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An Inward Treasure

Chapter Text

The manor lay ahead, all the gleaming windows illuminated. Silhouettes of guests were visible here and there, both on the terraces and within. Carriage after carriage was trundling along the gravelled drive, casting up chips of stone.

Within one of them, a young woman sat and surveyed the grounds.

“Must we attend, papa?” she asked, looking to her father.

Viscount Cranbrook was sitting on the opposite side of the carriage. His eyes were closed, his swollen hands resting on top of his walking stick. He looked pale and tired, as he had done for months. He opened his eyes to look at her. “You know that we need to improve our prospects, m’dear,” he murmured. “We cannot do that if we do not move in society.”

His daughter leaned over to clasp his hand. “But you are unwell, papa. I would be so much happier were you to rest abed, rather than fuss around these fops and dandies.”

Thomas Maurice moved one of his hands to clasp hers. “Belle, dear,” he said, “If we stayed in Cranbrook, if we chose to close the world out, then we would end up as naught more than beggars in a grand and empty house. We need to find you a good match, and ensure we have better allegiances.”

Belle nodded unhappily. Their fortunes had fallen steeply in recent years. It had begun when her mother passed away, but six years earlier. Papa’s heart was broken, and try as he might, he could not mend it, nor bring himself to work as hard or determinedly as he might. For a whole year, the estate had languished while he mourned, and now, it was too late to undo the damage that had been done.

There had been little sympathy from others of their rank. Few of them would mourn the sharp-tongued Gallic creature who infiltrated the echelons of society on Lord Cranbrook’s arm, despite her station. No matter that she was a beauty at the time. She was too low-born, too tempestuous, altogether too French. It mattered to none of them that the Viscount had loved his wife passionately. Love had no place in a civilised marriage, after all.

The fact that Cranbrook’s only child and heir was a half-French girl-child had not helped. He adored her and doted on her, but with all the anti-French sentiment bubbling, it was near impossible to find someone who would give a young woman born of a middle-class French woman and a low-ranking Viscount a second glance.

Belle knew she hardly helped matters, but her mother had spoken often to her of the corruption and greed of the French aristocracy. She found it impossible to hold her tongue when the so-called noblesse of England waxed poetic about their French cousins and the tragedy of their fate beneath Madame La Guillotine.

Their carriage rolled to a halt. It was in a dire state by comparison to those flanking it, the paint cracked and peeling, and the steps squealing alarmingly as Belle stepped down. She offered her hand up to her father, helping him to descend. Even that small movement made him wheeze, his poor chest weak.

“Papa,” she said anxiously.

He offered his arm gallantly, his lips turning in a small, pale smile. “Come, dear,” he said. “I will find a couch inside and rest.”

She reluctantly slipped her arm through his, resting her fingers lightly on the threadbare cuff of his best frockcoat.

It was too many years since he had been able to afford something suitable for an occasion such as this. Instead, any moneys they had went on providing her with dresses that were not terribly out of fashion. She had learned some skill with a needle, adjusting them as delicately as she could, to at least give the pretence that she had more than one or two formal gowns.

“Shall we?” she said, looking at him.

Together, they ascended the broad staircase.

The sound from within rose to a roar of noise, of gossip and music and laughter. The grand foyer was splendid, filled with richly-attired men and woman. Belle noted self-consciously that there was an abundance of powdered hair, and wished not for the first time that her own dark tresses were fairer. The lack of powder would have been less noticeable then.

The doorman tapped his staff once. “The Right Honourable The Viscount Cranbrook and his daughter the Honourable Miss Isabelle Maurice.”

A few eyes slanted towards them, grazing over their attire, their appearance, but for the most part, their arrival went unacknowledged. Belle knew that murmurs would pass behind fans, nods and winks and the very pettiness that her mother had loathed.

Rather than think on it, she schooled her expression into her most radiant smile as she and her father descended into the hall. His arm tensed under hers, and she looked about, as if admiring the proliferation of gowns, but in truth, she was seeking somewhere that he might sit, quiet and undisturbed.

Her father no more enjoyed these events than she did, but they both knew it was a necessary evil, if she were to find a suitable match.

They found their way to a less-populated parlour, where the dowagers and some of the more elderly Earls and Marquises were speaking quietly over brandies and sherries, while their wives occupied themselves with fripperies and gossip.

“This will do,” her father murmured, sitting down heavily in a well-padded chair close to the fire. He looked up at her, his pale, tired eyes watery. “Will you be quite well on your own, my dear?”

Belle leaned down to press a filial kiss to his cheek. “I will be, papa,” she promised. “I will find you if it becomes too tiresome.”

She left him there, his eyes already drooping closed, and stepped out into the hall. There were people milling aimlessly, but she set out instead for the room where the dancing would be. It was where the youngest and most energetic of individuals were to be found.

It was probably a little selfish, she knew, that she wanted a husband of a close age to her. It was far more likely she would find herself married to an older aristocrat, someone who had been married before, and did not mind that his second wife was known to be wilful and stubborn.

“Isabelle, dear!” She was caught by surprise when a beaming young woman hurried towards her, eyes shining.

“Lady Eaglesham,” Belle said, forgetting to curtsey in her surprise, then hastily doing so, colour rising high in her face. “Your pardon, my Lady.”

“Blanche,” Lady Eaglesham insisted, smiling and clasping Belle’s hands in her own lace-clad ones. She was a fair woman, only a few years Belle’s elder, with jet black hair, which was styled elegantly and powdered to snowy whiteness. Her lips were beautifully rouged and the colour brushed upon her cheeks made Belle more aware of her own lack.

She was also one of the few women who Belle could bear to speak with. There were rumours her own grandmother had been a lower-ranked lady, though no one dared to broach the matter with her. While she was a gracious lady and an elegant hostess, there was no doubting that Blanche Melville, Marchioness Eaglesham, could be a tigress if crossed.

Yet, while the tigress smiled, all was well in the world. “We have not seen you at many balls this season, my dear.”

“My father has been unwell, I fear,” Belle murmured, lowering her eyes. “It has meant there has been little opportunity to come to town.”

Lady Eaglesham patted her hand comfortingly. “At least he is well enough now to be here,” she said warmly. Belle drew her most warming smile on and nodded. “Well, then, we should not stand here like gooseberries. Have any marked your card yet?”

“Not yet, my Lady,” Belle replied, blushing.

Lady Eaglesham looked her up and down thoughtfully. “That will have to be remedied.” She slipped her arm through Belle’s drawing her further into the room. A minuet was already underway, so they circled the dance floor. Various people nodded in salutation to Lady Eaglesham, who smiled and inclined her head in return.

“May I intrude?”

Belle would have needed to be blind to miss the almost wickedly gleeful look that crossed the face of Lady Eaglesham. She drew Belle around with her, to face the speaker, a dashing young man with unpowdered dark hair and laughing brown eyes. He was dressed in the most extravagant fashion, with a ludicrous cravat and he was smiling. He bowed deeply.

“Lord Cathkin,” Lady Eagelsham said warmly, extending one hand, which he bowed over gallantly. “Might I present the Honourable Isabelle Maurice. Miss Maurice, The Most Honourable The Marquis of Cathkin, son of the Duke of Rutherglen.”

Belle’s mouth went dry. “M-my Lord Cathkin,” she said, sinking into a bow.

“Odd’s life, Blanche,” he said with a chuckle. “I believe she blushes! Look! Not a dash of powder on her cheek, and yet, pink as the summer roses.”

If aught, Belle’s cheeks darkened in embarrassment, and she straightened up, looking steadily at the Marquis. His mouth twitched into a smile and he raised his eyebrows as if in challenge to her.

“I believe, Lord Cathkin,” she heard herself say and wished she could make her hands move to clasp over her mouth, “that you wear enough for both of us.”

Lord Cathkin’s shout of laughter drew some amused looks. “She strikes, my dear,” he said to Lady Eaglesham, clasping his hand to his chest. “She strikes true.” He bowed again, just as deeply to Belle. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice. I meant you no insult.”

Belle eyed him doubtfully. “Thank you, my Lord Cathkin,” she said.

He brought his hands together briskly in front of him. “Well, now that we are friends again, might I have the honour of a dance, Miss Maurice?”

Belle’s mouth near dropped open in astonishment. Her eyes were focussed on Viscounts, and if ambition allowed, perhaps even a Baron, but to be approached by a Marquis, the firstborn son of an Duke, even a Scotch Duke, was not something that she had anticipated. “I-I would be honoured, my Lord.”

“Yes, yes, of course you would,” Lord Cathkin said, waving a hand dismissively. “But I do not seek the honour. I seek a dance partner who will not tread upon my toes in a Bourrée, and my dear Blanche tells me you are quite proficient.”

Belle shot a look at Lady Eaglesham who smiled shamelessly back at her. “Her Ladyship is too generous by far,” she said.

“Come now, Isabelle,” Lady Eaglesham said with a warming laugh. “Few of my guests are bold enough to dance with this roguish Scotch ruffian.” Lord Cathkin chortled gleefully at the description. “You are well-known for your boldness.”

Belle’s cheeks darkened again. “I believe that is said of my tongue, my Lady, not my dancing.”

“Let us see then,” Lord Cathkin said cheerfully, “if your delicate feet cannot match your indelicate tongue.”

Belle lowered her eyes, still flushed, as the minuet came to an end.

Lord Cathkin offered his hand, bowing deeply. “Miss Maurice.”

She hesitated but a moment before laying her hand in his. “Lord Cathkin,” she murmured. “I apologise in advance for any mishaps that may occur.”

“Deliberately or otherwise?” he offered with a knowing, caddish grin.

She was relieved that she didn’t need to answer, as they began the dance. It was a quick-paced one, and the flush of embarrassment was rapidly replaced with the more natural blush of exertion. Lord Cathkin was a proficient dancer, and when she chanced to glance at his face, he was smiling.

When the dance came to an end - none to soon, for she had been growing quite breathless - he bowed elegantly. “You have a most becoming form, if it is not too bold to say so, Miss Maurice,” he said. “You quite nearly took my breath.”

She sank into a curtsey, wishing her legs were not trebling quite so much. It had been far too long since she had danced at all. “The same could be said of you, my Lord,” she replied. “I fear I must sit momentarily, if you will excuse me.”

The smile that crossed his face was somehow more real and less mocking. “Naturally, Miss Maurice,” he murmured. “Perhaps, another dance, once you have recovered?”

She inclined her head. “Perhaps. There is usually a Gavotte upon the stroke of nine. Would that be sufficient?”

“Quite so,” he agreed with a shallower bow. “I shall see you anon.”

Belle retreated briskly to one of the couches in another room, sitting at once. The room was stiflingly warm, and she opened her fan to cool her cheeks. A few looks were turned her way, no doubt murmuring about the Viscount’s half-common daughter daring to dance with an Duke’s son, even if he was only a Scotch Duke.

Footsteps walked closer, and she saw a pair of buckled shoes in her line of sight, then raised her eyes. A handsome, dark-haired young man bowed formally to her. She recognised him from previous balls, though she had no recollection of his name.

“You must be Miss Isabelle Maurice,” he said.

Belle drew on her smile, fanning herself delicately. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” she said softly, holding out one hand.

“I am George Aston,” he said, lifting her hand and bowing over it. To her astonishment, he kissed it, the warmth of his lips tangible through the fine net of her lace gloves. She drew her hand back at once, wide-eyed. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice. That was too bold.”

“Not too bold at all, Mr Aston,” she stammered. She remembered the name, a family only recently elevated to the nobility. Their star was certainly on the rise, and for him to pay note to her was enough to make her heart race.

He smiled. He really was a handsome specimen, much taller than she, with thick, dark brown hair and a strong jaw. He sat down on the couch beside her, and that made her blush, lowering her eyes. He was being much too bold, but he was the son of a Baron and he was showing an interest in her, and that was what her father had hoped for.

He asked of her home, of her father, her family. She answered softly, carefully, keeping to subjects that she knew would not boil her blood. Her temper was well-known within their small village, particularly towards injustice to those of lower ranks. She was well-aware of rumours that she was likely one of the rare breed of republicans. Half-French, some whispered of her. It was her tainted blood that made her wild.

So she kept her smile placid and calm, and when he asked of her thoughts on the revolution across the waters, she folded her fan and wrapped her hands around it, and said as gaily as she could, “This is not a night to bask in their misery, Mr Aston.”

His broad smile told her this was the correct response.

No doubt, he had heard the tales of her ready tongue and was seeking evidence that they were false.

It was unfortunate that she had to mask herself, but until there was someone willing to accept her, someone who might be able to grant her father respite, then she was willing to behave as needs must. If a man was willing to take a woman at first appearances, then more fool him when he found himself bound to her.

She turned the fan over in her hand, wondering at which point it would be considered rude to get up and walk away from him. She could feel his knee brushing hers through the fabric of her skirt, and it was beginning to make her uncomfortable, no matter how charmingly he spoke.

“Your pardon.”

George Aston looked up in indignation, releasing an explosive huff of breath. “Why, Bay! I didn’t know you were back from the north.”

Lord Cathkin smiled thinly at him. “I imagine not, Aston,” he replied. “Father and I come down occasionally for the season. We were only a little late in arriving this year.” He bowed to Belle. “Miss Maurice, if you recall, you promised a Gavotte?”

She took his hand at once, gratefully, rising from the seat. Lord Aston rose too. “It was an honour to meet you, Mr Aston,” she said with a quick and polite bow. “I hope that you did not find my company too tiresome.”

He smiled his winning smile, and Belle blushed again. “Not in the least, Miss Maurice,” he said, bowing. “It was a delight.”

Lord Cathkin led her back through the throng, but rather than taking her immediately to the ballroom, he drew her into a smaller chamber, some manner of office, closing the door over behind them. Belle drew away from him in alarm.

“My Lord, the dance…”

“The dance can wait,” he said and the lack of manners brought her up short. “I do not mean to pry into what is your business, Miss Maurice, but I would consider it a personal favour if you do not see nor speak to Mr Aston so intimately again.”

Belle stared at him. “My Lord?”

Lord Cathkin stood with his hand still on the door handle. “Blanche speaks well of you, Miss Maurice,” he murmured. “She says that despite your family’s misfortunes, you are a good and respectable woman. Do not let Mr Aston take advantage of you.”

Belle knew her colour was high. “May I speak freely, my Lord?” she asked, her voice trembling with barely contained outrage.

“If you wish,” he replied.

Belle took a slow breath to calm herself, but it did little to ease the fury. “I see no reason why it is any of your business how I converse with any man, my Lord,” she said. “Mr Aston has been naught but civil. I do not see how speaking with him suggests in any way that he is taking advantage of me.”

Lord Cathkin released the door handle and turned to face her fully. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice,” he said quietly. “You seemed ill at ease with his closeness.”

“And that is reason enough for you to warn me to keep my distance, my Lord?” she said.

He looked at her, and for a moment, the dandy was gone and a stern-faced, serious man gazed back at her. “There are many reasons, Miss Maurice,” he replied, “but foremost among them is the fact he put you in a state of unease, and that he was unashamed to sit so boldly with you in public.”

Her small hands clenched by her sides. “I do not mean to offend you, sir,” she said, as calmly as she could, “but whatever state I am in, I believe it is none of your affair.”

Lord Cathkin gazed at her in silence, and that silence was enough for her to catch her breath and realise to whom she had raised her voice. Colour flooded her faced and she looked down at her skirts.

“My apologies, Lord Cathkin,” she said in a whisper. “I speak out of turn.”

“No, no,” Lord Cathkin said dismissively. “You are quite right. It is none of my affair whom you choose to dally with.” His hand moved into her line of sight again. “Come, Miss Maurice. We have a dance to join.”

She laid her hand in his, and followed.

After that exchange, however, the mood of the evening was soured.

Belle sought out Lady Eaglesham and made her apologies, then went to find her father. He was fast asleep in the chair, where she had left him. Gently, she roused him, and when he sleepily asked how the evening had gone, she smiled and lied and said it was marvellous.

Chapter Text

The weather was terribly unseasonal.

A heavy fog had settled over London, adding an even more gloomy cast to the world.

Belle Maurice stood in the parlour of their modest town house. It was too large from them, yet it was unthinkable to consider being rid of it. If one had no house in town, one could lose what little standing one had left.

Her father was still abed. Once that would have been unusual, but now, it was a frequent state of affairs. She did not like to rouse him, nor to concern him, and sometimes, if he slept well, he would have some colour in his face for a time. Only three days past, they had taken air in the park.

Belle was distracted.

Her needlework had been put to one side, and she could hardly think to focus on a book.

The gathering of the previous night had been both uncomfortable and exhausting. The intervention of Marquis Cathkin in her conversation with Mr Aston, son of Baron Alderley, still rankled her, though she could not quite place a finger upon the reason.

Men were presumptuous when it came to what a woman might and might not do. This, she knew well. The Marquis’ words were not so uncommon, so there was no just cause in them causing such irritation. He had no right to dictate to whom she might speak, even if his observations had been quite correct.

Mr Aston was charming and handsome, but to sit on a couch beside a lady to the point that your knee brushes hers was verging on the indecent. Even a married man would not sit so close to his wife in a public forum. The memory of his lips on her hand made her blush deeply, mortified.

He would not be so bold with any other, she knew.

Unfortunately, her situation was no doubt spoken of throughout the upper circles of London’s society: the Viscount’s pretty little half-French firebrand.

