’t it? But I’m not sick and it cost a dollar, and that’s a great deal but if it works…” “It certainly does,” he said in disgust. He sniffed at the bottle, and then raised his nose with elegant disdain. “As I thought. I’ve known enough fashionable females with mercenary physicians. This filthy stuff quiets their complaints and keeps them coming back for more laudanum.” He turned as Jamie entered the cabin, white-faced and anxious. “Jamie—good, you’re here,” Wycoff said. “Don’t worry. It’s only that your mother took Mrs. Oliver’s medicine and it’s made her ill.” “Is that why she was acting so strange tonight?” “Yes. Now, lie down, Lucy, and sleep,” he said,

The Challenge / 175

helping Lucy ease down on the bed she’d just found herself sitting on. He bent and quickly slid off her slippers, then drew her coverlet over her. “Jamie, it’s late, I know. But see if you can keep an eye on her tonight. Sleep, but sleep lightly, if you can. I don’t think she’ll get up, but if she does, or if you think she’s doing anything strange, come to me. I’d stay but it’s not proper. And it would be better for all if no one but you and I knew about this. I think she’ll just sleep now. Good, Lucy, yes,” he said as she stretched out on her bed. “Just so.” Lucy bobbed up again, looking stricken. “But I oughtn’t to go to sleep in front of you. It isn’t done. People will talk.” “Then do it in back of me. I’m leaving.” “But if I don’t take the medicine I’ll be ill,” she moaned. “No, you won’t,” he said. “If my math is right, you must have been anticipating Jamie on the voyage to America, right? That was probably what made you ill.” “Oh!” she said, much struck, “maybe so! It was such early days I didn’t yet know…but yes…. How clever of you.” “No,” he said, “it’s only experience. Not all my experience is bad. I was married, I have two children. It often takes women that way, even on dry land.” “So I won’t be ill this time,” Lucy said dreamily, sitting and swaying as the motion of the ship began lulling her fears of illness instead of causing it.

176 / Edith Layton

Her eyes flew open as another thought swam into her mind. Even in the dim light he could see what he had on deck—the midnight blue of her eyes overwhelmed by her too wide, dark pupils. “But—the medicine,” she cried, “what’s to become of it? I paid a whole dollar!” “The fish will probably want to pay you more. They’ll have no trouble sleeping tonight,” he said grimly. His voice softened as he saw her eyes drift shut. She sank back to her pillow. She felt a gentle touch on her hair as his hand stroked it back from her face. All unknowingly, she sighed and nuzzled against it. He paused, then drew back. “Good night, Lucy. And don’t bother to thank me in the morning.” “I won’t,” she mumbled sleepily. “I know,” he said with a rueful grin. “Lord, don’t I know it.” The sunlight was a hammer, every sound was a knife through her head. Lucy groaned, and blinked burning eyes against the morning light in her cabin. An anxious face appeared over her. She squinted to see it. “Mama? Are you all right? Should I send for Lord Wycoff?” Jamie asked. She raised heavy eyelids wide and focused. Jamie’s freckles stood out starkly on his pale face; his eyes had faint shadows under them. She sat bolt upright. Both her hands flew to her head to hold it on. “Jamie!” she cried. “What’s the matter, are you sick?”

The Challenge / 177

“Me? No. You were, though. Lord Wycoff said I should watch to see if you did anything queer in the night. You didn’t. But I never knew you snored before.” “I do not!” Lucy said, horrified. “You do. Maybe not usually, I don’t know. I don’t usually sit up watching you. But you do. Not a growl, like Mr. Ames when he falls asleep in the parlor. More like a snuffling, like a pi—More like a snuffling,” Jamie, wise for his years, said. Lucy swung her legs to the side of the bed. They felt leaden, but not so heavy as her head. “Opium,” she muttered. “Laudanum,” Jamie volunteered. “‘A dangerous crutch for foolish females,’” he quoted. “You should have heard the rest of what Lord Wycoff said to Mrs. Oliver this morning!” “The rest?” Lucy asked nervously. “You eavesdropped?” “Didn’t have to, they were talking so loud. I thought it would wake you, but all you did was turn over and pull your pillow over your head. See, he told her that she oughtn’t take it and she should never have given it to you,” Jamie reported with relish, “and when she told him about this fine London doctor who gave it to her, he said he didn’t care if God himself handed it down to her on a silver platter, she might as well take poison, because it was just the same!” “Lud!” Lucy groaned. “She’ll never talk to him again.” But she was thinking how hard it would be

178 / Edith Layton

for her to talk to Lord Wycoff if her companion was so set against him. “Right,” Jamie said cheerfully, “and she told him she’d never talk to you again either. Mama? Are you going to be sick again?” “Oh,” Lucy moaned, “I wish it was as easy as that.” Lucy was pale and subdued when she finally stepped out on deck. She forgot her condition when she saw what lay before her. The last time she’d sailed she’d been too nervous and frightened at the profundity of her move from England to America to notice more than her illness and terror. But now! The world was wide and blue and silver, sunlight glinting from the sea and sky. The Sarabeth was a spanking fine brig, with neat white sides and a blue trim, and a proud red-haired beauty of a figurehead braving the waves at the front of it. Not a passenger ship so much as a cargo ship that accommodated some passengers, as they’d told Lucy when she’d booked passage. But she was beautiful, even Lucy could see that. Her tall sails were fully unfurled, filled with the same soft wind that was crimping the water into little white-capped waves as far as Lucy could see, all the way to the horizon. Lucy heard the water slapping the sides of the ship, the sails creaked and snapped as the Sarabeth cleaved the waves. The air was fresh and mild, scented of spring and salt; each breath she took

The Challenge / 179

seemed to heal Lucy’s weariness, infusing her with energy and gladness. So this was what it was like to love the sea. Suddenly she remembered Francis vividly, as he’d been all those years ago. It was as if the sea breeze had stripped away the clouds of memory and regret. She could see him exactly as he’d been then: young, eager, looking out over the waters to the new land he was taking her to. She wished he’d had the words to tell her then what she was feeling now. She closed her eyes to see him better. She could almost feel his presence, watching her. “A glorious morning. Can you enjoy it?” Wycoff asked. Her eyes flew wide. He was standing nearby, watching her. Had he been waiting for her to appear? “I can enjoy it,” she said. She swallowed hard. “I thank you for last night, and apologize for any difficulty it caused you. I didn’t know what I’d taken. But I don’t know if I should thank you for what you said to Mrs. Oliver because of it. Jamie told me. Was she very angry with me?” “Very. She may never speak to you again, she said. You are indeed lucky.” “Well, I think she’ll speak with me,” Lucy said indignantly. “I paid her passage, after all.” “Of course, she’ll have to talk to you. But you won’t enjoy it much,” Wycoff said gently. “I didn’t before,” Lucy shrugged, gazing at him.

180 / Edith Layton

He was clad all in shades of gold today. He gleamed like a seventeenth century courtier when he wore gold, in spite of the fact that he wore the latest fashion of tightly fitted, soberly tailored jacket and breeches. But there was something so imperial about him, from the top of that shining clean, light brown hair to the tips of his highly polished knee boots. Gold just emphasized it. She sighed. “Don’t feel remorseful,” he said, catching her mood, if not the cause. “You probably don’t remember much. Laudanum makes fine fantasies, but they seldom go further than your mind. You didn’t say or do a thing to make anyone think you had more than one too many glasses of wine.” “Then how did you know?” she asked. He gave her one of his bitter, poignant smiles. “Experience. As I said last night, experience will tell.” “As to that,” she said excitedly, “you know? That was brilliant of you—I mean, to guess the reason for my illness last time I sailed. For so it was, I’m sure of it now because I feel so well, even though we’re asail. Last time, I didn’t know Jamie was coming—I wasn’t sure until a month after we landed. I’m an only child. It wasn’t the sort of thing Mama discussed, so I had no way to know. I thought I was just dull because I didn’t want to leave my friends and family, and queasy because of the sea. But the sickness persisted when we landed. When I went to a physician I found out why.” He quirked one thin eyebrow. “Your husband didn’t consider the possibility either?”

The Challenge / 181

She looked down. She was glad the sun shining through her parasol made an aura of pink light around her, so he couldn’t see the blush she felt flying to her cheeks. “My husband didn’t see me very much aboard ship, even less when we arrived in New York.” She realized how that sounded by how Wycoff grew suddenly still. “He was that anxious to begin our new life,” she said quickly, raising sober eyes to his. “We left England because he was determined to make something of himself, something his father and brother would admire, even envy. His brother was scarcely two years older than he was. They always competed for everything—fishing, gaming, hunting—they were forever tallying their wins against the other’s losses. Only his brother had won the biggest prize automatically, because he was born to the title. Francis was born to a career in the Army or Navy, as with all second sons. It wasn’t fair, and it rankled him. He gave up the sea and swore to make his fortune in America. A shipmate of his had just done it. A fortune bigger and better than his brother had inherited.” She looked down, fidgeting with the staff of her parasol. “He might have done it, too, only he caught a fever traveling north when he went looking for contact with fur trappers. He never found them. He came home to me in New York, to die, instead. He’d told me about the Ameses so I wrote to tell them, and they insisted I come to them.” “So you went to America under protest, and you

182 / Edith Layton

were left alone the whole while, until you went to Virginia with your infant son?” She gave an unconvincing laugh. “It’s not so dire as that. I—Yes,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “Yes, but the good thing that came out of it was Jamie, and that I can’t regret. Anyway, it’s done, and I’m going home now.” “Over a decade of loneliness, neglect, and unhappiness,” he mused, “and you can say it’s done so easily, and forgive all?” She held her head high. Only she had the right to criticize Francis. “You should certainly understand, my lord,” she said. “You asked me to forgive and forget a pattern of behavior you practiced over two decades, did you not?” “Touché,” he said, and bowed. “Are you going in to have luncheon?” he asked, his voice composed, all humor vanished from his eyes. “I’ve just finished. Perhaps we’ll meet at dinner? I give you good afternoon, then.” “Luncheon!” she gasped. Now he gave her a real smile. “Yes, the other effect of Mrs. Oliver’s elixir is the way time folds in on itself.” “Good day,” she said hastily, and took a step—and stopped and looked back at him over her shoulder. “Forgive my hasty tongue,” she said. “Please. I defend Francis because he can’t defend himself. You meant no harm, I know.” “I didn’t. I don’t. Thank you,” he said, and bowed again.

The Challenge / 183

He straightened and cursed under his breath as she walked away under her glowing circle of rosy light. If she’d only give him a reason to give up on her, and not keep proving herself as noble as she was adorable—and lonely, and needful of him. Because who else could take care of her as well as he could? Who else would take her in his heart, and home, and bed, as lovingly as he would? He passed the next week seeing how many other men wanted to. And begrudging them their every moment with her. The weather remained clear; the voyage went as smoothly as Mrs. Oliver felt it in her drugged haze. The passengers and crew had time to get to know each other. But so far as Wycoff could see, the males, at least, mostly wanted to get to know Lucy. Most of the crew managed to be on deck every time Lucy was. Jamie was getting such a firm education in sea-faring from them it would be a wonder if he didn’t run off to sea, Wycoff thought sardonically. The boy was shown every unusual fish in the sea, every knot a seaman could tie, and altogether regaled with more tales than in all the Arabian nights. The sailors who staffed the ship were too young, too old, too humble, or too married to aspire to Lucy’s hand. But they seemed to forget that whenever she appeared, and they knew that she would be wherever Jamie was. But she was a lady bred, if not one born, and so anyone not watching as intently as Wycoff wouldn’t

184 / Edith Layton

have known. Few would have watched that closely. Eagles couldn’t. Wycoff also saw that Mrs. Oliver had little conversation for the woman she was supposed to be companioning. Partly because Mrs. Oliver seemed more stuporous every day, a natural effect of her wondrous “medication.” And partly because the nearer they drew to England, the less Mrs. Oliver worried about appearances with the woman who had paid her way. But there was someone who did occupy Lucy’s time, and Wycoff began to wonder if he took up as much of her thoughts. “If Captain Kelly passed as much time with his navigation as he did with Lucy, we’d be in England by now,” Wycoff remarked to Perkins as they leaned against the ship’s rail one late afternoon, watching the captain entertain his favorite passenger. “We have been becalmed. When the wind rises we will make sail again,” Perkins said. “However you feel about Captain Kelly, it is not his fault. He is perhaps simply being polite. As is she.” “She’s being ‘simply polite’ to our handsome, sunbronzed captain?” Wycoff mused. “I wonder. He is, after all, a great catch.” “A catch?” Perkins sniffed. “With no title, or standing?” “To an American, yes. And many an Englishwoman. He’s charming, young, his own master, and comes from a long line of prosperous ship owners. Formidable competition. And her husband was a seaman, after all….”

The Challenge / 185

“Competition, my lord?” Perkins said innocently. But they both knew what the slight inflection in his voice meant. Wycoff flinched. “But I had no idea you were still pursuing the young woman,” Perkins went on blandly, “since you haven’t exchanged more than two words to her since that unfortunate incident the first night.” Not words. No. But enough glances, sighs, and meaningful looks to fill volumes, if they had them for such inchoate exchanges, Wycoff thought, and well Perkins knew it. He shrugged as answer. It wasn’t a thing he cared to put into words, or had to with Perkins. They’d known each other too long. He wondered at his own thoughtless words. Competition? But he’d taken himself out of the running for the lady’s hand, arm, and every other delightful part he so desired. Because she’d told him she didn’t want him. But she did. He knew it from the look he surprised in her eyes when he came into her vicinity, before she could conceal it. From the way she ignored him with such utter concentration—and then glanced back at him to see if he realized it. There was something tangible between them. They both knew it. He knew all the faces of desire. She showed him most of them. But in the way of such things, he also knew she had to make the next move. So he passed the time waiting and watching. And amusing Jamie, who had long since ceased being a ploy in the game. Wycoff never realized how much he’d missed of his own son’s childhood. He did now, and regretted it. He was enjoying the role of mentor,

186 / Edith Layton

teacher, and friend. Men of his station weren’t expected to spend time with their offspring, especially when their marriages were a mockery and their children painful reminders of it. Nursery, nanny, governess, and then off to school—there wasn’t much time for a father’s companionship. He was grateful he and his son Crispin genuinely liked each other now. But he liked Jamie, too. Wycoff’s eyes narrowed against the setting sun as he saw the captain entertaining Jamie again. And Lucy, of course. She was laughing at something the captain said. Her cheeks were pink with pleasure—and the sun. The flimsy parasols she carried were little protection from the glaring sun. She’d have weeks of applications of lemon and cucumber poultices to suffer through ahead, Wycoff thought with amused regret. Every evening at dinner he delighted in seeing how many new freckles she’d hatched to ornament her cheeks and little nose. At a word from the captain a sprightly sailor went clambering up the netting of ropes on the mast. Another followed, laughing, and the pair did acrobatics on the ropes, swinging and turning and hanging by their grimy toes, pretending to fall every other minute, while Lucy and Jamie were falling about with laughter. “Americans are less formal aboard ship,” Perkins commented. “Not on warships. They were formal enough in the past conflict,” Wycoff said. “Formidable, in fact. Nor on most other ships, I’d think. But cer-

The Challenge / 187

tainly on a craft where the captain was using his own craft to impress a young woman.” “I thought this tomfoolery was for the boy.” “The woman’s heart is in that boy, and any wise man would know it,” Wycoff said, watching as another sailor began to climb the mast. But this young sailor, trying to win another smile from the lovely passenger, reached out a hand to the boy. Jamie leapt at it. A moment later, he’d shucked off his shoes and was climbing up the ropes along with his helper, grinning like the monkey he resembled from afar. He didn’t go very high, just far enough to make Lucy’s hand fly to her heart. The young sailor helped him hook his toes in the ropes, and Jamie sat beaming down at Lucy while all the sailors laughed. The figures on the mast were outlined by a glorious sunset. The sea was blazing red because the sun was beginning to dip its round belly into it. That was why the young sailor might not have seen Jamie unhook his carefully placed feet, then swing out by one arm in imitation of the other lads, to win their applause and a smile from his mama. He was already in the air when they all saw his move. He was falling like a stone before any of them could draw another breath. He was just far out enough to miss crashing down on to the deck. Instead, he vanished.

13

Lucy could take in air to scream it out, Before sailors began falling from their perches, and several on deck leapt out into the sea. Lucy flew to the ship’s rail, her eyes frantically searching the water. Only the knowledge that she couldn’t swim kept her rooted where she was. One by one, men went flying into the sunset-orange ocean, hitting the surface, disappearing into the water like raindrops in a storm. They came up for air and swept down again as the captain shouted orders for longboats to be lowered. One was already being dropped. Lucy spun around and turned an ashen face to where she knew Wycoff had been standing. But he wasn’t there. She looked back into the sea and sent up a quick, fervent prayer. She locked her hands together

The Challenge / 189

because she didn’t know what else to do. It was an ocean, filled with creatures that dined on bigger dinners than Jamie every day. And so deep and cold—and he so small, so dear. She was numb with terror, unaware of the tears streaming down her cheeks until they made it hard for her to see. So she didn’t see Jamie raised from the waters until she heard the cheer go up. She brushed the tears from her eyes and stared to see if he was moving, and heard him coughing and rejoiced, and vowed to kill him for his trick. And sent up silent thanks as the men handed him one to another, until one could carry him up and aboard. The captain himself received him; a sailor came running with a bag of medicines. A moment later they stood back. They’d thrown a blanket around Jamie’s thin shoulders. He looked very small and bedraggled, fright turning his eyes dark and pinching his face as he gazed up at his mother. “I’m sorry, Mama,” Jamie said miserably. “I thought I could do it. It looked so easy before I slipped.” “I will not lecture, I cannot—I—Oh, Jamie!” Lucy cried, dropped to her knees, embraced him, and wept. The sailors shuffled their feet and looked touched and pleased, and guilty, by turns. “Don’t cry, Mama, I’m sorry,” Jamie said, patting her shoulder, the way he thought a man might do. “I was frightened, too. My friend Horace taught me how to keep afloat in the pond at home, but this was nothing like! I was getting so cold. And some-

190 / Edith Layton

times I looked up and found I was looking up through water! That was frightening because I didn’t know which way to go, or what was down or up. But when I saw Lord Wycoff and the others, I knew I’d be all right. If I could just keep my mouth closed—and that wasn’t easy, you know.” Lucy swung her head around. Lord Wycoff stood watching them, alongside a sodden Perkins and some waterlogged sailors. He was drenched. His light hair was dark as the sea and clung to his head, dripping down his face. His fine clothing was soggy, his good linen shirt turned transparent, revealing shoulders as broad and a chest as strong as any of the agile men around him. He wore a rough blanket around his shoulders as they did, too. But that wasn’t why she had trouble recognizing him. He was grinning like a boy. “No, no,” he was saying to a soaked sailor, “you saw him first. I only lent a hand.” “I seen him a’right, sir. But I couldn’t get a proper hold of him. You brung him up along with me,” the sailor said generously. “And then I handed him right down the line. The rascal had more deliverers than His Majesty’s post. You all should take a bow. Speaking of which,” he said as a long shiver crossed his shoulders, “when you’re done soaking up your deserved applause, Perkins—after you’ve wrung yourself out, do you think you could find me something dry to wear?” Wycoff looked at Lucy. He nodded, very smug, very pleased, very much unlike the lofty Lord

The Challenge / 191

Wycoff. Much more like Jamie when he’d gotten a difficult sum right, Lucy thought, her eyes filling up with tears again. “I couldn’t leap overboard,” the captain said in chagrin. “A captain never leaves his ship. But I had every faith in my men. We’ve never lost a passenger yet.” Wycoff kept smiling into Lucy’s eyes. She blinked, remembering where she was. “Well,” she said, turning to the captain, “You almost lost me, sir!” “There should be crickets, the trill of a nightingale, something apart from the slap of the waves on such a soft night,” the voice said from out the darkness. “That’s why I could never learn to love the sea so well as the land.” Lucy didn’t turn around. It had looked like she was alone on deck when she walked out after dinner, but she wasn’t startled. She knew where he was. She always knew where he was. She kept looking out into the endless night, and refused to join him in his whimsy. “Why have you been avoiding me?” she asked. “Right to the chase, eh?” Wycoff chuckled. “I’ll be as frank then. I’ve been avoiding you, Lucy, my dear, because I care too much for you.” Her silence urged him on. When he spoke again, his voice was close. She felt him at her back, his warmth, his solidity, his attraction. She forced herself to look straight ahead but felt herself relax and yet grow tense because he was so near again at last.

192 / Edith Layton

“Mrs. Oliver may be drugged to her gills right now, but she gossips,” he said. “Others do too. Best I stay away and keep the gossip speculative rather than see you and turn it to reportage.” “But you didn’t even answer my note of thanks,” Lucy said, hurt clear in her voice. “You stayed far from me at dinner when we all celebrated Jamie’s rescue. Even the sailors came up to be toasted and shake hands with me. Not you. You went nowhere near me.” “For good reason,” he said softly. “You’re going to meet your brother-in-law again after all these years. It would do you no good to have your name linked with mine in a shipboard romance, my dear. Trust me, no one would believe I had any other reason to befriend you.” “Don’t you?” she asked, swinging round to face him. “I thought at least, you liked me.” “Oh, at the very least,” he said, looking down at her. Her face was a small white oval in the darkness, but it blinded him to everything else as surely as the brightness of the moon blotted out the sparkle of the stars tonight. But he knew where her lips were, and found them easily enough. He took her in his arms. One of them sighed, or both, as their mouths met. He splayed a hand on her back, another caressed her cheek as they drank each other in. They stepped closer until they couldn’t be parted by moonlight. She pressed close and let thought be consumed by sensation, felt herself awakening, and wanted more.

The Challenge / 193

He tasted of wine, of liquors she’d never sampled, he reminded her of all she missed and all she’d never known. She stood on a pile of wood floating in the middle of an ocean under a limitless sky, and he was the one secure thing in the universe. The one thing she wanted and dreaded most. So she answered his tongue with her own and said yes without saying a word. He sipped at her lips, he devoured her mouth and brought his hand to cover her breast. She was silken, soft, fragrant, responsive to his every touch—he couldn’t stop touching her. Gently, then firmly, then retreating until her soft groans urged him on again. He was a man who knew how to hold and kiss a woman to bring her to a fine madness of desire. But he didn’t think of any arts he knew now. Only what he so desperately wanted for himself and her. And that was to complete this in ecstasy now, even if it had to be right here, against the side of the ship in the open night. But he had just enough wit left to know that couldn’t be. When he looked up to see how far they were from the steps leading to their quarters, he saw just how far they had gone. He dragged his mouth to her hair and dropped his hand from her breast. He drew in a shaken breath and locked both hands behind her back, anchoring them, resting his lips at her ear, trying to still his eager body, making it steelier than it already was. “No,” he said, as he rocked her against himself. “No. We can’t go on with this, not here, not now.”

194 / Edith Layton

He felt her jolt of surprise, felt her try to pull away, and held her still. “I know,” he murmured. “You didn’t expect this, of course you didn’t. But there’s no shame in wanting to, Lucy, my dear. Do you see now? If we meet like this, it will be inevitable, against all our common sense. Your name will be ruined. A ship has eyes and ears. That’s the only reason I didn’t try to take you in a huddle of ropes right there. God knows I wanted to. But apart from dignity, I need time, and you need graciousness. And what would some innocent sailor who stumbled over us think?” She didn’t laugh. “Lucy,” he said in despair, “don’t you see? Even tonight, here in the dark, we court risk even if we’re celibate as a pair of monks at matins. If we meet here and then only meet now and again in England, you’ll be considered my conquest. As such, you’d be open to all sorts of insult. But—if you were promised to marry me—for example…” He waited a beat to hear her protest. When she didn’t, he went on more confidently, “We could face it out together. I know your brother-in-law, at least I know him in passing. He’s not my sort, nor I his. But marriage is different from trifling and even if my name is notorious—or was—my name is not. It would be difficult at first, but in time my title would protect you from slander and gossip as much as I would.” He loosed his grip. She stepped back. Only a step. She reached up a hand and touched his cheek. He caught her hand in his. “No,” she said, infinitely

The Challenge / 195

sad. “It can’t be. I didn’t know how much I wanted it to be, though. You say you do, but I don’t think you can. I shock myself. I’ve never known such urgency, such abandonment. You made me forget time and my place and all my best resolves. You—and myself, I mean to say. But no.” “Because of my reputation? I told you, it’s in the past. I’d never betray you, I’m done with that. Lucy,” he said urgently, “my wife didn’t want me. I had to prove I was a man.” She shook her head. “I think I understand that. But try to understand me. Your morality bothers me. I can believe you feel you’ve changed. But how can I know? I can’t.” Her voice broke. “My age?” he asked, tilting his head to the side, watching her. “There is that. I’m over a decade your senior, and there are so many younger men.” “Not that. Listen. I think you’re wonderful, I’ve never met your like. You frighten and challenge me all at once. I’m happy in your company. I don’t care about your age. That’s not it. It’s that I can’t trust you. No more than I can trust myself with you, I see. But I cannot—will not—ever gamble again with my life. And certainly not Jamie’s. It would be more than foolish this time, it would be unfair.” “It would be a gamble for me, too.” “I know, I know,” she groaned. “But you know I’d never deceive you. There you are. You know. How can I? There is your past. It can’t be denied. And so the future can’t be predicted. What if I disappoint you?” she asked urgently, trying to read his

196 / Edith Layton

expression in the night. “What if you come to be bored with me? I know you’ll say you never will, but you’re human. And you have betrayed a wife in the past; for whatever reason, you did. The fact is I can’t be sure. And I’ve vowed to be sure in future.” “That you can never be,” he said. “Life doesn’t work that way.” He let out a deep breath. “If you can’t love enough to test love, there’s nothing more I can say, is there?” She lay a hand on his shoulder. “Can we still be friends?” He threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, Lucy, my dear, I expected more from you. But yes. Of course, yes. And no, certainly not. It can’t work that way. Don’t delude yourself. If you need me, I’ll be there for you. If you want me, I’ll come to you. But never as a friend. A friend wants only friendship. I want much more than that. Being my friend would be just as much of a gamble as being my lover.” She was silent. “So, I suppose you want to retract the question?” he asked sadly. “No,” she said. “Wycoff, I need a friend.” His breath caught, his chest ached. He chuckled, with no humor. “My reputation is vile because I lived outside of society’s rules. But you females—you have no rules! Which is why you always win. You ask me to put my care for you above my love for myself?” He sighed. “Fair enough, I suppose. That is what true friendship is. Ah, well, I’ve been a wise counselor before. I think I remember the way of it. I make no promises, mind. But I’ll try.”

The Challenge / 197

“Good,” she said gladly, as though the thing were settled. Although she couldn’t remember feeling so bad in a long time. Lucy lay wide-eyed, staring into the night. She couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking of the reasons why. Because they’d arrive in England the next day. Because she was so full of plans and fears about what she had to do when they got there. And because she knew he lay just down a narrow corridor from her, and that she’d never lie so close to him again. She shifted in her narrow berth. Her right side had grown numb, her left was cold, her pillow was hard, the muscles in her calves were cramping, there was an aching in her abdomen…lower. Not an aching, she admitted. A tingling, a swelling, a sensation she hadn’t felt in so very long, a discomfort because she required a comfort she hadn’t known for an equally long time. The ship rocked like a great cradle, but instead of making her eyelids droop as it usually did, the steady tempo was echoing in her own throbbing body. She felt it more when she thought of him. She’d thought of him all day long, and well into this last night aboard ship. She was burning for Wycoff. She faced it, and sat up. She brought her knees to her chin, turned her head and rested a flushed cheek on them. She was thinking about the glimpse of his body she’d got that day when he’d plunged into the sea. She was thinking about his kisses and caresses, the feel of his lips, the touch of his hands, the sound of his voice low in

198 / Edith Layton

his throat she’d felt vibrate in his chest and throb in her own. The man was so very good at kisses she couldn’t help but think about how he’d be at all the rest. She’d been imagining it. And knew the imagining was not enough, not half enough anymore. Her memories of Francis were tainted by the bitter disappointment of the life he’d left her to. But she’d loved him and loved the physical expression of it. She was no girl. The act itself she knew was nothing. She’d always thought it sad that something people built up to for so long, prepared for with words and poetry, kisses and caresses, should be in the end such a hurried, frantic flurry, over in less time than it took to cook an egg. She liked the prelude, though. The incredible intimacy of it. And then the deep, abiding satisfaction knowing she’d been so close to the one she loved. She squirmed. She didn’t love Wycoff. She respected him and liked him very much. She didn’t know if she’d ever love a man again, and certainly not someone she couldn’t trust. This was different. This fascination, this longing, this needing to be with Wycoff wasn’t that. She wanted him. She faced it now, a day from England, a night from home, a day away from never seeing him again. Except in passing, perhaps. He’d said he’d be a friend. But she didn’t see much chance of it. They’d travel in different worlds. She’d go the hotel Francis’s brother had recommended when she got to London. Jamie would meet his uncle. Perhaps they’d stay on with him. They’d

The Challenge / 199

visit her mother. Then, she’d have to see. Once Jamie’s future was settled, she could look into her own. With the Ameses? Maybe one day with William or another likely fellow? Not Wycoff. He was a nobleman, a world traveler, and a libertine. A charismatic man she could never know or predict. But one she’d always want, and think about, and wonder what if… She raised her head. What if indeed. Once, only once in her life, it would be wonderful to do what she wanted and damn the consequences. Because there wouldn’t be any. They’d never meet again, hadn’t she just realized that? And so, why not? Who would ever know? Who would care? She was tempted now, in the middle of this last night near him. Impulsive and ill advised, her small steady voice of reason warned. But once, only once in her life, what if she did something impulsive and ill-advised? Twice, twice in your life, the voice whispered, reminding her of her hasty marriage. Once, she argued back, because that, however poorly considered, had been a marriage, a commitment to eternity. This would be something altogether different. And rash, passionate, and irresponsible. But she was so tired of being responsible, reasonable, and prudent. And risky and dangerous, what of the possibility of a child? From only one time? But one time might be one time too many…. But she didn’t have to make up her mind, she thought, lifting her head on a sudden inspiration. She could throw her destiny to the Fates. She could

200 / Edith Layton

go to him on a ruse now, the last time she could ever do such a thing, and see what happened. It would be all right so long as she was ready to accept whatever did happen. Most of all, it would be doing something instead of stewing, aching, yearning, arguing with herself, alternately flushed with shame at her cowardice and fearing her boldness. Even if it was only a longer good-bye, it would be better than this. It would be something definitive. An ending. She glanced at Jamie’s trundle bed. He slept on. Nothing could wake him, nothing ever did until the morning sun. The sun was far from rising. He was safe here, and would be until that distant, fast approaching morning. Lucy stepped out of bed and quickly drew a robe on over her long nightshift. She touched her hair, and let her hand fall. If she stopped to dress, to preen, to think, she’d never do it. In fact, she couldn’t believe she was doing it even as she crept to the door. She peered into the corridor. A lantern hanging on the wall threw swaying shadows. Nothing else stirred. The other passengers were silent, unseen. Mrs. Oliver slept as though drugged, because she was. Her weary maid never got a chance to rest when her mistress was awake, and took advantage of it when she could. Perkins had gone into his cabin hours past—she’d heard him say good night to his master. The crew were in their quarters, except for the night watch, and he was above deck. Lucy stealthily started toward Wycoff’s cabin.

