Trial by Desire: Version 2

This is the second version of this book. I say "second version" but there are more false starts that aren’t recorded for posterity than I can shake a stick at. I actually wrote this book through to THE END. There are maybe a few thousand words in it that show up in the final version--and you might recognize that some of the same elements are there, although positioned differently. The highly astute will notice that a few sentences of description of Ned’s mom were cut to shape to fit the Duke of Parford in Unveiled.


London. 1844

The noise of London filtered through the thick walls of the town house like a muffled maelstrom made of human voices. Mr. Edward Carhart had landed on the docks at St. Catharine’s just last night. The ringing clop of horse-hooves had plagued his sleep; he’d woken when the cries of street-sellers intruded on the cool April dawn. Even now, at ten in the morning, the persistent murmur that wafted through his dressing-room window confounded his attempt at concentration.

Breathe in

“‘Ere, man, watch what your bloomin’ ‘orse is eatin’, then!”

The shout on the street below jarred his focus once again, and Ned opened his eyes in irritation. It had to have been the noise that stirred up his mind restlessly.

Or maybe it was the cravat. In his years away from English society, Ned had almost forgotten how to dress in a manner befitting his status as a gentleman and a marquess’s heir. But the occasion was grave. London society was unforgiving. And the woman he had rushed across three oceans to see would expect him to appear at his very best.

If the four horsemen of the apocalypse had stamped and chomped outside his front door, scythes at the ready, his mother would have expected him to tie his cravat and button his waistcoat before inviting them in for tea. As only one of those specters beckoned today, Ned had gone so far as to don a jacket.

It had to have been the noise or the clothing that disrupted him so. The alternative being, it was the worry. And that, Ned could not have countenanced.

Breathe in

The sound that interrupted him this time did not come from the street. It was a tap on the door. Ned sprang to his feet and jumped across the room. He opened the door, a cold knot of dread twisting in his stomach.

Davies, the butler stood on the other side, his back held in a rigid line. Ned had seen only a few servants in the scant hours since his arrival, but they’d all seemed solemn as tombstones. Unsurprising, under the circumstances.

“My mother’s awake, then?”

“No, sir. Not yet.” The man had no expression on his face but a blank, forward stare—a clear indication that something was amiss. “You have a caller. I’ve taken the liberty of installing her in the forward drawing room.” Davies did not so much as glance in the direction of that chamber. Still, discomfort wafted from him like heat from a pot-bellied stove.

And no wonder. There was only one woman who would call at this early hour and be granted entrance without question.

Ned breathed a deep sigh. He had navigated the shoals of his life one careful step at a time. He could handle his wife the same way, too. He followed the butler down the stairs to the drawing room. Just outside the gilt door, he paused. He waved off the butler’s offer to announce him, straightened his jacket, and entered.

Lady Kathleen Carhart stood against the far wall, examining a china statuette on the mantel. For a second, he could see nothing of her but her backside. Her fine, light hair was brought up in complicated, interlocking loops that formed an improbably infinite weave. This confusing confection was tied in place by a length of sky-blue ribbon that obscured the back of her neck and trailed down her spine. Her waist was trim—although these days, the smooth curve of her hips could have been manufactured with a sufficiently clever corset. A very clever corset, if it delivered that fine line. Or a very lovely waist.

He could tell when she became aware he’d entered the room. Her hands, which had been folded genteelly in front of her, clenched. Her shoulders squared, and lifted, and she turned to face him.

Damn. Was it the corset that lifted her cleavage into such prominence, or had she grown more curves after he’d left? She stood in perfect, unmoving silence, absorbing his ogling with all the grace of a marble statue.

“I’m sorry.” He lifted his eyes to her face and tried an apologetic smile. “Six months on board various ships, the crews and passengers all male. It hasn’t put me muchi n the way of polite female company.”

But she did not comment on his barbarous incivility, nor did she make any move to come closer. The silence between them stretched into awkwardness.

Finally, she spoke. “Mr. Carhart. My dear husband.” Her tone was sweet, her voice lilting. It was only the snap in her eyes that gave her words an edge that could fillet a man. “Six months aboard ship. Sixteen hours in England. In all that time, don’t you suppose you might have sent me one little note informing me of your return?”

“Honestly, I didn’t imagine you would rush to see me in ecstatic welcome.”

She didn’t flinch at the wry tone in his voice.

“And I didn’t come all this way to see you.”