No doubt, men believed her hot French blood would mean that she was more free with herself than a good Englishwoman would be. No doubt, that was why Mr Aston felt he could push the boundaries of decorum, despite her obvious discomfort.

She sighed, sitting down on the couch.

No doubt, she knew, she would allow those boundaries to be pushed, if it meant she could snare a husband with fortune enough to ensure her father would never need to be concerned for their well-being again.

It was humiliating, but necessary.

She took up her book to attempt to read again.

She was still seated there when Hopper, father’s man, stepped into the room and advised her that there was a gentleman at the door who wished to speak with her.

Belle rose, startled. “His name, Hopper?”

“A Mr George Aston, Miss,” Hopper replied. She could see the frown curving the edge of his mouth. Disapproving of their morning caller, anxiety for her. Hopper had been with her father since before she was born, and his foremost concern was always the well-being of the family. “I advised him that your father is indisposed presently, but he was quite determined that he should speak with you.”

Belle closed her book, looking at her hand where it lay on the cover. “I see,” she said quietly.

“Miss Belle,” Hopper said, “if you would not see him without your father present, I can dismiss him.”

Belle worried her lower lip for a moment, then shook her head. He was the only man who had, as yet, shown the remotest of interest in her, and if father’s health continued to fail, then she needed all the interest she could muster.

“Tell him I will see him,” she said, rising from the couch.

“Miss Belle!” Hopper exclaimed, his colour rising, matching his ruddy hair.

“You will stand as my chaperone, Hopper,” she said with a quick smile. “I will not be disgracing myself.” She smoothed her skirt. “I shall fetch tea, if you would be so kind as to see Mr Aston in.”

Hopper’s brow creased in concern, but he bowed. “As you wish, Miss Maurice.”

In the kitchen, Belle shook the housemaid awake. The girl was quite useless, and often dozed when she felt she was not needed. They gathered up the tea set and Belle took a moment to rush to the drawing room, where there was a mirror. She looked like a child, her hair loose about her shoulders, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

Ellanor brought up the tray as she returned to the parlour, and she paused in the hall, taking a deep breath, before she stepped into the room with her brightest, most effusive smile.

“Mr Aston!” She held out her hands too him, remembering too late that they were bare.

He rose and made a leg to her, then caught her hands and she felt a sickening wash of nausea when he bent and kissed them both. His lips were hot and wet, and even when he released her hands, she could feel the dampness lingering. It would have been the height of ill manners to wipe her hands on her skirts.

“This is a pleasant surprise,” she said, indicating to the couch. “Please, sit.”

She waited until he had settled himself on the couch, then took her father’s chair, opposite him. It only had room for one, and while she was willing to allow him to breach all manners and protocol by arriving at her home uninvited and without warning, she certainly was not willing to allow him as close as he had been the night before.

She saw the twitch of his mouth, and knew he was not pleased by her choice, but that was the matter: it was her choice. He might push his way into her path, but she could dictate the terms of his intrusion.

Ellanor poured tea for them both. Belle lowered her eyes modestly, as Aston paid lip service to the charm of her town house, the crockery, even the tea. He intended to make a good impression despite his ill manners, which was a saving grace. All the same, the presence of Hopper standing close to the door made her feel more comfortable.

“I hope I am not a great distraction for you, Mr Aston,” she said mildly, sipping her tea. “It seems that you are early to rise and make calls without notice, so I can only assume that you must have much important business to be done that means common courtesy is forgotten.”

She saw colour rise in his face at her stinging criticism. “Your pardon, Miss Maurice,” he said. He was silent for a moment, as if choosing his words with care. “I only found myself thinking of you a great deal after our discussion at the ball last night. I could not bear to go without seeing your face a moment longer.”

Belle set the cup down in her saucer. “I see,” she murmured, “and that excuses arriving upon my doorstep without so much as a by-your-leave?”

He set down his own cup a little more forcefully. “Miss Maurice, if my presence is troublesome to you, I can leave you to your business.”

Belle’s cheeks flushed and she bit down on her tongue. Her hands were shaking at the cup, and she forced herself to calmness. “No, no, of course not, Mr Aston,” she lied. “I fear my mind is somewhat addled. My father has taken a turn for the worse, and I am only worried for his well-being.”

Aston’s expression shifted into something resembling a sympathetic smile. “My apologies, Miss Maurice,” he said. “I had no notion.”

She looked down at her tea, aware that was nonsense.

The fact that her father was absent from this encounter was indication enough that he was either engaged on business or unwell, and as it was well known that Viscount Cranbrook’s business ventures were less than successful, it only left one option.

Belle sipped at her tea, but it tasted bitter in her mouth.

They made small-talk, or at least he attempted to do so.

All she could think on was the fact that he was taking advantage of her father’s illness and absence to press his suit. It might have been flattery, but with each moment, as her tea cooled in the cup, she felt more and more ill at ease.

She rose abruptly, and Aston leapt to his feet, startled.

“Miss Maurice?”

“Excuse me, Mr Aston,” she said, setting down her cup and saucer. “I am afraid I am feeling rather faint. I think it best that I retire.”

Aston frowned, but nodded. “As you wish, Miss Maurice,” he said. He took a step towards her, caught her hand and kissed it again. Her stomach turned. “I hope that I haven’t exhausted you too greatly.”

“Not in the least,” she rejoined, withdrawing her hand. She looked at Hopper, who was all but glaring at their guest. “Mr Hopper, please be so kind as to see Mr Aston out.”

As soon as the door closed behind him, she sank back into the chair, wiping at the back of her hand with her skirt. Perhaps he was just overly eager out of genuine interest in her, but it did not excuse such uncouthness.

“Miss Belle?” She looked up when Hopper returned. “Are you quite well?”

She tried to smile, but it didn’t quite reach her lips. “I shall be soon enough,” she said, rising and adjusting her skirts. “I shall go and see to papa. I have no doubt he will wish to know that I am being courted.”

Hopper made a sharp, derisive sound.

“You disapprove of Mr Aston?” she said with mild reproach, though she was glad she was not the only one to have misgivings.

“One should always send notice before calling,” Hopper replied, his brows drawing together in indignation. “It is only common courtesy, Miss Belle.”

“Indeed,” she murmured. She ran her hand over her skirt again. “Perhaps he is simply as eager as he said. We talked last night, after all.”

“Hmm.” Hopper looked unconvinced. “Shall I bring breakfast for your father, Miss Belle? Or something lighter?”

Belle considered. Papa tended to ignore food unless it was placed before him. “Something light,” she said. “Eggs, and perhaps a little buttered bread. I will see to it that he eats something.”

Hopper made his way to the kitchen, as she alighted the stairs. Papa’s room was at the top of the first flight. It was not the master bedroom, but it was trial enough for him to get to this point that they both wordlessly agreed that it should be his chamber now. It was once an office, and was small, cramped, but had room enough for his bed.

Her father was awake, though it was difficult to be sure. Belle crossed the room and drew one of the curtains back to allow some of the dull morning light in. Her father made a quiet, weary sound and she heard him shift beneath the covers.

“Good morning, papa,” she said with forced brightness. “How do you do this morning?”

“Well enough,” he murmured, passing a trembling hand over his eyes. “Did I hear the door, m’dear?”

“You did, papa,” she said, sitting down on the edge of his bed. She took his hand in hers, trying her best not to notice how thin and wasted it was. It used to engulf her little hand whole, but no longer. “We had little chance to speak last night, but I believe that there is a gentleman who may be interested in courting me.”

Her father’s eyes opened and his features broke into a smile. “That is well, then, dear,” he murmured. “Is he a fellow of good character?”

“It is the son of Baron Alderley,” Belle replied, skirting the question deftly. “I have heard that he is well-liked at court, despite their only recent ascent.”

His hand squeezed her. “And that was a message from him? At the door?”

“Something of the kind,” she agreed, more relieved than she could say when her father’s eyes closed with exhaustion. It was easier to lie to him when he was not looking her in the face. He knew her too well to be fooled.

There was silence for a time, broken only by her father’s laboured breathing.

“Did you enjoy yourself, m’dear?” he finally asked, his eyes opening a chink. “The ball seemed quite well-attended. Did you dance?

Belle smiled ruefully. “I did, papa,” she admitted. “Lady Eaglesham was gracious enough to offer my hand to Marquis Cathkin. It seems that even a Dukedom is not sufficient for many ladies to acquiesce to dance with a Scotchman.”

“Cathkin,” her father murmured. “I do not know the name.”

“Son of the Duke of Rutherglen,” Belle murmured.

That was a name that was well-known, even now, in London circles. There were legends of the Duke’s misdemeanours when he had been young, of duels and public outrage, and even whispers of a wedding cancelled when the bride took it upon herself to run away with him. If public sentiment was to be believed, his son, the Marquis, was a far better behaved individual.

Her father chuckled hoarsely. “Now, if only the father had been young,” he said. “That would have been a match for you, m’dear. A temper quite as fiery as your own, and not adverse to speaking his mind.”

“Papa!” Belle said, blushing. All the same, it was a joy to see him smile. There was so little cause for mirth in these days. She rose from the bed when Hopper entered, bearing a tray, and held out her hands for it. “I can see to it all, Hopper,” she said with a smile.

“Yes, Miss Belle,” Hopper replied, though he still supported the tray with both hands to bring it to the bed. “A letter came for you, Miss Belle, though it is also marked for the attention of your father. It is beneath the napkin.”

Belle looked at him in surprise, then withdrew the letter, turning it over. The seal was unfamiliar, and she looked askance at her father, who nodded. Hopper set down the tray to help her father sit up, as Belle broke the seal and unfolded the letter.

She scanned the contents, the elegant hand, and the signature. “Oh!” She said weakly, sitting down on the bed.

“Belle?” Her father only called her by the pet-name when he was concerned. “Are you all right?”

She looked at him in surprise, holding out the letter. “I have been invited to take tea with the Marchioness of Eaglesham and Marquis of Cathkin at the Marquis’s residence,” she said. “He fears he offended me last night, and with your permission, would make matters right over tea this evening.”

Her father stared at her, then laughed so hard that he started coughing. Hopper thumped him unceremoniously on the back until it clear. “Thank you, Hopper,” he wheezed. “That will be all.”

Belle kept her eyes on the letter until Hopper withdrew, then looked at her father. “It isn’t quite what you imagine, papa,” she said, blushing profusely. “I fear the Marquis and I had words, when he spoke ill of Mr Aston.”

“My daughter? Having words?” Her father’s eyes were almost glinting. “I cannot imagine what could cause such a shocking lapse in behaviour.”

Belle made an unladylike face at him, picking up the dish of eggs. “Oh, hush, papa, and eat your breakfast.”

He let her feed him almost half of the plate, and drank from the teacup obediently. All the same, he was watching her with that knowing look on his face, and only once she had dusted the crumbs from his whiskers with the napkin did he speak.

“This Marquis, he has taken a fancy to you?”

Belle felt her cheeks colour and shook her head. “I believe he is taking pity on me,” she demurred, folding the napkin and placing it on the tray. “And the words we had were entirely of his making.”

“Perhaps,” her father agreed, “perhaps not. Nevertheless, you will go.”


He gave her a stern look. “At least find if he has any interest in you,” he said. “If not, then what harm is it to have such a gentleman as an acquaintance?”

She knew he was right, of course, which was why late afternoon found her sitting in their carriage with Hopper. The only other option for a chaperone was Ellanor, the housemaid, and she was hardly suitable at all.

“I would much prefer if you stayed with father,” Belle murmured, toying with the edges of her cloak.

“As would I, Miss Belle,” Hopper admitted gravely, “but I believe he is correct in his view that you should have a companion to be sure of the Marquis’s intentions. Ellanor is capable of tending him, and he sleeps often, so she should have no trouble.”

“She sleeps often too,” Belle said, wrinkling her nose.

Hopper nodded solemnly. “Hard-working staff are difficult to maintain,” he murmured, kindly neglecting the fact that it came down to the increasing poverty.

The carriage rumbled up in front of the Duke of Rutherglen’s London townhouse. It was in a Scotland Yard, facing onto a verdant green square. Belle gazed up at the grand building with a sense of trepidation. It was far grander than even Lady Eaglesham’s manor.

Hopper climbed out first, offering his hand to help her down. She paused on the step, adjusting her skirt and smoothing the ribbon at the collar of her cloak, then nodded to Hopper, who ascended the steps and knocked on the door briskly.

The man who opened it looked prim and polished from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. “May I help you, sir?”

“The Honourable Isabelle Maurice, arrived to take tea with The Most Honourable The Marquis of Cathkin and the Honourable Marchioness Eaglesham,” Hopper said, clicking his heels together and drawing himself erect.

They were ushered into a gorgeous hallway. The tiles on the floor were crafted into complex patterns of roses, well worn, and the décor was at least ten years out of date, but it looked grand and opulent nonetheless. There were portraits here and there, no doubt Rutherglen ancestors, and a grand clock ticked sonorously in the quietness.

The butler took Belle’s cloak for her, and she was led into a grand drawing room, where the Marquis was sprawled elegantly in a chair, puffing on a pipe, a thin pamphlet of poetry held up in front of his eyes. Lady Eaglesham was nowhere yet to be seen.

“The Honourable Isabelle Maurice,” the butler intoned.

Lord Cathkin was on his feet in a heartbeat. “Miss Maurice,” he said, sweeping into a dashing bow. “I hoped you would accept my invitation.”

“How could I refuse such well-phrased words?” she replied with a mild smile. “It is not often I am invited to tea with a Marquis and Marchioness.”

“You will find it is as tiresome as tea with a Baron or Viscount, I would wager.” He laughed, knocking his pipe out on the hearth, and setting it in a pipestand. “Please,” he said, motioning to the broad couch. “Sit, Miss Maurice. Tea shall be brought forthwith.”

Belle settled carefully on the couch, arranging her skirts as best she could to hide any frays to the hems that had gone unmended. Hopper remained by the door, out of the way. “I trust that I did not spoil my Lord’s good humour for the rest of the gathering, last night?”

He waved a hand, sprawling back into his chair. He hardly seemed to sit at all, instead lounging, one arm draped lazily over the arm of the chair. “There is little that spoils my good humour, Miss Maurice,” he said. “Not for long periods. Blanche and I, however, were most concerned at your departure. We feared we may have caused you some manner of upset.”

Belle blushed and looked down at her gloved hands. “It was no matter, my Lord,” she said, straightening one glove. “I was concerned for my father. I thought it best that I have him taken home.”

“Ah,” Cathkin said with a sympathetic nod. “Blanche mentioned he was ill. I hope he fares better today?”

Belle shook her head and moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. It was strange how affecting his sympathy was, compared to Mr Aston’s complete disregard. She took a breath and looked up with a trembling smile. “You said Lady Eaglesham would join us?”

He was watching her, his dark eyes marked with concern, and she looked down at her hands again. “Yes, yes, indeed,” he said and huffed in indignation. “The demmed woman insisted it was not a day to traipse in the park, so we quite simply had to have tea, and her house is quite unusable after last night’s frolics. And so, here we are, in this old relic of a place, and our hostess is as late as our first George.”

“I think it’s lovely,” Belle said quietly, looking up at him.

Lord Cathkin snorted. “You have no need to live here,” he said, sitting up a little straighter in his chair as the tea was brought in by a slight, pretty maid. She poured for both of them, then withdrew from the room.

“Do you live here all of the year?” Belle asked curiously. “For Scotland is a long way from here.”

Lord Cathkin shook his head. “We only come to town during the season or when father has business at court,” he replied, as Belle drank a little of her tea. “Sometimes, business necessitates the journey, no matter how tiresome it may be.”

Belle nodded, falling silent again. She had no notion what to speak of with a Marquis, especially not one who had forewarned her to keep her distance from Mr Aston. His words were ringing in her ears, and she took solace in her tea.

She could not have been more relieved when the bell of the front door rang. No doubt it was Lady Eaglesham.

There were other footfalls, however, descending the stairs at some pace, and Belle jumped in fright when the drawing room door crashed inwards, the tea cup slipping from her hand and crashing to the floor, splashing tea all over the hems of her skirt.

The man who stormed in barely gave her a second glance. He was older than Lord Cathkin, with straighter brown hair and a furious look. “Where the devil did you put my spectacles, boy?” he snarled, stalking around behind the couch.

“They’ll be where you left them, father,” Cathkin replied, shaking his head helplessly. “Are you quite all right, Miss Maurice? I’m sure father didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Oh, yes, quite fine,” Belle stammered, reaching down with a shaking hand to retrieve the cup, which had fortunately not smashed into pieces. She winced at the stains on her skirt, dotted to well above the knee, then picked the cup up. Her heart sank. The delicate piece of china had not escaped undamaged. “I’m dreadfully sorry, my Lord,” she said nervously, looking from Cathkin to the scowling man who was searching the shelves behind her. “It’s chipped.”

“Marvellous,” the Duke said darkly to his cabinet. “The boy brings home another woman and I lose another piece of china.” He turned around, ignoring Belle entirely. “I swear you do this to force my hand, boy.”

Cathkin spread his hands. “Accidents happen, father,” he said.

The Duke scowled at him. “Then make matters simple, Bellamy,” he said. “Bring no woman who is as clumsy and ill-bred as this one.” He turned back to the shelves, sifting through papers and books. “Bloody harpie.”