The Challenge / 201

One step reminded her she’d left her slippers behind. She hesitated, then raced, on tiptoe, to his door. She cast a fearful look down the corridor, tossed her night braid back over her shoulder, took a breath, held it. And scratched at his door. He didn’t answer. She let out her breath, as disappointed as relieved, and turned to go as stealthily as she’d come. His door opened. His eyes opened wide. “Lucy?” he asked. “What is it? Is Jamie ill? Are you all right?” He was still dressed, though he wore no jacket or cravat and his shirt was open at the neck. She stared at him, horrified. She felt as though she’d just woken—she must have been half-asleep, after all, to have actually gone to his cabin? It all made sense in the dark of her sleepless bed. Now it was real, and now it was terrifying, she’d nothing prepared, nothing to say, no sane reason to be there. “I—I must have been sleepwalking,” she said. He stared. But only for a second. “Then come in,” he said quietly. “We can’t have you wandering the ship all night.” “I’ll go back,” she said, edging away. “Come in,” he said, opening the door all the way. He deserved an explanation and she didn’t want to give it in the corridor. She knew he’d keep asking and she couldn’t just turn tail and run now. And because she so much wanted to, she went in.

14

closed the door and turned to her, taking Wycoff in her night robe, her hair in a braid, her astonished eyes. “Sleepwalking?” he asked gently, one eyebrow going up. “We’re going home tomorrow,” she said, a little desperately. “We may never meet again. I was thinking of you. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to say good-bye in front of everyone, I didn’t want to take my bags and leave and pretend it didn’t matter. You see?” “Yes,” he said, “because I was thinking the same thing. I couldn’t even contemplate bed, and didn’t bother dressing for it. But I couldn’t go to you. I’m so glad you came here, however long it took you to brave yourself to do it. Come here.” “I am here,” she said, bewildered.

The Challenge / 203

“No, not really all the way here yet,” he said, and took a step and closed the gap between them, and took her in his arms. He took all the responsibility away from her as well. He left her no choice. He made up her mind for her. She sighed with relief and gave her lips up to him, blocking her mind to all sane voices of reason. Because they’d only say no, and she didn’t want to hear that tonight. All she wanted to hear was him saying how lovely she was and how much he wanted her. And he did. But he was so warm and so solid, and his hands and mouth knew everything she wanted to say or do. She gave herself to him with an abandon she’d never experienced before, and discovered a pleasure in his arms she’d never imagined. He chuckled, low in his throat and pulled back. “No, not here, not standing, not so hasty,” he breathed. “We’ve the night and a bed, and privacy at last.” It was dim in the cabin, but she could see the hard need in his face. She knew it was echoed in her own. He lifted her and carried her the steps to his berth. She didn’t have time to wonder at the ease with which he lifted the gown from her, she was so greedily eyeing him as he pulled his shirt over his head. It was dark enough to spare her dignity as she stared at him, light enough for her to see the hard contours of his body and rejoice in them. He came to her again. She ran her hands over his shoulders, down his chest. He was burning, as though with fever. So was she.

204 / Edith Layton

She’d only known one man, and he’d been little more than a boy, and that had been almost a decade past. She hadn’t the time or inclination to regret that this wasn’t Francis, only the time to note all the differences she felt, to be sure it wasn’t a dream. And to heighten the terrifying pleasure of it. Francis had been altogether different, thinner, only lightly muscled, smoother skinned. But this was Wycoff, a man grown. She could feel the tensile strength of him, and his hard chest had silken hair on it. She could never have imagined that. It thrilled her. There was no time for it to shame her. This was like a fever dream, and all things were possible and permissible in dreams. He ran his long fingers through her braid, tugging, loosing it, sending her hair tumbling around her shoulders. He gazed at her for a space of a sigh, then lowered his head. His lips found her breast and she shuddered with pleasure. Her hands went to his shoulders and her head fell back when he sought her other breast. She couldn’t suppress a groan when his mouth stayed there, just there, somehow knowing that was just where he awoke a white hot pleasure that almost drowned her. He knew all the right things to do. He stroked and soothed her even as he inflamed her. His hand was unerring and sought her intimately, seeking, finding, bringing sharp pangs of sheer ecstasy. She kissed his neck, his mouth, his shoulder, gasping with excitement, breathing in his scent of musk and honey, and the memory of lemons.

The Challenge / 205

She could only hope he’d spend a little more time with her, just a little, because this was so delicious, but from the way he was breathing she knew it wouldn’t be long until it all ended. She was right. He sat back and took in a long shivering breath. “We could go on,” he said in a thickened voice. “There are ways we could find pleasure without putting you at risk. But you know that…as well as all the rest. Why did you come to me tonight, Lucy? After all these days of avoiding me? Why tonight?” “Because I couldn’t sleep,” she said. Belatedly, she realized she was naked, and he still wore his breeches. But she didn’t do more than put a hand on her breast, to display rather than to hide it, because he was staring at her hungrily and she wanted him to stop talking. If he began talking, she’d have to start listening to her own inner voice that was beginning to clamor to be heard. “You couldn’t sleep?” he said in his normal tones. “I see. And so you consider me something in the nature of a sleeping draught?” Her eyes flew wide. That was not passion speaking. She plucked up the coverlet and dragged it to her breast. “No,” she said. “It was in the nature of a good-bye.” His chest rose and fell on a deep exhalation. “So I thought,” he said. “Damn it, Lucy, you almost had a monstrous fine good-bye from me at that. He picked up his shirt. “But no, my dear. I think not. If

206 / Edith Layton

you wanted sleep, you could have gone to Mrs. Oliver and borrowed laudanum. You sought something else from me. I’d love to have obliged you. And I would under almost any circumstance I can think of—but one. I didn’t want you to take me because you planned to forget me as soon as we reached land.” “I’d never forget you!” she said in dismay. “That was whole reason I came here—so I’d have something to remember of you.” “Oh, it’s memories you’re after?” His voice had a cynical edge. He pulled on his shirt, gazing at her as he did up the buttons. She hadn’t felt shame in his arms; she hastily covered herself completely now. “Memories, yes, I see,” he mused, his face unreadable. “Memories of passion, not love. Of carnal delights, not a meeting of minds. And with the added charm of risk to your reputation, to say nothing of the risk of impregnation. Don’t wince. I’m too tired and angry to search for a more polite phrase. It’s the best I can do now. I assure you, less considerate ones spring much more easily to mind. You’re willing to face such dangers? Yet you don’t want me—my whole self—for the rest of our lives in the holiest of wedlocks, as I offered? Strange.” “Not so strange,” she said, wishing she knew what he’d done with her robe, her shift. “I told you, I can’t marry you. I can’t trust you won’t go back to your old ways. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want…” She touched her hair, felt it needed repair, and was glad of something to do. She looked down at

The Challenge / 207

her fingers as they braided her hair back up. “I’ve never done such a thing in my life.” “Obviously,” he said wryly. She looked up, hurt and dismayed. “Most women would wear something a jot more seductive to such a meeting,” he added with a strangely tender smile. “Long white woolen gowns and an ancient robe are not usually considered wildly seductive—although on you, it was, of course. And most have a better reason ready to explain coming to a man’s door in the middle of the night than a look of complete horror, followed by a feeble guess at sleepwalking. Was it all only impulse, Lucy?” he asked suddenly, seriously. “Coming here was,” she admitted, lowering her gaze. “But thinking about it wasn’t. I just couldn’t bear to leave without—I’ll never do such a thing again, I wouldn’t even if you begged me to now,” she said, raising her chin. And then ruined it by asking in a much smaller voice, “Why did you stop?” “Because I’d be damned if I’d let you justify rejecting my affection even as you took my body,” he said harshly. “Nor did I want you congratulating yourself for the rest of your life—looking back at that worldweary adulterer whose suit you were so right to deny, even as you remembered how good the damned fellow was at what he did? No. ] stopped—you must know how difficult that was—to prove to you that I need more of you than ] wanted so urgently. But I did stop, didn’t I? That should show you something.”

208 / Edith Layton

She shook her head. “Proving you have will power is not the same as proving you have power to stay the course. And that’s what I need from a husband or lover.” He looked shocked. Then he started laughing. “Oh, gods,” he said, running a hand over his hair, “I am an incorrigible rake, after all. For a second there I thought you meant…but you didn’t, did you? ‘Power to stay the course’? You are talking about fidelity, aren’t you? Too bad. I can readily show you the other kind and was about to try. It’s a thing I pride myself on, by the way. But the sort you mean will take years for me to prove. How can I? You won’t give me those years, will you? No matter what I say.” “I don’t dare.” “You dared trust me with your body tonight, and not one day further?” He laughed with no humor. “Sorry, my dear. Sorrier than you can know—but that won’t do. I find I have, in my dotage, this bizarre desire to know self-worth. If I took you as you’d planned, then I’d be little better than you thought. I find I don’t want to think of myself that way.” “May I have my robe, please?” she asked, burning with embarrassment. “Of course, the more fool I,” he muttered, and stooped, scooped up her clothing, and gave it to her. “Now we both have extraordinary memories to take home with us. Of course it was too good to be true. Ah well. And so now I suppose any attempt at that friendship you were so eager for is done with, too?”

The Challenge / 209

She hung her head. “It’s not your fault,” she whispered. “I see,” he murmured. “I’m neither to be friend nor lover now, is that it? Tell me,” he asked, after a moment. “You’re so good at these trysts. You must have guessed I don’t rush pleasures, so people would have been up and about when you left me if I’d been able to finish what you started. How had you planned to explain yourself if someone came upon you on your way back to your cabin in your nightclothes?” She stopped tying her robe. “That long?” she gasped, and then gasped again at what she’d said, and his expression. “I hadn’t thought! I just acted.” “I hope you marry a good man, and stay good as he is. You’d make a terrible adulterer,” he sighed. “Well, although it will no doubt damn me further in your eyes, I know how to help with that problem, at least.” He rose, ran a hand through his hair, tucked in his shirt, and went to the desk on the wall. He pulled out a sheet of paper from a traveling case there. “A note,” he said, offering her a pen. “Write one to Mrs. Oliver. Say anything. ‘Remember to pack your hat’ or ‘Do you know where my comb is?’” Anything. Then you can always say you were about to slip it under her door. Leave it for her anyway. It’s a errand to be on in case someone sees you and decides not to reveal themselves.” “But what if someone sees me going out your door?” Lucy asked, belatedly horrified at further possible consequences of her behavior.

210 / Edith Layton

“They won’t,” he said. “I’ll spy out the land, and let you know when to slip out.” He cracked open the door and waited, listening and watching. Lucy went to the desk and hastily scrawled a note. Then she walked to him, and stood at his back, her heart beating so loudly she was sure he heard it. Because he swung around and looked at her, and dragged her into his arms and kissed her witless. Then he stepped away. “Now,” he whispered in a husky voice low as the dreaming night, “go to Mrs. Oliver’s door. Leave the note. Then scurry to your cabin. And don’t look back.” She did as he asked, fast as she could. But at the last, when her door was almost shut, she looked back. There was nothing to see but the flickering lamplight. So she never knew how long he stood with his back against his closed door, swearing softly under his breath. The passengers stood with their bags and cases, waiting to leave the ship. London! They’d seen the city rising from the sea as they’d neared it. They’d watched, less patiently, as the ship dropped anchor. But customs officials came aboard and made everyone wait while they checked papers and asked questions. The passengers were made to sign declarations, show the contents of their cases, and watch customs men shuffling papers. “One would think we were still at war,” Mrs. Oliver huffed.

The Challenge / 211

“One would want to declare war, they’re taking so long,” Lucy said with a smile. But Mrs. Oliver didn’t favor her with an answering one. Lucy’s heart sank, wondering if somehow the older woman knew about her midnight folly. Until she remembered the reason they weren’t speaking had precisely to do with the fact that Mrs. Oliver never saw midnight anymore, and had encouraged her to drug herself insensible, too. Jamie was in a fever of expectation. “We go to the hotel first, right, Mama?” he asked. “Perkins said it’s a grand place, and makes the ones at home look like a chicken coops by comparison.” “Perkins is English and so of course he’d say that,” Lucy said. “I’m English too and I don’t think the ones at home are so bad.” “Then we go meet Uncle, do we?” “Then we meet Lord Hunt, your uncle,” Lucy corrected him. “Then, my grandmother, right? But when will we see Lord Wycoff and Perkins again? Because Perkins said they’re not staying at the same hotel. He says Lord Wycoff has a house grander than the hotel, so why should he?” “More grand,” Lucy said automatically, “and that’s as may be.” “You’re welcome to visit at any time, Jamie,” Lord Wycoff said, catching the end of their conversation as he ambled toward them. “I’d like that,” Jamie said. “Mama, Lord Wycoff

212 / Edith Layton

said he’d take me to the menagerie at the Tower, and that there’s lions there.” She met Wycoff’s eyes squarely over the top of Jamie’s head. “There’s lions everywhere,” she said softly, and then looked down at Jamie. “That will be fine. When you have the time, and Lord Wycoff is free.” “Lord Wycoff is always free,” Wycoff answered as softly, gazing at her, “to his eternal damnation, some people think.” Lucy flushed. “Where exactly are you staying?” he asked. “At the Pulteney Hotel,” Jamie said. “My uncle told us to.” “He’s paying, I hope?” Wycoff asked. Lucy nodded. “Good,” he said. “Mrs. Oliver will be delighted; it’s above her touch, I’d think.” “Mrs. Oliver regrets that she’ll be unable to come with us,” Lucy said quickly. “She’s going straight to her brother’s house.” Wycoff frowned. “Then who’s accompanying you? My dear, you can’t check into the finest hotel in London by yourself.” “I won’t. I have Jamie,” she said. “My brother-inlaw will come collect us when he gets word of our arrival. I don’t have money to throw around, nor do I care to hire an unknown female to companion me for a matter of days.” Before he could argue, she put out a gloved hand. “I see the captain is making his farewells; it must be time to leave. Good day then, my lord.”

The Challenge / 213

He took her hand in his, and bowed slightly. “Good day then, Lucy, and a fair life to you, my dear.” He stood at the rail, watching her leave. She made pretty farewells to the other passengers, and stayed a while as Captain Kelly poured flattery into her ears. She laughed back at him. Wycoff watched, nothing in his face moving but his eyes. She wore a blue pelisse to match her own eyes, and a charming bonnet shaped like a coal scuttle, denying him a look at her profile. She looked so precise and well turned out. He remembered far more than he saw of her today. He remembered how lush her body had been. How it had looked to him naked in the night. How it felt against his own. Her breasts, so firm and high, only the widened ruddy halos around her nipples testifying to the fact that she’d borne a child. Her rounded hips, soft belly and bottom, the skin over all stretched satin smooth. The heat of her. The scent of heliotrope, soap, and female excitement. He’d made love to more beautiful women with more perfect bodies. Younger ones, more experienced ones—he damned himself for the parade of bodies he could compare hers to. But none compared to her as she’d been with him last night. Because he never forgot who he held. Who was welcoming him with such sighs, then muted cries. She made the other women he’d known into no more than remembered exercises. And even less than the attempts at forgetfulness they’d been. It was bright

214 / Edith Layton

impetuous Lucy giving herself to him. He’d rejoiced in it. But then, in the midst of the wonder of it, he’d ruined it all. He’d started wondering why. He was too clever not to know. And too proud not to care. Damn his pride, and his past and future too, he thought now, his hand trembling on the ship’s rail. He closed it to a fist. Let her go then. Let her find a younger man. A man she could love with an undivided heart. He was, perhaps, as sullied as she thought him. She was no fool; if she were, he wouldn’t care so much. Better for her then, to let him go. He’d thought he’d found his salvation and future in her. But perhaps she was righter than he knew. He’d gone to America to find a second wife, a counterfeit one to live with in secret. He’d been given a chance to find a real wife instead, and thought he had. But his past intentions, as well as his whole past, had filthied that future. A man could, he supposed, so befoul himself that only God could forgive him. Lucy was too human to be remotely godlike. That was why he’d loved her. He’d loved her? Well, and so what of it? he thought in despair. He scarcely deserved her. Let her go. He’d go on his way, whatever that might be. There were lands he hadn’t seen. The compass had four directions. He hadn’t traveled to all the ends of the earth yet. “Mrs. Stone is leaving us?” Perkins asked, from his side. “I’d thought we might accompany her to her lodgings, since it is evident Mrs. Oliver has already gone off on her own.”

The Challenge / 215

“Mrs. Stone is leaving us, on her own, too. She prefers it that way. And who am I to disagree?” “You are the Viscount Wycoff, my lord. A gentleman of breeding and discrimination. Mrs. Stone is alone in London now. I’d thought you would…” “Damn it, man!” Wycoff said in a harsh whisper. “She doesn’t want me. I offered. She refused. Because of my past. You of all men know exactly what that is. Can you blame her? There’s an end to it. Let it be.” He took a breath and tried for control again. “I’ve been thinking. We’ve not seen the Russias yet. When we get to shore, make inquiries.” “I’d thought we’d rest in England a spell, my lord. I was quite looking forward to it.” “What?” Wycoff said, distractedly, trying to get a last glimpse of Lucy as she walked down the long wharf to the land. “I thought you were mad for travel.” “So I was,” Perkins answered, following his gaze, “but travel is only good for diversion. One must have something to be diverted from or it palls, in time. Still, if that’s your desire, so it will be. Only, I’d thought—if I may be presumptuous enough to comment?” “Comment,” Wycoff muttered, “and be done with it.” “Well, then, my lord, I’d thought Mrs. Stone unhappy at parting with you. And your past, if I may make so bold, is passed, is it not?” “She doesn’t think so,” Wycoff said. “And because she doesn’t, you do not? Odd. I’d

216 / Edith Layton

thought you a man of firm mind and purpose. Of course, Mrs. Stone wouldn’t know that, having not known you very long, after all. But I do. And I believe you can do whatever you choose to do. Even convince her of that, if you’d a mind to, that is. That is, if you considered it important enough. But if not…” He shrugged. “I’m too old for her anyway,” Wycoff said bleakly. “Indeed? But as I recall, the young woman who sent us to America in the first place was much younger still.” “So she was. But I thought Miss Giles needed me,” Wycoff said impatiently. “I thought she’d no one else to turn to.” “Oh. I see. And Mrs. Stone has? Mr. Bellows, perhaps? Or some English suitor she might happen upon, who would want a widow with small means and some thirty odd years in her plate, with a young son to raise? Yes, doubtless she’ll easily find a younger, wealthier, more intelligent fellow. One who will love her more, and give her more. Of course, then it makes perfect sense. I’ll see to bookings for the Russias immediately we set foot on land.” Wycoff shook his head. “Perkins, you rogue. Thank you. But I’ll not go where I’m not wanted. I’ll see my children, and we’ll be off again.” “My lord, if I may say?” Wycoff shrugged. “You may. Go on. I won’t have any peace until you’re done.”

The Challenge / 217

The older man’s bland face didn’t change expression. But his voice softened. “I’ve never found you to be anything but honest and loyal to me, and I am only your servant. I think you are thus with anyone you care for. An honorable man. Pray do not look at me with such contempt, my lord. Those females—that life you led—none of it had anything to do with your heart, or your word of honor. So why should it influence your future, or Mrs. Stone’s? But I prattle. Because well as I know you, I know if there was something you really wanted, you’d never give up trying for it.” “Once upon a time,” Wycoff said softly. “Yes, my lord. But it would be tedious trying to get a ship bound for the Russias to turn ’round again.” “It would mean using guile, leverage, and all my influence, and even so, it may be in vain,” his master said hopelessly. “I’d have to remake my life—no difficulty there. But redeem myself in her eyes? And the eyes of society? More easily change society itself. And who’s to say it’s for the best even if I succeeded? I’m getting too old for this.” “And she is getting younger, I do see.” “Enough! Have done!” Wycoff said, a muscle working in his jaw. He silenced Perkins so he could concentrate on seeing the last of her, far below and away from him, as she stepped into a hackney coach and slowly rode away.

15

a room, please, for my son and myself,” I’dLucylikesaid. The reception clerk looked at her as though she was asking for alms. He made a poor pretense of looking through the register and shook his head. “I’m afraid we cannot accommodate you,” he said. Lucy bit her lip. Her voice had sounded apologetic even to her own ears. But she was as awed by the hotel as it clearly was not by her. It was as hushed as a cathedral and had a ceiling almost as high. The cavernous lobby made her feel like a child, and a not very privileged one, at that. The furnishings were so rich she felt shabby. The other guests she saw made the furnishings fade to the background. They were in the first stare of fashion. Lucy was in her best traveling costume, very elegant for

The Challenge / 219

the Ames Hotel—not good enough for a servant here. Too late, she understood why Wycoff had been shocked because she planned to go to the hotel by herself. The only females who came here without a husband, father, companion, or attendant in tow, were servants. But it was where she’d been instructed to go. She hated feeling inferior, especially since she knew she’d be considered such here. But she’d been a squire’s daughter before she was an impecunious widow. She straightened her spine and took a fiercer grip on Jamie’s hand. “Indeed?” she said haughtily. “Curious. My brother-in-law told me to come here straight from the ship I arrived on, take rooms, and send to him once I had done. However, if you haven’t a room I’ll look for lodgings elsewhere. Lord Hunt will doubtless be dismayed at having brought me to such a pass. I’ll write to tell him you couldn’t accommodate his wishes. I doubt he’ll be pleased. Good afternoon,” she added lightly, as though finding rooms in London were a thing she did every day by herself. “Lord Hunt?” the clerk asked quickly. “The baron Hunt? Of Folkestone?” “Yes,” Lucy said. “You had only to say his name when you first appeared, madam. Will you sign the register please? Or perhaps since you’ve just arrived in London and are surely weary, we can take care of that formality later? Please, come this way. Your luggage is in your carriage?”

220 / Edith Layton

She’d paid the hackney driver as soon as he’d stopped in front of the hotel, fearing a moment more would have cost her. “My luggage is at the door,” Lucy said grandly, wishing she had better luggage. She held Jamie’s hand and followed the clerk up the staircase to the first level, and her room. When they got there, she’d lost her breath, not from the climb. This wasn’t merely a room; they were rooms, a suite big as a whole house. The clerk showed her the sitting room, her bedchamber, and Jamie’s. Lucy’s composure faltered when he showed her yet another room. “This is for your maidservant,” he said. “May I inquire when she is expected?” Never, Lucy thought, and hastily invented. “I’ve sent her ahead. Yes, this will do,” she added, to stop his questions. She went to look out the window instead of watching them bring in her cases. Then she gave out coins to the porters, nodded at the clerk, and waited for them to shut the door behind them as they left. She sank to a chair. “My God!” she breathed. “Would you look at this place, Jamie? You could move a whole family in here. Oh my! I hope your papa’s brother is paying for it because if he isn’t, we’ll be working here for the rest of our lives!” “I wouldn’t mind,” Jamie said, prowling the huge anteroom, stopping to inspect the contents of the huge bowl of fresh fruit. “You said ‘God,’ you know,” he added reproachfully. “So I did, and you’re right, it was wrong of me.

The Challenge / 221

But Jamie! Did you ever imagine?” “It’s big,” Jamie said. “But that don’t make it better.” “It’s better,” she said, looking at the Turkish carpets on the polished floors, the fashionable Egyptianstyled chairs, settees, and tables, the mahogany writing desk. “Believe me, it is better.” Jamie shrugged. “How long will we have to stay here?” he asked, over a mouthful of hothouse peach. “Until your uncle sends for us,” Lucy said, and frowned. “Something wrong, Mama?” “Oh, no,” she said, but she was counting—the number of gowns in her luggage. Bad enough they were homemade. But if the baron didn’t send for them in a week, she’d have worn every last one of them. Twice. And every day meant two meals to pay for—or hopefully only one, if the Pulteney was as generous with breakfast as the Ames had been. Even so, she wondered how long they’d be able to pay for those dinners. She gazed around the sumptuous apartment of rooms. Only one thing made her glad, in a melancholy way. She’d refused Wycoff and now she began to see more reasons for her having been right to do so. He’d been surprised she was going to stay here. No wonder. This hotel had put her in her place. A place that wasn’t in his world. She’d forgotten how many leagues away it was from her own. She wondered if he’d really been serious about permanence with her.

222 / Edith Layton

When she thought of that last night with him she felt equal parts shame and embarrassment. How could she? What had she been thinking of? Well, she knew that. Now any thought of him was quickly followed by a flood of self-disgust. What a foolish, rash thing to have done! But it was over. She had no time for regrets. She was here and had to go on as she’d begun. First, she wrote the note to her brother-in-law telling him they’d arrived. Only after she’d rung, given the note to a footman, and seen it on its way, did she relax. After unpacking, she bathed, and extracted a promise from Jamie that he’d do the same when she was done. Joy of joys, the hotel had water piped into the bath! Sheer luxury any place, but especially after all that time at sea. She lingered in her bath, luxuriating in it and her new circumstances. The hotel even had modern, indoor water closets. She’d read about them; now she could experience the wonder of that, too. She left the bath chamber to discover yet another wondrous surprise. There was a knock at the door. Lucy opened it to see the reception clerk, followed by two footmen bearing trays of covered dishes. “Your dinner, madam,” the clerk said. “Compliments of the hotel. We felt you’d be too weary after your journey to come down to dinner tonight.” “Thank you,” Lucy managed, almost too overwhelmed to speak. The footman put the trays on a table. She swallowed hard when one pulled out a chair for her, and stationed himself behind it. “We

The Challenge / 223

are weary and would like to relax,” she said. “You may go, we can serve ourselves.” Too much attention was making her as nervous as too little had. “Ring when it is time to for us remove the dishes. Bon appetit,” the clerk said, bowed, and let himself and the footmen out. “Father’s brother must be a very important man,” Jamie commented, lifting a cover off a silver tureen to inspect a steaming, thick, and savory smelling soup. “I suppose he is,” Lucy said, sitting at the table. “But when I met him I didn’t think so. We’re more formal about things in England, I suppose. I’d forgotten. And he is a baron now, since his father died. Then, he was just your father’s older brother.” “But he’s rich,” Jamie said. “Oh, very,” Lucy said, uncovering a platter of tiny lamb chops, all resplendent in their frilly paper tassels. “But he isn’t a duke or even a viscount like Lord Wycoff. So how can he be so rich?” “A title doesn’t have anything to do with money,” she explained, unaware she was smiling as she discovered dish after tempting dish. “Although it does give a person special honor and privileges here in England. It just means some ancestor did something to please a king. There are pauper earls and rich baronets. It’s what the families did with their fortunes over the years that matters.” “Is Lord Wycoff very rich?” Jamie asked, “As rich as Father’s brother?” Lucy’s smile faded, remembering what she’d

224 / Edith Layton

been trying to forget. “I think so. I don’t know. He doesn’t give himself airs. He could be. It doesn’t matter.” “Well, I think he must be. He said he’d take me riding, right here in London, because he has stables here. Perkins said he has an estate on a river, too, and boats to sail on it. And a place to hunt in Wales. And he has the old Carlisle place, at home. I think he must be much richer. I wish we could have stayed with him.” “That would be a pretty picture,” Lucy muttered. “Here, don’t use your fingers. Sit down and have a proper dinner.” Jamie’s curiosity was as sharp as his appetite. “Tell me about my uncle. Does he look like my father? What’s his house like? Is it as grand as this? You never said.” “You never asked,” she said, tasting a pastry filled with lobster. “Well, I never really thought I’d be here. But now I am. And I guess we’re going there next and so if it’s going to be like this, I want to know so I know how to act.” She put down her fork. “You act like yourself,” she said fiercely. She’d been overwhelmed, and she’d lived here and seen such things before. She’d never thought Jamie would be intimidated, too. But he was growing up, more so every day since they’d set out on their journey. Or was it only that she’d seldom spent so much time alone with him before? Work, schooling, and obligations had occupied

The Challenge / 225

them both since the day he’d been born. She’d come to know him better on this journey. If nothing else good came from this, that was enough for her. She gazed at him. He was outgrowing even his newest suit of clothes. His face was growing leaner, his freckles blended into the golden tan he’d got from all those hours on deck in the salt spray and sunshine. Only a few more years, maybe months—at his rate of growth—and he’d be a young man. Her heart clenched. But he was still a boy, her boy, her only treasure. She’d protect him from all harm and insult and refused to have him fearful, or feeling as poor and deprived as she did now. “Your uncle?” she answered. “There was a resemblance, but he didn’t look much like your father. Your father was much more handsome. Like you. He had dark hair and eyes, too, and he was slender. His brother had dark eyes and dark hair, but it was thinning. Your father used to joke that it was the only thing about him that was. But the truth was that though your uncle was the same height as your father, he tended to be stout. He didn’t get much exercise. He’d had weak lungs as a boy, and got out of the habit, I suppose,” she added, anticipating his next question. “What’s his wife like?” “I only saw her a few times. She’s pretty, very pretty.” “Why didn’t you see her more?” “Because they married soon after I did, and I went to America soon after that.”

226 / Edith Layton

“And their house? Where we’ll be staying?” “Oh, very grand,” she said. “And very old, too. But remember, it’s only filled with things your own ancestors put there. You’ll see for yourself soon enough. Now, stop chattering and start eating. Then we have to get to sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day.” “Why?” Jamie asked. “What are we doing?” Lucy was still. She’d been traveling so long and dreaming of doing it for even longer. Now that she was here she realized she had nothing to do—but wait. And she’d done that for far too long. She pasted a smile on her lips. “You’ll see,” she said mysteriously. And hoped she would. But morning brought only sunshine to flood their rooms. Lucy stood in front of a looking glass feeling alone and unsure, anxious and uncertain. Wycoff had claimed more than her desire through the long voyage. He’d taken up all her attention. She missed him now. And not just his kisses. With all that had happened that embarrassing night, much had happened between them before that. He’d been a friend and not just a suitor. She certainly needed a friend right now. Jamie was itching to see London. Lucy was hesitant. She’d got a glimpse of the avenues they’d passed on the way here from the docks. It was overwhelming. London was bigger, busier and more crowded than she remembered. This part of town

The Challenge / 227

had wider avenues, thronged with better dressed people than she’d seen in a long time. One thing she knew. A lady didn’t venture out into the streets unescorted, and she didn’t even look like a lady the way she was dressed. Her walking dress was simple and flattering, light green with a dark green overskirt, and pretty embroidery at the sleeves and hem. She had a pretty shawl to throw overall, and her best straw bonnet, too. The effect was charming—but cheap and homemade, and wouldn’t everyone in this hotel know it? Her shoulders drooped. Jamie was waiting. At least they could go to breakfast and make it last a long time while she decided what to dare. Maybe there’d be an answer from Lord Hunt, she thought eagerly—before remembering it would take three days to get the message to him and three days for a reply—if he answered right off. But a boy couldn’t spend the day in a hotel room. They’d go for a walk. If people took her for his nurse, so be it. It was for him that she was here. Her pride be…damned, she thought militantly, marching to the door. Lucy’s spirits were raised by more than the excellent breakfast the hotel served. The dining room was quiet, the other guests too well bred to stare, and the food plentiful, delicious—and free to guests. She reckoned they could easily last until tea time without buying another meal. She relaxed and enjoyed herself. Until she put her napkin back on the table.