Her lips pressed together, and she put her head to one side and looked at him. If he had died, he’d not have been surprised to find her at the gates of heaven, sitting in St. Peter’s place to cast judgment upon him. He knew precisely what she would have decided. He felt as if she were rifling through what she knew of him, cataloguing all his faults. He’s too tall. He’s uncouth. He barely ever wrote to me.

She turned away. Those platinum loops of hair bobbed as she did so, not daring to slip from their intricate weave. Eight years ago, they’d had one night together. He still winced, imagining what their wedding night consummation must have been like for her. Even as he’d lost control, her tresses had fallen on the pillow about her head in strict order. They had not dared do anything so unruly as spill about her.

Today, she was twice as stiff as she’d been as a girl of nineteen. A corner of her mouth curled distastefully, and he suspected she was throwing one last insult at him.

He’s not even good in bed.

Damn it.

“I don’t suppose you’ll do,” she said finally, “as you never have so far.”

“Do what?” he asked uneasily, then realized it was the wrong question, and bald pronouncement would have served his purposes better. “In fact, it doesn’t matter. I won’t do whatever—”

She raised her hand. “You will have to make an effort. And before you talk to anyone—and I do mean absolutely anyone—you must hear what I’m going to tell you. If this is going to work, I’ll need to be living in your home. We’re a married couple, and if we live separately, people will think—”

“Kate,” Ned interposed.

She glanced up at him, surprised, and he realized he had unthinkingly called her by her Christian name for the first time in his life. When, in all those years of terse and angry messages, had his wife become merely Kate? And yet it seemed better than the alternatives. “Lady Kathleen” seemed too timid an appellation for her; it demoted her to the status of a mere Duke’s daughter. But her only other title was “Mrs. Carhart,” and there was no point reminding her what she might have been, had he not abandoned her.

Still, he continued. “We’ve lived on opposite sides of the globe for eight years now. I rather think polite society will have worked out we are living separate lives. Nobody will be surprised if we don’t share a roof.”

She ought to have bristled at the reminder that he’d left her so cavalierly, for such a long time. But instead, she shifted her feet uneasily and did not meet his gaze.

“Well.” Her hands met in front of her; she traced an unconscious pattern along her palm with one thumb. “As to that. That is why we must speak. You see, if we’re living apart—”

“Besides,” Ned added, “I didn’t come back to England for you, Kate. I came back because my mother is dying.”

His wife did not hear the quiet sorrow he struggled to keep from his tone. Her chin lifted. Her hands clutched together, and she glared at him as if she would strike him with lightning, were only a convenient bolt to hand. She had always put him in mind of Athena; today, with that ramrod-straight back and those flashing eyes, she was the perfect image of the Goddess of War.

His mother was dying. His wife, rather than wanting to kill him, was asking to move into his house. The world had gone completely askew. And he could control only one part of the dangerous tilt his world had taken: If his wife planned to make a proper husband out of him during his sojourn in England, he had best disillusion her quickly. “Whatever it is you expect me to do—you’d best not count on my doing it. Put no faith in me, Kate.” I’ve little enough in myself.

She glanced at the floor, her lips pressed together. Then she looked up at him through thick lashes. On another woman, that expression—thick lashes, subtly blackened, obscuring her large, gray eyes—would have seemed almost sultry. But Kate’s eyes were not limpid pools of passion. They were wide with accusation, and they positively sparked with anger.

“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice stilted with careful control, “I understand you. I understood precisely how much I could count on you eight years ago, when I awoke from our wedding night to an unapologetic note informing me you’d caught a ship to China. I trust you perfectly, Ned. I trust you to abandon me at the worst possible instant. But there are…unfortunate circumstances…that have arisen in your absence, and you should be cognizant of them.”

In Ned’s experience, unfortunate circumstances did not arise of their own volition. People created circumstances, and if they were unfortunate, someone was undoubtedly at fault. It stood to reason that the person who asserted that circumstances had passively arisen was invariably at fault.

“You wormed your way into whatever mess this is, Kate. You had best worm your way right out again.”

“You don’t understand—”

The door to the room opened, and a stocky woman entered, dressed in the practical dark uniform of a nurse. She clutched the black frills of her apron in her hand.

“Mr. Carhart, sir,” she said. She stopped, glancing at Kate. Ned could see the nurse run a quick calculation in her mind—deliver her news? Or, for the sake of politeness, wait? Luckily for Ned, the woman chose expedience over etiquette. “Her Ladyship is awake, sir, and wishing to see you.”

“I’ll be right there.” Ned turned to follow her.