Belle’s heart felt like it had stopped in her chest and she looked at Cathkin accusingly, shame warming her face. To her surprise, he looked as if he was struggling to contain a grin, and raised his eyebrows in challenge to her. She looked at the cup in her hand, then turned to look back at the man behind her.

“If you will pardon my boldness, your Grace,” she heard herself say, “had you not startled me, I imagine your china would be quite intact.”

The Duke paused where he was standing, then turned to look at her. His eyes were as dark and intent as his son’s, but in all other ways, they were nothing alike. Cathkin was tall, broad, and his hair was closer to black waves. The Duke, on the other hand, was slightly built, lean, with drawn and lined features. He did not look old enough to have a son of Cathkin’s age, yet, something in his expression assured it was so.

“My, my, Bellamy,” he said dryly, his accent drawing over the words more thickly than his son’s. He was holding a book in one hand, a fingertip tapping on the cover. “It seems you have brought a little cat with claws into our house.”

“Better a cat with claws than bellowing bull,” Belle retorted, cursing her tongue.

Lord Cathkin chortled behind her. “And the claws are sharp,” he said, sounding far too pleased with himself.

“Indeed,” the Duke murmured. His eyes were fastened on Belle’s face with a directness that made her blush, but she did not dare to lose face before him. No man who dared call her a harpie would ever make her quail before him. “Tell me, little cat, do you delight in breaking the possessions of others.”

“No more than I delight in spilling tea upon my gown, your Grace.”

One side of the man’s thin mouth turned up mockingly. “Well, isn’t that delightful,” he murmured, tapping the spine of the book against his palm. He glanced at his son. “So this isn’t one of your skirts, boy?”

“Odd’s fish, no, father,” Cathkin said, a laugh in his voice. “This little one is far too sharp for the likes of me.”

Belle felt her cheeks burning, and leaned forward to place the chipped cup on the table, beside the teapot. It was partly a relief, but partly a despair that Cathkin had no interest in her of any kind, but for his own sport. To be called sharp, to know that she was unlikely to be accepted by anyone for that very reason, was a cruel twist of the knife.

“If it pleases you, my Lord, your Grace,” she said, rising unsteadily. Cathkin rose at once, and he was frowning. “I believe my presence is causing discord.” She offered the Duke her most gracious of curtseys. “I had no notion of causing any damage to relations or property. I shall depart before further blame is laid at my feet.”

“Tush!” Cathkin protested. “It was in jest, Miss Maurice, nothing more. Father was just being, well… father.”

Belle smoothed her skirts down, then looked at Cathkin. “Your invitation was most generous, my Lord, but I fear I sour the mood of any gathering I attend. Please offer my apologies to Lady Eaglesham.”

“Miss Maurice, please,” Cathkin said, stepping towards her. “Allow me to apologise on father’s account.” His father snorted behind her, his attention turned back to the bookshelves in search of his lost spectacles. “He is… straightforward in his words.”

She met his eyes evenly. “And you?” she said.


“I notice that you are straightforward too,” she said quietly. “Allow me to withdraw my sharp claws.” She slanted a look at the Duke, and felt her cheeks darken when she realised he was watching her from the corner of his eye. “I would not wish to damage the upholstery.”

To her astonishment, the Duke snorted again, his lips curving in a smirk.

Belle curled her fists by her sides. “Your Grace,” she said, with another curtsey to each of them. “My Lord.”

She couldn’t have been more grateful for Hopper. By the time she stepped into hall, he already had her cloak waiting for her. A startled Lady Eaglesham was there, looking in bewilderment from Belle to the drawing room door.

“Oh, my dear, you’re leaving so soon?”

“My apologies, my Lady,” Belle said, lowering her eyes and drawing on her cloak. “I fear I cannot remain for the sport of witty gentlemen.”

Lady Eaglesham caught Belle’s cloak from her hands and drew it up about Belle’s shoulders, then lifted Belle’s chin in her gloved hand. “Have no fear, my dear Isabelle,” she said, a tigress smiling beneath her hood. “Those gentlemen will be treated with the right and proper respect due them.” She leaned closer and kissed Isabelle’s cheek gently. “Do not take their sallies to heart. It is the Scotch way to be insufferable.”

Belle almost managed to draw a smile to her lips. “Thank you, my Lady.”

All the same, she had to turn her face from Hopper’s as they made the journey home.

Chapter Text

Several letters arrived in the days that followed.

It seemed that Lady Eaglesham had been in earnest, as Lord Cathkin sent elegant apologies for both his and his father’s misbehaviours. It should have eased Belle’s mind, but all she could think on was the mocking curve of the Duke’s lip and the Marquis’ ringing laughter.

She read each letter once, before depositing it into the hearth to be consumed in flame.

The only solace she truly had was in her father’s improving health.

For the first time in days, he was able to rise from his bed and joined her for breakfast. He was also upright enough to meet Mr Aston.

The son of the Baron of Alderley had been much more restrained in his courtship after his first visit. Each day, a letter was received, requesting permission to pay them a call, and despite her misgivings about his forwardness, Belle allowed it.

After all, while it was not an equal match for either of them, she knew that she would bring an ancient title and he would bring fortune enough to shelter her father.

Her father knew naught of her doubts, and when Mr Aston paid a call some dozen days after she first met him, she could see that her father was pleased. Mr Aston behaved with much more decorum than he had previously shown, even going so far as to sit a modest distance from her and not kiss her hands.

“He seems a fine fellow,” Viscount Cranbrook said, once the young man departed. “And his cravat is not nearly so ostentatious as some I have seen.”

Belle drew a smile to her lips. “Indeed, papa,” she said softly. “He is fashionable, without descending to the Incroyable.” She toyed with the ribbon in her skirt. “Do you think of him as suitable?”

Her father looked solemnly at her. “Belle, m’dear,” he said, “no man I meet will ever be suited enough in my eyes.” She ducked her head, embarrassed. “I mean it in kindness, m’dear. You know I loved your mother, God rest her soul. I fear I have placed you in a meat-market where there is no place for such a fondness.”

“Love is no matter, papa,” she said quietly. “That matter comes to this: do you think Mr Aston will be a fitting husband?”

Her father tapped his cane ponderously upon the floor. “He seems a stout-hearted youth,” he said. “Somewhat impetuous and free with his speech, but that is not always a flaw. His manner is unschooled, but I believe that stems from his parents being only recently elevated.” He hummed and hawed for a moment. “Would you have him, dear?”

Belle tangled her hands together. There were no other offers, no other opportunities, and papa’s health had only recovered briefly. “I would,” she said quietly. “Manners may be improved upon.” She looked up at her father’s face. “Do you believe I should accept, papa, if he asks for my hand?”

He was silent for a long while, then finally said, “Though his rank is not quite what I had in mind for you, I think he will make a respectable husband.”

Belle nodded, though she managed to smile in earnest. “Papa, had you your wish, I would be Queen.”

“And a demmed fine one you would be too, m’dear,” he said with a hoarse chuckle. “The crown would look marvellous on you.”

She patted his hand, smiling. “We shall see, then,” she said, hoping she looked as pleased about the prospect as she ought. “If Mr Aston continues to show such a keen interest, perhaps you shall have a son-in-law in short order.”

The relief on her father’s face was near painful.

He only wished for her to be well and comfortable without the threat of the poorhouse, she knew, and her own feelings for him were the same.

Mr Aston continued his courtship with due propriety. Ellanor was dressed suitably and accompanied them as chaperone to the park, where they walked as any other couple might. He called on her most days, and within two weeks, he was making less than veiled overtures to his lack of a wife.

Subtlety was not the man’s greatest gift.

“Mr Aston,” she finally said, after yet another perambulation of the duck pond, “if you wish to speak plainly, please do so. I will not take it as discourtesy.”

He frowned only momentarily, then nodded, pausing where they stood. “Miss Maurice, you know that I am unwed,” he said, “and though my family does not have such a distinguished lineage as your own, I would ask for your hand as my wife.”

Her mouth moved into something akin to a smile. There was no joy in her, but there was relief in knowing that she could accept, for her father’s sake. “Mr Aston,” she said, and wished she could keep her voice from betraying her, when it trembled. “You do me a great honour.”

He caught her hands, squeezing them close to the point of pain. “Will you, then, Miss Maurice?” he asked, leaning closer. “Will you consent to be my wife?”

She looked up into his face. He was handsome and though his manners were lacking, she supposed he might learn. And most importantly, he was the only man she had met of late who had not tried to shame her or laughed at her misfortunes.

“I will,” she said, “if my father consents.”

“A compact then,” Aston said with a broad smile. He leaned down and to her shock, kissed her on the cheek.

She pulled back, wide-eyed, and tried to draw her hands from his, but he held fast. “Mr Aston, I am not yet your wife,” she said, her voice thin with shock and reproach. “Such boldness is quite unseemly.”

He laughed then and released her hands. “Then when we are wed,” he said, his eyes gleaming in a greedy, almost unpleasant manner, “I shall shower you with all my affections that you continue to rebuff now.”

She adjusted her gloves, her fingers trembling at the cuffs. “When we are wed,” she echoed, her mouth dry as bone.

The rest of the stroll in the park passed her by. She felt as though another was wearing her skin, as if she were looking out through a stranger’s eyes. She allowed Aston to take her hand to rest on his arm, but if he spoke to her - which he no doubt did, basking in the glory of his own voice - she heard none of it.

His carriage bore them back to her father’s house, and when Mr Aston assisted her to the door, she knew that he hoped to be invited in. Hopper opened the door for them, and took one look at her face.

“Miss Maurice,” he said, stone-faced, “I fear your father is resting in the parlour.”

Belle nodded gratefully and turned to the man who was now her fiance. “Your pardon, Mr Aston,” she murmured. “I fear we must part the ways.” She tried to smile. “My father cannot be disturbed if he is resting.”

“Yes, yes,” Aston said impatiently. “I recall. He is unwell.” He released her arm and bowed stiffly. “I hope to find him in better health soon, Miss Maurice. We have terms to discuss.”

Her mouth was still turned up, but it hurt now, forced. “We do indeed, Mr Aston,” she replied as calmly as she could. “Good day.” She stepped into the cool shade of the house, and Hopper closed the door behind her.

She stood, motionless, until Aston’s carriage rattled away and Ellanor trotted back towards the kitchen. Her legs were trembling beneath her, but she forced herself to stay standing, and drew slow, steady breaths.

She might have retained her dignity had not Hopper gently laid his hand on her shoulder.

“Miss Belle?”

Her legs gave way beneath her and all at once, she was sitting on the floor. Tears were coming too, hot and fast, and she tried to contain them, keep them silent, so as not to disturb her father’s rest.

Hopper was on one knee beside her in an instant, and she fell into his arms, burying her face in his chest. So often, he had picked her up when she fell and grazed her knee or when her slippers were stuck in the mud. When papa had grown ill, Hopper had been the one who helped her walk tall and calm and dignified.

“What is it, Miss Belle?” he asked quietly, cradling her as he had when she was a child. “Did he do you some offence?”

She shook her head, wiping at her cheeks with trembling fingers. “Not truly,” she whispered the lie. She could still feel his lips on her cheek. If that was what he deemed appropriate for his betrothed in a public forum, she could only imagine how free he might try to be with a wife. “We are to be married.”

Hopper was a calm soul, reliable and implacable, but he cursed explosively.

Belle drew back to stare at him in astonishment, and he coloured.

“My apologies, Miss Belle,” he said, his voice trembling. “I should not have used such crudeness in front of you.”

“You do not approve of Mr Aston,” she said unhappily, “I know this.” Her face crumpled with a fresh wave of tears. “But papa is sick, and we have nothing left, Hopper. If I am wed, then at least he will be spared the shame of the poorhouse.”

“Surely there is a better class of gentleman…”

She laughed into a sob. “The last gentlemen I encountered made sport of me for their own humour,” she said, her voice breaking. “They were the gentlemen who were well-spoken of. I do not want to see what an ill-mannered gentleman is like.”

“I fear you already have,” Hopper said. “Miss Belle, I fear he is too common.”

“Common or not,” she said, forcing her voice to calm, “we will be wed, and he will learn what it is to be uncommon.”

Hopper withdrew his kerchief and gently dried her cheeks. “I hope you are right, Miss Belle,” he murmured. He rose, then helped her back to her feet. “Come. We shall et you some tea and you can take rest.”

“Thank you, Hopper,” she said, her throat aching.

He divested her of her cloak and took her to the smaller parlour at the back of the house. It was little more than a servant’s chamber, but it was cosy. She nestled in one of the horsehair chairs, drawing a shawl around her, as Hopper brought her tea and some small sweets.

By the time evening came and her father awoke, she felt calmer. The puffiness of her eyes had faded, and she could smile as she told him the news. Hopper chose to be elsewhere, so that Viscount Cranbrook did not see the look on his face, when Belle told him.

“You do not seem terribly happy, m’dear,” her father murmured quietly.

She looked down at their joined hands. “It is not the match I might have hoped for,” she admitted quietly, “but he has made his intentions known. I fear that I have not been charming enough to catch the eye of another.”

Her father cradled her hand between his. “You need not do this, if it makes you unhappy, Belle,” he murmured, watching her. She looked up at him, meeting his eyes. He was so thin, so drawn, and even now, she could hear the rasp of his breathing. If they were to lose much more, the winter would kill him as sure as a blade.

“I will marry him, papa,” she said softly. “I am sure it will not be unbearable.”

He sat up stiffly, and reached out to stroke her cheek. “You are a very brave creature, my girl,” he said with such love in his voice that she had to fight back tears.

Though the words had been exchanged, it seemed Aston’s ardour was not to be quashed until he spoke with her father. Each morning, a letter seeking permission to call was received, and finally, her father was well enough to receive the man.

Belle would have liked to be present for the discussions, but Mr Aston said firmly that this was business for her father to discuss with him alone. He waited, smiling, until she left the room, and she stood numbly in the hall, feeling like little more than a piece of livestock on display at market.

His manner cooled her father’s opinion of the man, and as soon as Aston departed, Viscount Cranbrook asked her if she was quite sure of her decision. She only had to look at him, his pallor, and the labour of breathing after such a long and merciless discussion, to know she had no choice at all.

The very next day, tokens of Aston’s affections began to arrive.

They were as loud and brash as the man himself, but clearly bought at great expense. The most ostentatious piece was a dress, which he insisted that she wear when they attended a garden party at the house of the Duke of Abingdon.

It was daring, the cut enough to make her blush, and the shade such a scandalous one that she knew every eye would be upon her if she dared to wear it. Yet, she could not refuse. If she rebuffed his gifts, he might well take it as personal insult, and terminate their arrangement.

For the days before the house party, she did what she could to adjust it as subtly as possible, raising the line of the bust, and selecting one of her shawls to provide modesty where the gown provided none. She was only relieved that her father was already abed when she descended the stairs to depart.

Hopper was waiting for her, and she saw him white with outrage. “Miss Belle…”

“I know, Hopper,” she said in a whisper. “But he is my betrothed. I cannot refuse his request.”

“I would thrash him for you, if you wished, Miss Belle,” he said darkly. “I would thrash him in the street. None need ever know it was me.”

“Hopper, please,” Belle said, flushed with shame. “It is only one gathering. Perhaps this is a new fashion that has passed me by.” Hopper’s expression told her exactly what manner of fashion it was, and that was not a fashion any lady who wished to be respected would wear. “I must go, nonetheless. It is too late to change now.”

“If you wish to depart, Miss Belle,” he promised, “I will be in the servants quarters. Have someone fetch me at once, if you wish.”

“I hope it does not become necessary,” she murmured as they made their way out to the carriage. They were to meet Mr Aston at entrance to the party, and he was quite determined she should be presented as his affianced.

The journey was made in silence, and she was unsurprised to find Aston pacing impatiently when their carriage arrived. She didn’t dare to look him in the eye as she alighted from the carriage and fought the urge to recoil when he plucked her shawl away.

“Lud, but you are a beauty,” he said, speaking as if she were a prized horse to be displayed. “It fits you well, Miss Maurice. Very well indeed.”

“As you say, Mr Aston,” she whispered, her mouth dry.

He picked up her limp hand, looping it through his arm. “Come,” he said, grinning boyishly. “I would have the world know that I have the fairest creature at this party on my arm.” He leaned down and added, “and soon to be in my bed.”

Belle bit down on her lower lip to keep from weeping.

They were announced as they entered, and all eyes flicked briefly to them. It was always so: a glance to take in the hair, the attire, the general appearance and manner.

Belle heard at least half a dozen sharp gasps and several stifled laughs. She dared not raise her eyes, the hand by her side curling into a fist.

It was one thing to be mocked to her face, but to be so shamed, dressed as little more than a common harlot. Perhaps Aston truly was ignorant to what was suitable for a house party, perhaps not. He seemed to care not a jot for the shame flooding her face.

He drew her this way and that, introducing her to his friends and cronies, a tide of forgettable names washing over her as she tried to ignore the staring eyes and derisive looks. She tried to smile, but it was near impossible.


Belle’s cheeks flushed afresh at the familiar sound of Lady Eaglesham’s voice.

Mr Aston bowed smartly. “My Lady,” he said. “You are well?”