228 / Edith Layton

“Now?” Jamie asked, “Can we go out now?” She rose, reluctantly. They were headed for the front door when she heard her name called. “There she is! Lucy!” a so familiar voice called. Lucy spun around. Her heart leaped. A plump woman, dressed in light silks with a paisley wrap, stood smiling at her. A stylish bonnet covered her hair, but her tremulous smile was apparent. “Mama?” Lucy breathed, incredulous. “Mama!” she shouted, and flew to the woman with her arms outstretched. They hugged, stood back and gazed at each other and hugged again. Finally, Lucy stepped away and beckoned Jamie nearer. “Here is your grandson, Mama,” she said proudly. “Jamie, this is your grandmama.” Jamie bowed. “But he’s charming,” her mother said. She peered at Jamie, her head to the side, looking like a curious robin. “But so like Francis,” she sighed. “There’s hardly a trace of us in him.” “He has my freckles,” Lucy tried to jest, “and my nose, as well.” “Your father’s nose,” her mama corrected her, eyes narrowed as she stared at Jamie. “He hasn’t Francis’s height, though. He’s not very large for his age, is he?” Lucy remembered her mother’s habit of talking about children as though they were deaf. She’d never cared for them much, and didn’t regret not having had more, apart from an occasional com-

The Challenge / 229

ment lamenting the fact that she hadn’t borne a boy to see to her old age. Lucy hoped her mama would see Jamie as the boy she’d always wanted. Now she realized Jamie’s looks reminded his grandmother too keenly of the son-in-law she’d disapproved of. “He’s going to grow late, as his father did,” Lucy said defensely, putting an arm around Jamie’s thin shoulders. “But Mama, why are you here?” “A fine question coming from one’s daughter, isn’t it, Rupert?” her mother said, turning to the portly gentleman at her side. “Oh, Uncle, I didn’t see you there,” Lucy said, bowing her head to him. “How have you been?” “Well enough,” her uncle said, and rocked back, hands behind his back, watching. Lucy nodded. He’d always been a man of few words. “You sent us a letter saying you’d be coming, and staying here, didn’t you?” her mother asked. “As it happened, your uncle had business in town, so we decided to stay the extra day. I must say, you’re looking very well.” Lucy smiled. “Far better than I would have guessed—considering,” her mother went on. “But I see you haven’t had time to get to a proper dressmaker yet.” She eyed her gown critically. “I suppose they don’t care about such things in the colonies, but you’re home now, remember. Where is the baron?” she asked, before Lucy could answer. “Francis’s brother? You said he’d sent for you?”

230 / Edith Layton

“He did,” Lucy said eagerly, “and said for us to let him know when we arrived. We did, but haven’t heard from him yet.” “Ah, too bad. I did so want to meet him again. I was hoping he’d be here. We cannot stay, you see. We must hurry home, it’s lambing time and your uncle needs to be there to oversee all. A prosperous estate doesn’t get that way by itself, you know. And there are my appointments,” she said vaguely. “But your uncle does feel a bit sharp set. He likes to have a morsel before he sets out on a journey, so at least we can have luncheon together.” “At least,” Lucy said, her heart sinking. So she hadn’t been forgiven. She’d forgotten more than the luxury of England. She’d forgotten the reason she’d left her parents’ home so early. She’d never been able to really please her mama, less so when she’d married against her wishes. Time and wishful thinking on her part had blurred that cold reality. She accepted it now. She hid her hurt, trying it see it only as one less option available to her. “Luncheon would be grand,” she said, and linked arms with her mother. “What news of home, Mama?” she asked. She prepared to hear gossip, which at least would be criticism of others. They dined at the hotel, and Lucy was again glad she was staying there, because it seemed to be the only thing her mama approved. She asked Lucy a dozen questions, and sighed at every answer. Every compliment was followed by a veiled criticism,

The Challenge / 231

every mention of the past was another opportunity to show her ungrateful daughter how she’d erred. “Mr. Thompson married a whey-faced chit,” she reported, telling Lucy of her spurned suitor, “but she gave him three strapping sons. They live in fine state, and rent a townhouse in London every season.” “How nice for them,” Lucy said, and changed the subject. She kept doing it until she felt as though she were trapped in a whirlygig. But at least she was successful in diverting attention from Jamie, who sat watching as quietly as his great-uncle, but with wider eyes. When the luncheon was over, her mama said good-bye in a flurry of perfumed embraces, made Lucy promise to write, and left her standing in the lobby, wondering how someone who spoke such warm sentiments could make her feel so cold. Jamie’s hand crept into her own. “She’s very nice, I’m sure,” he said, gazing up at her. “I’m very glad we’re not staying on with her.” “So is she,” Lucy sighed. “Shall we go for that walk now?” They passed some time exploring nearby avenues, lingering at shop windows, goggling at the traffic and sights of London. But Lucy didn’t know where to take Jamie, and felt awkward as a gosling among swans in the elegant district. She promised him she’d get a guide book, hire a coach, and take him further next time, and headed back to the hotel. “Oh, Mrs. Stone, there you are!” the hotel clerk

232 / Edith Layton

said, hurrying to her as soon as she and Jamie entered the lobby. “Your maid’s arrived. I’ve taken the liberty of sending her up to your rooms.” “There must be some mistake,” Lucy said. “I mean…” She drew herself up. “My maid was delayed, I don’t expect her for a few more days. Perhaps you have another Mrs. Stone?” “Indeed not, madam. She showed me the paper with your name on it, and the direction of this hotel. There can be no mistake.” Lucy grinned. Of course! Her mama! In spite of her coldness, she wouldn’t want to see her daughter look no-account. She must have nipped around to an employment agency as soon as she’d left, and demanded a maidservant be sent immediately. Lucy’s heart soared. She’d write to thank her, effusively. “Maid?” Jamie asked as they went back up the stair. “Your grandmama’s been very considerate. A lady needs a maidservant in London, and she’s seen to it. This way we can go everywhere without fear of insult. Oh, this is wonderful,” she said, her heart filled with pride and gratitude. Sukey Steevens was young, neat as a pin, and proper as a parson. She introduced herself, curtsied to Lucy and Jamie, and folding her hands at her waist, waited for instructions. She answered Lucy’s question readily. “As to who sent me here, madam,” she said calmly, “I can’t say. The agency gave me your direc-

The Challenge / 233

tion and told me I should wait upon you until further notice. Here are my letters of recommendation. I worked for Lady Ardsley until my lady went to join her husband in Vienna. I’d no wish to leave England. The agency felt I’d be suited to your purposes. I hope to be.” “I hope so, too,” Lucy said, smiling. “You can start right now. We just arrived and I don’t recognize London after so long an absence. You might be able to point out some of the sights to us.” “So I might, ma’am, and I’d be happy to. But I’ve been told your modiste is arriving shortly.” “My modiste?” Lucy asked, eyes widening. Madame Celeste, a small, dark, and dumpy whirlwind of a female, and her helper, arrived at the door ten minutes later. They were armed with patterns and bolts of fabric, tapes, papers of pins, and a few sample gowns. “There must be some mistake,” Lucy said, belatedly remembering she’d said the same thing when told about Sukey. “No, no,” Madame Celeste muttered, holding a swatch of fabric up to Lucy’s face, “I do not visit a client on a mistake, I assure you. I was sent to you. And here I am.” “Nor is it Madame’s habit to visit clients at their homes or hotels,” the assistant added. “But in this case, of course, she makes the exception.” “Of course,” Lucy said weakly. “Et voila!” Madame Celeste said a half hour later. “We are done. To begin we have two gowns for

234 / Edith Layton

morning, three for afternoon, and five for ze evening. We have some ready made, needing only a touch here and zere.” Her assistant nodded, checking off items on a list. “And, of course, fans, shawls, slippairs and undair sings. You shall have zem soon as may be. We will have two gowns sent to you by tea time, for it is of the imperative that you should have zem immediatement. And for the garcon? Mathilde! You are finished with the measuring? Bon. Three new suits of clothes for him.” “Ten gowns?” Lucy gasped. “Of course, to begin,” Madame Celeste said. Something in Lucy’s face made her pause. She touched her cheek. “Buck up! Ah—That is what the English say, non? It will be fine, you shall see. You have a guardian angel. Adieu, Madame.” Ten new gowns? Lucy thought dazedly as they left. What would she do with such an elegant wardrobe deep in the countryside at Lord Hunt’s estate? Well, but why quibble? Mama must feel more remorse than I thought, and Uncle’s pockets are deep—she said so herself. She wants you to have them, so accept them with grace, my dear, she thought, and grinned—until she realized she’d thought it just as Wycoff would have said it. She might see him. And he might see her in her new finery, mightn’t he? Ten new gowns, and a whole new world with all kinds of new possibilities. Lucy smiled. She had a guardian angel? She hoped so, and for more than a new wardrobe.

The Challenge / 235

But she needed the gowns more than she knew. Moments later, as she was explaining to Jamie—in a low voice so Sukey wouldn’t hear—that they didn’t actually have to have tea after so big a luncheon, a message came to her door. She read the note once and then again aloud, trying to make sense of it. “An invitation to tea at Mrs. Ryder’s house tomorrow? She says she’s anxious to see me, and hopes we can come. But who in the world is she? Do you remember any guests at the Ames named Ryder?” she asked Jamie on a sudden inspiration. He shook his head. Lucy sighed. It would be lovely to visit. But she couldn’t accept an invitation to a stranger’s home. “If I may, madam,” Sukey said. “But you did say you’d like me to tell you about London. Mrs. Ryder is known to me. She’s married to Mr. Damon Ryder, a handsome and well thought of young gentleman from a fine old family. She’s exceptionally beautiful, I’m sure if you’d met her you’d remember. She’s blonde—fair as the dawn, the fashionable gentlemen say. Much good it does them. She’s devoted to her husband and to good works.” Lucy shook her head. “I don’t remember her.” “There can be no harm in accepting the invitation,” Sukey said. Why yes, why not? Lucy thought gladly—and then remembered her tendency to rash decisions. “It is a bit hasty,” Sukey added, “but she’s known to be informal. It is said to be one of her charms.”

236 / Edith Layton

I can be charming, too, Lucy thought gleefully, and said, “Well, I suppose I can—if my new gowns arrive in time.”

16

was wearing the celestial blue gown Madame Lucy Celeste had just delivered as she went up the stair to the Ryders’ townhouse. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever owned, finer even than her wedding dress. Embellished with tiny embroidered yellow rosebuds, it made her feel privileged just seeing the matching slippers that peeped out from her hem with every step. She smoothed new kid gloves over her hands. They’d hide any roughness that lingered from the work she’d done at the Ameses’. Bless Mama, she was being more than generous. Sukey had done her hair in a arrangement of soft curls pinned up at her crown. No one had done her hair for over a decade. Lucy held her head high as though it were an actual crown she wore. Jamie, looking fine in his new clothes, was at her side. Her

238 / Edith Layton

maid stood behind him, respectful and silent. After years of scrabbling for every spare cent, Lucy felt like a queen recalled from exile. When the door opened, she felt as though she’d paid a call on a princess. “My dear Mrs. Stone,” the angelic apparition said, taking both of Lucy’s hands before the butler was even done announcing her. The lady’s strangely lovely golden eyes looked Lucy up and down, from her slippers to her curls. Lucy suddenly felt her new gown was inadequate to the occasion. She was sure every freckle on her face had popped out in bold relief. Mrs. Ryder was more than beautiful. Fair, and with perfect features, she was astonishingly lovely, and looked fragile as a fairy tale princess. She must have seen the surprise and apprehension in Lucy’s eyes. “Do come in,” she said more softly. “I’m Gilly Ryder—and this must be Jamie! Good afternoon to you, sir. Damon, have you ever seen such a taking fellow?” Belatedly, Lucy looked at her host. She was shocked she hadn’t stared at him first. Damon Ryder was as handsome as his wife was beautiful. What had these two exquisite people to do with her? “Good afternoon,” she said, and nodded a tiny bow. “We received your kind invitation—but to tell you the truth,” she said in a rush, “I can’t account for it. We’ve never met, have we?” Mrs. Ryder bit her lip, and looked up at her husband.

The Challenge / 239

“Forgive my boldness,” Lucy said a little desperately, realizing her rash tongue had done it again, “but I’m not one to beat around the bush. It must be the influence of all those years in America.” She added a shaken laugh. The Ryders were staring at each other in silent communion. “Come in, come in,” Damon Ryder said gently. “We can discuss it over tea, can’t we? I’ve visited America on business,” he said as he led her into his salon. “You’re from Virginia?” She motioned Jamie to a chair, and took a seat herself, relaxing in relief. “So that’s it. We have a friend in common?” “So we do,” he said. “The Ameses? No—William!” Lucy guessed, smiling again. “William Bellows, he does a lot of business with England. It’s him, is it? No? Then—maybe my brother-in-law, Lord Hunt? Or my mama?—That’s it!” she said in relief when her host and hostess looked at each other again. “She’s been so generous to us since we set foot here in England. I ought to have known. She had to leave London and couldn’t stay on with me. She must know how lonely we’d feel by ourselves here. Oh, her kindness has no limits!” “We don’t know your mama,” Gilly said quickly, “but we do know Lord Hunt.” “Indeed,” Damon said, “we do.” “Oh. I see. How kind of him to tell you I was here,” Lucy said, relaxing. “My mama had to leave after only one day in town, and I confess, London’s

240 / Edith Layton

overwhelming after all my years away from England. But it seems everyone is looking out for my welfare.” “Be sure they are,” Gilly Ryder said, visibly relaxing, too. “Then let us count ourselves among them,” Damon Ryder said. “Gilly, my dear,” he teased his wife, “is that teapot just for show?” “Aye! Where are my wits? And teapot, indeed,” she told him with mock offense, “It’s silver clear through, and a tea service, I’ll have you know. Why, it has so many hallmarks, it has a longer pedigree than I do! A wedding present,” she confided to Lucy with a grin, “I’m not in the habit of squandering a fortune on a teapot, I can tell you.” It was curious. Lucy had just met these two beautiful people, but Gilly Ryder’s unusual free and open, breezy manner and her husband’s calm air of certainty made her feel comfortable again. Lucy laughed. “I am impressed. Well, the truth with no bark on it—as I guess you already know, is that Jamie and I…The thing of it is that I saved up for years to come home, and hadn’t quite made it when Lord Hunt sent for us. We’d nothing to bring to England half so fine as what we’ve gotten since we arrived here. My maid herself was a gift from my mama…” she began and caught herself. She paused and looked around the elegant salon. Sukey had been told to wait in the servant’s hall, as was customary. Lucy relaxed. She wasn’t eager to let Sukey know how poor her new mistress was. “My

The Challenge / 241

maid,” she went on, lowering her voice, “was a gift who just came to me yesterday. No sooner did I get over that shock, then who should arrive but Madame Celeste—who Sukey tells me is the most celebrated dressmaker in all London! And what does she do but measure me up for a whole new wardrobe, fit for visiting such people as you.” She saw their expressions. Her own froze as much as theirs had. She drew herself up. “I’m not a peasant. My father was Squire Hutchins, from Littlevale. My mama lives with her brother now, he has a prosperous estate, and she’s his hostess. But when my husband died all those years ago, he left me in America, far from my home and friends, and funds, you see. I’ve worked for my livelihood since, and won’t deny it.” “Nor should you!” her hostess cried. “Nor would anyone in America. We do understand,” Damon said. “Now, where, exactly, did you say you were living there? I might know the town.” He didn’t, but he’d been to Richmond. They talked about it, about America, and England, and London. Jamie had been staring at Gilly worshipfully, but soon her bright good humor and easygoing ways had him giggling like the boy he was. Damon had him talking about America with the wisdom of the man he would be. Lucy sat back and watched, delighting in this new world and new life her brother-in-law had restored her to. For the first time since she’d left America, she felt totally at ease, and secure. And infinitely grateful.

242 / Edith Layton

She didn’t know how the time flew by so fast. Her hostess thought so, too. “We must see each other again, and soon,” Gilly said when she rose to say good-bye. “Ices at Gunter’s, an afternoon at Astley’s amphitheater to see the horses perform. We shall have such fun, Jamie. And you and I,” she told Lucy with a boyish grin that oddly suited her, “we’ll have Damon take us to the theater, if you like. Tomorrow night? No, I won’t rush you. What about the night after? There’s a wonderful play at Drury Lane. Don’t laugh, Damon, I’m trying to be proper, but she would so love that play. What do you say, Lucy?” “I’d love to,” Lucy said sincerely. “I thank you for today and look forward to it.” She took Gilly’s hand in farewell. “How good of Lord Hunt to bring us together,” she sighed. “All the generosity Jamie and I received since we arrived is appreciated, but I think our meeting was the best part of it.” Lucy had tears in her eyes as she waved good-bye to Damon and Gilly Ryder. They stood in their doorway as she got into the hackney cab their footman called for her. “What good people,” she said to Jamie. “How glad I am we went.” It was as well that she couldn’t hear what that radiant couple said to each other as they watched her leave. “Damn and blast,” Gilly Ryder said. “Now he’s done it! Her mama’s left town, so she’s sure to send a letter thanking her. And then what’s to do? Worse, she’ll thank that wretched snob Hunt for introducing us, and he’ll take the credit for it.”

The Challenge / 243

“No, he won’t,” her husband said with a troubled frown. “He’ll investigate who should take the credit, though.” “So we should send for Hathaway and tell him the jig’s up?” “So we’ll send for Wycoff, yes,” Damon said, touching a finger to the tip of her nose, “and tell him he’s got some explaining to do—and fast.” “Well, he’s good at that,” his wife said. “He’d better be,” Damon said ruefully, “If she’s as good as she is bright. But why the devil do we dance to his tune?” “She’s proud as the devil, he says, and wary of him,” Gilly answered. “I said she was bright.” “Oh, pooh,” his wife said inelegantly, “you know he means her no harm.” “I hope so,” he answered slowly. “Now that I’ve met her, even more so.” “I just hope she does him no harm,” Gilly said, and silenced his retort by standing on her toes and aiming a kiss at the tip of his nose, which wandered somewhat, to their mutual satisfaction. “Madam,” Wycoff said, bowing low over his mother’s hand. “Hathaway,” she said, “you may rise, I’m not the Queen, you know. Not that I’d even wish to be compared to her. A dreadful thing, that. Poor lady, to have to such troubles. Losing her dear granddaughter and the infant she bore. And the continual diffi-

244 / Edith Layton

culties with her eldest son and that creature he wed! You were out of the country, I believe, but it was all anyone spoke about.” “Indeed, I was,” he said evenly, “but they knew about it even in America. They do have newspapers there, although they aren’t as interested in reading about poor Prinny’s troubles. I’m glad to see you looking so well, Mama.” “I suffer most dreadfully from the headache, as ever, but Doctor Morse gave me some new powders which may be working. I will not even discuss my poor bones. Do sit down, my neck hurts when I look up for too long. That must be a sign of age, I fear.” He sat and crossed his long legs. He’d ridden here in brilliant sunshine. It was dim now because his mother’s chambers admitted the sun only after it had been filtered by curtains. “You don’t look a day older than when I left,” he said smoothly. “Indeed?” she said with a hint of a smile. He hadn’t lied. She was a handsome woman still, tall and slender, with white skin and pale hair. Long ago she’d been told such alabaster complexions were fragile and that smiles and frowns would wreck her looks. She’d taken the advice to heart. It might have preserved her skin. She had few wrinkles. But she expressed few emotions. He’d always wondered if she had any to suppress. “How have you been keeping?” he asked. She told him, for a long time. He listened, making appropriate comments when he could. She was

The Challenge / 245

being charming. It was the most she’d ever been with him, and the best she could be with anyone. “Have you seen Crispin or Candice?” he asked when she ended an amusing story about her maid and her hair. She paused, thinking. “Last Christmas, yes. Their mother brought them—no, that couldn’t be, she was gone by then. Pity, that. She was most amusing. It was the Christmas before. Time goes by so quickly. But I do not forget my grandchildren’s birthdays, they always get a greeting from me. I invited them here for their spring holidays, as well.” “Excessively kind of you,” he said dryly. The merest tint of color may have reached her cheeks; it was too dim for him to be sure. “They were not overwhelmed by my gesture in any event,” she retorted. “They both chose to go to their friends’ homes instead. Children have no sense of responsibility to their elders these days.” “So they don’t, but I believe that’s the way of children and has always been.” He stood. “I dislike proving my own words in this manner, but I must be going, Mama. I hope to see you again soon. It’s been too long, I know.” “Over a year,” she said. “I am old, but not in my dotage. It was well over a year past, was it not?” “So it was, Mama,” he said, bowing over her proffered hand. “Oh—Hathaway,” she asked as he reached the door, “are you leaving the country again?”

246 / Edith Layton

“No, Mama,” he said. “I think I’m staying awhile.” “Then do come back to visit. It has been most entertaining.” He nodded, and left her. It was foolish to feel ice around his heart and that hollowness in his gut again, he told himself as he strode down the hall. So she didn’t ask him anything about himself. It was what she was and he’d always known it. It was what fashion and society approved, after all. Harriet had been the same. But then, neither woman had ever had much emotion about him to show. Maybe being with people who embraced life and reveled in every emotion had changed his own perceptions. One thing he knew: Being with a woman who showed every thought on her face and whose face showed every longing in her heart had made him long for more. That thought had brought him here today. His father was waiting for him in his study, the butler said. When Wycoff was a small boy he’d thought his father actually lived there, because he so seldom saw him elsewhere. He smiled now at the concept. He strode through the long halls, remembering how he’d felt then when he was sent for by his father. He remembered being taken by his nurse’s hand, coming down from the heights of this great house, down all the winding stairs, being led to the door of his father’s study. The man had always been

The Challenge / 247

at his desk, he’d always looked up as though surprised, had studied his son and then said… “Hathaway, come in.” But this time his father came out from behind the desk and took his hand. He gestured him to a seat. Here, the sunlight was permitted entry. Hathaway saw the year he’d been gone hadn’t treated his father well. The tall frame looked leaner, the hand he’d taken was thinner and colder. It was eerie to see what might have been his own face, so lined and tired. Wycoff’s mouth was his mother’s but looking at his father was like looking into the eyes he saw in his own mirror. He saw the same nose, too, only now it looked larger because the cheeks seemed to have sunk in. The same hair was there, but thinned and gray. But the voice was as deep and commanding. “Wilson,” the earl told the fair young man who had come to his feet when Wycoff entered the room, “we’re done for now. I’ll see you later. Hathaway, you remember Wilson? Now he’s finished his schooling, he’s my secretary.” “I know Wilson. Hello, Lawrence,” Wycoff said, extending his hand. The younger man took it tentatively, and dropped it as quickly before bowing and letting himself out of the room. “So. You’ve decided to come home at last,” his father said, settling back in his chair. “When will you be off again?” “Tired of me already? That’s a new record, I believe.”

248 / Edith Layton

His father made an irritable gesture. “No nonsense, if you please. I’m delighted you’ve come back and only wondered how long a respite it would be.” “I’ve a notion to stay, if I can, this time.” “If you can? Nonsense. You can do whatever you like.” “Can I?” Wycoff mused. “I wonder. You see, Father, I’ve a notion to settle down. I mean to say, remarry, and settle down.” His father frowned, then huffed in exasperation. “All right, let me hear it. What mad start are you about this time? A courtesan with airs? A woman with a past long as your arm? Another example of the wanton riff and raff of society? I tell you, sir, if that’s the case, kindly spare me details of your coming wedded bliss. There are places you can go where it would be acceptable—Greece, Switzerland, follow Byron and that lot to Italy, why don’t you? But I tell you right now, not here.” Wycoff’s mouth twisted. “My reputation is held against me even here?” “Your reputation’s a thing best not spoken of here,” his father said angrily. He hesitated, seeing his son’s face, and added, “Why else would you come to me to announce your wedding plans, eh?” “Indeed, why else? Perhaps because I’m well aware of my reputation and want to mend it? And know I’ll need your cooperation?” His father checked, and studied him. “She’s a girl of good birth then?” he asked hopefully. “She’s not a girl, and her birth is good, though

The Challenge / 249

not as spectacular as Harriet’s. She’s the daughter of a squire, not an earl.” “You could do better,” his father said, rising from his chair in agitation. “You could have anyone. The past is done, the name is good, and the fortune is spectacular. I know how you’ve added to it. Wilson and I were discussing it only the other day. Your travels weren’t all for gaiety, you’ve done well with your investments.” Wycoff inclined his head in recognition of a compliment. “I can’t do better though. She’s better than I deserve.” “Overripe, exotic, and experienced?” his father sneered. “Or young and pretending to be virginal? Your choice in females is varied as it is famous. Or should I say infamous? I suppose you’ve got her with child?” “I’ve got her with nothing, but I wish to have her, yes,” Wycoff said, his words clipped. “She’s a widow, but neither overripe nor experienced at anything but working to keep her family together. She married an ambitious sprout who left naval service to find his fortune in America. He found death instead, and left her with a child to raise by herself, alone in a foreign land. She did it, and well. She’s lovely, yes. But she doesn’t trade on it. That’s not what I lo—like about her. What that is, is hard to say.” He hesitated, unused to confiding in his father. “Say then, a certain affinity, a sympathy. A content and an elation I always feel in her presence, and have

250 / Edith Layton

never felt with any other woman. I find I’m happy with her. And lonely without her. Lonely?” His eyebrow went up; he seemed surprised by what he’d said. “How maudlin, quite unlike me, you’ll agree. Enough,” he went on quickly. “Suffice it to say, I want to marry her. She won’t have me. She doesn’t trust me,” he said on a crooked smile, “for some strange reason.” His father took another turn around his desk. “You fouled your name, that’s why! I found you a wife of title and fortune, and you made yourself a byword for infidelity.” “My wife didn’t want me for more than the name and children I gave her,” Wycoff said through stiff lips. “You know that.” “But there’s ways a man can go about these things,” his father said in exasperation, “ways to be discreet, to be civilized, not flouting convention by throwing your liaisons in everyone’s faces.” “As you did with Wilson’s mama?” Wycoff asked. His father’s eyes flew wide. “Of course, I know,” Wycoff said wearily, passing a hand over his eyes. “And I’m sorry he can’t be my full brother, at that. Because he’s a likely lad, although it’s deplorable that he looks more like his mother than you,” he joked on a smile that faded when he saw his father’s expression. “You took him in hand early and trained him up well. Yes, that was well done. You were lucky. You and his mother enjoyed many good years together. I’ve no bastards

The Challenge / 251

that I know of. That’s what comes of consorting with the riff and raff of society, Father. At least those women know what they’re about. Unlike provincial widowed seamstresses, who only know about love.” The earl sat, heavily. “I never thought…I never guessed. Is that why you didn’t honor your marriage vows?” Wycoff laughed, honestly. “No, never, and believe me when I tell you your infidelity is self-explanatory and almost laudatory. No—that’s cruel and doesn’t respect anyone. Forgive me. I didn’t honor my marriage when it was made clear to me it was not being honored. I’ll say no more. Except that I wish to be a paragon of honor with this woman, and she quite naturally doesn’t believe me. A woman of good sense, you’ll agree? Enough wordplay. I came here today to ask you if you’d be so kind as to lend yourself to a charade?” “A charade?” “Yes, I want to know if you can pretend—to our family, and to polite society—that you believe me to be reformed, and so worthy of entrée anywhere?” The earl was still for a long moment. He gazed at his son, and Wycoff could swear it wasn’t age that made his eyes so watery. “If you have come to ask me that,” his father said, “then you’ve answered your own question.”

17

will be here,” Lucy told Jamie nervously. Sukey “You’re not to leave these rooms. They’ll send up anything you want. If you need me, send a message to the theater.” “Mama,” Jamie said patiently, “you told me already. I’ll be fine. You look beautiful, you know.” “Do I?” Lucy asked, diverted. “No, I mean—don’t I just?” she laughed as she swirled in place. “Look at this gown! I never wore the like even when I was young.” “You’re young yet, ma’am,” Sukey said, watching her new mistress preen. “Younger than I’ll be tomorrow, maybe,” Lucy said a little sadly, her spirits falling. “I’ll do tonight, though. Yes, I think I will.” Her hair was drawn up, yellow roses threaded

The Challenge / 253

into it. A long ringlet rested at her neck near where her one good ornament, a tiny golden locket, lay. She’d bitten her lips in worry as Sukey had arranged her hair, but now they looked rosy and pretty, even to herself. The mashed cucumber poultice Sukey swore by seemed to have made her freckles fade a jot. But who’d notice such defects as freckles when a woman dressed like this! Her long-sleeved gown was golden silk with a green gauze overskirt. It fitted her body as closely as the sleeves clung to her arms, and was saved from being vulgar by the overskirt, but only by inches. The neckline was low, just centimeters from being too much so. Or so Madame Celeste insisted. Lucy carried a matching fan, green silk slippers showed under her skirts, and she had a patterned shawl to wear over all. She was wildly excited, and not just because of her fine feathers. She’d been young once, and privileged, but had only gone to the theater in London a few times. She’d met Francis soon after she’d come here—and he’d carried her away from all that. It had seemed romantic then. It seemed tragic now. She’d been so young and had missed so much of her youth… Soon, her brother-in-law would send for her and she’d be gone from the glittering scene again, perhaps forever this time. But tonight was for laughter. Lucy eagerly anticipated seeing Gilly Ryder and her husband again. She looked forward to pretending to be young again. Not just for herself. She couldn’t help wondering if Wycoff might be at the theater to

254 / Edith Layton

see her in her glory; she was hoping she’d see him one more time, too. “Goodnight,” she said gaily when a footman came to the door to say that her carriage was waiting. “Be good. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.” Home? she thought as she went down the stair. But this was only a hotel in the heart of London, not her home. Her step faltered as she wondered just where her home was, after all. “It’s so kind of you to invite me,” Lucy told the Ryders as she sat in their carriage, their coachman waiting in line in front of the theater. “I haven’t done anything exciting in so long.” “Apart from traveling all the way to America and then back again?” Damon Ryder asked. “That was necessity, both ways,” Lucy said soberly. “This is excitement.” Gilly Ryder put her small gloved hand over Lucy’s. “I understand necessity. Now, for the excitement. The play should be a good one. It has many murders and much swordplay,” she added seriously. “You look so wonderfully well, at the interval we’ll parade you for society and let them guess who our beautiful, mysterious guest may be.” “You’ll have to parade some other woman,” Lucy said. “I’m dressed up tonight, but I know exactly what I am—no longer in my first youth, and well on the way to my second childhood. No, please—I don’t say it for compliments. I’m a realist.”