Kate crossed over to him in three swift strides and grabbed his wrist. “Edward Carhart,” she hissed, “when I say you need to listen to me, I am not joking. There are things people believe about us.”

He’d felt barely sanguine with a room’s distance between them. Up this close, her hand covering his, her fingers clamped around his wrist in a fierce grip, he was too aware of her. She smelled clean and sweet. Her palm was warm against his cuff. And when he glanced down, close as she now stood, his eyes followed the swells of her breasts until they disappeared into the turquoise ribbon at her neckline. That ribbon swayed with her every breath, first gaping, then flattening against her flesh. Such a slight movement, but it beckoned him to explore those soft curves. Even at a time like this, with his heart hammering against his chest, he wanted.

He could tell himself his reaction was simply because she was a woman, and in his painfully abstinent condition she tempted him. But it was worse than that. In the eyes of the law and society, in the eyes of everyone, she was his woman. Everyone’s eyes, that was, but hers.

Ned set his hand atop hers and gently disengaged her fingers from his cuff. “My mother is dying. I’ve been back in England for sixteen hours, and this is the first moment she has awakened. You can tell me later. She might not.”

Her eyes met his in understanding. “Promise me you’ll talk with me at the first possible opportunity.”

He still held her hand. She looked up at him so guilelessly. Of course she could not understand what she asked of him. She used the word “promise” lightly, as if she’d asked him to perform a task as trivial as passing a salt-cellar. She had never bowed under the burden of expectation. Likely, she’d never even betrayed a single vow. But if there was one thing Ned had learned in his life, it was that all failures started with a promise. A man who promised nothing could not deliver disappointment.

He dropped her hand and stepped back. “I don’t promise what I can’t guarantee.”

He left her sputtering. He still felt the impression of her fingers against his, a ghost of a wistful memory. He’d fled this country in small part because he’d not been able to face the weight of their marriage: not society’s hopeful wishes, nor her cold indifference. Now, trapped as he was in London by his mother’s condition, he would have to face her. This time, there was no place to escape. The last thing Kate needed was to trust in the promises of a man like him—unreliable, unreformable, and fundamentally, fatally flawed.

He mounted the stairs to his mother’s room two at a time, following the dark-uniformed woman who had brought him the news. After his long absence, a delay of a few seconds ought not to have mattered. Still, his pulse beat in cold anticipation.

The nurse preceded him; she opened the door to his mother’s room and then turned and paused. “I’m Betsy, and if you don’t mind my saying so, sir, it’s a good thing you returned when you did.” The stocky woman looked at him, as if she might say more, but instead she stepped aside to let him enter the room first. Her movement sent air wafting towards him. That scant breeze carried with it a scent that was devastating in its familiarity.

He could have wept with nostalgia, at the scent of his mother’s perfume—not sweet, but fragrant and fresh. The smell forcibly transported him to the years of his childhood, to sunny picnics held on the banks of a mill-pond, before that clear water became tainted with less happy memories. The scent had wafted to him as she’d leaned over him to straighten his cravat when he was a boy. His mother smelled of summer and safety. He’d forgotten that smell entirely, just as he’d forgotten those sunny days.

But today, that scent was subtly corrupted. Layered atop that unique bouquet was a hint of bitter laudanum, a touch of tired sweat, and the sweet scent of sickness.

In the room beyond Betsy, the curtains had been drawn, and blazing rectangles of noon sunlight illuminated the carpet.

His mother, Lady Elaine—born the daughter of a viscount, married to a marquess’s second son, and long widowed—was propped against a spill of embroidered silk cushions. Her spine trembled as she forced herself to sit at rigid attention. Despite the shake of her shoulders, he could have laid a volume of poetry atop her head, so perfect was her posture. She’d dressed and had her hair done up in thinning gray curls gathered under a proper lace cap. God knows what vanity had driven her to employ paint, but the white powder on her face did not quite obscure darkened liver spots. It could not hide the folds of aged skin. And the color in her wan cheeks was so clearly vermilion—daubed on by an expert hand, he was sure, but it gave her only a shallow veneer of health, painted atop undeniable illness.

Ned stopped in his tracks, not daring to show how completely aghast he was. He’d known in his gut she would look different after his years of absence. But in spite of the news in the letter he’d received, he’d never really been able to make himself believe that he would come home to find her dying. In his heart, he’d somehow retained an image of the robust woman he remembered from childhood. In his imagination, she was still larger than him, stronger than him.