“Oh, yes, quite well, my boy,” she replied dismissively. Belle knew the Marchioness was gazing at her, but could not bring herself to face the woman. “If you would be so kind, I would ask leave to steal away your betrothed for a time.” She laughed that delicate, merry laugh. “We ladies must talk as ladies do.”

“As long as you do not keep her long from my side.” Belle could hear the frown in Aston’s voice. It was impossible to show off a show-piece when the show-piece was being gossiped with in private, but it was equally impossible to refuse the request of a Marchioness, when you were only a low-born Baron’s son.

“We will be but a moment,” Lady Eaglesham said brightly, catching Belle’s arm and drawing her away from the far too public gazes of the rest of the guests. She ushered her into the house and into a small drawing room, guiding her to a couch. “Well, dear, this is an unexpected turn of events.”

Belle looked up at her wearily. “Do not speak to me so, I beg of you, my Lady,” she whispered. “I do not take anymore pleasure in this than you.”

“Oh, Isabelle, dear,” Lady Eaglesham was seated beside her in a moment. “Why the deuce did you consent to wed him?”

Belle blinked back tears. “Who else would have me?” she asked in a small voice. “No gentleman wants a lady who is sharp-tongued. Lord Cathkin made that quite clear. Mr Aston has proven himself interested, and willing.”

“And so, you would let him dress you and display you like this?”

Belle tried to keep her voice steady but to no avail. “Please, m’Lady. It is necessary.”

“Necessary?” Lady Eaglesham gently lifted her chin. “Dear, how far have your fortunes fallen that you would let him put you in a costume such as this?” Belle looked blankly at her, too tired, too distressed, too lost to speak. Lady Eaglesham stared at her, then gathered her in an embrace. “Oh, my poor little goose.”

“My papa is so ill,” Belle whispered, her voice breaking. “I do not want to wed a man such as Aston, but I can see no other way to keep my father in comfort.”

Lady Eaglesham gently smoothed her shoulder. “I shall call for your man,” she said. “You need not stay any longer.” She lifted Belle’s face. “Break off this foolery of an engagement, and I shall find you a suitable fellow. There are plenty of second and third sons cluttering up the place. You need not resort to that crude little man.”


Lady Eaglesham nodded warmly. “You are far too lovely a creature to be painted up to be his show-piece.” She dabbed gently at Belle’s cheeks. “Now, calm yourself, m’dear, and I shall have your man and your carriage brought around.”

Belle nodded tremulously.

Lady Eaglesham rose and, with a sweep of her skirts, left the room. Belle remained where she was sitting. She could not have risen even if the King had walked into the room. She felt drained and wearied, and her hands still trembled from the humiliation.

The door opened quietly a moment later, and she looked up.

“Miss Maurice,” Lord Cathkin said. He looked distraught. “Miss Maurice, forgive me.”

She looked blankly at him. “What have you to apologise for now?” she asked, uncaring of manner or protocol. She was so very, very tired. “You sent so many letters that your apologies are like the rush of a nearby stream. They have no meaning anymore.”

He remained by the door, properly, formally. “I fear you took our words to heart, Miss Maurice,” he said quietly. “We meant no insult. Father is… unsocial at best, and I forget that not all are as thick-skinned as he and I.”

Belle’s lips trembled. “When I am invited to a house,” she said quietly, “I do not expect derision and insults. That is all that was granted me.” She laughed softly, sadly. “It is all that is ever granted me. Do not imagine I will simply smile and accept it as if it is the kindest of gestures.”

Lord Cathkin’s face creased in open distress. “Miss Maurice, had we a notion of how dire matters were for you, we would not have…”

“It should not matter what my circumstances are,” she responded, surprised by how calm her voice was. “Good fortune is no excuse for rudeness.”

Lord Cathkin’s colour rose. He stepped away from the door and bowed deeply. “Then, for our ill manners and my lack of sense, I offer my utmost apology,” he said, and the sincerity made Belle’s eyes burn again. “If there is aught we can do, if you need assistance of any kind, please, consider us your friends.”

Belle looked down at her hands where they lay in her skirts. “Thank you, my Lord,” she said in a whisper.

The door opened again behind him, and Lady Eaglesham slipped back into the room. She seemed unsurprised that Lord Cathkin was present. Belle had no doubt the Marchioness had taken the young Marquis by the scruff of the neck and shaken him.

“Hopper will be bring the carriage around momentarily,” she said, returning to sit beside Belle. “I have asked my husband to speak to Mr Aston, advising him that you have been taken unwell, and that you will be returning him forthwith.”

“Thank you, my Lady,” Belle said quietly.

Lady Eaglesham draped a shawl around her, far richer than Belle’s own frail lace item, granting her some measure of modesty. “Stuff and nonsense, my dear,” she said. “A friend must help another friend. It is positively Biblical.” She helped Belle up gently. “Now, come. I will see you out. Bay?”

“I’m sure I can divert Aston’s attention,” he agreed, opening the door for them.

Lady Eaglesham kept Belle close beside her as they made their way back out onto the terrace and towards the carriages. Belle kept her eyes down, her heart thundering at the thought of Mr Aston coming after her in front of everyone.

The carriage was not there yet, the latest arrivals still cluttering up the drive, and Lady Eaglesham looked around anxiously. “Lud, man, this is not the time to delay.”

“Miss Maurice!”

Belle closed her eyes in dismay at Aston’s shout. Clearly, Cathkin had not been able to divert him as well as he hoped. He caught Belle by the elbow and pulled her around to face him. If he had looked disappointed, she might have forgiven him for laying his hands on her, but he looked furious and in turn, her ire rose.

“Miss Maurice, you cannot leave.”

“Remove your hand, Aston,” Lady Eaglesham said sharply.

“Please, Mr Aston,” Belle said, her voice calmer. “I am feeling unwell.”

His lip curled derisively. “And you choose to run away without even speaking to me of it?” he said. “I forbid it. You look well enough.”

“The lady wishes to depart, boy.” Both Belle and Lady Eaglesham stared in surprise as a thin hand wrapped about Aston’s wrist and wrenched it from Belle’s arm. The Duke of Rutherglen was standing there, dark eyes gleaming. “I would advise you to let her be.”

Aston stared at the Duke in astonishment. “Who the devil are you?”

Lady Eaglesham cleared her throat. “His Grace, the Duke of Rutherglen,” she said.

It seemed that even upstarts like Aston had heard the tales. He stared the Duke up and down, then tore his arm free of the Duke’s hand. “Excuse me, your Grace. I simply was speaking to my betrothed. It need not concern you.”

“Indeed,” Rutherglen murmured, turning his piercing gaze on her. “Miss Maurice, you are unwell?”

“A fainting spell, your Grace,” she lied, lowering her eyes.

“Fah!” Aston snorted. “Nothing of the sort.”

“Do you call your betrothed a liar now?” the Duke murmured mildly. “Your concern for her is inspiring.” Belle glanced up to see him waving a hand dismissively at Aston. “Run along, boy, and allow a sick woman some peace.”

Aston snarled some nonsense, and turned, stalking away.

“Thank you, your Grace,” Lady Eaglesham murmured. “That young man has a dangerous humour when the mood takes him.”

“Most men do,” Rutherglen said. He bowed briskly to Belle, then Lady Eaglesham in turn. “Miss Maurice. My Lady.”

Belle watched the slight man walk away. She could quite believe that the Duke of Rutherglen might have a dangerous humour. He was an angry man, that much she could tell, and yet, he had interceded to give her some peace.

“I had no notion his Grace was in attendance,” Lady Eaglesham murmured thoughtfully. “I cannot recall the last occasion upon which Rutherglen showed his face.” She looked at Belle with a bright smile. “It is fortunate for us that he did.”

“Very fortunate,” Belle agreed in a whisper.

Lady Eaglesham lifted her chin. “Now dear, no more worrying,” she said. “You go home. Rest and I shall write to you tomorrow. We shall find you a much more civilised suitor, have no doubt of that.”

For the first time in days, Belle managed a true smile. “Thank you, my Lady.”

Chapter Text

It was raining when Belle woke.

The patter of the raindrops against the glass was soothing, gentle. For the first time in many a day, she felt rested, and content. Lady Eaglesham had given her word that she would seek a more suitable match.

On her return from the gathering, Belle had changed attire, then spoken quietly to her father. Together, they had written a suitably regretful letter, which was issued to the Aston house, advising Mr Aston of the termination of his engagement to Belle, with fond regards and best hopes for the future.

It was strange how light she felt without the millstone of his presence about her neck.

She descended the stairs to the dining room, and was surprised to find her father already there, fully-dressed and finishing a cup of tea.

“You are going out, papa?” she said, concerned.

He smiled, though it was lacking in conviction. “I have been neglecting business matters much to long, m’dear,” he said. “I must venture to the banks and discuss the current situation with them. I should be back in time for a late lunch.”

“You will wrap up well, then, and wear a suitable hat,” she said. “This weather will not be beneficial to you.” She poured herself a cup of tea, then added, “And Hopper shall go with you. I will not have you swooning like a damsel with no one to take your arm.”

Her father chuckled hoarsely. “You drive a hard bargain,” he said. “Hopper is having the carriage brought around, and I do not intend to be out of doors for any longer than I need be.”

She smiled. “I shall have Ellanor put together a light lunch for your return,” she said. “Alas that it is not a more pleasant day. We might have ventured into the garden.”

“It is London in summer, dear,” her father said, dabbing his mouth with a napkin. It was strange to see him so clean-shaven again, but she supposed he had to look utterly respectable at the bank. “We cannot hope for it to be glorious every day.”

“Even one in seven would be an improvement,” she said, offering her cheek, which he leaned down and kissed lightly. She caught his hand. “Papa, do try not to talk too much. It wears you so.”

“I will do my utmost,” he assured her, picking up his cane and making for the door.

Belle watched until he was out of sight, then set about devouring a light repast. It felt like she had forgotten what it was to feel hungry for days, distracted by the impending threat of unwanted matrimony to a far too forward and impolite man.

Even when the food was done, she sat at the table, cradling a cup of tea in her hands.

“Is everything all right, Miss Isabelle?” Ellanor asked timidly as she gathered the dishes.

Belle smiled. “Quite well,” she said. “I think I shall retire to the parlour until papa returns, Ellanor. We will need a light meal prepared, but until then, you may do as you please in the kitchen.”

Ellanor looked at her in surprise. “Thank you, Miss,” she said, bobbing in a curtsey.

Belle rose, smiling, from her chair. It was likely folly to indulge the young housemaid’s well-known sloth, but it was a pleasant day, and she saw no need to trouble her. She took her teacup, though the tea was half-cold, and went to the parlour.

As always, one or two of her favoured books rested on the small table, and she picked one up, curling contently in the chair to read.

It was only a short while later that she heard the bell at the front door ring, and smiled. Lady Eaglesham was always a prompt correspondent, so no doubt, she had already sent across a brief missive detailing plans for Belle’s future. The thought was a warming one.

Ellanor pattered along the hall to the door. The girl always struggled with the locks. The door opened, and Ellanor spoke in hushed tones. A louder voice responded, and Belle lowered her book in alarm. She recognised the pitch and tone at once, and it set her heart careening in panic. Hopper and father were both out of the house, leaving only she and Ellanor, and unless she was very much mistaken, Mr Aston was at the door.

“Sir!” Ellanor cried out. “Sir, you can’t come in! Sir!”

Belle rose as the door of the parlour opened, and the man who was no longer her fiancé stormed in, his face black as thunder. She could see the prettily-worded letter she had written the previous night clenched in his fist.

“What the deuce is the meaning of this?” he demanded, his handsome features twisted into something ugly. Behind him, Ellanor was trembling and white-faced, looking desperate askance at Belle for instruction.

Belle laid her book down and folded her hands before. “Mr Aston, please leave,” she said, calm now, and unafraid of him. He had no claim to her, not a jot, and never would again. “You know very well I cannot entertain you without the presence of a chaperone.”

“Damn the chaperone,” he snarled. He held up the mangled letter. “You have not explained the meaning behind this!”

Belle’s hands were trembling, but she laced them together. The appearance of bravery was far more important than bravery itself. “I believe the meaning was quite clear,” she replied as steadily as she could. “Given your behaviour yesterday, father and I are both in agreement that we are not suitably matched.”

“My behaviour?” He crossed the floor in three long-legged paces, his coattails lashing. “You speak of my behaviour, you little trull? When you only would wed me for my family’s good fortune?” He looked down at her, his sneer twisting his face. “You cannot speak to me of ill-behaviour.”

Belle’s teeth ground together in silent rage. Her fingers were so tightly knotted together that she had to untangle them to save from breaking. “I can, sir, and I shall,” she said, low and cold. “You are forward and crass and your very closeness verges on the indecent. I find it beneath contempt that you have no manners to speak of.”

He stared at her, as if he could not understand what she was saying. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her ears, and her breathing was rapid and ragged. It was always so, when her blood was up and her temper rising. She heard the letter crumple in his hand, heard the roar of his breathing. His teeth were bared and he looked more animal than man.

“You little witch,” he hissed, casting aside the paper and grabbing her by the shoulders. Her heart leapt to her throat and she pulled back against his grip, but his hands were too strong.

“Mr Aston,” she said, trying to remain calm, but trembling like a leaf. “Release me this instant.”

“I shall do no such thing,” he snarled, his face so close to hers, she could feel the spittle and the heat of his furious gusting breaths. His fingers squeezed hard and she winced in pain. “I will have you for my wife. No one breaks a gentleman’s agreement with me.”

In spite, Belle arched her neck towards him until the very tips of their noses were all but touching. “How can you make a gentleman’s agreement,” she breathed, so calm, so quiet, the tremor in her words barely audible, “when you are no gentleman?”

She was close enough to see his eyes widen, to see the flash of fury, and the next she knew she was knocked sprawling by the back of his hand. She stumbled over her father’s footstool, falling heavily and knocking her head upon the hearth.

She heard Ellanor scream, and looked up to see Aston wheel around on her.

The poor girl would be next.

He was snarling at Ellanor, threats and warnings no doubts, but that meant he was not paying attention to Belle.

Dizzily, her head spinning, Belle looked about and saw the brass poker on its hook. Her hand was shaking so, and her mind awhirl, but she managed to grasp it. It took a little more effort to struggle to her feet, fighting against a body which wanted naught more than to lie down and rest. He turned, but she had the advantage, already swinging the poker, and struck him well across the temple.

It was not a weak blow. She had spent too many days hauling coal herself and helping her father up and down the stairs. Her arms were strong enough to send him spinning. He went to one knee, cursing and spitting, blood on his brow. If he rose, he would only be worse.

She swung the poker again with all her strength and he folded to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

Ellanor was whimpering. “Oh, Miss! Miss! You killed him!”

Belle lifted her head and looked at the girl. She was swaying on her feet, but she kept a tight grip on the poker. “He still breathes,” she said slowly, her mind feeling thickened and dull, her head aching. There was a ticklish sensation at her neck, and she touched it, coming away bloody. She stared at the red wetness.

If papa returned to find the house so, it would cause him all manner of trouble.

“Ellanor,” she murmured, “do you know Scotland Yard?”

“Y-yes, miss,” the girl stammered.

“I need you to run there, at once,” Belle said. She stepped over Aston’s legs to sit heavily on the couch. “Find the house of Lord Cathkin or Rutherglen. Tell Lord Cathkin I have need of his assistance.” She lifted her hand to her head, wincing. Ellanor was trembling, staring at her. “Now, Ellanor.”

“Miss, Miss, I ain’t never spoke to a Lord before.”

“Then speak to his man,” Belle whispered, leaning heavily on the arm of the couch. “Please make haste, Ellanor. I fear I may faint soon.”

Ellanor gave another short whimper and fled out into the street. She must have left the door open, for there was noise that had not been there before. Belle closed her eyes, drawing in deep breaths, keeping a tenuous grasp on what little consciousness she had left.

The poker was no longer cool in her hand, and the weight was becoming more difficult to bear. She dragged it up, laying it across her lap, and forced her eyes open. There was blood on the floor and the carpet. Papa would be distraught. They could little enough afford new furnishings and a carpet would be wretchedly expensive.

Aston was still motionless. She watched the slow rise and fall of his chest. Why did the foolish man have to be such a brute? A gentleman would accept a dismissal properly. He would not barge in and thrash his once-betrothed.

“No gentleman,” she whispered. “Certainly no gentleman.”

She had no notion of how long she was sitting there, but all at once, warm hands covered hers, and the poker was pried gently from her fingers. Her eyes had fallen closed again, and she could find no energy to open them anymore than a chink.

“Miss Maurice?” The voice was male, familiar, but not papa nor Mr Aston. “Miss Maurice, can you speak?”

“Yes,” she whispered faintly. “The carpet. There is a stain. Papa. He will be most cross.”

“There is a good deal more than a stain,” the voice said. The warm hands were at her face and lifted her chin. “Look at me, girl. Open your eyes.”

She tried to obey, but her eyes seemed out of focus, the man before her a blurred shape. “Is Ellanor here?” she said, groping for the arm of the couch. “I must have a chaperone. I cannot be alone with a gentleman.”

“Ellanor is here,” the man soothed. “Now, do not rise, Miss Maurice. It will do more harm than good.”

Belle frowned in confusion. “My head hurts,” she said plaintively. “I would like to rest. Please excuse me, sir. I fear I must retire.”