The Challenge / 255

“With very poor vision,” Damon commented, and made them all laugh. The gentlemen standing at the entrance to the theater had excellent vision, apart from those who raised their quizzing glasses to see better when Lucy stepped out of the coach. They were probably looking at the ethereally lovely Gilly, Lucy thought. But she felt a frisson of excitement when she realized that some were actually looking at her. The box the Ryders took her to was high on the side of the theater. Once there, Lucy could sit and stare right back at all the gentlemen staring up at them. It seemed to be what everyone in the theater was doing. “The show before the show is sometimes better than what’s on stage,” Gilly laughed. And so it was, Lucy thought. It was almost as though every member of the audience was also in costume and playing a part. The ladies were dressed as elegantly as the gentlemen they were with. The women who weren’t ladies were dressed up even more. If Lucy had trouble telling the difference, Gilly was only to happy to help. “A married man keeps his eyes on his lady,” Gilly said, pointing out some examples with her fan. “A buck looking for sport ogles every female. A fribble looking for gossip looks at everyone. See? There’s Lord DeWitt, he’s thinks he’s one of the dandy set, but he’s only a fop. But see how he’s watching Lady March? Huh. He wouldn’t know what to do with her if he got her, and he wouldn’t

256 / Edith Layton

want her on a bet. But she’s here with Fleming, not her husband, so DeWitt can’t keep his eyes off her.” But Lucy was looking for one man, and not finding him took some of the shine from the night. She didn’t want to ask the sharp-eyed Gilly if she saw him, or even if they were acquainted. That would open a Pandora’s box, letting out too many questions she didn’t care to answer. Lucy was glad when the curtain went up and she had a newer fiction to indulge herself in. It was a good play, she hadn’t seen better in years. She was sorry when the interval came and reality flooded back. “Now,” Gilly said, “We stroll and set everyone talking.” “And envying me,” Damon added, offering them each an arm. The corridors were crowded as market day; theatergoers drifted down the long staircase to the lobby, and soon came up again. Damon looked down at his wife, a question in his eyes. “I think we can skip the promenade on the stairs,” Gilly told him. “They’re only looking to be noticed and trying to see everyone else,” she told Lucy. “It’s a waste of energy.” Sudden alarm leapt to her husband’s eyes. “No, don’t worry. I’m feeling fine, I just don’t see the need to exercise,” Gilly said. “They can see Lucy just as well from here.” Seeing Lucy’s confusion, she lowered her voice. “I’m anticipating! We’ll have a babe by the new year. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m strong as an ox, even the doctor agreed. But

The Challenge / 257

everyone thinks I’m so fragile. Even them as should know better,” she told her husband in a parody of a slum accent, grinning up at him. Lucy smiled wistfully. This was what a marriage should be, she thought sadly. Francis had flattered and fussed over her when they’d courted. He’d been kind after they’d married. But there’d never been this constant meeting of eyes and silent conversation going on between them, as she saw with the Ryders. The Ameses had that sort of communion, but she’d thought it took years to achieve. Now she knew better, and felt a little worse. “I’d like an ice,” Gilly declared. “Damon, could you fetch us some?” “I will, but I’d like it better if you sat down,” he said. “Well, but I won’t leave Lucy alone here,” Gilly said indignantly, “and it’s not fair to have her miss all this.” Her husband looked around. “There. The very thing. Is it all right with you, your highness, if I get a gallant gentleman to stand with Lucy for the rest of the interval?” “It’s not necessary,” Lucy protested. “I’m perfectly happy going back to my seat, I—” But Damon had already walked off. “Don’t argue,” Gilly said, “It’s more fun this way, you’ll see.” “But really,” Lucy said, “I—” Then she couldn’t say a word. Damon had returned with a tall, immaculately dressed gentleman. A man who was looking

258 / Edith Layton

down at her with an easy smile on his lips, and dark hunger deep in his eyes. “Lord Wycoff, here’s our friend, Mrs. Stone,” Damon said. “Lucy, here is Lord Wycoff, an old friend of ours,” he went on, not seeming to notice how Lucy was frozen in place, in shock. “I’ll take Gilly back. Wycoff, see Mrs. Stone safely back to us in time for her to see the farce, if you’d be so kind.” “My pleasure,” Wycoff said with a smile, “I assure you.” He bowed. “Good evening, Lucy,” he said as the Ryders left her standing amazed, still staring up at him. “You look very lovely. But also as though you think the farce is already here.” “…This was planned?” Lucy managed to ask. He nodded. “I said I’d never deceive you, that’s why I won’t try. Yes. They’re old friends.” Lucy put a hand to her forehead. “Gilly!” she breathed, remembering where she’d heard the name before. “Of course! I didn’t make the connection. I should have remembered. I suppose I did, but I thought it was only coincidence. Nothing is coincidence with you, though, is it?” “Not if I can help it,” he admitted. “Can we stroll to that corner, do you think? There are things I have to say. And God knows I don’t dare speak to you alone. Which explains this baroque maneuvering. We can, however, be alone in the crowd.” He guided her to a spot by the wall where they could see the crowds going by, but it was hard for anyone to stop at their side. “So they aren’t my brother-in-law’s friends?”

The Challenge / 259

Lucy asked, “He didn’t ask them to invite me to tea?” “No. They aren’t. They know him, but are hardly friends. He didn’t ask them. I did, because it’s a big city to be alone in. And because I wanted to see you again.” “Then they’re no better than panders?” Lucy said bitterly, “After how kind I thought they were, they were only acting on your behalf?” “Hush. Don’t blame them. They’re ministers of goodwill. Damon would have my head if I caused you distress, as Gilly would—and she could, I promise you. But I told them you needed friends, and that you wouldn’t want to feel indebted to me. Mostly, though, I told them we have to talk.” Her eyes searched his. “About what? The same things we talked about on the ship? You know that can’t be.” “I know,” he said. “I accept that, for now. But there’s something you have to know before you write to your mama or meet up with Lord Hunt and his wife. The deuce!” he swore. He looked over her head and nodded to a gentleman so curtly the man hesitated, and then strolled on. When Wycoff looked back at Lucy, his expression was bland, but his eyes were troubled. “We couldn’t have you thanking Hunt for introducing you to the Ryders. Nor did I want you thanking your mama for her generosity. That would ruin the reason for it. She’d want to know who’d been so generous. You’d be distressed, even if you never found out. There was no

260 / Edith Layton

one else I could credit it to, and so…” “You?” Lucy squeaked. “You paid for this?” She motioned to her gown, her fingers white-knuckled on her fan. “You? Not my mama?” “Hush,” he said, moving so he stood in front of her, shielding her appalled expression from the crowd. “Yes. Me.” “Well then,” she said furiously. “You can just take it all back right now!” “Nothing would please me better,” he said, laughter in his voice, “but I think you’d be wiser to wait. Although the sight of you handing me your gown would thrill every male here, I doubt it’s a good idea. Lucy, listen. Calm yourself, think a moment.” “I am thinking,” she said furiously. “And I’ll return this to you—along with everything else—the moment I get home.” “Why?” “Why?” she gasped, heard her voice too loud, and tried to hold her temper. “You know why,” she whispered furiously. “A woman doesn’t accept clothing from a man. Never!” His voice was at its most urbane; he seemed almost amused. “My dear, this is not a gift to seduce you, or to ruin your reputation in any way. It’s to preserve it. I’ll never go where I’m not wanted. If you’re unwilling to believe I’d act like a gentleman, at least credit me with that much self-respect. Do you honestly think I’ll thrust myself upon you because of my providing you with a few frocks?”

The Challenge / 261

Lucy wavered. “No,” she admitted, and then with a spurt of fire added, “I think you’d try to insinuate yourself, though.” “Well, of course,” he said, smiling, “anything with a sin in it appeals to me. But think on, do you really believe that’s my goal? We both know how I feel about seduction for mere momentary pleasure—at least where you’re concerned.” She lowered her gaze, her face heating. She was glad of her pretty fan now; it had a purpose. “I’m after more,” he said. “Exactly!” she said, flaring up, her fan beating like a hummingbird’s wings. “It’s a way to make me feel beholden.” “Did you feel beholden to the Ameses? No, of course not. You were happy to be good to them as they were to you. What’s more, if I could win you that way you wouldn’t be Lucy, and I know it. Be realistic. It was a matter of making sure you were dealt with properly, as you deserve to be.” He held her gaze with his own steady one. “Could you and Jamie have stayed at the hotel by yourselves and been treated with respect?” “Well, no, but—Sukey too?” she gasped. “If that’s your maid’s name, yes. There are no strictures against accepting a servant’s services from a friend. If there are, I don’t want to hear them. She’s a gift of freedom for you. In fact, I could argue that she works against whatever vile plots you think I’m hatching. Her presence protects you, and means you don’t need me or any man as a companion in Lon-

262 / Edith Layton

don. How far could you go without insult without her at your side? In the same spirit, could you have worn your own gowns to meet your brother-in-law and dealt with him confidently?” Her fan slowed. “I’ve met the man. I can’t claim to know him well, but I know the shallow standards of the society he keeps too well. You can always pay me back. Damn it, Lucy,” he said in a fierce whisper, “you can bundle up the lot of gowns and leave them in a box for me when you go back to America. Let me do a good deed, will you? No one has to know.” “But I will.” “And you can’t bear to think well of me? Is that it?” “Its just that it’s not done,” she said, weakening. “I don’t care, why should you?” The sound of the crowd was getting louder. They were surging past in the opposite direction now, going back toward their seats. She hesitated. When he was here before her like this, so solid and certain, it was hard to argue. It had been kind of him. She wished with all her heart she didn’t have to accept his charity—if it wasn’t bribery. But she was a realist. “I’ll save up and repay you,” she said on a exhaled breath. “Good,” he said, “I’ll go home and draw up a bill. It’s nice to know I’ll have a little something to keep me in my old age.” She tried to smile, unsure. But took the arm he offered.

The Challenge / 263

“If anything,” he added as they walked back, “I harm my cause by this. Because it only makes you worry about me more. But I did what I thought best for you. I can’t regret that.” She nodded. He said no more, but bowed over her hand when he left her with the Ryders. “You’re angry with us?” Gilly asked nervously, when he’d gone. “Well, a little, I suppose,” Lucy said. “You didn’t tell me the truth.” “Good,” Gilly said, “I can deal with honesty. But we didn’t exactly lie either. As for Wycoff, he had to speak with you alone, and there was no other way to arrange it without him singling you out on his own, and causing talk. Not with his reputation. You’d have been much angrier if he’d called when you were at our home, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t blame you, because then you’d feel trapped. But here in the theater? It was very clever of him. We wouldn’t have been part of it if we didn’t think it was for the best. He’s given his word he’s a changed man—though I never felt the original man was bad as they all said. And I believe him.” “As do I,” Damon put in. “He’s as good as his word, and his word—at least in regard to you, Lucy—was very good indeed.” Lucy sat back as the stage lights went up. She didn’t watch. She was busily reasoning that the thing was done, and there was nothing she could do right here and now. But she’d be going to her brother-inlaw’s country estate in a few days. She

264 / Edith Layton

certainly wouldn’t see Wycoff there, if ever again. She’d have time to worry about her obligation to him later. She felt good, and bad, about that. When the play was done, the Ryders took her back to the hotel. She thanked them soberly, and was subdued when she let herself into her rooms. She hadn’t seen Wycoff again. He’d vanished. She yawned, slipped off her shawl, and went to her bedchamber. She saw the note addressed to her, left out on her bed. It was brief. Too brief to cause her such a sudden splitting headache. But it did. My dear sister-in-law, Welcome back to England. We are eager to see you, and to meet James, of course. We shall be in London and will join you as soon as we can make the arrangements. Expect us in a week, or two. Hunt

Lucy sank to her bed. They weren’t sending for her? And wouldn’t arrive for a week or two! That meant she’d be alone here in London much longer than she’d planned. Worse, she thought with a stifled groan, not alone at all, but left by herself in a London that was now filled with temptation, and doubt.

18

so pleased you accepted our invitation, esWe’re pecially after what happened last time,” Gilly Ryder told Lucy as they waited for the butler to announce them to the company at the ball. “It means you’re not vexed with us. This time, we’re determined to see you enjoy yourself, with nothing to cloud your pleasure.” Lucy managed a weak smile. The Ryders’ invitation had come the morning after they’d met Wycoff at the theater. It was clearly a gesture of conciliation. She couldn’t turn it down. It would have signaled anger at them. She wasn’t angry. She understood loyalty to a friend, and they hadn’t done anything underhanded so much as subtle. But this! Taking her to a ball in one of London’s most elegant townhouses. Lucy looked down at her finest new gown,

266 / Edith Layton

and wondered if it was fine enough. Gilly wore shell pink and looked radiant. “Of course,” she laughed when Lucy told her so. “Anyone can tell my condition just looking at me.” “Only a fortune-teller would know,” Lucy said. “When I was anticipating Jamie, I was green with distress, partially due to the sea, I grant. But you just glow. Gilly grinned, and shared an intimate smile with her husband. Lucy looked at her gloves and then at the floor, and not just because she had no one to share secrets with. She felt green and bilious as she had when she herself had been pregnant, only now it was because she was so anxious. She’d got a glimpse of herself in the mirror her hosts had in their entry hall. She saw a woman in a blue gown with ice blue brilliants sewn on it. A woman whose pale face showed lines of living, as well as freckles. Her hair was all ringlets, with a blue ribbon wound through them, but since she seldom wore it that way she felt like a stranger to herself, and so even more like an impostor among all the glittering people at this ball. She was two and thirty, a widow with a child and no funds, a woman who had worked as little more than a servant for a decade. What was she doing here? She almost bolted when she heard her name announced. But she was a grown woman, she told herself, and had responsibilities and met them. She raised her head and went into the ballroom, glad Gilly was so lovely, delighted Damon was so handsome, relieved it was so crowded. No one would

The Challenge / 267

notice her, or how she was quaking so much that her brilliants twinkled like fireflies in the gaslight. The ballroom was packed with people. The men were formally dressed. Any one of them could have been plucked from the fashion plates of the magazines she and Mrs. Ames’s daughters had studied hungrily on quiet nights for so many years. And the women! They wore plumes and diamonds and fresh flowers in their hair. Their jewels gleamed and sparkled, putting Lucy’s brilliants to shame. The younger ones wore white, the older were dressed in gowns in every color of a very bright rainbow. Some must have painted their faces, or was it the warmth of the room and their excitement that made their cheeks glow so bright? It was close and crowded and smelled of furniture oil, hot flowers, stale perfumes, and snuff. But Lucy was dazzled. This was where the cream of society played. She felt privileged and unworthy all at once. Which was ridiculous, she told herself firmly. This ball would merely be interesting, a thing to remember when she was gone from London, and England itself. There was nothing for her here. Nor should there be. Gilly and Damon had said they thought Wycoff might be there, but she only had to ask if she wanted to leave, and they would. Then why did she keep looking for him? “This is our friend, Mrs. Stone, newly returned from America,” Lucy heard Damon say a dozen times as he presented her to a bewildering assort-

268 / Edith Layton

ment of guests. They looked her up and down, both the men and women, pricing her from her hair to her slippers. “This is our friend, Mrs. Stone—but you must remember, you met the other night,” Damon said loudly enough for anyone to hear. Lucy’s head came up. “Indeed,” Wycoff’s deep voice agreed. “How could I forget? Good evening Mrs. Stone.” He smiled down at her. He wore a dark blue jacket and a lighter blue waistcoat. His linen was dazzling white and his long, muscular legs were clad in knee britches and white stockings. She’d never seen him so elegant, so sardonic, as he bowed over her hand. “Please don’t blame the Ryders,” he said in a voice for her ears only. “I promised not to trouble you.” “But you don’t trouble me,” she said immediately. Something flared in his eyes. “Good,” he said. “But bad here. I may bow over your hand but I can’t touch more than your fingertips tonight.” “I’m not angry…” she began. “Thank you,” he murmured. “But that’s how it must be. Consider me somewhat in the nature of a chimney sweep, my dear. My touch would leave a black spot on your reputation. That’s why I can’t keep you company or take you in to dinner, and I promise you, the only reason why I’ll so much as look at other females, much less dance with any tonight.”

The Challenge / 269

“A chimney sweep, are you?” she asked, a little smile she was unaware of playing on her lips. She slid a look to see who was watching them. It seemed to her every female in the room was. “I wonder,” she said. “London’s known for soot. That must be why all these other ladies don’t seem to mind.” “But I do,” he said, as he bowed and moved on. Lord Wycoff stood with his shoulders against one of the columns that held up the ballroom. An observer would have thought he was merely being polite by chatting with Lucy, because it would have been rude to ignore a lady who had just stopped dancing and happened to come to stand by his side. It was one of the few ways they could speak. He made sure of it. They stood side by side and spoke as if they were newly met and had never shared hours of conversation and laughter—and moments of passion—and all the days of frustration since. He danced with her once, a country dance, where the form of it required he dance with other partners too. In no way would he single her out. But he couldn’t stop watching her, and wanting her. There were more beautiful women, more available ones, ones who would take him, body or soul, just as he was. But none of them made him feel the way she did. Or needed him as she did. He didn’t understand it. But he knew enough of life, and little enough of happiness, to know he didn’t have to understand it entirely. He accepted it, and was willing to wait until she could accept him. He believed

270 / Edith Layton

she would, one day soon—if he could only play the game right, and remember that love was not a game to her. Lucy saw all the women eyeing him. And why not? she thought now. There wasn’t a man here to equal him. It was one thing to have been impressed with him in the Virginia countryside. But even here he towered over other men in style as well as stature. He carried his head high, he dressed to perfection without seeming to care. It was more than his looks. He has such presence, she thought. And something else, intangible, undeniable, thrilling. He liked women, and understood them. A woman instinctively knew he’d know how to please her, too. But that was the whole problem, wasn’t it? Lucy thought, and frowned at the thought. That earned her a concerned glance from him before he looked away, his expression bland. But a muscle ticked in the side of his clenched jaw. He was very good at this game, she thought sadly. That still bothered her. “They can easily discover we were on the same ship, there’s no sense hiding that,” he remarked, “but for now it’s best they have nothing else to chew over. Here’s your next partner. Take care not to tread on his toes; he’s foolish enough to be a friend of mine.” Lucy saw a harsh-faced man with red hair cleaving through the crowd toward her, as though on a mission. He was lean and fit and bore himself like a soldier. His unfortunate hair was cropped close; it

The Challenge / 271

was that as much as the rest that marked him as a military man, though he wore no uniform but formal dress. He bowed. “Madam,” he said, “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” “She might, she’s kindhearted,” Wycoff said. “That is, if you’d take the time to let me introduce you.” “The lady’s beauty dazzled me. Apologies, ma’am. I’m Lord Raphael Dalton, but my friends call me Rafe.” “Except for those who call you out,” Wycoff drawled. “Your years of army service do you proud, but the war’s been over for a while. Lucy’s a brave woman, but you sound like you’re asking her to accompany you to a firing squad.” The man’s ice blue eyes sparked. The craggy lines of his face smoothed into a winning smile, the softened expression making him look dashing rather than severe. “Ma’am,” he said with a shake of his head, “forgive me. I’m not a treat with the ladies—like some I could name. But I know you’re newly returned to London and know what a devil of a thing that can be. So, though you could do better, will you come dance with me?” Lucy smiled. “Don’t apologize. I’ve been away from England a long time, my manners need more polish than yours, I’m sure.” “America, was it?” Rafe asked with interest, offering her his arm as he led her into the dance. “One place I haven’t been. Care to tell me about it?”

272 / Edith Layton

She did, as they waltzed. He was attentive and gallant. But she noted his eyes kept slewing to one particular dark-haired beauty dancing with another man, and on impulse, said, “She’s very lovely.” He was a graceful dancer but she brought him up short. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to stare. Didn’t even mean to look, to tell the truth. Not done. You’re just as lovely, you know. But Wycoff is an old friend. I wouldn’t poach.” She supposed he’d been asked to dance with her. But this sounded like he knew much more about her and Wycoff. She angled her head to read his expression better. “But I thought he said he didn’t want anyone to know he knew me.” The ridges of his cheekbones turned ruddy. “Yes. Well. But, old friends, gentlemen, our code, and such. That’s different, you see.” “I think I do,” she said. She tried to think of the right phrasing for the question she had to ask. She asked before she could stop herself. “So the gentlemen of London aren’t as—” She searched for the word. “They aren’t as—struck—by his reputation as he thinks?” “No,” he said seriously. “Most are. Not his friends, though.” “Oh,” she said, digesting this. “So you’re his friend in spite of what they say?” “He’s a good man in spite of what he’s done. Did a friend of mine a good turn. She was confused and needed a true friend. He was one to her. He forgot

The Challenge / 273

his own wants to attend to hers. That’s a good man in my book.” “Oh. So as a favor in turn, he asked you to dance with me?” “Didn’t have to. I would have anyway,” he said, and asked her about Virginia again to let her know that was all he’d say about it. Her next dance was claimed by a man she found to be utterly and effortlessly charming. He was younger than Wycoff, about her own age, she’d think. But tall and elegant as Wycoff. He wasn’t handsome. Only fascinating. He had a bony face redeemed by brilliant azure eyes, and an air of restlessness as well as languid grace. He bowed over her hand, and put a hand over his heart. “The next dance is mine, I think, I insist. Since no one’s around to do the honors and the music’s begun, I’ll take matters into my own hands and ask for yours for this set. I’m Earl Drummond, dear lady. Friends call me Drum, and I hope you become one, so you will, too.” The moment they were alone in on the ballroom floor, she laughed. “I know he asked you to dance with me.” Her expression dared him to ask who “he” was. He rose to the challenge. “Of course,” the earl said easily. “He wants to launch you into society, he wants only the best to partner you. That’s why he asked me,” he added with a grin to show he was jesting.

274 / Edith Layton

“But I don’t understand, if he has respectable gentlemen like you and Lord Dalton and Damon Ryder as friends, why does he worry about his reputation?” The azure eyes grew serious as he looked down at her. “He has no reputation, that’s why. He knows that, and London won’t forget it. He’s right to want you unbesmirched by it.” “But to ask you to dance with me—and yet to avoid me himself? I don’t understand.” “He’s a man who chose to live outside convention,” he told her carefully, “however he came to do so. I’ve found him to be honest, almost to a fault. But I’m a man. The reason for his previous behavior is gone now. It remains to be seen what time has done to him and will do for him. He knows that. You seem to be an intelligent woman. I’d do as he says in this if I were you. But that’s ridiculous, and too easy for me to say, isn’t it?” She nodded, and looked down. “Yes. And no. Thank you.” She hadn’t been a popular dance partner before dinner; she hadn’t expected to be. She was a stranger and a visitor from another land. But her hand was requested for every dance after that. She danced with another earl, she waltzed with a merchant, she laughed with a dandy who was prettier than she was. She refused two gentleman after the clock struck midnight, and went to stand by the long French doors, waiting for a breeze to cool her—and hoping that standing alone and at the side of the ballroom

The Challenge / 275

might lure Wycoff to her. He was nowhere in sight. She’d been looking for an hour. “I only asked Drummond and Dalton to attend you,” a familiar deep voice said at her ear. “The others followed suit because you look so lovely tonight.” “Fiddle,” she said without turning her head. He looked at her prim profile, and chuckled. “And,” he added, “the others are sheep—both in what they admire and what they despise. And no, you can’t have these lovely lemonades I’m holding. They’ve been commanded. I’m fetching like a footman for the Dowager Lady Milton and her crosseyed sister, you see. What they lack in looks and charm they make up for in social weight—as well as their own. They distrust me. I dislike them. But if I lie enough about that to damn what is left of my soul to eternal flames, I can win a withered smile from them. A smile leads to a kind word to others, and someday the ton may consider me neutered, with everything clipped and neat, suitable for a stint in their airless parlors. If I’m lucky.” He gave her a wry smile before he stepped into the crowd, leaving her alone again. She smiled to herself as well. It might be, it just might be possible for him to reclaim his good name, she thought. And if he was really capable of such change, then who knew what might be possible for her one day? Before she could suppress it, she felt a glimmer of a wild, forlorn hope. “Mrs. Stone!” a voice trilled.

276 / Edith Layton

She looked up to see a dazzling woman bearing down on her. She had auburn hair pulled up and away from a classically lovely face. Dressed in a cream colored gown that showed her willowy form to perfection, she wore diamonds on her creamy breast and camellias in her hair. A pair of inquisitive hazel eyes searched Lucy’s own. “We were introduced an hour past,” the lovely woman said in a low and musical voice. “Or perhaps not. It may have been that you were introduced close by, and that’s the same to me, impulsive creature that I am. And forgetful! I am Lady Turner. A close, very close friend of Lord Wycoff’s,” she added in a perfumed whisper, “but aren’t wicked gentlemen the best ones to know?” Lucy couldn’t even nod agreement. It would be telling too much. She just smiled, expectantly. “Pretty,” Lady Turner said, inspecting Lucy. “Different, but charming. Mature. Ripe, in fact. But playing the ingenue. I like the freckles. Perhaps I’ll paint some on? Different is always the way to an experienced gentleman’s heart—or similar warm, pulsing organ.” Lucy’s eyes widened. Lady Turner giggled. “Oh bother! Don’t look so shocked. The other cats here can pretend they don’t know what I’m saying, but I took you for a more experienced woman. You certainly have been around longer than most of them.” Before Lucy could know whether she should be insulted, Lady Turner went on, in that same charm-

The Challenge / 277

ing voice, “Yes, so I thought, you know all the rigs. But just look at Lady Morgan, staring down that long nose of hers at us! As though we were a pair of trollops on the strut, when all the world knows what she does for old Hightower, and lord knows no one else would, with all his money. And why her terrible disdain for us, you may ask? When she herself has the morals of a jade? All because Wycoff wouldn’t so much as hold her hand. Well, that shows his good taste. Who knows what else she’d just been holding? I do, and I don’t mind saying so, and thus that gaze she’s bending on me now—like a constipated camel.” She giggled again. “So,” she said, with another look at Lucy, “you’re the latest, are you?” But now Lucy’s hackles were up. Charming the voice might be, but what fell from those lovely lips was pure filth. “The latest what?” she asked, her eyes blazing, but her voice level. “Arrival in London? Visitor from America?” “Wycoff’s latest flirt, of course,” Lady Turner said innocently, though there was nothing innocent in her eyes. “Wycoff’s flirt?” Lucy answered with a stab at shocked surprise, though she was sure her rapid heartbeat was as audible as her words. She couldn’t let this woman spread gossip Wycoff was working so hard to dispel, for his sake, and her own. “Lord Wycoff? The Viscount? He’s an interesting gentleman, but I never guessed that was his intent!” “Pull the other one,” Lady Turner laughed.

278 / Edith Layton

“But he hasn’t paid any special attention to me. Do you think he’s interested, really?” Lucy asked with a hopeful expression, trying to throw Lady Turner off the scent by desperately pretending she was flattered and amazed. “Cut line,” Lady Turner said. “I saw him standing next to you. He’s never that disinterested unless he’s involved. And he’s always involved with someone. It’s none of the others here tonight. He and Caroline Caruthers were done with ages ago. She how she’s staring at him still? Much luck to her. That dashing dog never returns to his own dirt. Now, who else was there?” She ticked the names off on her fingers. “Let me see—in recent memory? He was with that opera singer for a full six months the other year, magnificent creature, she’d have stayed with him longer, even without pay. But she’s in Italy now. Millicent Briggs bored him in a month, of course. Well, the man has taste. Mrs. Cathcart lasted two. He was taken with that flighty Ragland chit, but left her after a night, and the country soon after. She went into seclusion with her husband, of all people, directly after that, and hasn’t been seen since. So who could it be? There hasn’t been a female in his life since, and none since he’s been back from America. And who’s here at the ball tonight but a female from America? I can add two and two, you know.” Lucy stood frozen, appalled. So many women? And so many here tonight? She knew his reputation, though he made her forget it. To hear them listed as

The Challenge / 279

though it was commonplace and amusing! But she supposed it was. Her chest felt tight. “Oh, don’t pull such a face,” Lady Turner laughed. “I quite understand. He probably told you not to breathe a word. They say he’s acting unlike himself these days. Probably trying to restore some dignity now that he’s actually free at last. I don’t blame you for keeping still and trying to keep your word to him. I mean, the fellow’s actually marriageable now! But you’d be a fool to get your hopes up, even if you were younger or more eligible. As if he’d ever tie himself down again after sweet Harriet!” Lucy felt her face growing hot, but couldn’t move or speak. “You’re perishing to brag, I’d bet,” Lady Turner said gaily. “He is something, isn’t he? Not many men can deliver what they promise. But Wycoff has the facility, the equipment, the skill—and energy, hasn’t he? So rare, these days, at least in men who are so highly bred. That sort of stamina is usually only found in gardeners or footmen, or stable lads fresh from the country. But they’re never so considerate, or have such finesse. Or are so immaculate in their personal hygiene, alas. But Wycoff has all that, and more. Who’d guess such an elegant fellow had such muscles—everywhere? “Thinking of that reminds me of so much…” Lady Turner sighed. “That flat abdomen…and that deliciously shaped birthmark on it, like a signal post to his other astonishing gift. Try tracing it with your finger—or…what have you.” She smiled.

280 / Edith Layton

“Lord, how I remember! It won’t last, of course. Well, cheer up. It’s early days. I’d guess you haven’t been a favorite for more than a sennight. They usually wear that dazed look at first.” Lucy’s tormentor looked across the room, and then away. “Enjoy it while you can,” she whispered quickly. “But I’m sure you will. No one could know better than you how quickly time passes, after all,” she said, and as quickly stepped away. Lucy looked up and into the ballroom to see Wycoff standing stock still, gazing back at her. He was far away, and the room was crowded, but she saw him clear. She knew she must be wearing the same anguished look that he was. And knew that they were matched, in their despair, at least.

19

man can change,” Gilly insisted again, strikButingaher small fist on the arm of her chair for emphasis, “I keep telling you that. I don’t know why a clever person like you refuses to see it!” Lucy stared out the window of her hotel room. Her visitor noted how pale and drawn she looked. She knew it wasn’t just from the late hours she’d kept the night before. “I came here this morning to tell you a thing or two,” Gilly went on. “I’m glad Jamie left the room so I could! It isn’t for a boy’s ears.” “Go ahead,” Lucy said wearily, “tell me a thing or three, if you want. You’re angry because I can’t accept Wycoff’s past behavior? I suppose I deserve it. I shouldn’t have waded in such deep waters. You and Wycoff know fashionable London and its ways.

282 / Edith Layton

You all probably think I’m priggish and provincial and bourgeois and who knows what all besides. I am. I can’t help it, nor do I want to. I have to live with myself long after I leave London, you know.” “Well, thank you very much for what you think of me!” her fair visitor said in annoyance. “If you think I’m that fashionable and immoral—well, I’m sorry, is all I can say, because I thought you liked me.” “But I do!” Lucy cried, swinging her head around. Gilly saw the tears in her eyes. “That’s what makes it even worse.” Gilly took her hand. “Don’t weep,” she said uncomfortably. “I can’t bear to see a woman cry.” Lucy gave her a watery smile. “You say the oddest things. That’s why I thought you were different from others in your set. But here you are acting as if I’m the one who’s wrong, when all I said was I don’t know how I can deal with a man who was so—profligate—and maybe still is.” “I like you, too, Lucy Stone, that’s why I have to say my piece,” Gilly said. “It’s not blaming you, just explaining. Now.” She took a breath. “Lucy, people do change. I have something else to tell you on that score. If it makes you decide not to be my friend, so be it.” Lucy’s eyes widened. “I hope you won’t tell anyone else, either,” Gilly added. “Of course I won’t,” Lucy said immediately, “Except…I have to ask before I give my word—does Wycoff know?”