Reality had been cruel. She’d shrunk into this glazed shell of a woman, holding onto life with the same tenacity that held her upright in this perfect seated posture, when she ought to have been lying down.

He could handle even this, one step at a time.

“Mama,” he said aloud, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

She acknowledged this lie with a wry smile, and held out a quivering hand to him. When he took it, her skin felt dry as onion-skin. She might crumble to pieces if he pressed too firmly. He laid his hand over hers, gently; against his palms, he could feel the slight tremula that shook her fingers.

She did not say anything for a very long time. Then: “I’m glad,” she finally said, “that I’m not going to outlive you.”

A bruise of pain twinged deep in his chest. He smiled at her to hide it; she didn’t need to know of his pain. “I promised you I would do my best.” He’d even managed to keep that promise, if barely. But he tapped his fingers against her palm with a pretense of casual happiness, and cast her a grin. “And lo, here I am.”

She put a little pressure on his hand—a gesture that in her weakened condition passed for a squeeze. That slight compression silently recognized the words he had left unsaid.

“I will always wonder,” his mother said quietly, “whether I did the right thing by you. If you’d married the right woman, you would not have come to this.”

The right woman. Ned thought of Kate’s blazing eyes, her ferocious glare. He thought of her hair, that blonde so white it had almost blended into their linen sheets on their wedding night. She was a demanding woman, rather than a comforting one, but she wasn’t the wrong wife. Ned was the wrong husband. Besides, it wasn’t Kate his mother blamed, but herself. If the right woman could have made a difference for Ned, then his mother should have been able to save her husband. Perhaps, even, she believed she could have altered the course of Ned’s sorry life. Maybe it was that burden of unwarranted guilt that stole the strength from her grasp.

“Nonsense,” Ned said. His words were matter-of-fact; if he let her see how much it had changed him, she would never give up that measure of guilt. “It wasn’t you. It wasn’t Kate. I won’t have you taking fault with anyone.

She shook her head. “And I have always wondered. What would you have been if—”

Again she stopped herself. Her eyes darted across the room to the stocky nurse who sat in a chair on the other side. Betsy tended to some mending, her head bent as if she was aware of nothing but her needle and thread. But her shoulders tensed. She was still listening. And some things, after all, could not be said aloud.

“I’m feeling a little better today,” his mother said instead, her voice pitched a little too loudly.

But she squeezed his hand. And with that gesture, she left Ned to fill in the end of her previous sentence with a thousand foolish what-ifs of his own.

# # #

Kate should have felt safe in her father’s home. But at this moment, with the tea-things strewn about the low teak table in front of her like the discarded detritus of a battlefield, she felt quite the opposite. Grains of sugar reflected light across the dark surface where they’d been spilled. Cups and saucers mixed with plates of untouched sandwiches. Only the tea spoons aligned in military precision in front of Lady Kathleen Carhart, twin silver soldiers arrayed between her and the…the…Kate fumbled for a word that would encompass the woman in front of her.

What she said aloud was, “He’s back.”

Dearest friend. Those were the words Kate might have employed to describe Jessica, Countess of Worthington, to anyone else in society. Or, maybe, cousin. But she and Jessica both knew better than that. Kate was a duke’s daughter; Jessica had married an earl. And not even a decades-long friendship could completely span the sea of animosity between those two lords.

“He’s back,” Jessica repeated. “Mr. Carhart is back, and you didn’t tell me he was coming? Does this mean you’ve been withholding letters from me?” Jessica shook her head in cheerful disgust. “And here I thought we shared everything.”

After Jessica had married, they’d kept up the pretense of friendship. Still, all their conversation carried an edge, one that was whetted on the conflict between the men in their lives. Jessica didn’t think they shared everything. Jessica, in fact, knew they shared very little at all, except the need to pretend for polite society’s sake.

“He traveled quite quickly,” Kate explained. “He must have overrun his letter.” Or he hadn’t bothered to send one, not that she could tell Jessica that.

“Sometimes,” Jessica mused, “I thought his letters—his rational letters—were the only things that managed to keep Worthington from tearing your father to pieces. Figuratively speaking, of course. It’s lovely that Mr. Carhart’s come back.” Her voice sounded almost wistful. “Maybe he can heal that rift altogether.”

Friend was certainly not the right word. But enemy was surely all wrong, too. Sometimes, Kate wondered if Jessica missed the casual simplicity of their girlhood friendship as much as Kate did, too. Maybe she, too, hated their barbed conversations, twisted and turned into the pretense of pleasantry. It would have been lovely, to have that rift healed.