“Lie on the couch,” he suggested, taking her arm and guiding her. It felt quite foolish to be lying on a couch in front of a guest, but when she said so and started to sit up, he pressed her back with gentle firmness. “You must rest, Miss Maurice. If you do not lie still, then I may have to tie you down.”

“That would be quite inappropriate,” she murmured, closing her eyes. “No guest ought to tie their host to a couch.”

The man chuckled. “That depends entirely on the host and the guest,” he said.

She frowned in confusion, but lay back, too dazed and dizzied to ask any further questions.

The man rose from her side. “Girl, come here,” he snapped. Belle could hear Ellanor’s quiet, frightened sniffles. “You will fetch water and clean the blood from your lady’s face, then sit with her until I return.”

“Y-yes, sir,” Ellanor stammered. “Please sir, is she going to die?”

He snorted, which Belle took to be a good sign. “It is only so bloody because it is a wound to the head,” he said. “Her wits have been addled by the blow, I’d wager, but I have no doubt she will be back to her clawed self in no time whatsoever.”

“I have no claws,” Belle protested wearily.

“I beg to differ, Miss Maurice,” the man said. She heard his footsteps walk away, every one of them echoing in her head. She could hear him speaking to someone else, giving orders to fetch someone from somewhere, but it was difficult to pay a mind, and gradually, the gentle black silence closed around her in earnest.

It was some time before sense returned, and when it came, it brought with it sharp pain. Belle drew a breath, one hand already moving to touch her head, where it brushed across a thick strip of linen.

“Awake at last.”

Belle’s eyes flew open, recognising the voice. She turned her head and immediately regretted doing so, a wave of dizziness accompanied by a lancing pain through her brow. “Y-Your Grace?”

The Duke of Rutherglen was seated in her father’s chair, his hands steepled in front of him, his expression inscrutable. “How do you do, Miss Maurice?” he asked. “You took quite the blow to your head.”

Belle shuddered as recollection washed over her and looked to the carpet. Aston was gone, but there was a dark, damp stain on the carpet. Ellanor must have been set to scrubbing it, because it was not so bloody as it ought to have been.

“Mr Aston?”

“Upright and conscious and returned to his abode,” the Duke replied. His lips curved in a sarcastic smile. “Bellamy accompanied him, and will be sure to inform him very clearly that you do not wish for him to call on you again.”

Belle struggled to sit up, and only then noticed her dress. A wave of nausea washed through her. There was blood splattered across it, no doubt from the blow of the poker, then further stains where the poker had rested. Most profuse, however, was the stain that spread from her shoulder almost all the way to her waist, dark and sticky.

“Lud…” she whispered, grasping at the arm of the couch. “I look like a slaughterhouse floor.”

The Duke put his head to one side. “I have seldom seen more appealing slaughterhouse floors, then,” he said, then rose from the chair to approach her. He crouched down to her level, and lifted his hands towards her face. “May I?”

“May you what?” she asked in a whisper.

His fingers brushed her cheeks and lifted her chin. He gently turned her head this way and that, then leaned closer to peer intently at her eyes. So close to, Belle could see tiny flickers of gold in his brown eyes. It was strange, she thought, to focus on such a little thing.

Just as abruptly as he had touched her, he was straightening up.

“It seems you were just stunned,” he said, walking back to the seat and settling on the edge of it, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair. “If I might ask, what caused this little altercation?”

Belle licked her lips. They felt bone dry and cracked all over. “It was agreed that the engagement should be broken off,” she said. “Mr Aston did not accept it. He was displeased about the change in circumstances.”

The Duke’s expression turned dark for a moment. “Your girl said that he struck you first?”

Belle closed her eyes and nodded. That would explain the tenderness in her face. “I feared he would strike Ellanor, so I struck him. Twice.” She forced her eyes open again. “Will I be taken before a magistrate?”

“Not if the boy has an ounce of sense or pride,” Rutherglen snorted. “It is one matter for a man to strike a woman, but another entirely for a man who claims to be as grand and pompous as he to be laid low by a little cat.”

Belle felt her colour rise and it caused her head to throb. “Please, your Grace, do not mock me,” she said quietly.

The Duke was silent for some time, then said, “Miss Maurice, I do not waste words on those who do not deserve them. If it seems that I mock, then I apologise most sincerely.”

She looked at him. “You call me a cat. Is that not mocking?”

His mouth curved, and for once, it lacked the sarcastic twist. “That is mere observation, dearie,” he murmured. Belle could not help but staring at him. He rose from the chair. “Do you feel you might walk? Your father has been waylaid temporarily at the bank, but I wager returning to find you attired as a butcher would do little to ease his heart.”

“Ellanor might help me up the stairs,” Belle said, pressing her hands to the couch in order to rise. The world swam dizzyingly, and she felt her world narrow to a dark tunnel. The Duke moved quickly, and she was caught in his arms before she struck the floor.

“I fear,” he murmured, sweeping her up with ease, “I must breach protocol, Miss Maurice. Your room?”

“You cannot,” she whispered.

“I can and shall,” he said. “Your girl will attend and see that I only place you within.”

Belle’s head felt heavy, falling to rest against his shoulder. “Very well,” she said quietly, feeling utterly bereft of any dignity.

Despite his slight build, he bore her easily up the staircase to the second level of the house, to her modest bedchamber. As he assured her, he merely carried her in, set her down on the chair, then withdrew at once, leaving her alone with Ellanor.

Ellanor shut the door, trembling from head to foot. “Oh, Miss,” she whispered, kneeling down at Belle’s side. “Miss, I asked for Lord Cathkin, but he weren’t there, and his Lordship said he’d come instead.”

“His Grace,” Belle corrected quietly, as the girl started unfastening the bloody dress.


“A Duke’s title is his Grace,” Belle replied. It felt better to focus on such trivialities, rather than acknowledge the lingering pain in her brow. “It was very kind of him to show such concern.”

“I swear he looked like he might kill someone when he saw you and Mr Aston,” Ellanor whispered. “I thought he might bash him, Miss. Take the poker off you and bash him again. He used such words, Miss, words like my old grandpa when he was in his cups.”

Belle rose as much as she could to let the girl peel the dress off her. “Angry?”

“Oh, yes, Miss,” Ellanor nodded, holding her upright as she tugged the dress down.

“It was gallant of him,” Belle murmured. “Ellanor, would you be a dear and fetch me some water? I feel quite parched.”

The girl scurried out, and Belle picked her way over to her bed. Her under things were crusted with blood also, from neck to knee. The lure of her nightgown, a soft pillow and quietness were overwhelming. She drew her nightgown from beneath the pillow. It was the height of laziness, but she knew she would be quite useless to anyone for the rest of the day.

“Here, Miss,” Ellanor returned, bearing a tumbler of water.

With some effort, they managed to remove the rest of the bloody clothes and pull Belle’s nightgown on without knocking the bandage from her brow. Ellanor helped her to drink a little of the water, then tucked her into the bed.

“Ellanor,” Belle murmured, her head resting on the pillow. “Do I look a fright?”

The expression on the girl’s face said it all.

“Ah,” Belle murmured. “I am sorry you had to see it at all, Ellanor.” She tried to smile, but her face ached dully. “Mr Aston was a rather uncouth man.”

“He was a brute, Miss!” Ellanor exclaimed. “A nasty brute! I only wish you’d hit him a bit harder!”

Belle laughed wearily. “Had I done so,” she murmured, closing her eyes, “then I would have been in a good deal more difficulty.” She breathed in slow and deep. “Draw the curtains, please, then you may go downstairs.”

“Can’t, Miss,” Ellanor mumbled, as she pulled the drapes closed.

“Can’t?” Belle echoed quietly.

“His Lords… His Grace. He said I was to stay with you,” the girl said. “Said that your brain might be addled up. I’ve got to sit by you and make sure you’re right as rain. Said he’d speak to your father when he gets back.”

Belle’s lips parted tiredly. She would have sighed, but it felt such an effort. “He should not waste more time here,” she murmured. “We have already taken so much of his day. What nonsense for him to be dragged into.”

Ellanor smoothed Belle’s hair gently. “I think he feels better for being here, Miss,” she confided. “Don’t know what we would have done if he didn’t come. Mr Aston would have been much crosser.”

“Yes,” Belle agreed softly. “He would have been. I must thank his Grace…”

Around her, the world gently dimmed to restful darkness, taking away all worries for propriety, just for a little time.

Chapter Text

The afternoon was dimming towards evening when Belle felt well enough to rise.

Her head still ached like the blazes, but better to have a little pain and be aware of it, than be rendered oblivious to all.

To her surprise, Ellanor was still sitting by her bedside, her hands knitted in her lap, her eyes wide with attentiveness. As soon as Belle stirred, the girl leaned close and helped her sit upright. She looked worried senseless and Belle tried to smile, which only made her face twinge with fresh pain.

“Are you better, Miss?”

“I can see you clearly,” Belle replied rubbing her brow. “I believe that is a good sign.”

Ellanor sighed hugely. “Oh, that’s wonderful, Miss! You were so still I thought you dead!”

Belle couldn’t help but giggle faintly. “I think it is safe to say I’m certainly not dead,” she said, then grimaced when her head throbbed. “Will you fetch my hand-mirror please? I would see what is become of me.”

“Oh, Miss! I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Belle looked at her sternly. She knew her right eye was swollen. Her vision was partially blocked by the puffed-out lid. “I would see,” she said. “My mirror, Ellanor.”

The girl reluctantly went to the dresser and brought over the old mirror that had once belonged to Belle’s mother. She looked at her feet as she handed the mirror to Belle, who took a trembling breath before turning it over.

It was far worse than she had anticipated.

The linen bound around her brow was awful enough, but the face beneath was ghostly pale, and the right side of her face was darkened to the colour of a bruised plum from temple to chin. She could even pick out the darker points where Aston’s knuckles had met her flesh. A few flakes of blood that Ellanor had missed were still clinging to the lashes around her puffed eye, and there were darkened ridges both above and below.

She took another trembling breath, then lifted her hand to push up the bandage. A thick, crusted gash, a finger’s length and width, split her brow from hairline to eyebrow. It was deep enough that she knew it would leave a scar.

The mirror shook in her hand and she turned it over, setting it face-down in her lap.

“Oh, Miss,” Ellanor whispered, “Miss, it’ll be all right.”

Belle wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. “Yes,” she said, though more for Ellanor than herself. “Yes, it shall.” She held out the mirror. “Please put this back. I will not need it for the time being.”

“Miss…” Ellanor said miserably, taking the mirror.

“Is my father home?” Belle asked, leaning back against the pillows, trying to forget the bloody mess that was her face. She could not attend any more balls, not looking as she did, and without attending them, could have no hope of meeting any of the matches arranged by Lady Eaglesham. It took all her will to keep from weeping.

“Oh, yes, Miss,” Ellanor said. “He has been checking on you each hour. I’ll fetch him for you, shall I?”

“If you please.”

As soon as the door closed, Belle brought up her hands to cover her face. They were trembling hard and she fought back tears. No doubt papa would call for a physician, and there would be costs for medicine to ease the pain, and they could not afford such things. It was all her doing, her and her wretched pride. If only she had asked Lady Eaglesham for aid sooner, then matters would never have reached such a point with Mr Aston.

By the time her father made his way up the stairs to her room, she had calmed herself, and her eyes were dry, if still a little brighter than she might like. All the same, the look of dismay and fury that crossed her father’s face made her heart ache.

“Belle,” he said, limping across the room, leaning heavily on both his stick and Ellanor’s shoulder. “My dear…”

“I’m quite fine, papa,” she said, trying her best to smile without hurting her swollen cheek more. “Truly.”

He sat down on the chair beside the bed and took her trembling hand. “No, my dear, you’re not,” he murmured, covering her hand with his own. “Oh, my dear, that demmed man should never have been allowed to set foot in this house.”

“That sentiment, I agree with,” she whispered, looking at their hands. It felt wiser to look anywhere but his face, for fear the distress there would rouse her own once more. It would do none of them any good to be reduced to tears over something that had passed. She licked her lips again. “Papa, what shall we do? I cannot be presented, not now.”

“Oh, my girl…” Her father’s voice broke, and he pushed back the chair and sat down on the bed instead, drawing her into his arms to rest against his chest. That more than anything drew rebel tears to her eyes, and they spilled silently down her aching face. “My brave girl. You need not worry about that. Only think on getting well. You need not think on anything else.”

“But papa…”

He lifted her chin gently. “No more talk of being presented, m’dear,” he said sternly. “We have next season.”

“Papa…” she began again.

“Belle, dear,” he interrupted with more firmness than he had used in many years. “I will take care of matters. If we have to sell the remainder of the land, so be it. If we must sell the this house, so be it. We can live only in the country, if we must, but I will not have you concerning yourself. I will not have you set in harm’s way again.”

Her lips trembled, but she had no voice left to protest, and her father gathered her in his arms, as if she were a child once more.

It was some time before she could think to speak.

Papa sat with her, gently petting her hand and sent Ellanor scurrying back and forth to the kitchen, fetching beef tea, then a warm dish of broth, then some soft pudding, all taking into account Belle’s poor bruised mouth. Her father insisted on feeding her himself, and her hands were shaking too much for her to give true protest.

Only once her belly was filled and a small dose of laudanum administered to dull the pain, did she recall a question that had escaped her.

“Papa, the Duke of Rutherglen. He was here.”

“He was, m’dear, and a demmed good thing too,” her father said. “I need not tell you it was something of a surprise to come home to find him sitting in the parlour.”

Belle nodded slightly. The laudanum was having a pleasantly soporific affect on her, and the ache in her face was little more than a dull and gentle throb. “He came most promptly to my aid,” she murmured. “I did not expect his Grace. I expected Lord Cathkin.”

“You did, indeed?”

“Mm.” She noticed she was slipping down the bed, leaning gracelessly back against the pillows. “Lord Cathkin offered a hand in friendship.” She patted her father’s hand. “He may be very fac…” She frowned in concentration. “Facetious, but I do believe he meant well.”

“And yet, his father was the one to come.”

“Mm.” Belle wrinkled her nose delicately, letting her eyes settle closed. “He says I am a cat.”

Her father smoothed her hair. “Is that so?”

“It is,” she said with a solemn nod. “A little cat with claws.”

She heard her father chuckle. “I believe he has a measure of you, m’dear.”

Belle made a sound of indignation. “Not a cat, papa,” she complained drowsily.

He kissed her brow. “I will argue this with you, when you wake,” he murmured. “Now, take some rest. Ellanor will be here with you, and Hopper will be at your door, should you need me to come to you.”

Belle murmured in acknowledgement, but whether he heard, she knew not. The gentle cloud of laudanum smothered any concerns she might have had.

She must have slept, though she could not be sure of it. Her dreams were fractured and distorted, and Mr Aston presented himself in them, a bellowing, savage beast. She woke with a scream, and Ellanor fell off the seat beside the bed in fright.

The door swung inwards, a male shape outlined against the doorway

“No, no, no,” Belle sobbed, shrinking back.

“Miss Belle?” The man spoke. Hopper! It was only Hopper. He remained in the doorway, and lifted a candle. “Miss Belle, is something the matter?”

Her heart was fluttering like a wounded bird and she was sobbing.

“Ellanor!” Hopper barked. “Hold her! Quickly now, girl!”

Ellanor scrambled onto the bed, gathering the trembling Belle in her arms. Holding her tight and stroking her hair. “There there, Miss,” she said, her voice shaking as much as Belle. “We’re here, Miss. It’s safe. It was only a nightmare.”

Belle wanted to curse aloud for such folly. Of course he wasn’t here again. It was ridiculous to think such a thing. He would not barge into her home in the middle of the night. She almost sobbed again. He always did so in the mornings.

“Miss Belle,” Hopper said. His voice was calm and steady. “Miss Belle, if you wish for me to find the blaggard and thrash him, I can have it done.”

“No,” Belle whispered. “No, Hopper. Please. It’s unnecessary.”

“Miss Belle thumped him herself,” Ellanor added with a glee that bordered on outright malicious. “Right on the head with a poker. The dirty brute looked everso surprised.”

Belle’s sobs gave way to a faint, wet giggle. “He did, rather.” She lifted her hand to wipe at her cheeks, and Ellanor quickly dabbed at her face with a kerchief. “I’m quite all right, Hopper. I will be fine.”

Reluctantly, Hopper withdrew from the room, closing the door.

Ellanor helped Belle settle back in amongst the blankets. “There, Miss,” she said, patting Belle’s hand. “You’ll be well now.”

Belle took a shaking breath. “Will you sleep beside me, Ellanor?” she asked in a whisper. “I know it is foolishness, but I cannot help but be afraid.”

Ellanor blinked at her. “O-of course, Miss,” she said at once. “But my dress is all mucky.”

“Please,” Belle said softly. “Use one of my nightgowns. Please.”

The maid stared at her in astonishment, then trotted across the room to the drawers. Given the circumstances, all the rules were being turned on their head, so dressing a maid in her own nightdress and having the girl sleep beside her was not such a stretch.

Ellanor wriggled under the covers beside her with a nervous giggle. “You’re sure this is all right, Miss? I won’t be in trouble?”

“Papa will understand,” Belle assured her, all but wrapping herself around Ellanor. “I hope it isn’t an inconvenience.”

Ellanor giggled, stroking her hair. “Not at all, Miss,” she confided. “I must share a bed with four when I go home, and it ain’t half so big and grand as this one.”