The Challenge / 283

“As if I’d tell you a thing you couldn’t tell him! You have enough keeping you apart as it is. Of course he does. He’s as sly as he can hold together. He guessed the minute he met me, years ago. So you can discuss it with him. But no one else, please.” “My word on it,” Lucy said. “Few people know,” Gilly said, “but the truth is I’m not a lady at all, not even well born, by anyone’s standards. It’s not that my family was in trade—how I wish they’d been! My father died young and poor, my mother soon after, and they didn’t leave me anything but my sister. Now, you’re a squire’s daughter, and if this means we can’t be friends anymore so be it. But I was a slum child—no, more than that—a slum rat. I’ll tell you all of it some day, if you still want to hear it. If you still want to talk with me,” she added. “Do you think I’m that shallow?” Lucy asked, appalled. “Well, maybe you’d have cause to be,” Gilly said gruffly, her accents suddenly at odds with her elegant clothes. “It’s not just that I’m from the streets—I lived in them. Aye, literally. I gleaned from the gutters, picked pockets and worse, until I was lucky enough to meet a lady and her noble gentleman. They took me and my sister in, and trained us to act like ladies born. They live close by Damon and me, in the countryside; I hope you can meet them someday. But the long and the short of it is that I met Damon by accident and never thought I deserved him, and still don’t. But if I can change so

284 / Edith Layton

completely—and I have, though sometimes my past peeks through—I tell you anyone with heart, courage, and a willing soul can do it. Wycoff has all of that.” Lucy grimaced. Gilly blinked. “It’s nothing you said about yourself,” Lucy quickly reassured her. “Your history astonishes me. It doesn’t change my opinion of you, except for the better. I think it’s wonderful you came so far, but I’d expect nothing less from you. You see, when you said ‘Wycoff has all of that,’ it reminded me of what that Turner woman said. She listed all his attributes, too. But,” Lucy added with a bitter smile, “she mentioned very different ones.” “Huh. I can guess. She still wants him and don’t want you near him. She’s just a whore,” Gilly said with scorn. “It’s an occupation for the rich and well born as well as the poor. Only the poor do it so as not to starve. Hard for us to understand those that do it for pleasure. I never sold myself, no matter how hungry I got.” Her expression grew intent. “That’s not to the point. I know what Wycoff did—and why. I’m not saying he was right. But I am saying he knows he was wrong. He suffers for it still. I’d bet he’d never betray you.” “How I wish I dared bet on that, too!” Lucy said, “But it’s not just me I’d have to wager, there’s Jamie too, and his future. It’s not just morals, it’s a matter of my whole life. How can I make you see?” Seeing her guest’s expression, Lucy groaned in frustration. Gilly Ryder was charming, poised, and

The Challenge / 285

confident beyond her years. But Lucy realized she didn’t have many of them. She was really a very young woman. Lucy guessed she must be almost a decade older than Gilly. She suddenly felt every hour of it. “Damon’s a wonderful man,” Lucy said carefully, “and anyone can see how much you love him. But what if he took a notion to pack up and sail off with you now, to India? Or China? And left you there to raise your baby, alone, while he went on seeking his fortune? He could. There’d be nothing you could do about it if you loved him. There’d be nothing you could do even if you didn’t,” she added sadly. “My husband did something similar, and died before he could undo it, leaving me alone with the consequences. With all you say you were, you still have a trusting soul. With good reason. But I don’t. With better reason. Do you see? What a man says and what he does are two different things, everyone knows that. But only someone like me knows what a husband does can change his wife’s life forever, no matter what he says. I can’t leave my life to trust anymore.” “Then how can you live it?” Gilly asked. It was a very good question, and one that plagued Lucy long after they’d changed the subject. A visitor came to the door just as Gilly and her maid were leaving. He and Gilly were obviously old friends: They nodded as they passed each other in the hall. Lucy watched from the doorway, a cynical smile growing on her lips.

286 / Edith Layton

“Good day, Perkins,” Lucy said with a weary sigh. “Your timing is of course, impeccable. Your master must be very proud of you.” “Indeed,” Perkins said calmly, “one hopes so. But isn’t Master James ready? I believe it is the stated time?” “Oh!” Lucy said, easy color rushing to her cheeks. “Forgive me! I’d presumed—but I forgot. Jamie was supposed to go on an outing with Lord Wycoff today, wasn’t he?” “I was, Mama,” Jamie said from behind her, as he came from his bedchamber, hair freshly combed, and dressed for the outdoors. “I’m ready. It’s the Tower today. It’s good that it’s not raining because otherwise—the stench is stultifying.” Lucy stared at him. Those weren’t words he usually used when talking about bad odors. “That’s what Lord Wycoff said, isn’t it, Perkins?” Jamie asked. “Indeed, it is, Master James,” Perkins said. “He also asked if you might care to join us there, Mrs. Stone. There’s something he wishes to show you. I fear I can’t divulge it because it’s in the nature of a surprise. I’ll be there, as will your maid,” he added more softly, “so anyone happening along might think it just an accident you met, and no talk would ensue. He told me to assure you of that.” It was terrible for Lucy to imagine a proud man like Wycoff feeling such an outcast he thought she’d only meet him as if by accident. “Of course, I can,” she said immediately.

The Challenge / 287

“May we expect to see you there then? Say, at three?” “At three,” Lucy declared, and got an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach as Perkins and Jamie left. Did she never learn to think before she spoke? Because what could any surprise of his hold for her but more problems? But even after reasoning about it, she couldn’t think of anything that could keep her from going, short of murder. The parade of guests that kept arriving at her hotel room almost did, though. No sooner did Perkins leave with Jamie than the fiery-haired Lord Dalton arrived to pay a morning call. He’d just seated himself when Sukey announced Lord Drummond. Lucy was glad she had worn a new morning gown, though she was sure it wasn’t her charms they’d come to see. She was surer a few minutes later. “And so can we hope to see you at the ball this Saturday?” Lord Drummond drawled after telling an amusing story. “The Swansons give them as regularly as clockwork. Well, with all those daughters, the poor fellow has no choice.” Lucy smiled. Gilly had told her about the Swansons’ unfortunate-looking daughters. “Everyone goes to their balls,” Lord Drummond said. “It’s not that they’re amusing so much as no one wants to miss seeing how dreadful they can be.” “Everyone?” Lucy asked innocently. “Even Lord Wycoff?”

288 / Edith Layton

Her redheaded visitor shot a guilty look at the elegant gentleman sitting opposite him. “Oh well done, Rafe,” Lord Drummond sighed. “Why don’t you just shout ‘Did you hear that, Drum?’ If you’d acted that way when we worked against the French, you’d have lost your head quicker than I’ll be able to fill your ears with abuse when we leave here.” “Can’t help it,” Rafe shrugged. “Didn’t feel a particle of guilt about deceiving them. But a nice young woman like Mrs. Stone? Another thing, entirely.” “And how are we deceiving her, pray tell?” Lord Drummond said, looking down his long nose at his friend. “By telling her about a soiree he can attend? What’s wrong with that? Wycoff’s a changed man, there hasn’t been a word about any of his affairs since he came back from abroad.” “Because he hasn’t had any affairs, Drum, all know that,” Rafe commented. “Precisely,” Drum said. “Because he has no use for them. His attention is fixed, or so he vows. And whatever his past, he’s a man of his word. A changed man of his word, at that. Saw him yesterday with the Dowager Duchess of Franklin.” “Brrr,” Rafe said, with a theatrical shudder. “Fellow could get frostbitten in such company.” “The most proper female in the ton, but agreed. And what about his companion at the opera the night before?” “Shouldn’t say such things near a gently born

The Challenge / 289

female,” Rafe cautioned. He cast a warning glance toward Lucy, who was watching them both, fascinated. “And why not,” Drum asked loftily, “when it was no less than Lady Roth, and her niece Miss Peabody, that he sat with?” “Gads,” Rafe said, “Those two? Top of the trees, and look like they should be living in them, with those faces, wicked little yellow teeth, constant nattering, and all. But for all that, proper as the Queen at tea. The man’s not only atoning, he’s wearing a hair shirt!” Lucy couldn’t hold back her mirth any longer. A stifled giggle turned into choked laughter. Then she laughed full out, holding her hands over her mouth to try to stop it from becoming a shout. “Oh my!” she said, when she could, to the earl’s affronted stare and Rafe’s guilty grin. “You two! I swear you should go on the stage. So he’s keeping good company, and not tomcatting—Your pardon. I meant, so he’s acting with all propriety, and vows to continue, and you want me to know he’s going to be at the Swansons’ ball this week? But I heard all that from Mrs. Ryder. Twice. Has he been proposed for sainthood yet? Now, that I hadn’t heard.” Drum gave her a rueful smile. Rafe laughed. “Ought to have guessed she’d be sharp as she’s pretty, Drum.” “Pretty and clever, and a reasonable female, to boot. So certainly she’ll see we do this for an old friend as well as for someone we hope will become

290 / Edith Layton

one. My dear Mrs. Stone,” Drum said with a singularly sweet smile, “Wycoff’s more sinned against than sinning now. Surely, you do see that?” She sobered. “I do, my lord. But surely you can see that ‘now’ can become ‘then’ quicker than you can blink. And that my ‘then’ is a thing I must be very careful of?” “Yes,” he said. “But still, for now, it’s a thing we’d like you to see for yourself. You do understand?” “Yes,” she said as solemnly. But she soon was smiling again. Because Sukey went to the door to announce Damon Ryder. “So I missed Gilly!” he said in chagrin. “I thought she’d still be here. How are you keeping, Mrs. Stone, my lords? I don’t have time to visit with you now. But wait—we can remedy that. Are you going to the Swansons’ soiree this week? I hear everyone will be there.” It was a while before any of them could tell him why they groaned and then started laughing. The sun was out, the breeze from the north. After Lucy got down from her hackney carriage she followed her nose south to the menagerie at the Tower. Flat daisies speckled the gently sloping green lawns the many visitors strolled along. It was a popular place. History, riches, and exotic animals all to be seen within steps of each other, along the bustling riverbank. She saw Jamie first. His new suit of clothes was still in some sort of order, at least his

The Challenge / 291

shirt was mostly tucked in and his stockings almost pulled up. The breeze had played with his hair and put bright color in his cheeks. He was standing by an animal enclosure, but had eyes only for the tall young man he was talking so excitedly with. “There’s mama! You’ll see now, she’s a great gun!” Jamie told the young man as Lucy drew near. “Mama, we’ve had such fun, Crispin and me!” “Crispin and I,” the young man murmured, casually rumpling Jamie’s hair. He bowed to Lucy, and noticed her shock as she stared at him. “Yes, it does take some people that way,” he told her with a familiar smile. But it was Wycoff grinning back at her from those distinctive down-turned eyes, she thought as she gazed, dumbstruck, at the young man. The eyes were brown, not hazel, the hair brushed back from that same high forehead was gold, not light brown. The face was smooth, the lips fuller, the nose a jot straighter. And the smile was warmer, wider, and far more boyish than Wycoff’s. He was, after all, less than a decade older than Jamie, though he was already as tall as his father. He moved with coltish energy and none of his father’s languid grace. But he was Wycoff’s stamp. “My pride, my joy, my absolutely charming boy,” a familiar voice said in bored tones, with a decided edge to them, “it would be lovely if you’d introduce yourself, you know.” “Crispin Allard Samuel Wycoff at your service, ma’am,” the young man said hastily, bowing again.

292 / Edith Layton

“Forgive my lapse. But I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you, and it appears every one of them is true.” “Oh yes.” Lucy nodded. “Very much your father’s boy.” He blushed as ruddily as Lucy herself ever had. Things were easier after that. They chatted comfortably, like old friends met by chance on a bright spring afternoon. And if Lucy held her parasol and cast her face in shadow every time she looked up at Wycoff, she told herself it could be thought it was the sun she was shading her eyes from. No one would ever guess she was shielding her expression so he wouldn’t guess the wild joy she felt whenever she looked at him. She’d missed the low thrum of his voice, the quirked smile on his lips, the humor and desire in his sparkling eyes. She’d missed the sheer overwhelming presence of the man, so sure and so powerful. She wanted him nearer than her elbow, felt him closer than the sun on her shoulders. She was, she knew, in a fever of desire and the throes of pure pleasure simply because they stood together, side by side. She was safe from him here. And entirely threatened by him. The contradiction made her dread the afternoon ending. Wycoff looked down at her and felt his heart slow, at peace. She was here, with him, as he’d asked her to be. She looked lovely, of course. She made Crispin laugh, she was a delightful companion, and he wanted to set his heart galloping by taking her

The Challenge / 293

into his arms and tasting those plush lips again. He remembered their midnight moments in his cabin, and wanted to blot out the sun and relive them with her now. He suggested they walk on. They went strolling two by two along the embankment: she with Crispin, Jamie with Wycoff, Perkins and her maidservant bringing up the rear. Crispin smiled down at Lucy, and spoke softly. “I’m so glad he’s home,” he confided to her. “He always managed to spend holidays with us. But now my term’s almost done I can come see him. Candice will be green with jealousy. She’s my sister. A whirlwind and a caution, but my own dear brat, I dote on her as much as Father does. She’s on fire to see him, but her school doesn’t let out for another month. Ma’am,” he said, suddenly, “Jamie said your plans were still up in the air. I don’t mean to be presumptuous—but I must be. For my sake as well as my sister’s, could you see your way clear to staying on here, at least a while longer? If you do, that would keep him in England, where we want him to be.” Lucy halted, amazed. He colored again. “He’d have my head if he knew I said it, but it’s clear as the nose on my face—and that’s mightily clear, you’ll agree—that you’re the reason he’s here, and what he’s staying around for. Don’t judge him by what they say, please. I know something of it, and I promise it wasn’t all his fault. They’re catching up with us, so all I can say now is that he was father and mother to us, even from afar.

294 / Edith Layton

Ho! Jamie,” he called, pointing out to the water. “What do you think of that three-masted schooner there?” Very much like his father, Lucy thought a little sadly. As good at deception as he was, at least. Was it in the blood, she wondered? “What has he said?” Wycoff asked softly as he came up to her. “Only good things about you,” she answered. “And it makes you sad?” She nodded. He looked troubled by her answer. He was. It was a rare day. His son was here, his bright triumph. Tall and straight in mind and body, everything he himself had started out to be, unsullied by time or disgrace. Lucy was here with him, too, strolling on his arm, as though he’d a right to her. Clever young Jamie looked up at him with admiration. At least Lucy didn’t look at him with disgust. Only fear. But he was afraid, too. “I don’t know what that Turner woman told you,” he told her suddenly, urgently, low. “There weren’t that many women, not really. I know it sounds weak and doesn’t absolve me. But the thing is, those there were are highly placed and still very visible. I’m working hard as I can to convince you of that. You, and everyone else. I can’t wash it clean in a week. But I will. You’ll see—I hope.” She nodded again. There was nothing she could say, and far too much she wanted to do.

The Challenge / 295

It was twilight when Lucy and Jamie got back to the hotel. She brooded. There were another five days and nights until the ball where she might see Wycoff again. “You’ve a visitor, Mrs. Stone,” the desk clerk said. Late afternoon shadows showed Lucy only the shape of a man rising from a sofa and coming toward her. She sucked in her breath as he neared, and held it as he bowed over her hand. Her heart sank, though at first she didn’t understand why. “Lucy,” William said with admiration. “You look good. No, better. Lord, you look fine!” “Well, it’s all these new clothes,” she said, for something to say. Meeting him like this, out of time and their usual place, confused her. It tilted reality on its ear. All she could think was that she’d been angry at him, and how strange it was that he was actually here. “The Ameses,” she asked fearfully, her reasoning slowly returning, “They’re all right?” “Fine. I’ve come on business—well, I made the business to come for. Wanted to see you and how you were faring, and so here I am.” He shook his head. “I’ve got to get myself new clothes made up, too, while I’m here, if they make such a difference. You look years younger. And in the latest kick of fashion, too.” He looked past her shoulder, where Sukey was obviously waiting. His eyebrows went up. “Got a maidservant, too?” Lucy held her breath. “Looks like your brother-in-law’s done right by you, and that’s a fact,” William said.

296 / Edith Layton

Lucy breathed again, rejoicing in his hasty assumption. “I’ve rooms in this very hotel,” he went on, with triumph. “Took them when the clerk told me you were still here. Cost me a pretty price, but it’s worth it. Well, Ames told me where you were staying. Glad you haven’t moved on yet. I was surprised, though. Thought you’d be at your noble brother-in-law’s castle, or what have you.” “We’re not going there. He’s coming to London instead.” His eyes lit. He smiled, visibly relaxing, looking at her with a proprietary air. She remembered why they’d quarreled. She remembered why she was unhappy at seeing him again. “Have dinner with me tonight then?” he asked. “They say the food’s good here. I just arrived, or I’d have asked sooner. Why not, Lucy? Old friends, newly met in a strange place?” She thought of saying she’d a previous engagement. But she didn’t and he lived here and would know if she lied. If she said she had a headache, she could stay in her rooms. But that would be hiding. She wouldn’t do that. “Fine,” she said. And gritted her teeth. Because that was the wrong answer. Hiding in her rooms would at least make him wonder if he had any real competition. His expression showed he thought he’d none, and was halfway to winning her back. He was, she thought sadly, at least halfway right.

The Challenge / 297

“Ma’am?” Sukey said. “Are we going out today?” “You may,” Lucy said. “I can’t.” If she showed her nose out the door, William would pounce. He had yesterday. She’d thought he’d be exhausted after his long journey, but he was out and about early the next day, and insisted on accompanying her to the park with Jamie. Thank goodness for Sukey, she’d thought. But that made her think about Wycoff, and made her even more unhappy. “What ever became of that Wycoff fellow?” William had asked too blandly, as if he didn’t know. Anyone inquiring at the hotel could have found out he never came to call on her. They both knew it. “I see him now and then, at social affairs—balls and routs and the like,” Lucy answered airily, to let him know he’d grow a tail before there was any chance of him being invited to such. But he wasn’t a bad man, and they were old acquaintances, and she was very much on her own here in London. She never forgot that, however kind they were to her, the Ryders, Lord Dalton, and the lofty Earl of Drummond were Wycoff’s friends first. She did have a few gentleman callers after the ball. But they were either gossips or in search of a woman with a fortune, and she had nothing for any of them. William, with all his faults, was at least her own friend. Even if she didn’t want him, his presence was flattering. But persistent. “You can’t, Madam?” Sukey asked, puzzled. “Are you unwell?”

298 / Edith Layton

“No,” Lucy sighed, “but I’ll stay. I’ve a book to read.” She turned back to the pages of Miss Austen’s last book without seeing them, yearning to leap up and go out with Jamie and Sukey. When they stood by the door looking back at her one more time, she laid her book down. Jamie grinned. He knew her as well as she knew herself. “Well, I—” she began to say, but there was a tapping on the door. She grimaced. Caught either way. William was early today. But the strange couple who stood in her doorway were complete strangers to her. The slender woman was her own age, most of her pale hair covered by her stylish bonnet. Her face was unremarkable; her clothes gave her all the distinction it lacked. She stared at Jamie, not Lucy. So did her companion, who was well dressed, portly, of medium height, but looked shorter because of his posture. His hat hid his hair; what little she could see of it was sparse and gray. He was wan, of middle years, his face familiar… “Jonathan?” Lucy gasped. He looked at her at last. His eyes had puffy pouches under them, but held the living memory of Francis’s dark brown eyes—and Jamie’s. He was only two years older than Francis! she thought in astonishment. But Francis had been gone for almost ten years. Even so, his brother looked too old for his years. “Hello, Lucy,” he said. “So this is my nephew? It must be. James? You look like your father, you know.”

The Challenge / 299

“And like you,” his wife told him as she studied Jamie. “Your eyes, exactly. And your hair.” “When I had it,” he laughed. “So what do you have to say for yourself, young man?” Jamie glanced at his mother, and then bowed to them. “Good morning, sir. Are you my uncle, then?” “Then, and now,” the baron Hunt said with pleasure. “Or should I say, even more now that you’re finally here. We’ve waited a long time to see you, my lad. Nine, are you now?” “Ten soon, sir.” The baron laughed. “Boys! Always eager to add a year. I remember when your father was your age and wanted to have his own curricle, the tales he told our father to convince him he was ready for it…” He looked around. “Won’t you sit down?” Lucy asked, belatedly. “Thank you. It was a long and wearisome trip. So tell me, lad,” the baron said as he slowly lowered himself to a chair, “are you as keen a rider as your father was?” Jamie ducked his head. “No, sir. That is to say, I would be, maybe, if there was time. But I have so much to do.” Lucy felt ashamed and proud. Jamie had his father’s eyes and his mother’s pride. Because it was more than lack of time. It was lack of money for horses and the leisure to ride them. “Well then, sir,” his uncle said, “we’ll make the time, won’t we? Your father was mad for horses. I

300 / Edith Layton

told him he was wrong to choose the navy rather than the cavalry. Maybe he came to realize it and that’s why he left it so soon.” He had a friend in the navy, Lucy thought, and Francis was always mad to do whatever his friends did—and whatever his brother told him not to do. But she didn’t say it. Jonathan seemed so taken with Jamie. All these years he’d ignored her and her son. But things had changed. Jonathan was prematurely old now—it was evident in how he moved, and clear to see in his face. As was his fascination with his newfound nephew. The baron Hunt had more than money, he had connections and prestige, and who knew what he might do for his long-lost nephew, after all? So Lucy sat, hands folded, and watched Jamie and his uncle get to know each other. Jamie talked sixteen to the dozen, his uncle laughed at every other word he said. His aunt watched as Lucy did. Only Lucy never beamed all the time on the pair of them, the way the lady Alice did. Nor did she breathe a word, even though she heard a dozen things about Francis that were wrong or wrongly said; she didn’t want to interrupt. She didn’t venture to say a thing. No one noticed.

20

they have a boy-sized curricle, Uncle said, And though he thinks I’d need a man-sized one soon enough,” Jamie reported. “And a whole kennel of hunting dogs, though Uncle don’t go hunting much anymore, his health and all, but they’ll get me any sort of dog I want, as well as a horse. Mama, I can’t wait to go visit them!” It sounded like the baron wanted more than a mere visit from them, Lucy thought with delight. She sat back. She could finally stop pacing. It was already dark. Jamie had been talking without cease for a half hour, ever since he’d got home. His uncle and aunt had kept him out long past his bedtime, and returned him with many an apology. “You know how unreliable those ferrymen are,” Jonathan had said. “We were told there was an hour

302 / Edith Layton

wait. As it was crowded we decided to have dinner while we waited. Then there was the trip back. Sorry for any distress it caused you, but you must have known he was safe with us. There was no way to get word to you in any event. We took Jamie to see Vauxhall Gardens after I told him about how much his father used to enjoy the place. It was a spur of the moment idea, but he liked it, I think.” “I loved it!” Jamie enthused, looking up at his uncle very much as the dog he’d been promised might have done. It had been three days since the baron Hunt and his wife had come to London. All told, Lucy had spoken with them for an hour, if that. They’d passed every daylight hour with Jamie, though. Lucy occupied herself by avoiding William, visiting Gilly, and waiting for Jamie. And thinking of Saturday evening, when she’d be able to see Wycoff again. Jamie’s eyes were shining in spite of the lateness of the hour. It was right that he see his uncle. Wrong for her to feel lonely and left out—or at least so she told herself. Hadn’t she brought him here for this very purpose? His uncle obviously took to him. It was more wrong still for her to feel this niggling sense of unworthiness. No, she told herself in disgust, it was plain jealousy. Jonathan had the time and money to fulfill Jamie’s every wish. It seemed he was trying to. Good! she told herself. That was the whole reason they’d returned to England. “We’ll visit them,” she said. “I don’t know how long we’ll stay, so I’d forget about the dog for a

The Challenge / 303

while. That’s what we planned to do when we arrived, remember? Let’s give your uncle time to recover himself and we’ll go back with him when he leaves. He doesn’t seem to have much energy.” “Well, no. But he said he feels better when I’m with him than he has in years!” Jamie enthused. “Tomorrow we’re going to the Admiralty where there’s a friend of his who knew father, and then to Tattersall’s so I can see the horse auctions. He wouldn’t do that if he couldn’t, would he? Oh. And he says he wants to speak with you tomorrow, too.” She’d like to talk with someone who’d known Francis, too. But she wouldn’t invite herself along. That was probably what he was going to ask her, Lucy decided. “Good,” she said on a yawn. “Now wash and go to bed. It will make tomorrow come faster.” That was, after all, why she went to bed so early herself these days. She wore her best walking dress the next morning. Sukey had her newest bonnet laid out on the sideboard so she could just pluck it up as she walked out the door. But the baron and his lady had eyes only for Jamie when they arrived. “Jamie!” Jonathan said after Sukey let him in. “Guess what I’ve brought with me? A new carriage. It’s not mine yet. I’m testing it, to see if it suits. Go downstairs, it’s in front of the hotel. I’ve told John Coachman to show you its features so you can help decide if we should buy it. If we do, then you may help choose the horses we’ll need for the trip back. Go down. We’ll follow soon.

304 / Edith Layton

We just want to talk with your mama before we go.” “Right! I’ll see you later, Mama!” Jamie fairly sang as he flew out the door. He took the stairs two at a time before Lucy could tell him not to. She shook her head; Jonathan chuckled. But then he grew sober. “I have to talk with you, Lucy,” he said. “Be off about your duties, girl,” he said with a wave of his hand at Sukey. “The lad’s all ears, bless him, so this is as good a time as any for our chat,” he told Lucy, slowly lowering himself into a straight-backed chair. His wife took another chair and sat ramrod straight. Lucy put out a hand on the arm of a sofa, and came to rest without thinking. She bit her lip. This was not going to be an invitation to the Admiralty. “Yes?” she said. “Well,” he said after Sukey had left, “my lady and I weren’t sure what we’d think when we met Jamie. To be honest, if we didn’t like him, we’d never be having this talk. You don’t know me very well, Lucy. That’s as much our fault as Francis’s. But we kept track of you and Jamie all these years. The Ameses are our distant relatives, too, and as head of the family I made sure to keep in contact with them. They always urged us to meet Jamie. But time passed—one imagines one has all the time in the world…” He sighed heavily. “The plain truth is we can’t have children, my lady and I. The doctors say it’s not certain. But we’ve ten years of trying without so

The Challenge / 305

much as a spark to show for our efforts. I was ill this past autumn, and a long time recovering. It made me start thinking of the succession. It looks to be Jamie who’ll be the next baron Hunt. My doctors say that will be years from now. But I’ve less faith in them than ever. “If I didn’t like the boy, I’d make other provisions. Leave my money away from the estate, even if it broke my heart. The estate has been in the family three hundred years. I’d not like to leave it to chance. But we like him very well indeed.” “I’m so pleased,” Lucy said calmly, though her spirits soared. Everything she’d worked and saved and hoped for was actually going to come true for Jamie! It must have showed on her face. Jonathan sighed again. “Hear me out,” he said. “The lad looks enough like me to be my own son. I’d like to raise him as such.” There was a silence. They both looked at Lucy. “What?” she finally said. “Well,”—he shifted on his chair—“it only makes sense. If he’s to run the estate in due time, why not learn the way of it now? I can send him to the best schools, as he deserves. I’d like to be father to him; he needs one. My lady is a kind woman, quite capable of being a mother.” Lucy heard a fizzing in her ears. She suddenly saw through a long crimson tunnel that ended in Jonathan’s plump face. She held her breath and her tongue with effort. A decade ago, she’d have fled in

306 / Edith Layton

tears. Living on her own, fighting every battle by herself for so many years had given her courage, and her love for Jamie gave her strength. Her besetting sin was rashness. She knew she couldn’t act on her impulses. There was no way she could kill Jonathan. She refused to shriek, or order him out either. When she did speak, her voice trembled, but held. “And me? Have you forgotten that Jamie has a living mother?” “Of course not, and neither would he,” Jonathan protested. He avoided her gaze. “But this would free you, Lucy. Think on. This is difficult, but if we can’t speak truth now, when can we? We know, we’ve heard—that you have other interests. Why not? You’re still a handsome woman. Who can blame you? And Lord Wycoff is most persuasive.” Lucy sat absolutely still. But her hands tightened in her lap, and even her lips turned pale. Jonathan shook his head; it set his jowls quivering like a weary basset hound. “You traveled to England with him. How could that be a secret?” He heard her indrawn breath. “Yes, we made inquiries. We had to discover what sort of person you were, Lucy,” he said. “Credit us with that much concern about the boy. I will say you’ve been discreet since you got here. But it’s almost impossible to have a secret in London. Now, without Jamie to worry about, you could do as you please. You’re not in society, you can and likely will return to America. But with a fine income coming to you monthly, you’d be your own mistress, not

The Challenge / 307

dependent on the generosity or whim of any man to set your table or buy your clothing.” Color flooded into Lucy’s face. Embarrassment and rage warred with each other, keeping her silent as she struggled for composure. “We wouldn’t forget you, or let you live in penury,” Jonathan went on. “We’d settle a handsome monthly stipend on you.” “We so wish you’d written to tell us of your hardship all these years, instead of being so proud,” his lady added nervously, in a light and breathy voice. “The Ameses said you were doing well, but Jamie has told us what he has done without.” “With money and freedom, you could do as you please,” Jonathan said, shooting a quelling glance at his wife. “Although, to be sure, you’d be better off not doing some things. Wycoff has a certain history you may be unaware of. He’s a famous philanderer. Were I you, I wouldn’t put any trust in him. He discards women as easily as he acquires them. But that’s your choice.” He slapped his palms on his knees and looked at her. “And so? May we take Jamie home with us? It would be best for him, and you.” “He’s a dear boy,” Lady Alice whispered. “Just think, Lucy. This way he can have everything he wants, too.” “And if the doctors are wrong?” Lucy asked, turning to her, eyes blazing. “If you conceive a boy, my lady, what of my boy, then?” “Then I’d rejoice,” the lady said softly. “But

308 / Edith Layton

James wouldn’t suffer. The Manor has thousands of acres. We have ample funds. He’d still have a place in society, and our hearts.” “As well as a good education,” Jonathan added, “and every opportunity. If you take him back now? He’ll have you. And whatever fortune you can procure for him.” He looked at her as though they both knew how little that would be, shrugged, then slowly rose to his feet. “Don’t answer right away. If you love him, you’ll make the right decision. Come, Alice, we’re promised to Captain Blake for luncheon. We’ll see you again this evening, Lucy. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of Jamie.” But that was what she worried about. Lucy paced the room after they’d gone, first whispering “No! Never.” A life without Jamie? A boy without his mama? Impossible! Then she fell silent, tormented, wondering, Why? They could give him everything his mama couldn’t. Every argument she thought of had a counterbalance. She wanted to take Jamie home. She wondered if she’d ever forgive herself if she did. And if Jamie ever would. She was home in England, at last. Jonathan paid her fare here, so she still had the money she’d saved up and her choice of worlds to conquer. Her future looked brighter than it had in years. But not so bright as Jamie’s could be with Jonathan and his wife. The right schools, the right upbringing, preparing him for ownership of a fine estate. If she took him away now, Jonathan might be able to leave it away from him, or leave only the estate, useless to Jamie with no funds,

The Challenge / 309

or experience at managing it. Did she have the right to deprive Jamie of his birthright? Was it love or selfishness that was urging her to snatch him up and fly back to America now? She thought of Wycoff, and suddenly knew, surely as she knew her name, that if she didn’t have Jamie’s future to worry about, she’d gamble her own. Not in marriage perhaps. But if she was alone in the world with no one to think of but herself, who knew what she might dare? So could it be that she was trying to keep Jamie just to protect herself from risking a liaison with Wycoff? She froze, contemplating the terrible thought. No. She breathed a shaking sigh. She’d acquit herself of that. Above all, beyond everything, she loved Jamie with every particle of her being. Enough to give him up for his own good? Or would it be for his own good? She didn’t know. She felt as though Jonathan had struck her, her head and chest ached so. A tapping on her door diverted her from her agonizing reasonings. Without thinking, she threw the door wide. “There you are!” William said. He walked in and threw his hat down on a table. “I never seem to find you in. You’re out at cock crow and in bed by dusk—you ought to do it the other way round now that you’re in London, you know. What’s toward?” he asked suddenly. “You’re weeping.” She felt her cheeks. “Am I? So I am,” she said,

310 / Edith Layton

fishing in her pocket for a handkerchief. “Rain without thunder, though I could swear I was screaming. William,” she said, turning to him simply because he was a familiar face and she had to talk with someone, “I don’t know what to do.” She told him all. It was good to just put it in words. Every offer, every argument, all her fears and hopes for Jamie. All, except for the bit about Wycoff, because upset as she was, she knew telling William that would be folly. William sat listening quietly. She never looked at him, too intent on expressing her thoughts and hearing her own arguments. When she was done she looked at him at last, and bit her lip. He was beaming. When he saw her expression of hurt surprise, he looked guilty. “Well, I’m glad you came to me,” he said, and she knew what he’d looked so pleased about. “They’re not wrong,” he went on. “It’s the boy’s birthright. Gods! What it must be like to be handed your future on a silver tray!” he muttered. “Not to have to work and scratch for every cent. Look at me—I moved heaven and earth to get here. But look at Jamie. He’ll have enough gold to come visit you whenever he wants.” “Visit me?” she said, a dangerous look in her eyes, “Where?” “Home,” he said. “With me,” he added. “Look, my girl, enough shilly-shallying. I offered you a good home before. It can be a better one now. Not only am I making new business out of this trip, but you said

The Challenge / 311

the baron would be filling your pockets, too. Between the two of us, we’ll do very well. Buy ourselves a house bigger than the Ameses’, keep it just for ourselves and fill it with our own children. You’ve had one, you’ll have more. Who knows? Maybe Lord Wycoff will sell us the old Carlisle place?” “Out!” Lucy said. William gaped at her. Lucy regretted her tone. However obtuse William was, he did care. But how could he understand a mother’s love? But who better than he, with that mother of his? She was very confused. She put a hand to her forehead. “I mean, please go now, William. I’ve too much to think about now to talk with you about the future.” “But I just offered you my hand again,” William protested. “It’s why I came here. It’s why I tossed aside everything and followed you on the first fair tide. Mother thought I was mad. I was only angry—with you, and Wycoff. Yes, I heard gossip, but I don’t credit a word of it. You’re no lightskirts, Lucy, you’d never take a man to bed without wedlock. And don’t I know it!” he muttered. “But I think you’ll warm nicely with a ring on your finger. Good females are like that, and you are one. Leave Jamie to his father’s destiny. Make yours with me.” He smiled, pleased with what he said, and how he’d said it. “It’s a thing I must think on,” Lucy said, her head aching. “What is there to think about? You took him to England to meet his father’s family. He did. They’ve embraced him. Now it’s time to mend your own life.”