But then….

“It’s really astonishing,” Jessica continued, “what he’s managed to accomplish from afar. I declare, I am looking forward to his return as much as you must be. He’s sensible. And unlike—” She caught that sentiment, and smiled wryly. “Unlike some people, he’s a perfect gentleman.”

Kate smiled at that.

Astonishing, yes. Sensible, unlikely. As for perfect…. Of course her husband seemed perfect. She’d written his letters herself, and she’d not have bothered to fabricate anything less than perfection. The real Mr. Carhart was a toad—a despicable fellow who’d bamboozled her into marriage and promptly left England. The only thing the odious idiot she’d married had in common with the Mr. Carhart whose heartfelt letters she’d privately circulated to the ladies of the ton was that both men had traipsed about the world.

Once, she might have told her friend the truth. Once, she might not have needed to fabricate letters to preserve their uneasy peace, or even to clarify her own place in society. But her husband had destroyed that innocence.

Once, she might even have considered telling Jessica her secret. But if she hadn’t it was because—

A crash sounded, so immense it rattled the double doors of the parlor and the windows in their sockets.

“Oh.” Kate stood, and whipped around to face the parlor, squelching the curse that rose up in her. “Who—”

Jessica remain seated. Her uneasiness was betrayed only by the way her delicate fingers throttled the handle of her teacup. “Did you not know then?”

Another slam—this one, recognizable as the forceful closing of a door—and the hurried sound of feet descending the main staircase.

Jessica set her cup and saucer on the tea table. “But of course. Worthington was to call at eleven to talk with your father.”

The reason Kate hadn’t told Jessica the truth of her marriage stood not twenty feet away.

Kate shook her head and walked to the door. She threw it open. The tableau that met her eyes was every bit as awful as she’d feared. Her father stood at the top of the broad marble staircase, his jaw clenched into squareness, his skin mottled with the flush of anger. Halfway down the stairs—clustered together in the middle landing like sheep huddling in the onslaught of a summer storm—stood her father’s oldest enemies. Lord Bettony. Lord Elmhurst. And the husband of Kate’s dearest friend—Anthony Fontaine, Earl of Worthington. The men were dressed almost identically, in somber brown frock coats, high starched collar points brushing identical gray side-whiskers.

“Be careful, Ware.” It was Lord Bettony who looked up the stairs at the man, a dismal lamb daring to make eye contact with a wolf. “You may be a duke, but you have no future beyond today. No son. No heir. The duchy of Ware will die with you. We are the ones who will last, and don’t think the peerage doesn’t know that.”

In answer, Kate’s father shook his head and spat. “I’d rather be the last of my line, than have children as mentally defective as you three. If you’d been mine, I’d have drowned you at infancy and hidden the carcasses.”

Kate winced where she stood.

But his father ran his hand over this bald head and took a step down the stairs. “As I wasn’t given the drowning of you, I’ll have to take other measures now. What shall I do? Maybe I’ll flay the flesh from your bones, strip by strip.” He took another step. “Or I’ll grind your bones to meal and cast it out in a great wide scatter in the poultry yard.”

“Ware.” Lord Elmhurst swelled in prideful hatred. “There are ladies present.”

“Ah, those boundaries mean something to you?”

“Papa.” Kate spoke quietly, but her father’s head jerked in her direction. His nostrils flared; his lips pressed together. Then he released a long-suffering sigh and fixed the men in his gaze.

“Oh, very well. I’ll be merciful. I’ll settle for defeating you—and your damned prison bill—on the morrow in Parliament.”

“If you could debate with a man like a reasonable person—”

“Worthington, we passed over reason years ago, you and I.” His eyes flicked towards Kate and then pulled away again.

If there was a reason Kate fed Jessica lies, it was because Jessica—sweet gossiping Jessica—repeated every word she heard to her husband. There was no question where her loyalties lay, and with Ware and Worthington so implacably opposed, the result was simple. Jessica may not have been an enemy, but she was the nearest thing to one that existed.

Worthington shook his head and descended the remainder of his stairs. His tight little coterie followed closely behind him. When he came abreast of Kate, he stopped. He didn’t turn to look at her, and the raw burn of anger filled Kate. If she had been a man, he’d never have treated her with such condescension. Then, if she’d been a man, she’d have been able to write her own damned letters. She wouldn’t have had to rely on her husband.

“Lady Kathleen,” he said, “I hear your husband’s returned home.”

“He has.”