Belle breathed in and out, trying to steady her breathing once more. Her heart was still drumming a wild beat, and she tilted her head carefully into Ellanor’s touch. It was calming, soothing. Perhaps, she mused as she closed her eyes and let herself drift, she did have something of the cat in her after all.

She was roused by raised voices. Daylight was breaking through the crack in her curtains, and she was quite sure it must be morning. Ellanor was no longer in the bed, but standing by the door, the heavy key clutched in her hand.

“What is it?” Belle asked, alarmed. She pushed herself up on her elbows, wincing when her head throbbed again.

“Nothing to worry about, Miss!” The girl’s voice was shrill with panic. “Don’t you worry now. The door’s locked.”

Belle froze. “Aston?”

Ellanor’s face crumpled in distress. “Mr Hopper is keeping him from your door, Miss, but he’s having such a row with the Master.”

Belle took a gulping breath. “When did he come?”

“About half an hour past, Miss.” Ellanor was hopping from foot to foot. “Oh, Miss, he won’t be gone. He keeps shouting rudeness about a gentleman’s contract being binding.”

Bell stumbled out of the bed, her legs tangling in the sheets and her nightgown. “I will not have it,” she said, pulling on her robe over her nightgown. “I will not have that wretched man upsetting papa! Papa’s heart is not strong enough.”

“Miss! You can’t go down!” Ellanor exclaimed, as Belle snatched the key from her. “He might strike you again.”

“Let him,” Belle said furiously, “then we shall bring the law down upon him.” She pulled the door open and rushed to the stairs, only for Hopper to catch her by the arms as she flew passed him.

“Miss Belle, no,” he hissed, pulling her back. “Your father is dealing with this.”

“My father is sick,” Belle replied sharply. “Release me this instant, Hopper. I will not allow his heart to be weakened because Mr Aston is too much of a rogue to understand the common decencies of a gentleman.”

“Miss Belle,” Hopper said urgently. “This is no game. The man is dangerous, and I fear he may have right of law in this case.”

Belle felt like the bottom had dropped out of her belly, her legs trembling beneath her. “I do not understand.”

“They had not drawn up a paper contract,” Hopper said softly, quickly. “They only have a verbal agreement in place, but such things can be considered legally binding if brought before the court. Your father would be forced to pay expenses to him for the time spent courting you and the damage to Mr Aston’s reputation.”

“And Mr Aston intends to do so…” she breathed, clutching at Hopper’s arms. “If I do not wed him, he will ruin papa and drive him into the poorhouse.”

The door of the parlour crashed open. Belle flinched, and cling more tightly to Hopper’s arm as Mr Aston stalked out into the hall. He was followed by a prim little man in a high-collared suit, and Aston’s eyes fixed on her.

“There’s the little beast,” he said darkly. His face was almost as bruised as her own, and there was a linen bandage about his crown. He waved his man to the door, then took a step towards her. Hopper put himself between them. “Stand aside,” he snarled.

Belle touched Hopper’s arm, gently moving him. She looked up coolly, meeting Aston’s face. “You should be careful how you speak to your betters, Mr Aston,” she murmured.

“I know exactly what you are, Miss Maurice,” he said, “and believe me, there is not a wild beast that I have not broken in due course.”

Belle’s blood felt like it had turned to ice in her veins. “Get out of this house,” she snarled, baring her teeth at the vicious, violent brute. “Walk out of this door and count your very blessings that you are not being thrashed to within an inch of your life.”

He grabbed her hand in a bruising grip and pressed a punishing kiss to the back of her palm. She could feel his teeth against her skin. “I will repay you for that, Miss Maurice, when we are wed.”

She tore her hand from his, wiping his kiss from it with equal force on her robe. “That day will never come, I swear,” she hissed. “You may take everything that we have, even the clothes on our backs, but I would rather starve in the gutter than be wed to a man such as you.”

“I need not take your clothes nor your money,” Aston said with a sneer. “I need only say what manner of violent, dangerous woman you are. No man would ever look at you, once they know what you did.”

She pointed a trembling finger at the door. “Get out.”

He bowed mockingly to her, then stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Hopper caught her arm, fearing she might faint, but Belle brushed him aside, dashing to the parlour. Her father was halfway between the door and couch, and his face was grey-hued, his breath wheezing in his lungs. She caught his arm as he started to fall.

“Hopper!” she screamed. “Hopper, help!”

They managed to drag him to the couch, lay him down, and Belle loosed his collar with trembling fingers. His eyes were rolling in his head, only the whites visible, and spittle was frothing at the corners of his lips. Hopper was shouting to Ellanor, sending her running for the doctors, then brought a tiny bottle of some manner of medicine, forcing it down her father’s throat.

His colour began to improve, but his breathing was still ragged and laboured. Belle rushed to the kitchen, fetching a basin of water and a compress, brushing his brow, cold sweat dotting his skin. Gradually, his breathing eased a little at a time, and by the time the doctor arrived, his eyelids were fluttering weakly.

Belle allowed Hopper to draw her from the room into the hall.

The floor was cool beneath her feet, her slippers lost somewhere between her bedchamber and the parlour. She clung to his arm, staring blankly at the door.

“Hopper, what can I do?” she asked in a whisper. “I cannot be married to that man. I cannot. It would kill papa as sure as poison.”

Hopper looked aggrieved. “I would that I could advise, Miss Belle, but I have no notion.” He drew her towards the drawing room, guided her to sit. “Your friend, the Lady Eaglesham, might she be able to provide assistance? Or Lord Cathkin or his father? Your father said the Duke was most helpful.”

Belle could only imagine the expression on Lady Eaglesham’s face, if she presented herself now, requesting assistance. The Duke and his son, on the other hand, had been present at the house, and had already seen the damage done.

She nodded slowly. “I will seek out Lord Cathkin and the Duke of Rutherglen,” she said in a shaking voice. “Perhaps, they have some lesser-known cousin who might be a better prospect than Mr Aston.”

“I doubt any could be much worse,” Hopper said. “Will you eat first?”

Belle hesitated, then nodded. “Will you have a message taken to his Grace’s house? If it is possible to call shortly, I would speak to them as soon as I can.”

It was less than an hour before a response came, and as soon as she was attired and veiled, Belle called for the carriage. Hopper insisted she take Ellanor with her, his own concern for his Master outweighing any other protocol.

If her visit was considered unorthodox, the Duke’s butler gave no indication of it. He simply led Belle and Ellanor into the parlour. Lord Cathkin was waiting and rose at once, his features and attire both uncommonly grave.

“Miss Maurice,” he said, giving her an elegant leg. “How do you fair today?”

She hesitated, then lifted the veil from her face.

Cathkin swore aloud, then coloured profusely. “My most sincere apologies, Miss Maurice. That was uncalled for.”

“It is no matter,” she assured him, leaving the veil up. “Indeed, I find it a comfort that there is a gentleman who will take offence at such a sight.”

“Any reasonable gentleman with an ounce of sense would,” he said, indicating one of the chairs. “Please, sit. Your letter was most troubling. What is it that is come to pass to bring you so urgently to my door?”

Belle sank into the chair, smoothing her skirts. “I fear I am being terribly presumptuous,” she admitted, folding her hands one over the other, then unfolding them. “When you offered friendship, I wager you had no notion I would call upon you twice in as many days.”

“Friendship is not marked by the frequency at which it occurs,” Lord Cathkin demurred, sitting down opposite her. “Particularly when a lady is in distress.”

She tried to smile as graciously as she might, then winced. She could taste a little blood in her mouth, but tried her best to ignore it. “His Grace, your father, said that you delivered Mr Aston to his home, yesterday,” she said quietly. “Was he fully-conscious when you spoke with him?”

Cathkin grimaced. “He was conscious, but he was also infuriated, I fear,” he admitted. “I spoke to him at length, but I fear that his temper is not so easily assuaged. Father intended to speak with his father, the Baron, this afternoon, about his conduct.”

Belle nodded slowly. “I fear that speaking to the Baron this afternoon will be too late,” she said in a quiet voice. “Mr Aston has returned to my father’s house this very morning.”

Cathkin was on his feet with a snarl of outrage that was warming. “The demmed blaggard should have been switched from here to Richmond,” he snapped. “I swear the knave will feel the flat of my blade.”

Belle raised a trembling hand. “My Lord, please,” she said. “I fear the matter is graver than we first believed.”

“Graver?” Cathkin said, standing by the mantle, his white-knuckled fist resting on the stone. “My dear lady, the man struck you. He struck you and wounded you. How is it that it can be graver still?”

Belle clasped her hands together again. “He intends to destroy my reputation, if I do not consent to marry him,” she said, her voice trembling only a little. Her face was flushed with the shame of admitting the dire circumstances she was in. “I care naught for my reputation, but failing that, he will ruin my father. We have little enough left, and my father could not survive if it was all lost.”

Cathkin snatched a glass from the mantle and hurled it into the unlit grate with a savagery that made her jump. “That villainous cove,” he hissed. “I should have had him taken to the river, thrashed to within an inch of his life, and bound him in the hold on the first clipper to take the tide.”

Belle laughed tremulously. “That is very gracious of you to say so, my Lord,” she said.

“Grace be demmed, Miss Maurice,” he said, returning to the seat and settling back on it. He crossed one leg over the other and smiled at her. “That would have been entirely mine own pleasure.”

Belle fiddled with her gloves. “I believe you see my difficulty, then?”

“Indeed,” he agreed. He pressed his fingertips together, tapping them thoughtfully against one another. “The only just cause for breaking a promise of matrimony is if some other opportunity with better prospects might present itself. A wise suitor would know to retreat in the face of betters, but Aston, I fear, is unwise.”

“Tis so, my Lord,” Belle agreed, “but even so, it is trying enough to find a match when one has a respectable family and fortune. It is e’en more so when one resembles a plum that has fallen from the cart at market.”

To her surprise, Lord Cathkin laughed openly. “M’dear, were it known at court what a wit you possessed, you would be sought out first and best amongst all the ladies,” he said.

Belle blushed, lowering her eyes. “It is merely observation, my Lord,” she demurred.

He leaned back in his seat, studying her thoughtfully. “I cannot think it will be too difficult,” he said, “to find a gentleman who would admire a witty wife. That you have little fortune is naught to a man who has much and yet, lacks something pretty and witty to amuse his guests.”

“Would that I had prettiness,” Belle said ruefully. “Alas, I am drawn to the bruised plum once more.”

Cathkin chuckled. “Lud, Miss Maurice,” he said, a boyish grin crossing his face, “you have clearly never met the Duchess of Howarth.”

Belle surprised herself, then, by smiling in earnest. “You are very kind, my Lord.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “Fie, Miss Maurice, I am merely honest,” he said. “I have often been reproached for the very trait.” He studied her thoughtfully. “I will send note to Lady Eaglesham. She has an eye on all the eligible young men about town. I cannot imagine she will not have some interesting and harmless little creature up her capacious sleeves.”

She breathed out a trembling sigh of relief. “I hoped that might be the matter,” she said, “I dared not present myself to her.”

“A wise decision,” Cathkin said solemnly. “I fear that if you did, young Mr Aston would be found chopped into messes by evening.”

“Lady Eaglesham is a kind lady,” Belle demurred.

“Kind she may be,” Cathkin said, “but only to those in her good graces.” He smiled slightly, his eyes gleaming. “I believe that if matters become worse, then the dear Marchioness ought to be unleashed. Mr Aston would find his legs cut out from beneath him at court. He may try to ruin your reputation through the law, but that is nothing in light of what dear Blanche would do to him though whispers and murmurs to her friends.”

Belle stared at him in astonishment. “Surely, I am not of sufficient consequence to merit such a gesture.”

Cathkin looked at her with good-natured amusement. “I am beginning to see why she calls you her little goose,” he said. “M’dear, the woman dotes upon you. She cares not for fortune or station, only that you are a good and loyal friend to her. That is the matter of utmost import to our dear Blanche.”

“A friend,” Belle said softly, dazed. “I am her friend?”

Cathkin smiled with a gentleness that surprised her. “And mine, dear lady,” he said. “You are not as alone as you would believe.”

Belle could not help but to smile in wonder.

Chapter Text

Brief letters passed thick and fast between Marchioness of Eaglesham, the Marquis of Cathkin and the Honourable Isabelle Maurice, though Belle saw little of them in the days that followed.

Cathkin’s presence, however, was not unnoticed. Several of his father’s men now occupied the servants quarters of the Maurice house, each of them large and burly, unafraid to dirty their hands should Mr Aston come calling again.

Aston had not done so yet, though there had been a writ from his lawyer.

Hopper delivered it directly to Belle’s hands. Her father was abed, ordered to remain so by the physician, though he huffed and puffed in indignation. Yet, he obeyed, and she knew that was a sign of how exhausted he truly was. Belle knew that she must stand as the strength of the household until he was recovered again, and so, she broke the seal. The writ almost drew a curse from her lips, the ultimatum laid down in black and white before her.

“My offer still stands, Miss Belle,” Hopper murmured. “It might look like an accident.”

Belle shook her head, her lips compressed to a narrow line. “No, Hopper,” she said. “I would not have your hands dirtied by touching filth.” She folded the letter and laid it on the table. “I believe we should put him from our mind as best we can.”

Hopper eyed her doubtfully. She had no doubt he heard her cry out in the night again, but they did not speak of it. Ellanor remained with her at all times, during the night, and she suspected that Hopper spent his evenings by her door, for the same reason.

It was nonsense that an upstart such as Aston had them all so out of sorts.

That was a source of great annoyance for Belle, as much as she wished it was not the case.

Her face was beginning to heal, as one day then another passed, but the scar above her brow remained ugly and livid. It would stand as a permanent reminder of the folly of desperation, and the sin of being too proud to ask for aid from one’s betters.

While her father rested, she took it upon herself to look over the family accounts. It was not her place to do so, she knew, but should Aston continue with his threats and writs, then she knew she had to be aware of her father’s circumstances. Her father was in no state to manage the accounts, barely able to speak two words without breathlessness.

It was not so complex as she had been led to believe, and for some hours, she sat at the dining room table, poring over various documents and books. She knew her father loathed numbers and dealing with them, but it was simply a matter of checking one figure against another and finding where a loss or gain might be.

She heard the bell jangle and looked up, heart pounding. There were footfalls in the hall, no doubt Cathkin’s men moving in readiness, but it seemed they were not required. A moment later, Hopper rapped on the door, then opened it.

“Miss Isabelle,” he said. “His Grace the Duke of Rutherglen.”

Belle dropped the sheet she was holding, and rose to her feet. She had not seen the Duke since the day Aston assaulted her. She had no notion of whether she was presentable or not, as she could not yet face her reflection in the glass. Her hair was braided back simply by Ellanor’s hand, and her dress was neat. Otherwise, she could not be sure.

The Duke walked briskly passed Hopper. He was wearing a broad-collared riding coat over his clothing, and bore a thick folder beneath his arm. He bowed deeply to her. “Miss Maurice,” he said, his eyes skimming over her damaged face. She lowered her gaze. “I trust I find you well.”

“Quite well, your Grace,” she murmured, remembering with a rush of high colour that the last time she had seen him, he had carried her into her bed chamber.

“Hmm.” He stepped a little closer. “I do not find myself convinced. Come, girl, raise your chin.”

She looked up and found those brown eyes fixed on her face. The memory of the tiny golden flecks in them gave her pause, and she found herself gazing at him as intently as he seemed to be gazing at her. “As you can see, your Grace, I am much improved.”

“Much improved on a slaughterhouse floor,” he said dryly.

Belle startled herself by laughing softly, one hand leaping to her mouth. It seemed the Duke was also surprised, one side of his mouth curving up.

“Indeed, your Grace,” she said, lowering her eyes for a moment. “I cannot imagine it would be possible to look much worse.” He was silent and she slanted a glance up at him, wondering if she had spoken too freely.

He was still watching her, a strange, quizzical expression on his features, then he walked passed her to the table. “You are doing the household accounts?” he said, picking up one of the sheets.

Belle coloured, hurrying back to gather up the sheets. Bad enough that their circumstances were known, but the Duke had no need to see the details. “My father is likely to be unwell for some time,” she said. “Mine is the only hand left.”

The Duke nodded, his brown eyes half-lidded and unreadable. “One might wonder whether you know your place,” he murmured.

For a moment, she wondered if he found her behaviour distasteful. She gathered up the papers, counting each one silently to allow herself a moment to think, then laid the bundle neatly together.

“My place,” she finally said, “is aiding my father as best I can. If it means using my wit, rather than my needlework, then so be it.” Again, his lip twitched, and she narrowed her eyes, just slightly, at him. “Do you seek claws once more, your Grace?”

He snorted. “One needs not seek what one knows to be there,” he replied. He stepped away from her then, and tapped briskly on the folder under his arm. “I would speak with your father on a matter of business. I am aware he is unwell, but I only require a moment.”

Belle felt a prickle of heat in her cheeks. “I am dealing with matters of business, your Grace,” she said. “If you wish to discuss anything, you may discuss it with me.”

His dark eyes pinned her again. “This business is not a matter for you to be concerned with, Miss Maurice,” he said. “It can solely be discussed with your father, though I have no doubt of your efficacy.”

“My father is abed, your Grace,” she argued as mildly as she could. “I cannot see him given fresh worries.”