312 / Edith Layton

But I could only do that with another man, the thought sprang to her mind, and he doesn’t know what’s happened yet. “I still have to think,” she said quickly. “Jamie’s still a boy. We have a bond. If he’s to be the baron’s heir, he will be whether he’s here or there—or anywhere. Please leave now. I do appreciate the honor of your offer. But I can’t think of one thing until I resolve the other.” “I’ll go, but I need an answer soon,” he said, getting to his feet. “I’ve only a little more business to take care of. Then I want to go home. I’ll be a wealthier man when I do, Lucy. I’ll be a more eligible one, too. I can’t wait for you forever. London’s filled with spinsters. In fact, I’ve also come to ask if you’d like to accompany me to a ball. Yes. I’ve been invited, through a man of business I met. Tomorrow night. At the Lord Swanson’s.” He puffed out his chest. “I understand it’s a very fine, exclusive affair.” Lucy bit back laughter, remembering Gilly’s words. Exclusive, indeed. Exclusively for any man who could climb into suitable clothes and court one of Swanson’s many daughters. “I’ll be there,” she said. “I’ve already promised myself to go with my friends, the Ryders.” He hesitated, waiting for her to ask him along. When she said nothing, he took her hand. She straightened her back so he wouldn’t get the notion of taking anything else in hand. He bowed and left her. But not without saying one more thing.

The Challenge / 313

“I’ll need an answer soon, my girl. You’ve got first call on me, because I asked you first. But I’m not the type to wear the willow, and I warn you, don’t be angry—I’ll be looking around, in case your answer is no.” Fair enough, Lucy thought. She wished she had any kind of answer. She knew who she had questions for, though. But she couldn’t see him for another night. By then she’d likely have a dozen more. She badly needed his advice and his counsel. Almost as much as she needed to be held close in his arms, feeling that nothing and no one could hurt her there. Nothing and no one—but him. That realization made her head ache even more.

21

always took care to dress correctly, but Wycoff tonight he’d primped like a boy going to his first social call. He stared at himself in the mirror, and scowled. “What is amiss?” Perkins asked. Wycoff understood his puzzlement. There was nothing wrong with his appearance. His cravat was faultlessly tied in a waterfall style; it looked graceful, crisp and white. His light hair was brushed back until it shone. He wore a new gold waistcoat, spotless linen, finely knit gray breeches, his dark blue jacket fitted without a wrinkle. In fact the only wrinkles were on his forehead as he looked at his reflection. “I am amiss, or was,” Wycoff said, and turned away from himself. “And well they all know it. I’ve

The Challenge / 315

spent too many days—though it feels like months—sipping weak tea and kissing too many wrinkled cheeks, acting like a damned gigolo. At least they have a warmer reward for their efforts. All so I can be acceptable again. Yet, should another of my former—interests—take it into her cold heart to tell Mrs. Stone the intimate particulars of my past association with her, and it’s all for nothing. She has the taste to be repelled by their admissions. God! What good is a good reputation, if it’s based on a lie? For so it is, Perkins, and we both know it. I was an adulterer. I reveled in it. Whatever I choose to be now, that is what I was.” “A good reputation is its own reward, my lord,” Perkins said primly. Wycoff cast him an ironic look. “Indeed. Have you found it so? I confess, I couldn’t know. Hand me my hat, I’m off to battle again. She’ll be there tonight. So wish me luck. I wish Crispin was still here—God! Hiding behind a boy’s back! What next, I wonder?” “Next? Triumph, my lord.” That earned Perkins another look. This one so withering it made him turn his gaze away. The Viscount Wycoff seemed loose-limbed and at ease as he went up the short stair to the Swanson townhouse. He had experience appearing to be what he was not. He held his head high, though the back of his neck prickled. He could almost feel the stares as he was recognized, waiting his turn to go in. The street was filled with carriages discharging other

316 / Edith Layton

guests. He bowed to some, nodded to others. He gave his card to the butler when he was admitted and stood waiting like an actor in the wings for his introduction. He felt like one. He had a new role to play. A reformed man, a decent one, with decent intentions. It was true. But still it felt strange. There’d been too many nights like this when he’d been on the prowl. He couldn’t forget it. Could they? Could she? “Lord Hathaway Wycoff, the Viscount Wycoff,” the butler announced. Wycoff raised his head higher and strolled into the room. The first person he saw was Lady Turner. She looked at him with dawning glee. He felt his stomach tighten. All his work for nothing? The goodwill of a thousand dowagers of immaculate reputation could be canceled out by one malicious former lover. But he was prepared tonight. He bowed to her and walked in the opposite direction, seeking someone, anyone. He couldn’t be seen chatting with her. Again, he repented his past, not only because of what he’d done but how he’d done it. Other married men of his class had been even more promiscuous. Some regularly bought street women, some went to brothels, using women as frequently as they did salts, and for the same reasons. As an excuse for their health. As a pastime. As a habit. He had had affairs. His liaisons were famous and could be documented. They were with women of his own kind, those he thought he could talk with as

The Challenge / 317

well as find pleasure with. Tonight, again, he cursed the bizarre, fastidious turn of his nature that had so often prevented him from anonymous couplings all those years. He’d looked for a semblance of love. He’d found infamy and disgrace. He saw the tall, distinctive profile of the Earl of Drummond across the room. It was too crowded for him to make his way across the room with any speed. Drum looked over the heads of the throng and shrugged to signal his helplessness. Guests stood literally cheek by jowl, waiting for the music to start so the doors to the ballroom could open and give them at least room to move their elbows. The Swansons gave balls for the masses. Still, all but the highest sticklers came. As some wit once quipped, the Swansons’ parties were like carriage accidents—hard to avoid, impossible to look away from, but if you came out alive, the only thing to discuss the next day. If Drummond was there, Wycoff thought, then his red-headed friend Rafe must be nearby—there he was, in earnest conversation with that dark haired beauty Lady Annabelle. If Rafe was talking to her, the world ceased to exist for him. Wycoff looked around the packed salon, trying to hide his exasperation and growing anxiety. He had to find someone reputable, blameless, to talk with, and quickly. Or else they’d think he was stalking again. Or waiting for one of his former lovers to approach. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lady Turner nearing. He turned his head, seeking sanctuary. The

318 / Edith Layton

dowagers he’d been courting these past weeks didn’t come to the Swansons’ foolish, lavish entertainments. Gilly would be here, but later. Damon didn’t want to expose her to the worst of this crush in her condition. But who else could he pass the time with now? He didn’t know many other gentlemen, except in passing. Men of his reputation didn’t. Then, too, he’d been out of the country over a year, and since then only in the company of a few old friends and acquaintances, his son, and then the meticulous, proper ladies and gentlemen of society who would let him near. Now he saw none of them. “You’re late,” a querulous voice said behind him. “I was told you arrived fashionably late, but this is absurd. When do these people open their ballroom? Or their windows? It’s small wonder I’ve been so happy in my seclusion.” Wycoff spun on his heel. “Father?” he breathed in honest astonishment. “Anyone would think I was the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the way you stare. You said you wanted to be launched into correct society again. I referred you to your irreproachable Great Aunt Chloe. She kept me apprised of your progress. I found it interesting, if not proceeding swiftly enough. I’ve come to see for myself, and lend assistance, if you wish. My name still means something, I believe.” “Of a certainty, I wish, sir,” Wycoff said. “Well then, where is she?” “She?” Wycoff answered carefully.

The Challenge / 319

“You know who I mean,” his father snapped. “The reason for this entire effort. The reason I came down from the country to have myself pressed in this juggernaut of fashionable flesh for you.” “Are you feeling well?” Wycoff asked quickly, remembering how seldom his father traveled, seeing again how old he’d become. “Well enough. I stay away from London for my mind’s sake, not my body’s,” the older man said, but seemed pleased by the question. “Is Mama here?” His father looked tired again “No, of course not. She sends her fondest regards. Now. Where’s the young woman who is inspiration for this campaign?” “I don’t know,” Wycoff admitted, “I haven’t seen…” He fell still as he looked toward the door. She’d just come in, and stood on the top stair scanning the crowd. She wore a long-sleeved tealcolored gown, some silken thing shot through with silvery highlights that shimmered in the candlelight. It fitted gracefully to her form. Her hair was dressed high, with a blue ribbon to match her eyes. He couldn’t see into those dark blue eyes from where he stood, but her cheeks were pink when her gaze finally found him. His father looked at her, then at him. “Well, well,” he said softly, under his breath. “This is very well, indeed. For all she’s lovely, she’s not in the first stare of fashion, nor her first youth. But you seem to be having trouble breathing.”

320 / Edith Layton

“She’s in the first stare of everything with me,” Wycoff said tersely. “As I said, I can’t tell you why, chapter and verse. But so it is. She’s gallant and clever, and good. I feel right in her presence, at home for the first time in a very long time. Most of all, her very being makes me happy, Father. But I can’t tell you if she’ll make me happy, as we say when a woman agrees to marry a man. Her husband left her a bitter legacy. She’s cautious and careful, because once in her youth she was not, and lived to regret it.” “That’s good. I’d dislike having another paragon in my family,” his father said. “Your mother is that. I don’t believe we need yet another. Introduce us, please.” Wycoff did, and watched her eyes widen in surprise and dawning pleasure as she realized who he was introducing her to. His father claimed her hand for the first country dance. Wycoff stood at the sidelines and watched the pair. As did almost everyone else in the room, when they weren’t stealing glances at him. He pretended he didn’t see it. He was very good at that. He didn’t seek her out for the next dance, though her head turned to him when it began. He let Drummond and Dalton and other gentlemen take their turns, while every impulse begged him to let himself capture her for the waltz, the minuet, the quadrille. But he’d resolved not to make his move until he could court her like a reputable and respected man. Then, and only then, she might trust him. He could only win that confidence by showing her his trust-

The Challenge / 321

worthiness. Since she didn’t trust her own judgment he had to show her others found him so. It was a prize worth waiting for. He was watching to see who would partner her next when he saw who stepped out of the crowd and bowed over her hand. He tensed, not quite believing his eyes. His nostrils pinched as she gave her hand to William Bellows and let him lead her into the waltz. She smiled up into William’s face. William put his thick-fingered hand on her back. Wycoff remember the exact shape and contour of that silken back, and his own hand closed to a tight fist. He saw William’s smug expression. The man had come all the way from America? Had she asked him to? Wycoff turned around, blindly seeking something else to look at. Anything else, till his heart beat at its usual pace again and he recovered his wits. He found himself staring into a familiar face. A beautiful one, wearing a curling, sensual smile. “She’s well enough looking,” Lady Turner remarked, looking out at the dance floor before her bright eyes slewed back to his. “And well occupied too, I see. A handsome fellow. If you like the robust type. Some obviously do. I like a bit more refinement, myself. They’re saying he’s an old…friend from her past. Speaking of which, would you care to dance? Audacious of me, I know. But I was ever the impetuous creature. You liked that about me, among other things. Come, one dance.” She pouted. “For old times’ sake? Because whatever they’re saying

322 / Edith Layton

about your reformation,” she added, laying a little hand lightly on his chest, as though brushing something from his lapel, “I think there was nothing wrong with your form—in any construction of the word—in the first place. Come, why not?” He stared down at that lovely, smiling, knowing face, remembering all the things she knew too well. And told too readily. “…Why not?” he echoed. He didn’t make a move to take her into his arms. “My dear,” he said, his eyes now sparkling, too, “let me count the ways.” She gaped at him. So did many others. Others watched Wycoff and Lady Turner surreptitiously, and were pleased. The Swansons’ do’s were always good for fresh gossip, and this one was no exception. Tonight much of the chatter was about Wycoff. “He has changed,” a young blade murmured to another as they stood over the punch bowl. “Did you see that? Turned on his heel and left that Turner woman looking like she could chew nails. Rebuffed her as though she were a faded drab with the clap.” “She probably is, by now,” his friend yawned. “Just look at him,” one lady murmured to another behind her fan. “Still dashing and devilish handsome, as always, that wretch. How does the man do it? He was just as fascinating ten years ago. I was fascinating then, too, but already wed. So was he, much difference it made to him then. But look at him now. Free as a bird, at last. But behaving as properly as a vicar looking for a living.”

The Challenge / 323

“Lud!” her friend sighed, “Yes. Just look at him. Almost makes one wish he had not reformed, does it not?” “Wicked thing,” her friend giggled. “Not so wicked as he once was—alas.” None of them had seen Wycoff’s reclusive father so sociable in decades. None of them could remember seeing Wycoff so charming to people they knew he detested, either. “I don’t know who he’s turning over that new leaf for,” one matron sighed, “but oh! He makes one long to be under it.” Wycoff danced. He danced with Gilly, and laughed with her. When he returned her to her husband, he found Drum waiting for him at the sidelines, with an influential lady. Wycoff expected her to say something cutting, and walk away. He prepared himself. She was flighty, a rattle, as free with her tongue as she was exacting in her manners. But still, she was a social lioness. “You know Lady Jersey, don’t you, Wycoff?” Drummond asked. Wycoff bowed over her hand. “Indeed. How are you, my lady?” he asked, bracing himself for her snub. “I was telling Sally that you’ve learned some new steps in America,” Drummond drawled. “And how I love to dance,” she said, looking at him expectantly. Wycoff was shocked, the more so when a small

324 / Edith Layton

nod from Drummond signaled he might actually ask the lady to dance. “They say you’re making a new man of yourself,” she said as he led her into a waltz. “What shall we do? We did so enjoy gossiping about the old, naughty one, you know.” He came to know it. His small, select army brought him partners whenever the music changed. He danced with the formidable Mrs. Cooke, a dragon of a woman, close friend to the Countess Lieven, an even greater stickler. And then danced with the Countess Lieven herself. They weren’t at Almack’s, the fashionable social club she and Lady Jersey controlled to some degree. Even with their approval, he knew he’d never be permitted there, or at least not for a hundred years. There were too many dewy young women on display in that holy of holies for the likes of a man of his stamp, however reformed he was said to be. But he was obviously accepted here, tonight. Which signaled that his daughter would be accepted there. A second wife, too, perhaps, one day. He didn’t worry about that day now. He was doing this for a tomorrow when he’d be free to openly take Lucy Stone to dinner, in company. And take her to much more when they were alone. He danced with dragons, he laughed at rubbish, he smiled at stupid jests and complimented gorgons. He’d have fed himself to them, in small pieces, to win his name back for himself. And her. “You’re doing well,” his father told him at din-

The Challenge / 325

ner. “I won’t say they entirely believe the change in you. But they’re willing to accept you. My name,” he said with obvious satisfaction, “still means something after all.” “Indeed, it does,” Wycoff said, putting his fork down. “I wonder if mine ever will again.” “It will,” his father said, “Aren’t you eating?” “I haven’t? I thought I was,” Wycoff said on a soft laugh. “No, you’re too busily worrying. You’re very unsure of yourself. Astonishing. But you know? I like you like this.” He smiled at his father. “I do, too.” The guests rose from dinner and danced again. Wycoff didn’t get to say one word to Lucy, beyond “Good evening” when Damon brought her over to chat with him. She smiled up at him with pure pleasure. He saw the second she remembered their situation, and watched the joy fade from her eyes and a shadow come into them. But then he suddenly saw fear there. She looked up, past his shoulder. “And here is my late husband’s brother and his wife,” she said dully. “Lord and Lady Hunt, here is Lord Wycoff. But you know each other, don’t you?” “In passing,” Wycoff said, sketching a bow. “How have you been keeping, Hunt? Good evening, my lady.” They both hesitated, as though he was still the man no respectable gentleman would care to have near his lady.

326 / Edith Layton

“Hunt,” the old earl said, as he strolled up to them. “Madam,” he added with a brief look at Lady Alice. “Have you met my son? Newly returned from America, with many a rare tale to tell. On that head—Wycoff, my boy, did I tell you? Creighton and his lady want us to dinner Thursday evening. Can you make it?” “I’m afraid not, Father. We’re promised to Dunsany then, remember?” The baron Hunt’s drooping eyes widened. He’d just heard the names of two of the foremost gentlemen in the ton. Wycoff subdued a grin, enjoying his father’s private jest, wondering if the Duke of Creighton had even heard of him, and hoping Dunsany was still alive. His father’s name still meant something. After that, the Hunts were pleased to exchange inane civilities with him. But Lucy looked troubled when they strolled away together. White-faced, she gazed back at him over her shoulder as she was led off. Wycoff clenched his teeth. Was it William Bellows? Something someone had said? “It grows late,” his father said. “Too late for my old bones. I’ll leave you now.” “Are you staying with me?” Wycoff asked. “No, with old Abbington. He hasn’t seen me for years, I’ve promised myself to him. I’ll see you before long. I won’t leave London for a space yet, I think. It’s far too interesting now.” He hesitated. “Hathaway? You please me. Good night,” he said, and walked away.

The Challenge / 327

“Good night,” Wycoff echoed, but his eyes were roving the ballroom for another glimpse of Lucy. He wasn’t happy when he got it. When their eyes met, he realized she’d been searching the ballroom for a glimpse of him, too. She was still pale and troubled. Was it because she’d seen him talking to Lady Turner? But surely she’d seen him leave her so abruptly? He yearned to go to her and ask, immediately, but couldn’t ruin what he’d spent this evening and so many days working for: his reputation. Especially as concerned her. She was still with her brother-in-law and his wife. How could he speak to her alone without their seeing and hearing it, or worse, speculating about what was said? It was late, but the ball still wound on. Like all fashionable events in London, it wouldn’t end until dawn. He clenched his jaw, fighting frustration. He couldn’t speak to her privately here; he couldn’t meet her at her hotel either. No matter how late it was, no one was ever unobserved in London, any hour of day or night. He couldn’t visit her until he knew he wouldn’t bring disgrace to her. Then he’d more than visit. He’d offer her his hand again, this time with a clear head and heart, and name. She deserved no less. But she obviously wanted to speak to him now. She kept staring at him. She finally tilted her head, pointedly looked toward the outer hall, and back to him again. He stifled a groan, though he almost smiled. What a terrible conspirator she was. How he loved her for it. Although he was afraid half the

328 / Edith Layton

room had seen her obvious gesture, he nevertheless slowly strolled to the outer hall and lingered there in a dim corner of it, as though inspecting a picture on the wall. “I have to talk to you,” she whispered the moment she appeared beside him. “Something’s happened that I have to talk about. I can’t wait till morning. I know it seems rash—Oh Lord, when was I ever not rash? But I have to talk with someone or I’ll run mad!” “Someone?” he asked. He had to hear that much of an admission from her at least. “You,” she admitted. He nodded, and thought quickly. “Not here,” he said, turning to shield her from the eyes of a few partygoers waiting for footmen to bring them their hats, wraps, and walking sticks. “Nor your hotel. God, Lucy, at least tell me what it is, so I can sleep until morning, when I can find a way for us to meet—at the Park, or the Tower, or the Palace, if it comes to that.” She looked up at him, her face a pale oval in the weak wash of reflected gaslight. But he could clearly see her distress. “They want to take Jamie from me,” she said. He stared. He made up his mind. He took a deep breath, and nodded. “All right. You’re right. It can’t wait until morning. Luckily,” he said on a bitter chuckle, “I have some experience in things like this. Now listen, Lucy. Tell your brother-in-law you’re feeling unwell. Go back to the hotel. But not to

The Challenge / 329

sleep. When they’ve left you, slip out the side entrance. Alone, without your maid, or anyone. You’ll be safe enough. It’s a good district, well watched. Which is why you must wait at the side. I’ll send a coach for you. The driver will come to fetch you. The only place we can meet is at my townhouse.” It seemed to him her face grew paler. “I’ll be a gentleman,” he said abruptly, “but be aware that if you’re observed, your reputation will be ruined.” “I’m no girl,” she said defiantly. “You are however, a lady. Widow or not, a respectable female does not go to a gentleman’s house alone by night. If anyone knew, your reputation would be ruined. I’d offer you my name in that case. I’ve offered it before, if you recall. But mind, this time, if you’re seen, you’ll no longer have a choice about whether you want to accept it.” “I’ll be careful, no one will see,” she promised. “It’s London, everything is seen,” he warned her. “Someone is always looking. So take care you’re not observed. I’ll leave now. You follow soon after. Don’t worry, we’ll sort this out, whatever it is, I promise,” he said grimly. But his heart sung. She had a problem. He’d help her with it. She needed him now. That much, at least, he had. The rest, he’d have to see to. But she needed him.

22

wore a long cloak with a voluminous hood She that covered her hair. Lucy stood at Wycoff’s front door, looking like a figure out of history, a ghost of a lady from an ancient night. “Come in,” Wycoff said softly, taking her hand, “I’ve sent the footmen to bed, and locked Perkins in his quarters.” His smile faded at the look on her face. “Don’t worry, no one here will see you. Lucy, come in, we don’t want anyone else to see you either.” She swept in past him, leaving the faint heady perfume of her signature scent of heliotrope. He closed his eyes to get his wits back. “I know I shouldn’t have come here,” she said when he turned to her again. “But perhaps I wasn’t so rash, after all,” she added with fragile dignity.

The Challenge / 331

“Sometimes it’s only prudent to seize an opportunity. I had to speak with you.” “Come,” he said, took her hand and led her to his study, and closed the door behind them. The house was still as the dreaming night around them. Lucy stood irresolute, as much impressed by this clearly personal inner sanctum as she was by her own bravery for coming here. It was a big room with a high ceiling, but didn’t look cavernous because of the furnishings. They were simple, expensive and substantial. The huge hearth was cold, the long windows curtained against the night. She could see walls of shelves filled with books, a handsome desk, a leather Porter’s chair, and a long settee of the kind made popular by Madame Recamier, by the fireside. It was as effortlessly elegant, masculine, and interesting as its owner. “Give me your cape,” he said. “I’ll light a fire. Your hand was freezing, and it’s striking chill. Sit down,” he told her, motioning to the settee. He picked up a tinderbox and knelt before the hearth. Lucy sat, gingerly, and removed her gloves. A flame shot up, quickly rising to a blue sheet that covered the logs. A moment later the fire blazed orange and began its crackling song, filling the room with the sweet, fresh scent of apple wood. Wycoff nodded in satisfaction. “Port?” he asked as he rose and went to a cabinet. He slid back a panel, exposing a trio of decanters. “Whiskey? Sherry?” he asked. “Damnation, Lucy, have something bracing, I don’t

332 / Edith Layton

want you falling into a swoon. You look as though you might. I won’t attack you—or is it that you’re afraid I won’t? Better.” He forced a chuckle at her expression. “Indignation suits you better than stark terror.” “Sherry,” she whispered. He handed her a goblet, poured one for himself, and came to sit opposite her in the Porter’s chair. The hood of the chair rose over him like a canopy, making him look like a king or conqueror granting an audience. He cradled his goblet in his long fingers, and leaned toward her, watching. “Now,” he said, “tell me.” “They want to take Jamie from me,” she said again, the hand holding her glass trembling. “Who?” he asked quietly. “The Baron and his wife. Francis’s brother.” Her words came in a rush. “They want to raise Jamie as their own. They’re determined people, Wycoff. They have money and power. But the thing of it is that Jamie can have that, too, if I agree. What shall I do?” Her voice was thick with emotion; she shook her head, and stared into her glass. The amber liquid was shivering as much as she was. “I thought I’d never even so much as entertain the idea,” she whispered, “but now I wonder if I’d hurt Jamie by keeping him. They can offer him so much more. You see, they can’t have a child, they said, and Jonathan’s very taken with Jamie. So is his wife.” Her voice caught, and she cleared her throat. “So there you are,” she concluded, quavering on the last word.

The Challenge / 333

“Not quite,” he said, setting down his glass. “Tell me more.” “Oh, Wycoff,” she cried, “what more is there to say? They don’t want me—well, why should they? They offer me ‘freedom,’ they said. Because”—she avoided his gaze—“they think that you and I—They think they’re doing me a favor by ridding me of my obligations. As if Jamie was ever that!” The rising firelight showed glistening tears in her eyes. “Everything I’ve done since the day he was born has been for him, and I want to keep doing for him as long as he needs me. I need him. I couldn’t hurt him, not for the world. He’s all the world to me. But that’s the point! Does he need me now? What can I offer him?” she asked wildly. “They can give him the world, don’t you see?” “You can give him everything he needs,” he said. “None better, believe me. He’d say so, too. Love is more important than wealth or ease. As to those things, if you’d only say yes to me, I’d help you with finances. If you can’t—?” He shrugged. “I’ll help you anyway. You must know that. So don’t fret. Forget it. It’s a cruel offer, totally self-serving. That kind of proposition isn’t good for Jamie. Listen. Jamie is yours. You are his. That’s way it shall be whether you take my offer of marriage or not. I promise you. “It wouldn’t be charity,” he said before she could answer. “I want to see you two together, and I like having my way. There wouldn’t be obligations. Because you’re a friend. I suspect you’d do the same

334 / Edith Layton

for me were conditions reversed. Because it’s the only right thing. Do you see?” She nodded. “I do, and I thank you,” she said, drawing herself up. She gave him the shadow of a smile. “But I don’t need your money, Wycoff. I needed your advice. William only told me what suited him. My mama is—gone from London now. I value your opinion. More, I trust you. You saved me from myself on shipboard; I knew you could do it again. I needed peace of mind. You’re right,” she said, on a long shaking breath, “I can support my son, mind and body. I needed support to believe that, though. Thank you for it.” But though she smiled and her voice was stronger, he frowned to see tears overspilling her eyes, glinting, shimmering in the subtle lamplight. They troubled him. He couldn’t think while she was weeping. He came to sit beside her. He reached out and touched a teardrop with one long finger, brushing it away. She looked at him with such heartbreak that he stroked her cheek, to comfort her, trying to assure her, wordlessly, that he would help. But the feel of her smooth skin under his finger sent shivers up his arm and down his back. So he bent his head to her upturned face, and kissed her gently, sweetly, carefully, to tell her how much he cared. The feel of those soft, trembling lips beneath his undid him, entirely. She offered him her lips, he felt as though he was taking her soul. Her mouth was warm, delicious, fragrant. Her body in his arms was everything he’d

The Challenge / 335

remembered, everything he wanted. So he dropped his hands, and drew away from her. “That’s not gratitude,” he murmured, with relief. “I can’t be mistaken about that. It is what I think we both want.” She nodded, as though mesmerized, her eyes brilliant, fixed on his lips. “But make no mistake,” he added softly, watching every nuance of her expression. “If you kiss me like that again, Lucy, I will not give you up again, do you understand me?” She nodded again. “No,” he said, “I don’t think you do. I’ll make love to you, completely this time. I won’t let you go again. I’ll help you keep Jamie whatever you decide about me, on my solemn oath. But if you let me make love to you, you must marry me. That’s my forfeit, that’s the price of taking me tonight. I’ve tried to be good. But this thing between us is too much for me. No more evasion. Miracle of miracles, I’m repairing my reputation. If you marry me, we can do it faster, together. Then we’ll give Jamie double what the baron can: my fortune, and his mother, too. And maybe I can give his mother other children, too.” His eyes were dark. “But listen well, Lucy. I will not just take your body, and not your whole life. So think hard. You can still leave. But if you stay, you must answer me now.” “Now? But what if you don’t like me, after all’s said and done? I mean,” she said, and dropped her gaze, “in that way…you know.”

336 / Edith Layton

“Oh,” he said with a tender smile. “So prim suddenly? In the way of ‘you know’? Fair question. But one with a simple answer. I’ll like you in that way. God, Lucy, one of your kisses about undoes me, there’s no problem there.” “But that’s not necessarily so,” she said, getting nervous about what she wanted to agree to. “A kiss is not…the ultimate embrace. Sometimes, when some of Francis’s friends were visiting, sitting up late, talking, and thought I’d retired for the night…I heard…” “With a drinking glass to the wall,” he commented, delighted they were discussing this. Because she wasn’t weeping anymore. And she hadn’t said no. “No,” she said indignantly. “They were soused and didn’t lower their voices. The point is,” she went on quickly, “that I was a married woman, and so have heard that men notice differences in women’s lovemaking and find some inadequate, or even unpleasant…. What am I saying?” she asked, eyes wide. “What am I doing? I came to ask your advice, I got it, and here we are discussing…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. “Discussing the ultimate embrace,” he agreed. “I’ll teach you better words, ones you can whisper low. But yes, it’s about that, too. I want you. Naked, with me, in my bed. Or on this couch. Or on the floor, by God, Lucy I want you—but I’ll only take you if you first promise to take me, as your husband. We’ll be good for each other, I don’t worry about

The Challenge / 337

that. But I want you to want me for more. Odd,” he said, touching her cheek again. “By knowing you, I’ve discovered what a woman who’s only wanted for her body must feel. It’s not a good feeling.” He took her hand and held it in his warm clasp. “Marry me or leave now. Do you trust me, or do you not? That’s what it comes down to. I begin to think I can make myself a pattern card of respectability, after all. But I also begin to see it won’t matter. It can’t come from society’s faith in me. It must come from you, and then you won’t care what gossip says, what anyone says, but me. That’s how it must be. I’ll be a faithful husband, if you let me. I promise you that. Now. Do you want me?” “Yes,” she breathed, because it was only true. “Do you trust me with more than an opinion?” She looked at him. Such a man of contrasts. So aloof now. So impassioned a moment past. And in her every dream. A man whose voice alone could make her half mad with desire. But how much of it was simply desire? And how much was wisdom? And how much wisdom did she have, after all? “I asked if you trusted me, Lucy, with your life,” he said calmly, but she saw the tension in his face. “If you don’t by now, I don’t think you ever shall. Much as I want you, I can’t—I won’t debase myself by pursuing you if you don’t. Then I’d become an annoyance. Neither of us would care for me like that.” So clever, she thought. So kind. But a man who’d been an acknowledged adulterer for years, and now he wanted to marry her and be…?