“Have him talk to Ware. He seems a sensible fellow. Maybe he can perform the impossible and convince the man to act rationally.”

Go boil your head, my lord. But instead of voicing that thought, Kate dropped a polite curtsey. That’s all she appeared to him: a quiet, obedient girl, caught up in the struggle between men. He’d had no qualms about using her to hurt her father; that he imagined she might help him, even in so little a thing, was beyond belief.

It took ten minutes to clear the hall of the three lords and Jessica. It took five more minutes to cajole her father into a drawing room, and convince him to sit. It was only then that he began to lose the red flush of fury.

To his opponents in the ton, the Duke of Ware seemed a bellicose man. Stubborn jowls, as thick as a bulldog’s, made his face appear wide and square. At his insistence, his valet combed the few strings of black hair over his head; the result only accentuated his baldness, but he was blind to the result.

He should not have been able to escape the truth in this particular room. A few years before Kate’s mother had passed away, she’d had twin looking-glasses, great expensive plates of silver and glass, installed at either end of the room. Standing where Kate was, she needed only turn her head to the south to see that bald head reflected ten thousand times back at her. Standing beside him, ten thousand Kates fixed her in a gray gaze.

She’d never quite believed the evidence of the mirrors. In her head, she saw herself as her father’s daughter—dark-haired, with blazing eyes and heavy brows. Short, perhaps, but not without substance. But the woman reflected into infinity on that silvered surface remained stubbornly different from her mental picture. Mirror-Kate was willowy and thin, her features delicate as spun sugar. The woman who looked at her seemed like some breakable doll, one that ought to be kept under a glass jar lest she shatter at the first unfortunate tap.

That illusion of delicacy was one she’d used unflinchingly. Nobody suspected Kate was robust enough to think her own thoughts, let alone attribute those thoughts to her absent husband via letter. They saw her as an empty vessel for Edward Carhart’s words, as devoid of independent thought as her hair was of color.

If anyone had ever thought to question her facade, her ruse would have cracked like the blown-glass art-piece they imagined her to be.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Kate put one hand on her hips and wagged a finger. “No threatening to kill Lords. They don’t think it’s funny. It causes problems, and then I have to fix them. My hands are quite full enough this week.”

“I look at him,” Ware said. “I look at him and I still hear those awful rumors he started. How can I just sit back and listen to him?”

“You’ll have to restrain yourself,” Kate said severely. “You heard Worthington. Ned’s returned.”

There was a long pause. No doubt her father was thinking about those letters. “May I threaten to kill him? He’s not a lord, at least not yet. I’ll wring his scrawny neck.”

His neck isn’t so scrawny any longer. Kate did not let slip this tell-tale bit of information.

Over the last years, her father had never abandoned her. He had helped her come up with the plan to combat the awful rumors surrounding her husband’s rapid decampment from England after their wedding; she’d been repaying him ever since. But there were some things she simply could not share with her father. And the uneasiness she felt, that slow, angry churning in the pit of her stomach when she’d seen her husband again, was high atop the list of things he didn’t need to know.

The Duke of Ware sighed at her long silence, then stretched out his hands and popped his knuckles. “What do you need people to believe?”

“That he loves me. That he left me because he felt it his responsibility to see for himself the conditions of our foreign relations, if he ever was to take his cousin’s seat in the House of Lords. That he’s sober, responsible, rational….”

Kate’s father had a temper. Kate should know; she’d inherited a corner of herself, and had to work hard to suppress its effects. But her father also had a habit of saying whatever thing he wanted, and that habit had made him enemies out of all proportion to his moderate political stances. If anyone had been willing to listen to Kate, she could have mediated those discussions. She could have translated between Ware’s rages, and calmed him when he grew overly intransigent. But then, they didn’t let women in Parliament, except to sit silently in the upper galleries. For years, she’d used Ned’s letters to temper the effects of the Duke’s outbursts.

“You know what I’ll counsel.” His eyes lifted to hers. “Aside from ordering his imminent and painful demise at my fists, that is.”

“I know.” Kate raised her chin.

She sat down next to him and glanced across the room. From this angle, her father’s bulk shielding her on one side, the high arm of the sofa on the other, she had vanished from the mirrors. The room still reflected itself into eternity. Ten thousand drawing rooms; ten thousand copies of her father. But Kate herself was rendered invisible.

“I know what to do.” She did not need to be told. They had employed that strategy a thousand times in the past years. “Lie as long as we can. Accept the consequences, if they come.”