The Duke laughed, a short, sharp sound. “Miss Maurice, I only intend to speak briefly to him, regarding our conversation of several days ago. As you were not privy to it, I am afraid you cannot assist me.” He inclined his head. “He has no need to move nor speak, and nor do I intend to drive him to convulsions, but it is vital that I speak with him.”

Belle pursed her lips, but nodded in acquiescence. “Hopper will see that father is ready to receive you,” she said. Her father’s man bowed briefly, and strode from the room, leaving them alone with only Ellanor, who was sitting silent and wide-eyed by the window.

The Duke walked over to one of the paintings that adorned the wall, examining it. “Bellamy tells me that some of our men are in attendance here, temporarily,” he said. “He believes that you have need of more than a red-haired butler.”

Belle settled herself back at the table. “Hopper is father’s man,” she said, “and he is quite sufficient, but on occasion, when father must leave the house, Hopper attends on him.”

“Leaving the little cat alone in her basket,” the Duke observed, “where any great hound may come along and shake at her with his teeth.”

Belle picked up her pen, turning it over between her fingers. “Do you reproach me, sir?” she asked. “Do you reproach my father?”

“Lud, Miss Maurice,” he said, turning with that thin, whip-sharp smile. “So hostile? It is merely an observation.” He bowed ever so slightly, and not without a touch of mockery. “If I were impelled to reproach you, then my men would be withdrawn forthwith.” He took a step or two towards her. “As it is, I take comfort in the knowledge that they are present.”

Belle looked at him in bewilderment. “Your Grace?”

“Well, we cannot have you beating men with pokers again, Miss Maurice,” he replied, his expression unreadable, but there was a glint in his eye, something of the imp about him, and her lips twitched in an uncalled for smile. “If a gentleman comes to your father’s house, they must feel safe from your wicked arm.”

Belle folded her hands on the table. “As you can see, your Grace,” she said, “today, I have no poker.”

He pressed his hand to his heart. “For which I am truly thankful, m’dear. I have no desire to be knocked on the crown.”

She lowered her eyes, biting on her lip to stifle a laugh. It was quite unseemly to find humour in such a matter, or to speak to a Duke of such things.

Fortuitously, Hopper stepped into the room at that moment. “Your Grace, the Viscount will see you now.”

“Miss Maurice.” The Duke waited until she looked up at him. “I assure you that I shall not wear upon your father too greatly.”

“That is well,” Belle murmured, meeting his eyes and the challenge within them, “for if you do, I remind you that I shall have ready access to the parlour shortly, and all that lies within.”

To her surprise - and a little pride - he laughed. “I shall be on my best behaviour,” he said, granting her an elegant leg. He turned to face Hopper, who was gaping like a stunned fish. “Well, man? Shall you lead or must I find the way through the house myself?”

Hopper’s cheeks darkened and he bowed. “This way, your Grace,” he said, leading the Duke out of the room.

As soon as he was gone, Belle’s hands leapt to her lips. “I’faith,” she said with the faintest of giggles, “the man is a rogue!”

Ellanor set down the darning she was doing. “Miss, are you all right?” she said, hurrying over to Belle’s side. “Lord, he was being beastly to you!”

“No, no, Ellanor,” Belle said, unable to keep a smile from crossing her lips. “I believe he was speaking in jest.” It was rare indeed for anyone to encourage her to speak, particular urging her sharpness to the fore.

The Duke, however, used words like a blade, as sharp as her own.

She wondered at it, his challenge.

He thrust, she parried, and he laughed.

There was no malice in it.

In fact, he even seemed to take pleasure in the rapacity of her response.

She attempted to turn her attention back to the accounts, but found herself glancing to the door, wonder what urgent business the Duke might have with her father. For papa to see him, it must be urgent indeed.

The bell rang again, rousing her from her reverie. She heard Hopper go to open it, and Cathkin’s men moving in readiness, but it seemed that they were - again - uncalled for. Low voices spoke, and a moment later, Hopper appeared in the door.

“Miss Belle, Lord Cathkin is here,” he said, looking as startled as she felt. “He apologises for the lack of notice, but he is fresh come from Lady Eaglesham’s and would speak to you if you have a moment.”

“Of course,” she said, rising and smoothing her skirts. “Ellanor, bring tea to the parlour, please. We shall talk there.”

Lord Cathkin rose the moment she entered. Like his father, his eyes ran over her face, as if checking for any further improvement. “Miss Maurice.”

She offered her hands to him. He caught them and bowed over them. “My Lord,” she said. “I had no notion of your intention to call.”

He offered her a lop-sided smile. “Likewise, I had no notion that my father would be present,” he said. He waved towards the window. A horse was standing outside, the reins lashed to the railings. “He knows it is uncommon enough to ride in town. I swear he does it only to ruin my reputation.”

Belle could barely hide a smile. “Or perhaps, it is because you had the carriage?” she suggested, sitting down on the couch.

Lord Cathkin huffed. “You dare to speak of common sense?”

Belle’s lips twitched. “Well, one of us must.”

“Fie, Miss Maurice, fie!” he said, feigning dismay. “You would disgrace me?”

She looked across at him in all innocence. “I would do no such thing, my Lord,” she replied. “Though I fear you may.”

He clapped his hands together in delight. “Bravo, m’dear, bravo! I see your spirit needed only to be cut and polished to shine like diamond.”

She ducked her head to hide the smile. “My Lord is too kind,” she said.

“’My Lord’,” he said, grinning, “is admiring his handiwork.”

She raised her eyes to him, eyebrows elevated. “Indeed? I believe it is my wit, not yours, that is shining like diamond, is it not?”

He sprawled back in the chair, beaming. “Zounds,” he said cheerfully, “I shall have to don armour, if your tongue continues to cut so sharply.”

Belle schooled her expression in something closer to dignity as Ellanor carried in the tray of tea and some small pastries. She waited until the tea was poured and Ellanor retreated to sit quietly in the corner.

“I expect you are not merely here to find your father,” she said, balancing her saucer delicately in her hand.

Lord Cathkin smiled. “Indeed not,” he agreed. “Blanche and I have been on the hunt for you, m’dear. We believe we may have found some likely candidates, but before overtures are made, I thought you might like to look over them and see if there are any names that catch your eye or that might be struck from the list.”

Belle’s mouth opened in surprise. “Already, my Lord?”

He waved a hand vaguely. “There is little to be done in the midday hours,” he replied. “It is a way of passing a little time until the next ball.” He delved into one of his capacious pockets and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I should warn you, some of the fellows on the list are meek little sheep.” He waved the page from side to side. “Will you promise not to rend them with your little claws?”

Belle granted him a stern look. “Lord Cathkin, I do believe you mock me.”

“Mocking? Tush, m’dear! This is but teasing,” he said, eyes wide with shock. “If I mocked, I would be far less fond of you.”

To her surprise, she coloured. “Thank you, my Lord,” she murmured, looking down at her tea, raising her head at footfalls on the stairs.

“Ah,” Lord Cathkin murmured, “that would be father. The demmed man has no notion of walking lightly upon a stair.”

“Well, then, where is she?” The Duke’s voice rang in the hall, then there were footsteps on the tiles “Devil take you, man, move aside. I’m quite capable of opening a demmed door with my own two hands.”

Belle wisely set her cup down, recalling her first encounter with the Duke, as the door crashed inwards, rebounding off the bookshelf behind it.

It seemed the Duke was as surprised to see his son as Lord Cathkin was to see his father.



The Duke stalked closer, looking his son up and down. “What the deuce are you doing here?”

Lord Cathkin held up the list. “Lady Eaglesham and I have been seeking a suitor for Miss Maurice,” he said. “We believed she ought to see those we have selected.” His father snatched it from his hand, unfolding it with two fingers, and scanned his eyes over the page. “There are a decent number.”

“Demmed nonsense,” Rutherglen snorted, curling his hand and crushing the paper to a tight knot. Belle exclaimed in surprise.

“Father! What in heaven’s name was that for?”

The Duke gave his son a cool, hard look. “None are suitable,” he said.

Lord Cathkin was on his feet in a heartbeat, indignation writ upon his face. “Each one was more than suitable, father,” he said. “Give me the list.”

The Duke snorted and cast the paper into ash-thick grate. “It is not required, Bellamy,” he said. “I have been in concourse with the Viscount. I have put a proposal to him that he finds satisfying, and will not require the lady to marry some half-wit Baron.”

“The devil you say!” Cathkin exclaimed. “Why have you not spoken of it?”

“Because the matter was none of your concern,” the Duke responded, then turned to the astonished Belle. “Miss Maurice, my apologies for my son’s show of temper. I cannot imagine what causes him to be so.”

She looked up at him, her hands laced neatly in her lap. “Indeed, sir,” she said, “I cannot begin to guess where he might have learned such manners.”

The Duke inclined his head. “Quite so.”

“Your business with my father is concluded?”

There was but a moment of hesitation. “Very nearly so,” the Duke said. “As I said, your father has professed an interest in the proposal I made, but we are both in agreement that as it will influence you, you may have the final word.”

Belle frowned in consternation. “What manner of proposal is it?”

For a moment, the Duke seemed uncertain, adjusting the folder in his arm, then he looked at her, his expression solemn. “I would take you to wife, if you would accept my suit.”

Lord Cathkin erupted in an explosion of startled profanity.

Belle stared at the Duke in wide-eyed astonishment, barely even aware of half the words spilling from Cathkin. “Your Grace?” she said uncertainly. “Are you in jest?”

“Not at all, Miss Maurice,” he replied, ignoring his son to hold her gaze. “I am in all earnestness.” He turned a glare upon his son. “Bellamy, please be silent. You are quite ruining the moment.”

“Father, what the deuce are you about?”

Belle watched as the Duke stalked towards his son. He grasped Cathkin by the shoulder, and they were close, face-to-face, and when he spoke, his voice was uncommon soft and calm. “I am seeking the lady’s hand, my boy,” he said. “Do you believe her unworthy?”

Cathkin stared at his father, then one side of his mouth curled in a smile not unlike the Duke’s. “Odd’s fish, no, father, but I wonder if you are indeed worthy of her.”

Both father and son looked at Belle, who recalled the necessity to breathe. Her heart was racing in a frenzied pace, and she felt quite light-headed. “I am not sure I understand, your Grace,” she said.

“I am sure you do, m’dear,” the Duke said. “You are no simpleton. The matter is this. You have a need to be wed. I have a desire to be wed once more. Our paths have crossed as a most opportune moment.”

Lord Cathkin snorted. “A desire, indeed.”

“Your lip is lose, boy,” the Duke said sharply without looking away from Belle. “Look to it.”

Belle felt tremendously glad that she had set her cup down. “Your Grace, your rank is far above mine own.”

“All the better to keep that scoundrel from your skirts,” he replied. She noted the way his fingers curled along the edge of the folder her bore, a suggestion that he may not be as calm as he feigned.

“We have no dowry.”

He nodded curtly. “As I said, I have spoken with the matter with your father. I have fortune enough. I do not need to rob a sick man of the little he has left.”

Belle stared at him in outright astonishment. “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, then,” she said. “My rank is mean, my fortune small, I am sharp, and born of a common French mother. Does this not mark me as unseemly as a wife?” She rose, clasping her hands together in front of her. “I believe you are taking pity on me.”

The Duke’s lips thinned. “You would refuse, then?”

“I would not have you wed me out of pity,” she replied.

He snorted in contempt. “If you believe my heart is so kind, then you are a fool after all,” he said sharply. “I would not wed even the Queen out of pity, if she brought with her all the jewels in the treasury.” He stepped closer to her, almost invasively so, and cast his folder upon a chair. One of his hands captured both of hers, lifting them. “I ask you in earnest, Miss Maurice, without pity or compassion, for you to be my wife.”

His fingers were warm around hers, and she looked up into his dark eyes. “Truly?”

He rolled his eyes. “Are you still addled from the blow to your head, woman? Will you answer the demmed question?”

Belle felt as if she might fall, but his eyes returned to hers, latent and dark, and she saw some emotion in them, some hope, some fear that startled her. “Yes, your Grace,” she said softly, wonderingly, and as she watched, she saw the hope and fear curl into something not unlike relief, even perhaps joy. “I will marry you.”

The Duke lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them both with such gentle reverence that she trembled. “Good,” he murmured with such heat in his voice that she thought he might embrace her there and then.

The ring of the servant’s bell brought her back to herself. She stepped back, her colour rising, and gently drew her hands free of the Duke’s. He turned on his son with a dark look. Some paces away, Lord Cathkin was shamelessly holding the small silver bell, and grinning like a very pleased cat.

“I believe there should be wine to celebrate,” he declared, ignoring his father’s look. “After all, it is hardly every day that I find myself with a new and unexpected step-mother.”

“Oh!” Belle said faintly. “I had not thought…”

“No,” Cathkin said, his grin widening even more. “You had not, mama.”

“Bellamy,” Rutherglen growled.

Cathkin only laughed.

Chapter Text

The world was changed in a most unexpected way.

That very morning, Belle had risen with the expectation of perhaps hearing of a suitor from Lady Eaglesham’s circle of friends, while spending her day toiling through her father’s finances. Now, she was betrothed most unexpectedly to a Duke of a grand and traditional line, who looked at her with something she considered might be affection.

The Duke - her intended - and his son departed only shortly after she agreed to the match, leaving her alone with Ellanor. She sat, dazed, on the couch, gazing at her hands which were still trembling.

“Oh, Miss!” Ellanor gasped, scurrying over to her. “Miss, you’ll be a Duchess!”

“A Duchess,” Belle echoed. She lifted her hands and stared at them, trembling like an autumn leaf in the wind. “Lud! This is not the afternoon I imagined, Ellanor!”

“Me neither, Miss!” Ellanor caught her hands, squeezing them. “Oh, but it’s good news, ain’t it? You being a Duchess and that nasty brute won’t even be able to look at you, let alone come near you!”

Belle’s lips shivered in a smile. “I believe that was his Grace’s intention.” Her eyes widened and she looked at Ellanor in astonishment. “I do not even know his full name! I am to wed a man and I do not know his name!”

Ellanor giggled. “Well, when you were to wed a man and you did know his name, it weren’t much use, were it?” Belle gave her a stern look, and the girl blushed. “Sorry, Miss. It’s just everso exciting!”

“Exciting,” Belle said, getting to her feet. “Yes, that’s a quite fitting word.” She took a deep, calming breath. “I believe I should speak to papa.”

Ellanor giggled. “I’ll go and see whether cook needs help,” she said.

“You mean to tell her,” Belle said, too dazed to laugh.

“Only a little, Miss,” Ellanor said, blushing. “May I?”

Belle nodded, then hurried to the stairs, gathering her skirts and rushing up to her father’s room. He was sitting in the chair close to the bed, a blanket about his legs and another about his shoulders. Hopper was standing just shy of him, and had no doubt relayed the news of what he had witnessed in the parlour.

“Ah, my dear…”

“Papa, why did you say nothing about this?” she demanded, rushing across to him. “Did you know he intended to ask for my hand?”

Her father raised his hand to calm her. “Sit, Belle,” he said. “Let me gather breath to speak.”

She drew up the footstool as she had so often as a child, resting her hand atop the blanket over his knees. “It was something of a shock, papa,” she said reproachfully. “Had I known he might ask, I would have been better prepared.”

“M’dear, until he called today, I did not believe he was serious in his intent.” Her father covered her hand with his own. “He spoke of it, the day he and I first met, but given his outrage at your condition, I believed he was only offering out of sympathy.”

Belle felt colour rising in her cheeks. “He was most adamant that he would not marry anyone on those terms,” she admitted shyly. “He was quite abrupt about that point.”

“He seems quite abrupt on many points,” her father observed, a smile crossing his lips. “Yet you consented?”

She knew she was as flushed as if she had run the length of the house. “I do not know why, papa,” she admitted in a whisper. “I did not even consider that it would be our salvation to wed him.” She met her father’s eyes. “He speaks to me as if he wishes to hear me speak in response. He does not bid me be silent.”

Her father patted her hand with a smile. “That was the very trait that drew me to your mother,” he murmured fondly. “I have often wondered if there was another man who found pleasure in having a wife who was both witty and lovely.”

Belle felt quite warm. “Papa, I am neither, truly.”

“M’dear, I may be blinded by a father’s love, but I have no doubts that you are both.” He squeezed her fingers gently. “You are your mother’s daughter, Belle. There’s not a jot of me in you that I can see.”

She lifted his hand between hers and kissed the back of his palm. “I may have mother’s face and manner, papa,” she said softly, “but I have your great heart. You have taught me how to be as I am. That is far more important than anything else.”

He turned his hand and brushed her cheek. “And now, you shall be wed, my girl. Did he tell you of the arrangements?”

Belle’s eyes widened. “There are arrangements?”

Her father chuckled hoarsely. “The man a demmed scoundrel,” he murmured. “The folder he bore contained a special license, which permits you to wed without the need to follow the usual protocols. He received the dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury only this morning. He wishes to wed you in all haste.”

“And by all haste,” Belle said with caution, “how quickly?”

Her father’s lips twitched ruefully. “Tomorrow.”

Her hands leapt to her mouth in shock. “Papa! Tomorrow?”

“Aye, m’dear,” he said. “He was to call on Lady Eaglesham this afternoon to ask leave to use their private chapel. He insists upon it, for once you are wed, Aston will have no claim to you, and you shall be quite safe.” He smiled slightly. “He might be an abrasive fellow, this Duke, but his intentions are honourable.”