338 / Edith Layton

“Do you believe in me?” he asked, his eyes searching hers. “That, yes.” “Then you will marry me?” He waited. He was right, she thought. There was no more time for delay. But she had an answer. She’d supposed she’d known it for a long time, more time wouldn’t change it anyway. She felt as though she were about to step off the edge of an abyss. But she knew, she hoped, she prayed he would catch her. “If you will have me,” she said, shaking so hard her voice trembled. “That was mine to say,” he said tenderly, taking her into his arms. She felt his sigh of relief ruffle her hair as he held her close in a moment of silence. His heartbeat accelerated against her own. “Good,” he whispered, against her mouth. “So now let’s not say anything more for a space, but yes, and good, and do that again.” She’d told herself she’d come for advice, not lovemaking. During the terrifying ride here in the hackney coach she’d known this was possible, but had resolved not to do it. It turned out her gown was lighter even than her resolve. They had it down from her shoulders almost immediately, as soon as it got in the way of his questing mouth. She put her head back and sighed with absolute pleasure, holding his shoulders for purchase as he kissed her breast, and lingered there, tasting and teasing, until she was wild from it.

The Challenge / 339

He raised her in his arms and she wriggled, assisting him. They stripped off the gown and the gauzy undergarments she wore against the chill of the night. His mouth was hot, his hands were sure, he’d passed a lifetime learning ways to inflame her, she knew. Just being with him inflamed her more. She was thrilled with him, and her own courage. Knowing all the cold years of denial were ending at last and ended by the one man she’d wanted from the moment she’d laid eyes on him brought her even more joy. He moved away from her at last and sat back, looking at her from hooded eyes. She was laying naked before him, alone with him with nothing but the fire as witness. He was still fully clothed. With an effort born of a confidence she hadn’t known she possessed, she kept her hands at her sides. She let him look at her body, and rejoiced at the look on his face. She helped him pull his tightly fitted jacket off, helped unwind his neck cloth, and waited impatiently as he wrenched off his shirt. He dragged her into his arms, and they both shuddered at the sudden contact of their skin. She touched his chest, he suckled at her breast, they laughed breathlessly when he muttered something and sat back up again. He kicked off his shoes, dragged off his hose and britches, and paused as she stared her fill at him. She’d never seen him fully undressed. His body was tight, muscled and lean, good for his age, or any age. She gazed at him as he stood before her. He waited

340 / Edith Layton

for her signal to join her, though his excitement was evident. And impressive. He was, she thought, as extraordinary in that as every other remarkable part of him. He saw it in her expression, and with a broken laugh, came to her. She went into his embrace, shivering. “Still cold?” he breathed against her neck. “I’ll fix that.” She shook her head. “Hot,” she whispered. “So hot now.” “More so soon,” he chuckled, laying her down beneath him on the couch. “Before God, Lucy, this is wonderful.” So it was, and so she tensed, praying he could make it last a little longer, only a little, so she could revel in it more. He paused. “Lucy?” he asked, drawing back. “What is it? Have you changed you mind?” “What?” She opened her eyes. “No! It’s just that I want to remember this, and I know it will end too soon.” He smiled. “Do you?” He kissed her, running his hands over her. He made her gasp when he touched her, low. He made her murmur and sob when he kept his hand there until she found some respite. He kissed and caressed until she was damp and febrile, twisting unknowing beneath his hands and mouth. Then he entered her, slowly. She welcomed him, took him fully and gasped with the intensity of the thrill of it. She arched her

The Challenge / 341

back and lay back, feeling regret because she knew how soon it would all end. He paused. “No,” he breathed into her ear, “even so, we’re far from done. Stay with me, we’ve the night.” They rocked together. He moved her on and on, higher and higher, steadily climbing with her, pacing toward something wonderful with her. She forgot to hope for more. She forgot to expect less. He moved with her, suffused with bliss, calculating the edges of his ecstasy, closing his eyes, feeling the utter power and pleasure she gave so openly. He bade himself wait, he drove her further, heart pounding with the effort and delight of it. If it killed him, he would do no less. But the sweetness of it undid him. With as much remorse as rapture, he felt his moment coming. And laughed as he gasped in release as he heard her reach her own, in his. They didn’t speak for long moments, only lay intertwined as their bodies throbbed slower, cooling—and his heart grew cold. It was too quiet. He remembered too many moments like this. Truth always came in the after light. He remembered a woman who’d sobbed because she felt he’d helped her ruin her life. He remembered waking from a daze of pleasure to see a partner who’d obviously felt nothing he had, simulating all. But this was Lucy. Would she be satisfied, delighted? Regretful? Or disgusted? It was the ending that proved the equation, in sex as well as logic. There was no logic to this, only dread. He damned his wide experience, and waited.

342 / Edith Layton

She stirred. She smiled. She locked her arms around his neck and stretched luxuriously along the length of his body. He felt her breasts grow taut, rising as she stretched. Incredibly, he felt his own body rise again. “That,” she said, “was astonishing.” She buried her face in the crook of his neck, on impulse savoring the musky salt taste of his shoulder. She smiled as she felt his long, strong body shiver at the one tiny touch of her tongue. “I didn’t know it could go on so long…” she murmured, and hesitated. She’d enjoyed lovemaking with Francis. But it had always been done in a rush. Never like this. Never so slowly, with such exquisite patience. Nothing had prepared her for the pleasure she found with this man. But she wouldn’t deny a good memory, or be disloyal to it. “I mean to say, I overheard his friends brag about how quick…They thought it a good thing.” He smiled into her hair. “Rush to completion is a young man’s notion—sometimes unavoidable. Youth has its virtues, and there’s no denying them. But patience is a lesson age teaches a man.” He chuckled. “Would you like to learn another?” She burrowed into him. “I would,” she said with regret. “But I can’t stay here until morning.” He laughed. “Age brings patience, and politeness. I’d never make a lady wait.” He felt her surprise. She drew her head back. “But we just…” “So we did. But there are ways, my love, and ways. And some may lead to another,” he whis-

The Challenge / 343

pered, his mouth seeking hers again. “…Why look…” He smiled at what they both felt. “I am a prophet.” He drove her to her hotel in his curricle as dawn was rising. They passed costermongers and servants scurrying along the gray streets on late errands and early ones. They wheeled past a few elegant carriages carrying exhausted partygoers home, and drove by the occasional staggering drunken buck trying to weave his way home after a night on the strut. But Wycoff didn’t care. “If anyone’s awake enough to recognize us,” he told Lucy, “they’d have to have the eyes of eagles to know it was you in that hood—and if they do, we’ll say I’m taking you home from the ball. There were too many people there for anyone to argue the point—many are only going home now themselves.” She sat wrapped in her cloak, pressed close to his side. The morning air was fresh and cool. She raised her face to the rising sun, but it wasn’t as warm as the solid strength of him next to her. “Shall I tell Jamie tomorrow?” “Of course. Here we are,” he said as they drove up to the hotel. “Lord, how I hate to let you go, even for the hours until I can come see you again. But at least now I can. Noon, then?” he asked, halting the horses. He climbed down from the high driver’s seat and tossed the reins to a sleepy servant standing in front of the hotel.

344 / Edith Layton

“Noon,” she said and smiled, going into his outstretched arms as he helped her down. He looked around the street, seeing no one but a flower seller hurrying from the flower market with a fresh tray of violets. He plucked up three bunches and gave them to Lucy. He tipped a coin to the flower girl and a grin to Lucy. “See?” he told her softly. “No one the wiser. Now get you to your chamber, my lady, and don’t dare think of anyone but me.” She laughed, raised up on tiptoe, kissed his cheek, and after one long last look, hurried into the hotel. He climbed back up on his curricle. There was much to do before noon. With one last look at the empty street, he drove off, satisfied. This one incredible night would be their own secret. He’d forgotten his own wisdom. Someone was always looking in London.

23

arrived with the chocolate Sukey brought to Jamie Lucy’s room in the morning. Lucy smiled at him groggily. She hadn’t got much sleep. She’d gone to bed after Wycoff left, but lay thinking about him, smiling and tingling, believing and disbelieving everything that had happened. She was scandalized as much as delighted by herself and her actions. But when she thought about him and the wondrous things he’d done and would do for the rest of her life she couldn’t sleep for the joy of it. She’d closed her eyes for just a moment as broad sunlight showed at the margins of her curtains, feeling deliciously boneless and weary and at peace. She’d drifted off. Now it was late morning. Now, she realized, was the best time to tell Jamie. She sat up. “Jamie,” she

346 / Edith Layton

said, “I’ve news. Lord Wycoff and I—we’ve decided to marry.” Jamie’s eyes widened. “He’ll be my husband…” she went on cautiously. He didn’t let her finish. He clambered onto the bed, flung his arms around her and hugged her so hard her neck hurt. “It’s true? You’re going to marry him?” he cried. “I don’t have to go live with Uncle and his wife? Truly?” Lucy’s mind whirled. She’d hoped he’d like her news. She never imagined he’d be overjoyed. “Truly,” she said fiercely, “I’m marrying him. You’ll stay with me—with us.” She tried to hug him back, but he wriggled out of her embrace, looking vaguely embarrassed. She let him go at once, feeling a pang. Only a week ago he wouldn’t have minded. “But I thought you liked your uncle,” she said, “and all the things he promised you.” “I do like Uncle,” he said in a small voice. “The things he told me about sound grand. But I only meant to visit, with you. He started talking about it as though I was coming to live there. Without you.” “You didn’t tell me,” she said. “I didn’t”—he looked at the coverlets—“because you didn’t say anything to me, and I thought it was something you were waiting to say. I hoped not. I don’t want to leave you—and now I never have to, right?” “Never. Unless you want to go off to school. English boys do.”

The Challenge / 347

“I’m not an English boy yet.” “Then, not until you want to. But you’re not just happy because you don’t have to leave me, are you? You do like Lord Wycoff?” “Like him? He’s a trump, Mama. Wait—does that mean Crispin will be my brother?” he asked in awe. “That would be something! And Perkins is so nice too. Will we ever go back to America?” “Crispin will be your brother,” she said, brushing his hair from his eyes, her own feeling moist. “Perkins is nice. And maybe one day we’ll visit the Ameses again. But England is our home now. We won’t do anything if I don’t get dressed, though. Lord Wycoff’s coming to pay us a call.” Jamie’s face lit—then fell. “But Uncle said he was going to take me out again today. I’d rather stay with you and Lord Wycoff. May I? Please?” “Absolutely, I’ll tell them why. It’s a very special day for us and we should be together,” she said, keeping her face sober with effort. The baron and his wife might have meant it for the best. Certainly their concern for Jamie was worthy. But their solution for his future was the worst one for hers, and their opinion of Wycoff was wrong. Now she could prove it. The prospect of telling them that, and that she was keeping her son, filled her with unholy glee. But telling William was not so pleasant. He found out first. He came to ask her out for a walk. He stayed to argue. “Have you run mad?” he said, his dark face darker than she’d ever seen it. “What kind of mar-

348 / Edith Layton

riage would that be for you? Having to look under the bed every time you got into it? No—he’s learned discretion, you’d probably have to look in other women’s wardrobes. What could have induced you? You didn’t go to his bed, did you? All right—I grant that’s not for me to ask,” he said, putting up his hands. “Aye, and you aren’t that sort, I know.” He took an agitated turn around the room and stopped, shocked, staring at her. “Is it the title? Lord, what a fool I am. Of course. You’re English. It’s the money and the title, isn’t it?” “Leave,” Lucy said, pointing at her door with a trembling finger. He ran a hand through his hair. “What then?” he asked in a frustration. “He’s handsome enough, I suppose, but there are better looking men. He’s clever, but so’s many a fellow. Why would a female with a grain of sense promise herself to a man who’s as constant as a spring breeze?” “You don’t believe a man can redeem himself?” she asked angrily. “Then why bother going to church? Because your mother would kill you if you didn’t? Did you sleep through every sermon?” “I stayed awake long enough to know a thing or two,” he snarled. “Why would a man who’s an adulterer and famous for it change his whole way of life? For Lucy Stone?” he asked incredulously. “Pretty enough, and with a clever tongue in her head, but face it, woman, you’re a widow out of your first youth, with a child and not a penny to bless yourself with. You think he’d change all for that?”

The Challenge / 349

She bit her lip. She couldn’t defend herself. But she could defend Wycoff. She held on to everything he’d whispered to her in the night and stood straighter. “Anyone can change, William—except you. You’re mean spirited and vindictive—and wrong! Oh, I’m all out of patience—leave!” “I’ll go,” he said, snatching up his hat and cramming it on his head, “and I won’t be back. You’ve made your bed, much luck to you laying in it with him—and every trollop he can find to share it with you! You’ll have to suffer the consequences by yourself. And I promise you, you will. William Bellows is no fool,” he muttered, “but you are! Goodbye!” The door would have slammed harder if it wasn’t so heavy. Lucy sank to a chair, feeling the vibrations of it in the pit of her stomach. She doubted the baron would storm or shout. But now she had a queasy feeling about telling him her news. She wished Wycoff would come soon. No, not Wycoff, Hathaway, she told herself with a tender smile at the sound of the name. She wondered if he’d want her to call him that, and tried to occupy herself wondering about it instead of all the things William had said. “I am gratified, and truly delighted for you, my lord,” Perkins said. “I cannot think of happier news.” “Thank you, Perkins. The only thing that saddens me about it is that I imagine you’ll be off and on your way now.” “Why so, my lord? Do you wish me to go?”

350 / Edith Layton

“Lord, no!” Wycoff looked up from his breakfast. “But my vagabond days are over. I plan to open the Hall again, that’s far from here. I’ll visit London now and again in future, travel abroad occasionally, too, I imagine. But I’m settling down for good, my friend. You’re still interested in roving, aren’t you?” “I was. But I too have had my fill of it. One’s life should be filled with contrasts. The countryside would be pleasant for me now, I believe. If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to stay on.” “It’s not all the same to me. I’m delighted,” Wycoff said. But so he was, he thought when Perkins left the room. Everything delighted him this morning. He felt eager, alive again. Weary cynicism had been a part of his life for so long he could scarcely recognize himself now. It was like waking to springtime after an eternal winter. If contrasts did make for a better life, his should be the best, he thought, because he’d gone from a lonely world of limited horizons to this—the greatest joy he’d known for as long as he could remember. He’d married once, as he was expected to do. Now he’d wed where he would, as he’d never expected to. He felt complete with her, utterly whole at last. Their lovemaking last night had been better than perfect, because perfection didn’t leave a man yearning for more. But it wasn’t the sensual delight he found with her, or her clever conversation, or even her quickness at understanding that so pleased him. It was Lucy Stone herself. Her life

The Challenge / 351

hadn’t been easy or fair. But it had shaped her into the one woman for him. He strode to the hall and took the coat and high beaver hat his footman handed him. He caught his own eye in the looking glass as he clapped on his hat. It sobered him. He met his reflection without expression. The face that stared back at him looked austere. The grooves in his cheek looked less like lines of experience and more like aging to him now. Not young. Not an Adonis. Not a shred of reputation left to him that he hadn’t campaigned for. She wasn’t getting much. In that moment he vowed to himself that she would never regret him. He’d give her more than she bargained for, the most he was capable of. He picked up a walking stick and strode out the door, to begin. She looked a little shy when he walked in her door. Then she smiled at him with such radiance his heart turned over. “It’s true, sir?” Jamie said the moment he saw Wycoff. “You’re to be my father? Well, not my father, I had one but he’s gone. But like a second father then? And Crispin’s to be my brother? Does he know? When shall I meet your daughter? Do you think she’ll like me? Will we live here or at the Hall Crispin talks about, where his horses are?” “I’d be honored to be thought of as your father,” Wycoff said. “Crispin will be tickled, I can promise you that. Candice will love you, having another brother to torment should be just in her line. I

352 / Edith Layton

thought she’d come home from school now and live with us, too,” he said, raising his eyes to Lucy. “We can discuss that later. It will be entirely up to you.” “As if I’d say otherwise!” Lucy gasped. “She must come home. I only hope she’ll like me enough to want to.” “She will,” Wycoff said, and then smiled. “If she doesn’t, there are enough rooms at the Hall for her to avoid you for years if she chooses. No, only joking! And bragging, trying to make you see there’ll be room for an army at the Hall so you won’t change your mind no matter what. Lucy,” he said, because she still looked unsure and her expression pained him, “it was stupid of me to even jest about it. Forgive me. And believe me. My daughter’s been longing to come home, and Crispin says he knows she’ll like you both very well indeed.” “That’s good!” Jamie said. “Uncle didn’t think so. He said it was a foolish choice Mama would come to regret. William said so, too.” Wycoff’s eyes flew to Lucy’s. “You faced them both alone? Good God, if I’d known—William’s chagrin I can understand. But Hunt? What did he say?” Lucy was a little pale, he’d noted it. Because she should have been glowing. She had been when he’d left her. “Well, William was furious,” she admitted. “He has a terrible temper and hates being thwarted.” “Was he vicious?” Wycoff asked too quietly. “No, and don’t get that challenging look in your

The Challenge / 353

eye,” she warned him. “Once in a lifetime for something like that was enough for me, thank you.” He smiled, the ugly look vanishing. “Very wifelike. Nagging me already, are you?” She grinned. “I suppose I was! But no, William was just mad at me, and went thundering out.” “He said you’d regret it,” Jamie put in. “You were eavesdropping,” Lucy accused him. “You know what I said about that.” He shrugged. “William was very loud. Sukey heard him too, and she was telling me to get away from the door. But I was right here when Uncle spoke with you, and he was mad as fire, too.” “Yes,” Lucy agreed. “Well, he was disappointed for his lady’s sake. She looked like she was going to cry. But if they’d really cared for us, they’d have rejoiced. I think they will, in time. For now—yes, he was very angry. He said I’d regret it, too. But he doesn’t know you,” she told Wycoff. “So I won’t credit it and will try to forget it as he will, I’m sure, in time.” “That’s a great deal of time,” Wycoff said. “So let’s pass it well. Come along, Jamie. We’ll give you more to do than listen at doors. Let’s all go for a stroll in the park. The sun’s shining. Who knows how long it will last?” “But I thought we’d tell Gilly and Damon today,” Lucy said. “They’re coming to visit this afternoon. We made those arrangements before…” she gave him a knowing look, and cleared her throat, “…before we came to our own agreement. And it’s growing late, we

354 / Edith Layton

haven’t had luncheon yet, Jamie or I. I woke late and every hour’s been busy since I did.” “We can do both, slugabed,” Wycoff said, consulting his pocket watch. “It lacks a half hour to one. No one pays calls until three. We can have our luncheon in the park, a bite of sausage, some meat pies, a sip of lemonade. Let’s delight the strolling vendors and get some air as well. Lucy,” he added, his eyes grown dark and serious, “I can walk with you freely in the sunshine now, at last. I’d like to. Because I’ll wager whatever your brother-in-law said about me—and I can imagine what he said—at least now he knows I’m no longer precisely a leper in society anymore, doesn’t he?” Her color returned, in force. She looked as rosy as she did after he’d made love to her. “Yes,” she admitted. “So,” he said, “put on a shawl and tell your maid to get her bonnet. We’re off to give London something to talk about.” Before they could do that, they took some people’s words out of their mouths. William saw them as they entered the lobby. He glowered at them, and deliberately turned his back. “He could have wished us happy,” Lucy said, looking pained. “But he doesn’t,” Wycoff said. “Give him credit for honesty, if not for manners.” They passed the baron Hunt and his wife in the street when they left the hotel. The baron’s lady started, then looked at Jamie with sorrow. Her eyes

The Challenge / 355

filled with tears, her handkerchief flew to her lips. Hunt himself looked more like a weary basset hound than ever. He shook his head dolefully. Then he nodded a bow, and taking his wife by the arm, passed by them quickly, looking down as he did. Jamie seemed surprised. Lucy wasn’t. “Never mind, Jamie,” she said, “your uncle and aunt will come ’round, in time.” “I don’t mind,” Jamie said blithely. “Do you care?” Wycoff asked, seeing her expression. “No. They wanted the best for themselves, not us,” she said. “If Jamie were less charming, they’d be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to do anything for us now.” “So, let’s begin our celebrations now,” he said. They strolled the path along the Serpentine like a family, Lucy on Wycoff’s arm, his head bent to her as they whispered together. Jamie went on ahead, Sukey at his side. It was bright, though rain clouds were forming in the west. The park was filled with laughing children and frolicking dogs. Couples strolled past, horsemen cantered by, milkmaids laid their yokes down and chatted together in the sunshine, servants and street mongers taking an hour off from their duties sat on the benches, or dozed in the grass. The water in the lake sparkled as if with gilt, swans glided by the banks. Children fed them bread, their nursemaids gossiping like geese. Jamie stopped to join them. Wycoff and Lucy stood watching, Lucy holding her parasol up against the

356 / Edith Layton

glare from the sun dancing off the water. “Such a simple thing,” Wycoff commented. “I can think of so many other pleasurable things to do with you, Lucy, but I confess, this is delicious, too. Am I getting old? Too old for you, I wonder? After all, I have a decade more than you, my dear.” “It wouldn’t matter if you had two,” she said simply. He looked at her with amusement. “Once you decide something, you are steadfast, aren’t you? Now that you trust me you trust me utterly, even to my ability to defy old age?” She looked at him seriously. “Old? You make me feel young again. Don’t forget, I’m not considered young anymore. Women age more rapidly than men, in the eyes of men, at least. You might have a wife half my age.” “Indeed?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “What a disturbing thought. What would I say to her, do you think? Whatever would I do with her? For all my sins, I never fancied infants. ‘Ripeness is all,’ as the poet said. And you are that, my dear.” He was courting her still, and she knew it. He watched her plush lips curve in a little self-satisfied smile. He yearned to do something about it. He tore his gaze from those entrancing lips and looked around. They stood near a towering willow whose graceful branches bent down to sip at the edges of the lake. His eyes were filled with mischief as well as light when he looked back at her. “The sun’s so bright,” he said, drawing her back toward the tree.

The Challenge / 357

“Let’s wait here, for a space.” She followed, then stood smiling up at him. The dappled shade danced over her face, giving her a hundred shifting freckles to add to the ones on her cheek he so badly needed to taste. They stood for a moment, looking at each other. Then he spun her around in one swift motion, so she was behind the tree and he could kiss her with no one the wiser but the squirrel on the branch above them. Her lips were warm and opened to him—he was kissing her in mid-laughter. Her laughter stopped when she heard a crack of thunder and heard him gasp against her lips, as he was flung forward. He let her go, his hand flying to his shoulder. He pushed her back against the trunk of the tree, his eyes wild with shock and fury. “Stay here,” he said, and ran, one hand clapped to his shoulder. The children at the pondside froze as geese and swans rose up into the air in a frantic scrambling flutter. The nursemaids twittered, strollers went stock still, horsemen pulled rein and stared around, standing in their stirrups. The clouds were still far off. It hadn’t been thunder they heard. Lucy gathered Jamie to her side. Her heart pounded with the effort of staying where she was. But he’d said “Wait!”, and he knew what he was about. If she’d trusted him this far, she couldn’t betray him now, even though every impulse told her to run to him, wherever he was. When Wycoff came back ten minutes later, he was winded and pale, and grim about the mouth. He

358 / Edith Layton

kept his hand clamped to his shoulder, dark red blood sluggishly seeping from between his fingers. “Gone,” he muttered. “I chased him into some trees and across a lawn. He had a horse waiting. Damnation! But I saw the back of his head. Let’s get you and Jamie home.” “But your shoulder,” she said. “Can wait. Let’s get you home.” He looked at a horseman sitting transfixed on his horse, watching. “Sir! Would you get word to Mr. Perkins at number four Grosvenor Square?” he asked, “Tell him the Viscount Wycoff needs his services at the Pulteney, at Mrs. Stone’s rooms, and now!” “Servant!” the horsemen said, sketching a bow, and galloped off.

24

shot went through, taking some flesh. It’s in The the tree trunk, not me, thank God,” Wycoff told his audience. He sat back in his chair, the edges of his mouth going white from the effort. “I’ve seen worse, my lord,” Perkins said as he rolled up the rest of his bandages. Lord Drummond nodded. Damon Ryder looked pensive. “You’ll probably run a fever tonight,” Rafe commented with professional interest. “Drink water and stay still, and for God’s sake don’t let them bleed you.” “Who did it?” Gilly Ryder said, cutting to the heart of the matter, her little hands closed to fists. Wycoff shot her a look. “If I knew, my dear Gilly, you’d be the last person on earth I’d tell. You’d

360 / Edith Layton

be after the fellow with a cleaver. I want that satisfaction for myself.” “Huh!” she said. “‘Satisfaction,’ is it? I know you gentlemen,” she emphasized the word with sarcasm. “But the best end to such a rogue is a quick and painful one and honor be damned!” “Gilly,” Damon said softly, “let be.” “Anyway, it’s my place, not yours, Gilly,” Lucy said, attempting to keep her voice light. “If anyone’s to snatch up that cleaver, it’s me. We are promised to wed.” “G’wan!” Gilly exclaimed, spinning around to look at her, “s’truth?” Lucy smiled, honestly at last. “Yes. That’s what we were going to tell you today—before this happened.” Gilly whooped, her husband grinned. Drum and Rafe exchanged smiles before they congratulated Wycoff and wished Lucy well, and shook a grinning Jamie’s hand. Then they all made silly jests, and suggested tea to toast the happy couple. But when they saw how pale Wycoff’s face was, they started to make moves to go. Wycoff began to rise, with effort. “Must you leave?” Lucy asked him worriedly. “Much as I enjoy your ministrations, I must,” he said. “It’s growing late. I’ll be fine, you’ll see.” “Yes, tomorrow!” she promised. “I’ll be there early.” “We’ll see him home and locked up tight,” Rafe promised Lucy as Perkins and Drum helped Wycoff

The Challenge / 361

stand, “so he don’t escape before the happy day.” “Will you—can you keep an eye on him?” she asked nervously, “If that’s at all possible?” “It is,” Damon said, “consider it done. Drum and Rafe had experience with such things during the war. I know a trick or two, too. But it was likely only an accident, as Wycoff himself said. A boy with a gun taking aim at the swans or some such. But we’ll be on hand and alert, don’t worry.” “Don’t fret,” Wycoff told her with a wan smile as he left her, touching a finger to her cheek. “You won’t escape me that easily, not after all the trouble I’ve taken to win you. Remember, only the good die young. Till tomorrow then, get some rest, my dear.” She wept when he’d gone. Then locked the door and went to bed, tired and confused, but not so much so that she couldn’t offer up prayers of thanksgiving first. Wycoff didn’t sleep. He sat in a chair in his study, receiving guests. “Be damned if I’ll sleep till something’s discovered,” he growled to Perkins. “Have done. Now. My lord Drummond,” he asked his most newly arrived guest. “What did you discover?” Drum shucked off his greatcoat. “The park ranger said it might be a poacher. Or a foolish boy with a gun.” “What they’ve been saying all along, the fools,” Rafe muttered, from his chair by the fireside. “It’s not likely, I agree,” Damon said thought-

362 / Edith Layton

fully, his handsome face grave in the firelight. “Wycoff didn’t chase a boy.” “No,” Wycoff said, resting his head against the back of his chair. His wound throbbed in dark counterpoint to his pulse, his anger building. “And a poacher dressed so fine? I don’t think so.” “Then who?” Gilly said in agitation. “I do wish you’d go home and go to sleep,” Wycoff told her, opening one eye. “If you dare tell me a female’s place is in the home,” she said angrily, “I’ll—I’ll smite you myself, my lord.” “Well, it is,” Rafe said. “But you’re a mad piece, so we’ll let it be.” “You’d better,” Damon said, smiling, slipping an arm around her waist, “or you’ll be her next target. Much as I’d prefer she was at home, do you think she’d shut an eye tonight until she knew all? At least this way she’ll sleep when she does go to bed, and I won’t have to keep her up longer retelling everything we’ve said.” “Point taken,” Wycoff said. “But Lucy is not to know.” “Of course,” Gilly said, offended. “What do you think of me? They all laughed at that, including Gilly—after a moment. “Who was it then?” Drum finally asked. “You must have an idea. You followed the villain.” Wycoff sighed. “An idea, yes. The man was medium height, dark, stocky in build, dressed in

The Challenge / 363

good, but not really fashionable clothing. He took care to keep his face from me when he saw me pursuing. So all I got was an impression, a glimpse.” “Dark, stocky? Her newly appeared suitor from America is that!” Gilly gasped. “That Bellows fellow! She introduced us after we saw him mooching about in the lobby the other day!” “Yes. So I think. Who else could it be?” Wycoff asked, leaning back, closing his eyes. “No one else is angry with me at the moment that I know of. My old flames are cold as ice and I’ve been immaculate since we returned to England. But William Bellows followed Lucy here, and was very angry with her—and me, of course—when she told him our plans. She did that just this morning, she said. He has a hasty temper as well as a lost cause now. We’ve an old score to settle, too.” He opened his eyes. “Perkins, my friend, we challenged him once, on a different shore. That time we made a May-game of it to discourage him, because it was only a warning. This time I think we must be serious about it. The man tried to blow my head off. Not saying that wouldn’t please a great many folk. But we can’t have it, can we?” “No, my lord,” Perkins said. “Since you are indisposed, do you wish me to offer the challenge?” “Be damned to that,” Wycoff said with a spurt of the anger he felt. “I’ll be fine in the morning and do it myself, not with a glove, but a fist. The sooner the better, I think.” “A duel? I see the necessity—but your arm!” Drum protested. “Let one of us do the honors.”

364 / Edith Layton

“Don’t worry,” Wycoff said wearily. “I’m sinister in that, as in everything,” “His lordship is left-handed,” Perkins translated, with the ghost of a smile. “But if you win—when you win,” Gilly said, “you’ll have to leave the country! Don’t do that now—not now, when you’re about to win everything.” “What should I do?” Wycoff asked her. “Have one of you have to go instead? No. Any rate, I don’t intend to kill, it would distress Lucy. Nor do I care to leave England. But I’m accounted a fair shot. And an adequate swordsman. I can make my point very well without it being lethal. I doubt he’d duel again when I’m done. Any rate, I doubt it will be done at all. The fellow wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of a duel last time, and that was on his own territory. This time he’s only here on a visit, and it was a failed mission, at that. Come the fatal dawn, he’s more likely to slip out on a outgoing ship than to meet me on some damp and grassy knoll.” “Huh,” Gilly snorted. “He knows you’ve been wounded. That’s just the sort of thing a coward would try to take advantage of.” “Then he’ll be unpleasantly surprised,” Wycoff said. “I’ll second you,” Rafe said quickly, as Drum and Damon began to volunteer, too. “Thank you, gentlemen,” Wycoff said, “but Perkins can do it, he’s done it before. You can serve me better by keeping Lucy occupied and out of the

The Challenge / 365

picture entirely. She used to like the fellow. And I believe she has a care for me,” he added with a proud and genuine smile. “But please don’t let my father get wind of this. He’s just helped me back into the fold. I’d dislike making him think he was wrong to do so. He’d understand, I think, but there’s no sense troubling him.” “Agreed,” Drum said. “We’ll let Gilly divert Lucy. Damon can engage your father; I saw them talking at the Swansons’ ball.” “Yes, we had a lot to say. He knows my father from school,” Damon said. “I’d be honored to keep him company.” “Rafe and I will use some of our old skills to see if we can discover more,” Drum went on, “so you can add evidence to your threats when you see Bellows.” “Thank you,” Wycoff said. “You’re better friends than I deserve. Tomorrow I issue my challenge. We’ll have the thing out as soon as it can be arranged. Then I hope we can all go on to lead long and boring lives.” He looked around the room, his expression growing shuttered. But his heart was full. This was where he’d first made love to Lucy, where she’d promised her life in trust to him. He’d have to live in order to fulfill his promise to her. He’d every intention of keeping his word. “I’ve done much in a short time to restore my name so I can give it to her with the pride she deserves,” he said evenly. “I’ve groveled at the feet of hypocrites and liars. I’ve flattered knaves and

366 / Edith Layton

jades. I’ve swallowed advice from fools and asked for more. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. I’d something bright and beautiful and good in view, I saw it through all the folly. No one’s going to take me from that now. No one.” He stared into the fire, his eyes cold. Then he smiled at them, a small, wan smile. “But this is not such a dire matter. The man’s a coward and a sneak. I’ll face him down and turf him out. Don’t worry on my behalf.” His guests took their leave of him then, because he looked drained and haggard. Not one of them mentioned what they were all thinking. Because though Wycoff was acknowledged to be a fine marksman and brilliant swordsman, his opponent was a sneaking villain. And each of them had good cause to know that Fate never played fair, or honestly, with any man. “I don’t need another bonnet!” Lucy laughed. “Not only do I have more fripperies than any woman needs, yes, don’t say it again—even a new bride—but you should rest more, in your condition.” “My condition?” Gilly asked as they strolled down the street arm in arm. Jamie was in the park with Sukey, so they were followed by Gilly’s maidservant. It was a clear morning after two days of teeming rains, and the fashionable avenues were already thronged. Ladies and gentleman ambled by, their servants in tow behind them. Horsemen and carriages filled the roads. Lucy and Gilly had to stop on each corner, and not just to wait for street sweep-

The Challenge / 367

ers to ply their brooms to clear a path free of mud, straw, and horse manure for them. “Huh,” Gilly said, slowing their pace as they approached another corner. “Ladies may think they should sit on a fine cushion and not lift a finger until the happy day. But I’m not a lady, thank you. I’d be a bowl of aspic by the time the child came if I did that! Bed’s for invalids. And I never felt better.” “You’re right,” Lucy said. “I kept moving till the day Jamie was born. Well, I had to—we journeyed across the sea, and had to keep looking for a place to live when we got there. Jamie’s birth was quick for a firstborn, or so the midwife said. And easy, she said, though—Well, really, it’s nothing, you’ll see,” she added with a sidewise glance at the younger woman. She wasn’t going to breathe one word that might worry Gilly, even if she had any. “I was up and about in no time at all. In fact, I think Francis was a little shocked by it. His mama spent his lifetime moaning about how difficult having him had been.” “She was trying to bind him tight to her,” Gilly said wisely. “Damon’s mama told me how some women do that, after some old aunts of his frightened me up into the trees with their memories of childbearing. Made Rafe and Drum’s reminiscences of battle sound tame! And Bridget, Lady Sinclair—my friend I’ve told you about? She says while it’s no lark, it’s not doomsday, neither. Makes sense. There wouldn’t be a world full of people if it was terrible as the old hens try to make out.” “It wasn’t for me,” Lucy said, “and I wouldn’t

368 / Edith Layton

pretend it, though some men prefer to think of their wives as fragile, I think. Francis was surprised by my resilience, but overlooked it. He overlooked a lot, actually, he was so eager to be gone again,” she added sadly, “and glad he could leave me with a clear conscience.” Gilly patted her hand. “Nothing but happiness ahead of you,” she said stoutly. “You’ll see.” Lucy stopped and turned to smile at Gilly. If she hadn’t, she’d have been thrown in front of the carriage bowling down the street. Instead Lucy stumbled and fell to her knees half on the pavement instead of entirely in the gutter. Lucy was shocked, her knees hurt and her head swam, but she waved off Gilly’s outstretched hand. “I was pushed!” she gasped, rising on one bruised knee and pointing a wavering finger at a man running away through the crowd. “He pushed me!” Gilly spun around. “There he goes!” she shrieked in a voice that could be heard a block away. “Catch him! The bloody bastard tried to kill a lady!” It wasn’t a ladylike thing to say, nor said in ladylike manner. But it got attention. Gentlemen, servants, and street vendors began to give chase to the rapidly retreating figure. Lucy staggered to her feet. “Stay here!” she told Gilly. “I have to see for myself.” Gilly put her hand hard on her arm. The delicatelooking young woman was surprisingly strong. “Damned if you will!” she said angrily. “With your

The Challenge / 369

knees bleeding like that. Are you mad? They’ll get him faster than you can.” But they didn’t. “The fellow gave us the slip,” a young army officer who’d appointed himself captain of the little company of pursuers said in chagrin when they straggled back a few minutes later. “Disappeared round a corner and lost himself somewhere. Are you hurt? I say! You are. Let me call a hackney cab for you.” “Did you see him clearly?” Lucy asked. Her gown was torn, her palms and knees were bleeding. She trembled. But she stood tall, and with dignity. “Well, yes. Nasty looking chap,” the lieutenant said. “Dark, thickset, dressed well enough, I suppose. But he tried to get your purse, did he?” “No,” Lucy said, biting her lip. He hadn’t done anything but try to kill her. The same man that had shot Wycoff the other day? The dark man? She’d been wondering about that, and worrying, too. Could it have been…? The day after Wycoff was shot, she’d called on William. She’d tried to mend fences, and told him what had happened. And watched him carefully. He’d said he was shocked, said he was appalled. He’d said what a lucky chance it had been that Wycoff hadn’t been killed. But his eyes had been glad. Typical, she supposed, William was as awkward as an actor as he was as a suitor. And he bore grudges. Natural enough…perhaps. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. “’e didn’t want ’er purse, the rogue!” a scruffy

370 / Edith Layton

lemonade vendor volunteered. “I seen the whole. I were standing here, like always, and I seen ’e was following along close behind the lady. I noticed, ’cause he were looking strange, keyed-up, you know wot I mean? Thought he was gonna pinch her purse. Next thing I knows, ’e gives ’er a shove, for no reason. Tell you one thing, Lady, if you ’adn’t turned when you did you’d ’ave been in the gutter with that great coach rolling over you! Coachman couldn’t never have stopped in time, and so that villain knew. For I seen him looking afore ’e pushed you.” “Did you see his face?” Lucy asked. “Aye, clear as I’m seeing yours. Dark eyes, like a madman, ’e had. Dark beard, you could tell. Looked like ’e’d just shaved it, see, but it were already coming in again. It were that kind, y’see.” Lucy’s heart sank. William? Madman, indeed! To attempt Wycoff was a mad, cruel thing. But herself? Was he so angry at her? “Aye,” the monger went on, “’e didn’t need that broken nose nor that wicked scar cross it to tell you ’e was a villain, not that one!” A broken nose! A scar? Lucy thought. But William’s is straight, and he has no scars. No one in the crowd knew why the poor lady smiled so wide to hear the description of her attacker. That too must have been what made her companion gasp aloud, and her lovely amber eyes go so wide. But Lucy turned her head at the sound and looked at Gilly. Then her own eyes narrowed. “I’ll get a hackney for you and send you back to

The Challenge / 371

the hotel,” Gilly said quickly. “But I’ve got to get home and tell Damon—to send someone to watch over you until I get back.” “No,” Lucy said, “You are not leaving me now.” “I can see you’re upset—well, who wouldn’t be?” Gilly almost gabbled. “But this is for the best, you’ll see.” “No,” Lucy said. “But do you know? I feel rather faint,” Gilly said, fanning herself with one hand, while the other went to her abdomen. “All this excitement! I’d be better off at my own home. I’ll see you safely into a hackney cab, and come visit you as soon as I can.” Lucy drew on every ounce of her resolve. She blinded herself to Gilly’s look of distress. “I’ll go with you,” she said. “You’re not leaving my sight, Gilly Ryder. Where you go, I shall go.” Lucy was shaking, with relief, and shock. Not William, after all. She finally felt the pain stinging in her hands, looked down at her ragged, bloodstained gloves, and felt her aching knees go weak. She was confused, but one thing she did know. Gilly knew something she didn’t. And Gilly was trying to go somewhere and do something she should know about, too. Shaken and flustered, Lucy held on to her composure with effort. Someone tried to kill her! Someone had tried to kill Wycoff, too. Wycoff was no fool, but neither was she. She remembered what had happened before when he had been offered less insult, so she had a terrible suspicion about what it was that Gilly knew. One thing was certain, Gilly

372 / Edith Layton

couldn’t leave her. But she was trying to go, and so what could she do? But she was older than Gilly Ryder, she reminded herself. That made her remember a tactic that always worked with Jamie when all else failed. But Jamie thought she was all-knowing. Still, it was worth the gamble. She had to make her expression menacing and her voice certain. She stared at Gilly, hard. “I know more than you think I do,” she said levelly. Gilly took a breath. She made a decision, quickly. “Then come with me,” she said. “There’s something we have to do.” Lucy remembered to ask the officer to take statements and names, if he could, and send word to the hotel, if he would. Then like a queen, she ascended the short stair to the hackney they called for her. And collapsed on the seat. “I know much, but tell me all,” she told Gilly through gritted teeth, as she began the painful process of peeling her glove off. Half the fabric was ground into her skin. “You ought to go home, you should wash that, soaking it off would be best,” Gilly said taking one of Lucy’s hands in hers. “Green Park, by the reservoir,” she told the coachman when he asked. Lucy hissed and snatched her hand back, not because of the pain in her hand, but because of their destination. “So far? And by a reservoir? It’s morning…Isn’t that the famous place for…It is! He challenged William to a duel?” she asked. “Lud! He must have done.”

The Challenge / 373

Gilly grimaced. “Well, he thought the fellow tried to kill him. We all did.” “You all?” “Me, Damon, Drum, Rafe. He didn’t want you to know, Lucy, he didn’t want to distress you.” “He didn’t want me to stop it,” Lucy said. “Well, but he weren’t—wasn’t going to kill the bloke—fellow, see how upset you’ve got me? Forgot all my hard-earned language, I did. I promised to button my mug. What will they think when I get there—with you? Anyway, Wycoff’s expert with sword and gun. It’s just a lesson. One that needed teaching, or so we all thought. But this! Blimey!” “I tried to stop a duel between them once before. They didn’t need me then. Pray God, they don’t this time. Something terrible is happening, and I don’t know why. This may all be part of it, too. If there’s a killing…” “Don’t worry,” Gilly said, “I tell you, Wycoff’s brilliant at fencing and shooting. Damon said so.” “I know,” Lucy said, raising her head, her eyes stark. “It’s not that I’m worried about,” she lied. “But if he kills William…We know William’s not the one now. But he doesn’t. How will he ever forgive himself? He has so much he’s trying to atone for now, that would be, I think, one thing too many.” “Here, let me help with that,” Gilly said, turning her attention to Lucy’s hands. “One thing I’ve learned is to do what you can, and wait on the rest. We can do something about your wounds now. I’ll need strips from my petticoat, and yours,” she told

374 / Edith Layton

her maidservant, sitting wide-eyed in a corner of the carriage, “and hand over your gloves. We’ll tend the worst, and pray for the rest.” Lucy nodded, remembering the last duel she’d tried to stop. For all her running and panic, it had been over before it began. She could only hope this one hadn’t started yet.

25

hackney tore through the streets and barreled The into the park. “It’s too quiet,” Lucy said anxiously, looking out the window. “Are you sure this was the day, the park?” Nothing paced the green lawns but birds, there was no sound but that of their songs. Thickly treed and verdant, it was pastoral, the perfect place for a man to go to get away from the bustle of city life for a day. And the perfect place to stage a duel where no one would be the wiser. “Yes,” Gilly said worriedly. “But there’s acres to cover yet…. Wait—there! There’s a coach, and another—faster!” she told the driver as they went up a little gravel path. Three coaches stood waiting. Seven men stood

376 / Edith Layton

on the grassy slope. Two were in shirtsleeves. Facing each other. Each held a pistol—Lucy could see them glinting in the sunlight. But at least both men were standing. The taller one had turned his head and was staring at the arriving coach as it clattered up the path. Lucy flew out as it came to a stop. She stumbled, but righted herself and kept going, hobbling and weeping, until she launched herself into Wycoff’s outstretched arms. “What’s this?” he said, holding her, sweeping the hair out of her tearstained eyes. “What’s this?” he asked again, because he didn’t trust his voice to say anything more, she was trembling so. “It’s not William,” she said, grabbing his arms, looking up into his eyes. “It’s not. Don’t fight with him. It’s not William.” “I know,” Wycoff said, “We only came here this morning because it was too late to get word to him. I kept the appointment only to offer him my apologies.” “But, the pistols…” Lucy said, her eyes on his, so blue he felt he was gazing into the depths of the sea. He shrugged one shoulder. He looked embarrassed. It was not an expression she’d often seen on his face. “We—” he said, some color appearing on his high cheekbones. “After all was said—we decided to have a shooting match. Just to settle a question of competence.” Lucy buried her face in his shoulder. He felt her shoulders shaking. “Laughter?” he asked hopefully. “Or tears?”

The Challenge / 377

“Both,” she said, raising her head. “What children men are! The best and brightest of you. Oh Hathaway, my dear.” “Well,” he said softly, “that was worth everything, I think.” “Not everything!” Gilly said angrily. “Look at her hands! They’re torn. Her knees, too!” He glanced down at her ragged skirt. Suddenly grim, he raised one of her padded hands. “You ran so hard and fast you stumbled and hurt yourself. Ah, Lucy,” he said with infinite sadness, “do you care for him so much then?” “I care for you, you have enough of your plate,” Lucy said. “How would you forgive yourself if you hurt him and he was innocent? I know you, you’d suffer.” “Then you know me better than I do,” he said with a twisted smile. “Stubble it! She didn’t fall. Someone pushed her into traffic,” Gilly said bluntly. “Someone tried to kill her.” Lucy felt Wycoff’s body grow taut. His head snapped up. “Aye,” Gilly said. “Tried to shove her in front of a carriage on Bond Street. She fell to the pavement instead.” Wycoff’s breath caught. He tightened his arms around Lucy. “He got away,” Gilly went on angrily. “Dark, he was, they said. And of middling height,” she added, staring at William, whose dark face had gone white.

378 / Edith Layton

“But you both were here then. And this bloke had a broken nose, with a scar cross it. Same cove as the one what tried for you, Wycoff, unless I miss my guess. And so Lucy thought, she’s quick as can be,” Gilly said with admiration. “That’s how she twigged to the duel, she guessed the whole. I just told her the details when I couldn’t shake her off and knew we had to get here to tell you what I’d learned before pistols were fired. I didn’t spill a thing,” she hastily told her husband, who’d come to stand beside her. “No, I know,” Damon said, hugging her. “I promise I’ll never keep anything from you again,” Wycoff said, holding Lucy close. “For one thing, it’s no use.” “But you kept this from me,” Lucy said sadly. “Yes. But I never made that promise before, did I?” he asked. “As to the duel, Rafe and Lord Drummond came before dawn to tell me what they’d discovered. The man who shot at me is one George Harris.” He paused. He touched her hair, and gazed into her eyes. “He’s not a very good assassin, because his last position was as a valet—in the employ of the baron Hunt.” He waited to see her reaction. It seemed all present were holding their breath. Lucy grew still. She swallowed hard, then slowly nodded. “It made sense that they’d try to eliminate me,” Wycoff said. “If you married me, their plans for

The Challenge / 379

Jamie were done. I never thought they’d attempt anything with you; I’d never have left you alone if I had. Please forgive me. It was beyond foolish. I don’t know if I can forgive myself for that.” “My fault too,” Rafe said, shaking his head. “Never imagined it either.” “Nor I,” Drum agreed. “But when they failed with Wycoff, they probably decided to go after easier prey.” “No,” Wycoff said slowly. “It may have been that they never meant any harm to me. Remember, I was with Lucy, close by her side, when I was shot. Harris isn’t a good marksman. He obviously realized it, or he’d have used a pistol instead of a shove when he got close enough to Lucy today.” Someone gasped. Someone muttered a curse. Lucy gazed at Wycoff, her face pale. “Well, it makes sense, I suppose,” she said dully. “The baron and his wife wanted my Jamie very much, didn’t they?” “Our Jamie,” Wycoff said, tightening his hold on her. “And we must be sure before we make any accusations,” he added with a significant look at Drum and Rafe. She gave him a sad smile. “Thank you. Don’t try to spare my feelings. I doubt this Harris person had any personal reason to want either me or you gone from the scene.” “So soon as we get word of this ‘Harris person’s’ present whereabouts, his career as assassin, as well

380 / Edith Layton

as valet, is over,” Drum said with deadly calm. “Leave him to Rafe and me, we’ve experience in such matters.” “Yes. And Damon, if you’d take Lucy home now, please?” Wycoff said over the top of Lucy’s head. She saw the tension in the muscles knotted in his jaw. “I still have business to do.” “Don’t lock me out again,” Lucy said, drawing away from him. “I belong with you in whatever business it is we have to do. He is my brother-inlaw,” she added when she saw his expression. “I belong with you when you deal with him.” He nodded, reluctantly. “So, what do you think we should do?” “We must tell the baron we know,” she said simply. “Yes,” he said, gazing at her as though they were alone there in midst of so many. “And that will suffice?” Damon Ryder asked quietly. “It will,” Wycoff said. “He and his wife are vile. But they are, when all’s said, only noble persons whose name transcends their honor. That name is in our hands now. When they know it, it will be ended. Because their name is all they have.” “But—” William huffed, “they must be made to pay more.” “Very true,” Drum said, with a wry smile. “But this is England. They are noblepersons. They can’t be shot, as they deserve to be.”

The Challenge / 381

“Why not? Why not challenge him?” William insisted. “And have the matter out in public?” Wycoff asked. “No. It’s Jamie’s name too.” “And risk Wycoff?” Lucy gasped at the same time. “I won’t have it!” “Thank you for your faith in my marksmanship,” Wycoff said, his lips tilting at their corners. “I have faith in you,” she said firmly, “even wounded as you are. But that puts you at a disadvantage, and they’d cheat, I know it. I couldn’t bear the thought, please Wycoff, not that way.” “Then I won’t,” he said, taking one of her bandaged hands. “Don’t fret yourself.” “So what can you do?” William insisted. “We can make sure it never happens again,” Wycoff said. William didn’t argue the point when he saw the other man’s eyes. They went to the baron’s hotel after Lucy changed her frock and had a physician look at her injuries. “We could wait until tomorrow,” Wycoff told her. “You could. I can’t,” she said simply. “We’ve word from Rafe and Drum. George Harris will not trouble us again. Let’s go now and get it all done, so I can breath easily again.” They only stopped to pick up Wycoff’s father on the way. They were all grim-faced and silent when they arrived at the baron Hunt’s rooms.

382 / Edith Layton

“Lucy. Jamie!” the baron said in greeting as they entered his suite. “Wycoff. This is a happy surprise.” “This is my father, Earl Broughton,” Wycoff said tersely. He didn’t present the baron to his father, and his father didn’t so much as bend his head in answer to the baron’s bow. The baron’s eyes went wide. It was a deliberate insult. “Do have a seat,” the baron said nervously. His wife rose from her chair, and then sank down again when she saw the stern faces on her guests. Even Jamie looked sober. Wycoff didn’t take a chair. He remained standing and his voice was cold and clear. “We know,” he said without preamble. “We could send you to Newgate. But we won’t, if you give us your word, in writing, that you will never attempt such a thing again.” “You have no proof!” the baron said angrily. Wycoff’s mouth thinned in a bitter smile. “Your denial is proof enough. An innocent man wouldn’t be asking for proof now. He’d ask, ‘Proof of what?’ But your crime sits heavily on your mind. As it should on your black heart. We have more. A signed statement from your valet, and would-be murderer, George Harris.” “I fired him for pilfering last year. Who would believe such a man?” the baron scoffed. “Few, especially since he was hired by your secretary, not you, for this job of work, I grant,” Wycoff said smoothly. “But that’s enough for us.”

The Challenge / 383

“And for me,” the old earl said heavily. “For you too, Hunt. And for everyone in the world we inhabit. At least, if it is my word against yours in the matter. It is more than enough,” he said to the baron’s altered expression. “We both know it would be.” Wycoff shook his head. “I’d have known immediately, but your hired killer wasn’t as good as he claimed to be, thank God. He wasn’t trying to shoot me. It was Lucy you were after from the start. That was what misled me. Why should anyone want to harm her? But I’ve made enemies in my misspent past. At that, it might have been more clever for you to have taken my life first, so as to deflect suspicion. But you weren’t thinking. You were acting from panic, weren’t you? “No matter,” he said as the baron began to protest again. “My friends, who have experience in such matters, discovered your hand in this. I didn’t understand until your attempt on Lucy. I thought she was safe, until then. I should have realized merely killing me wouldn’t solve anything for you. My marrying her would have put paid to your plans for Jamie, but only temporarily. Because she’s lovely, you saw that for yourself. Even if I were out of the picture, it wouldn’t solve your problem and give you clear possession of Jamie. You were afraid she might attract another man to rescue her from her situation. Killing her would leave Jamie to you, entirely.” “Can we discuss this without the boy here?” Lady Hunt asked shrilly.

384 / Edith Layton

“No!” Lucy said, her hand clenched tight on Jamie’s. “Because if anything should ever happen to me in future, whether by accident or God’s design, he must know what you attempted. It’s his right.” “We are not villains!” the baron thundered. “We care for the boy. But if and when he inherits—what would become of my dear lady then? We thought about it long and hard. Jamie, we like you very well,” he said, almost imploring, as he gazed at him. “We’d be proud to have you as our own son, but you’re not that.” The baron looked at Wycoff. “What if I died and he inherited, and he didn’t love my lady? What if he should banish her to the dower house, or worse, pension her off to some small cottage somewhere out of his sight and his mind, what then? But if he lived with us, and grew up with us, he’d adore her, as I do. He’d provide for her, and care for her. I did it for love, and only that, you must see that.” “You could leave your lady your unentailed funds,” Wycoff said. “Many good men do such for those they love, and with their heirs’ blessings,” he added for his father’s ears. “The estate would go to Jamie, but you could provide enough money for her so that she’d never go begging.” “No,” the baron said, shaking his jowls. “What of the estate? It’s been in my family for three hundred years. It needs money to keep up. You’ve no idea of the expenses. Should it go to rack and ruin, destroying generations of hard work, and all because of one man and his feeling for his wife?”

The Challenge / 385

“Yes,” Wycoff said, icy rage making his words clipped, “it should. For one man and one woman, which is how your line started. And how any line can begin. Yes, absolutely. You had to choose between pride and love. There’s no choice, not really. Not if you really love. Come, this grows painful for both our ladies. Sign the paper. Then we’ll go.” “Do you hate me, Jamie?” the baron’s wife sobbed as Jamie rose to his feet. “No ma’am,” Jamie said, “but I don’t love you.” But neither does her husband, Lucy thought sadly as she stood. “He will never harm you, though,” she told the lady. “He’s a good boy and will be a good man, in his time” “I’m ashamed that he should know,” the lady cried. “That was cruel of you, whatever we did.” “Was it?” Lucy asked, putting a hand on Wycoff’s arm to prevent him from answering. This was hers to say. “I don’t think so. I think it was important he knew firsthand where he stood in the way of things. For the future. His future….” She paused, and looked Lady Alice in the eyes. “When you first asked for Jamie I asked you what would happen if you ever conceived a son yourself in time. You said you’d rejoice and Jamie wouldn’t suffer. But if you saw me as an impediment so easily removed, who can tell what would have been my son’s fate if it actually came to that? Can you? Think on. What if you began to perceive him as a danger to your own long wished-for son? And don’t say it’s

386 / Edith Layton

not possible. Murder begets murder, and no good would ever have come of it.” There was no answer. But at least the baron’s wife stopped weeping. Abruptly. And took the pen from her husband’s hand to add her own name to the paper he’d just signed.

26

was a small wedding reception held at a huge Ithouse. The Viscount Wycoff and his bride danced in the ballroom, then out the long doors onto the terrace in the twilight, and then on to the scythed lawns that rolled to the river’s edge, and on into the coming night. The other guests did, too. Lanterns were hung in the trees, twinkling in the boughs like trapped stars. Torches flamed on the lawns, the house itself was aglow with light this long midsummer’s evening. The bride wore a gown of blushing pink, the groom dressed elegantly as for a court reception. The guests were the cream of society and the best of friends and relatives, all garbed in their finest. But the bride and groom had eyes only for each other. “Clever to have the wedding party here,” Rafe commented to his friend Lord Drummond as they

388 / Edith Layton

watched the happy couple. “Lucky he has an estate on the Thames, so close to London we can all be here, too.” “Luckier still that Gilly gave him an excuse not to travel north to have the reception at his father—and mother’s—house,” Drum said quietly, eyeing the viscount’s mama, the only one of the family not dancing. She sat upright in a chair, watching the merriment with a glacial stare. Her husband led his aged sister in a minuet; they made a game of it. It must have been a relief for him, as he’d just done dancing with Lady Jersey, who never stopped chattering. Mr. and Mrs. Ames, proud beyond words to be invited, happier still that their trip had been paid for, danced past, their smiles dazzling in the lantern glow. Perkins took Sukey’s hand when they promenaded in the servants’ dance to the side of the lawn, as a symbol of the two households coming together. “Well, I said I couldn’t travel far in my condition, and his mama had to accept it,” Gilly laughed. “Wycoff blessed me for it, but I’m happy to be an excuse.” “So don’t dance so much, baggage,” Drum said, “or she’ll guess.” “Ho!” she said. “As if that would stop me. How much longer shall I be able to dance this close in his arms? Soon there’ll be something coming between us,” she said, running a hand over her still flat abdomen. “I know, I know,” she added, with a bright look at her husband, “that’s not something a lady would say.”

The Challenge / 389

Her husband grinned. “I know. Lucky me. Now they’ve struck up a waltz. So come, let’s dance as close as we can while we may.” “That’s a lucky fellow, indeed,” Drum said, watching the pair waltz off together. “And there’s another,” Rafe said, watching Wycoff and Lucy glide by. “Who would have guessed that Wycoff, of all people—Wycoff,” Rafe said, shaking his head, “would be so tamed by love.” “Anyone, actually,” Drum answered. Rafe fell still. Both men stood in silence on the terrace, as the music played on. The other guests were busily talking about the newly wedded couple, too. “She’s lovely,” the hazel-eyed young girl told her brother as they watched the Viscount Wycoff and his new bride. “Honest and charming and goodhearted, with no airs at all. She loves him for all the good things we know he is. She’s so friendly and warm, young enough to be pretty, but old enough to care for me like a mother. And she really seems to care for me, too.” “Yes. A wonderful woman, but with terrible judgment about other females,” commented her brother, with laughter in his voice. She ignored his jest. “I so worried he’d attach some flighty young thing, or a wicked stepmother,” she sighed. “But she’s perfect. I can scarcely believe it’s so.” “It’s so,” Crispin told his sister, proudly.

390 / Edith Layton

“Wonderful,” she laughed. “Now I can live at home, and be comfortable again. Everything is splendid—except I have yet another brother!” she said with a ferocious scowl at Jamie. Jamie grinned at her. He knew her brand of teasing by now, he’d learned it in the weeks since they’d met. “But Jamie is the best of boys,” Harmony Ames protested. “Now that he’s not home with us anymore,” her sister Bess giggled. “Who would have thought such good could have come from such a bad misunderstanding?” their sister Jenny asked in wonder. “What misunderstanding?” Crispin asked. The girls grew pink, and tittered. “You don’t know?” Jamie asked in delight. “It’s a famous story! You see…” He lowered his voice. In a moment all the young people were laughing. Everyone at this wedding reception was, when they weren’t chatting together. Except for the bride and groom. They said little. They waltzed in ever slower circles and looked into each other’s eyes—one mind, one heart. “Mine, at last,” Wycoff said into his bride’s ear, holding her close. “No, mine, at last,” she whispered back, moving closer. They didn’t need to say more.

About the Author A native New Yorker, EDITH LAYTON began writing at the age of ten. After graduating with a degree in theater and writing, she did publicity, PR, advertising, and promotion for various TV, radio, and movie companies. She’s the mother of three grown children and lives in Long Island. Visit Edith Layton on the World Wide Web at www.edithlayton.com Visit www.AuthorTracker.com for exclusive information on your favorite HarperCollins author.

PRAISE FOR EDITH LAYTON’S PREVIOUS NOVELS THE CHOICE “I SIMPLY LOVE THIS BOOK.” —Joan Wolf “A WONDERFULLY ROMANTIC AND SPARKLING STORY. The colorful backdrop is perfectly portrayed and the emotional depth will move readers to laugh and perhaps shed a tear or two.” —Romantic Times, four stars “TOP-NOTCH…told with flair and fraught with sexual tension.” —Publishers Weekly “DELIGHTFUL…. As in all of Ms. Layton’s books, the reader is transported, heart, mind, and soul, into the past…. The characters are MARVELOUS and wonderfully drawn. The story is well-plotted, well-paced, and THOROUGHLY ENTERTAINING. Damon and Gilly will touch your heart—and sexual tension will raise your temperature. On your next trip to the bookstore, make THE right CHOICE!” —Romance Fiction Forum “Another wonderful book by Edith Layton…. The story keeps the reader enthralled, loving every word…. YOU WILL LOVE THIS ONE…. MORE KUDOS TO MS. LAYTON.” —Under the Covers

THE CAD “The very best romance novels are almost like an adrenaline rush: there’s the excitement of realizing that you are hooked, the intense focus that comes with being totally engrossed and the sweet, oh-so-satisfied letdown when the last page is turned. The Cad gave me all of this and more…. THIS ONE GOES STRAIGHT TO THE KEEPER SHELF…. WONDERFUL.” —Romance Reader “A REAL TREASURE.” —Romantic Times “TITILLATING, DANGEROUS AND IRRESISTIBLE…full of passion and plot twists that I could never have imagined. BRAVA, MS. LAYTON!” —Under the Covers

BOOKS BY EDITH LAYTON The Cad The Choice The Challenge Published by HarperPaperbacks

Copyright This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. THE CHALLENGE.

Copyright © 2000 by Edith Felber. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books. Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader April 2009 ISBN 978-0-06-191328-0 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

About the Publisher Australia HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty. Ltd. 25 Ryde Road (PO Box 321) Pymble, NSW 2073, Australia http://www.harpercollinsebooks.com.au Canada HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 55 Avenue Road, Suite 2900 Toronto, ON, M5R, 3L2, Canada http://www.harpercollinsebooks.ca New Zealand HarperCollinsPublishers (New Zealand) Limited P.O. Box 1 Auckland, New Zealand http://www.harpercollins.co.nz United Kingdom HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 77-85 Fulham Palace Road London, W6 8JB, UK http://www.harpercollinsebooks.co.uk United States HarperCollins Publishers Inc. 10 East 53rd Street New York, NY 10022 http://www.harpercollinsebooks.com