“But papa! Tomorrow is… well, it is tomorrow!”

Her father gazed at her, worry creasing his brow. “Would you have him delay?” he asked quietly. “I am sure he would oblige, but it is more difficult to keep matters private.”

Belle bit her lower lip. “It is all so soon,” she said in a small voice. “But I suppose it must be, to prevent Mr Aston having his way.” She looked anxiously at her father. “Will you be well enough to attend?”

“I would not miss it for the world, m’dear,” he promised. “Even if I must be carried, I will be there.”

She rose on the stool and embraced him. “I only hope this is wise, papa,” she whispered.

He held her close. “As do I, Belle. As do I.”

They spent the evening quietly, the prospect of the wedding hanging over them like the fog over the Thames. Neither of them wished to discuss it, in truth, even when a missive came from the Marchioness of Eaglesham, advising them they were most warmly welcome to come to her home in the morning. There was no mention of what was to pass, but the meaning was clear enough and Belle’s hands trembled.

Tomorrow, she would be a wife to the Duke of Rutherglen.

She did not feel the same dread of him that she felt in the presence of Mr Aston. After all, the Duke had produced a son as kind and charming as Lord Cathkin. He knew the importance of manners and he looked most outraged at the sight of her when she had been struck. That spoke of a kindness beneath the gruff manner.

When she retired, she feared she would not be able to sleep, but excitement was wearying, and all too quickly, she slumbered. For the first time in many nights, she was undisturbed by nightmares, waking fresh and bright long before she needed to rise. She lay abed, Ellanor nestled against her, and gazed at the ceiling.

By evening, she would be a wife.

Belle gently disentangled herself from the girl’s arms and rose. She knew a little of what was expected of a wife, and she knew that there was also much she did not know. One thing she was certain of: a husband would appreciate a wife who was tidy and clean.

She slipped out of the room and to the bath chamber. It would have been much more pleasing to bathe in a tub, but there was little enough time, so she filled a basin with water and took a sponge, scrubbing at herself from head to toe. Once that was done, she washed her thick hair as best she could, wringing the moisture out of it before drawing on her robe again.

By the time she returned to her room, Ellanor had emerged and even gone so far as to bring up a light meal for her.

“Are you excited, Miss?”

Belle picked at the tray of food. “I cannot be sure,” she admitted. “There is a strange feeling in my belly, I must confess.”

“Butterflies,” Ellanor said sagely. “Mam says they live there and when you are nervous of something, it wakes them.” She blushed, ducking her head. “It’s probably a nonsense, Miss. Mam says a lot of silly things.”

“It’s a pleasant nonsense, then,” Belle said softly. She nibbled on a slice of bread and jam, though she had no appetite.

“Miss,” Ellanor said a moment later, “what will you wear? You have no wedding gown.”

Belle picked up the teacup. “Lady Eaglesham has promised that I can borrow some suitable gown from her wardrobe, if I wish,” she murmured, though it felt shameful to not have a gown of her own.

Ellanor looked disappointed, but bobbed in a curtsey and hurried out of the room to fetch the curling rags. It was still early enough that her hair could be dried and decorated in a suitable manner, and she had no intention of going to her own wedding looking like a ragamuffin.

Her hair was half-dressed when there was a brisk rap at the door.


The door opened a crack. “Miss Belle, your father asked me to have a small gift brought for you,” he said. “Might Ellanor come and fetch it?”

Belle waved the girl over, and she returned bearing a broad, flat box. “What is it, Hopper?”

“Your father advised me that there is a note within,” he said. “If you will excuse me, Miss Belle, I must tend to him.”

Belle rose to set the box on the bed and lifted the lid. There was a layer of tissue, upon which a note lay: My dearest Belle. I have little I can give you, but this I grant you freely. I know it is not so fashionable as you might like, but your mother wished for you to have it. All my love and wishes, Papa.

Belle’s eyes welled with happy tears, and she drew aside the tissue. Her breath caught in her throat, recognising the gown well. There was a portrait of her mother, hung in the modest drawing room of their home in the country. Belle had always thought it the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Now, the dress her mother wore in that portrait lay before her.

“Oh, Miss…”

Belle lifted the gown with trembling hands. As her father had said, it was nothing like modern fashions, but it was all the more beautiful because of it. The fabric was silk of the palest, eggshell blue, embroidered with tiny forget-me-nots, in the close-bodied fashion. Delicate seed pearls and tiny chips of precious stones modestly decorated the bodice.

“It’s beautiful,” Ellanor whispered. “Like a Queen would wear.”

“Suitable for a Duchess?” Belle breathed.

“Oh yes, Miss!” Ellanor nodded. She tugged on Belle’s sleeve. “We must finish you hair, Miss, if we’re to be ready in time.”

Belle nodded, setting the dress back in the box.

It was strangely calming, as if her mother’s presence had been granted to her with the dress, watching over her. For the first time since she woke, she smiled. Despite the bruises on her face, she knew she could look lovely in the dress. She could almost feel like a bride.

When the time came to depart, Belle could barely recognise herself.

The bruised little girl had been replaced with an elegant lady. She could turn her head slightly to one side, hiding the damage to her face, as she surveyed herself in the dress mirror, and she knew she looked quite beautiful.

Ellanor was overwrought with emotion, sobbing happily, as she opened the door. “I swear you’ll be the prettiest bride they’ve ever seen, Miss!”

Belle’s cheeks warmed. “I hope so,” she admitted, leaning close to kiss Ellanor on the cheek. It was with a pang of regret she knew that she could not take the girl with them. “I shall ask papa to tell you of all that happens.”

Ellanor nodded, shooing her out into the hall.

Belle’s father was waiting at the foot of the stairs, and he did not hear her descending until she was halfway down the staircase. He turned at her footfall, and the very breath seemed to catch in his chest, his eyes widening.

“My dear,” he said, gazing at her and holding up one hand. “You look more beautiful than I could have imagined.”

“Tush, Papa,” she said as she laid her hand in his, but she could not help but smile. “I think I will suffice.”

He huffed in indignation, but he was smiling so warmly that her heart swelled with joy. It had been so long since she had seen him truly happy, and even if this marriage was not truly what she had anticipated, if seeing her so made her father happy, then she would be happy.

The journey to Lady Eaglesham’s house was not a long one. The Marquis and Marchioness’s estate was close to town, but far enough to be considered a country house. With the day still not halfway gone, they reached the edges of town briskly. Houses and buildings gave way to trees and fields, and the scent of a world that Belle loved. Being in town was a pleasure, but only for short spells. To her, the country was where she belonged, surrounded by rolling fields and nature.

She watched the fields flit by, and smiled as birds darted overhead. The breeze through the window of the carriage carried the scent of sun-warmed flowers, and she was almost disappointed when the carriage rolled onto the gravel drive of Lady Eaglesham’s home.

Lady Eaglesham herself was waiting as Belle’s father stepped down. “Lord Cranbrook,” she said gaily, the brightness in her voice reaching Belle’s ear. “Forgive my impertinence, but we have had a chair brought for you.”

“My Lady,” Viscount Cranbrook said with a bow, “Your consideration is most generous.”

Lady Eaglesham laughed. “Fie, my Lord! I cannot have a guest of mine swooning at his daughter’s wedding,” she said. “And where is my little goose? I would see our little bride!”

Blushing, Belle stepped down from the carriage, lowering her eyes.

Lady Eaglesham gasped approvingly. “Oh, my dear girl, you look quite splendid!”

Belle looked up shyly. “Thank you, my Lady,” she said. “It is very kind of you to allow the ceremony to happen here.”

Lady Eaglesham made a dismissive gesture with her fingertips. She nodded to the footmen, who took up the chair that Belle’s father occupied, then looped her arm through Belle’s as they followed into the house.

“No thanks are necessary, dear,” the Marchioness said, “had I not conceded, Rutherglen would have no doubt stamped and huffed like a penned bull until I agreed.” She laughed warmly. “The silly man is most keen to wed you.”

Heat seemed to pour through every inch of Belle’s skin. “He is very kind to do so.”

Lady Eaglesham’s lips twitched. “I do not believe the demmed fool does anything out of kindness,” she said, her voice low enough that it might not carry to Belle’s father’s ears. “I believe the man is quite taken with you.”

Belle looked at her in astonishment, her cheeks warming once more. “T-taken with me?”

Lady Eaglesham leaned closer to her as they walked, keeping her voice soft, secretive. “Did you know that he had not attended a ball in some ten years? And yet, after your first encounter with him, he did not hesitate to attend.”

Belle felt quite light-headed. Surely, the Duke would not have noticed someone as little and insignificant as she, to be taken with her. “Lord Cathkin might have persuaded him...”

Lady Eaglesham gave an unladylike snort. “Lord Cathkin could sooner play Canute than persuade his father to do anything he did not wish to do.” She patted Belle’s hand with a small smile. “I have but a little advice I can grant you.”

Belle looked at her nervously. “Yes, my Lady?”

Lady Eaglesham drew her to a halt in the grand hall that led to the chapel and took Belle’s hands in her own, squeezing the trembling digits. “He may roar and bellow and curse like a sailor, but he is not a cruel man,” she said. “Do not look to his words. Look to his actions.”

“His actions,” Belle echoed, licking her lips.

Lady Eaglesham glanced towards the doors of the chapel, then leaned even closer, her voice sinking to a whisper. “What know you of the wedding night?”

Had Belle not already been red as a beet, she would have flushed even more. “I-I have little notion,” she stammered, lowering her eyes. “The husband will be with the wife.”

Lady Eaglesham’s lips twitched, her eyes dancing. “A very Biblical view of the matter,” she said, lifting Belle’s chin and meeting her eyes. “It does not need to be a trial, m’dear. Do not fear what is to come.” There was colour rising in the Marchioness’s lily white cheeks also, but she leaned even closer to whisper in Belle’s ear, “You may find that it becomes a pleasure.”

Belle’s eyes - already wide - opened to the size of saucers. “M’lady…” she stammered.

Lady Eaglesham giggled, abashed, and hid her face behind a gloved hand. “I only feel it fair you be granted the knowledge that few brides are given,” she said. She threw her arms around Belle and embraced her warmly. “Know only happiness, my dear little goose.”

Belle’s lips trembled as she smiled, though her heart felt it was turning like a millwheel beneath her breast. Her position was all becoming very real, very swiftly: a marriage, a husband, a marital bed.

Lady Eaglesham squeezed her hands. “Come, dear,” she said. “Your husband awaits.”

Belle thought for a dizzying moment that she might swoon, but she forced herself to calm, taking a breath. “Will you lead, my Lady?”

Lady Eaglesham smiled. “Of course,” she said, taking Belle’s arm again. “This need not be a conventional ceremony, after all.”

The chapel was nothing like Belle had expected. It was small and simple, but the sun was picking through stained-glass windows, casting a rainbow of colour across the stone-slabbed floor. A soft gasp of wonder escaped her, and that caught the attention of the four men gathered at the front of the chapel.

Her father was seated and turned to look back with a smile. He was flanked by Lord Cathkin, who broke into a broad, wicked grin at the sight of her. On the opposite side of the aisle, the Marquis of Eaglesham was also sitting.

Belle’s eyes, however, were drawn to the man standing directly before her. The aisle seemed interminably long, though it was barely a dozen paces, a distance that felt too great to walk on legs that were trembling like blancmange.

The Duke was standing side-on, his hands laced behind his back. He was dressed with notable sobriety, in dark, rich browns and golds, his stockings and shirt purest white. She noticed his hair was drawn back, the first time she had seen it so, a dark gold ribbon holding it at his nape, resting against the broad collar of his jacket.

He had turned his head to meet her eyes the moment they stepped into the chapel, and his expression stole what little breath she had. He did not smile, nor bow, nor any other thing. He only looked at her, and behind his back, his hands squeezed one another tightly.

Belle’s steps faltered, her breath quickening.

“You see, m’dear,” Lady Eaglesham breathed close beside her. She squeezed Belle’s arm gently, and guided her to walk again.

“I see,” Belle whispered, dazed, lowering her eyes from the man who would be her husband.

Lady Eaglesham merely smiled, leading her down the aisle. Once there, she took Belle’s trembling and unresisting hand, and then looked at Rutherglen. “Your hand, your Grace.”

Belle couldn’t help notice that the Duke took a moment to bring his hand about. She glanced at it, and was almost relieved to see the slightest of tremors. Without Lady Eaglesham’s guidance, she put out her hand and laid it in his. His fingers closed gently around hers, and only then did she raise her eyes to his face again. His eyes captured hers, holding them, intent and watchful.

“Miss Maurice,” he murmured, his voice a degree lower than it might otherwise be.

She wet her lips, wondering if she was the only person who could hear the wild drum of her heartbeat. “Your Grace,” she whispered.

His fingers squeezed hers gently. “If you have no objections, shall we proceed?”

He was offering her the chance to refuse, she realised, dazed. Her mind was awhirl, and she knew that if she chose to release his hand and walk away from him, he would allow it with a grace that Aston would have never understood.

And yet, he was gazing at her with that same, curious expression he had worn when he first spoke to her of marriage: hope, longing and fear hidden well beneath a mask of indifference.

She brought her other hand up to join the first, and she looked at him and smiled. “Yes, your Grace,” she said.

Chapter Text

The wedding band gleamed on her finger.

Belle could not help but stare at it, a tangible reminder of her new situation and status. She was now Isabelle Goldacre, Duchess of Rutherglen. It was dizzying to think on it, and the ring was a solid anchor to assure her that she had not imagined the whole thing.

The ceremony was a simple affair, little more than an exchange of vows and a blessing spoken over them. To her surprise, the Duke of Rutherglen - now her husband - had held her hand throughout, but whether it was as support for her, or for himself, she was not yet sure.

She had to speak directly to the priest when words were called for, because the Duke made it very difficult to look him in the eyes. His gaze was too intent, too focussed, and it made her tremble and forget what she intended to say. The plump, slightly bewildered priest was the much safer option.

Once the vows were made, and blessings given, only then did she raise her eyes to the man who was now her husband and offered him a shy smile. He did not smile. Instead, he bowed over her hand, deeply and formally, and his lips brushed across the back of her bare hand so fleetingly that they might not have touched her at all.

Lady Eaglesham rose ahead of her husband, and apparently the look she exchanged with Lord Cathkin meant something that Belle could not yet interpret.

“Shall we retire to the blue drawing room?” The Marchioness hailed several footmen, before Belle could even speak to her father, and all at once, she and her husband were alone in the sun-patterned chapel. There was not even a chaperone to watch over them.

Belle suddenly felt a frisson of nervousness, her hands trembling, remembering the last time she had been alone with a man. She tried to force it aside, but the memory of cruel, bruising hands and a merciless blow caught her breath.

Rutherglen looked down at her, and it seemed he could sense her trepidation, for he clasped her hand between both of his, brushing his fingertip across the ring upon her finger. “I fear I must ask,” he said, his expression utterly serious. “Have you a poker hidden beneath your skirts?”

Belle stared at him, then lifted her other hand to her lips to stifle her giggle. “No, your Grace,” she said, a blush rising in her face.

“Hmm.” He put his head to one side, gazing at her. “Then as it is safe, would it be permitted for me to kiss you, wife?”

Belle’s legs trembled anew. “Yes, your Grace.” She swallowed hard, then added in a shy whisper, “Husband.”

His hand tightened briefly around hers, then he leaned close and brushed his lips against her cheek. Unlike Aston, his lips were dry, warm, and before he drew back, he murmured, “Thank you, Isabelle.”

His voice rolled over her name in such a way that a tremor raced the length of her spine. He spoke it as a prayer, a whisper to the holiest of holies.

As suddenly as the intimacy had come, it was gone, and he offered her his arm. “We should join our hosts,” he said. “I fear the Lady Eaglesham would come and drag us by our very ears if we do not make our presence known.”

“They will wish to make their congratulations,” Belle offered tentatively.

“Aye, dem their hides,” Rutherglen said with a moody look. “I’faith, I wager they would celebrate the drop of a hat, if it meant they might throw a small banquet.”

Belle glanced at him from beneath her lashes, wondering if he was in earnest or in jest. His humour was so changeable that she had little certainty of either. She considered it a moment, then suggested, “Perhaps you might drop a hat, then, to gauge their response?”

He snorted, but she saw his lip curve. “Alas, little cat,” he said, “I cannot, for I have no hat to hand.”

Belle hid her own smile. “Then I fear you must accept their congratulations in good humour, as there is naught else to distract them.”

He snorted again, then patted her hand where it rested on his arm. “The congratulations, you can keep,” he said. He was looking straight ahead as they walked through the halls, but she would swear his expression softened a little, when he added, “You are deserving of some little happiness.”

He did not speak again until they reached the drawing room, and Belle could not think of a word that might suffice. Their hosts and her father waited for them, and Lord Cathkin descended on them at once.

Her husband withdrew his arm from hers as Lord Cathkin embraced her and kissed one of her hands profusely. “I have never been more delighted to have a new mama,” he declared passionately, clutching her hand to his heart.

“Thank you, my Lord,” Belle said, unable to keep from laughing helplessly.

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head at once. “You must not call me that any longer, your Grace.” He beamed at her. “You must call me Bay.”

“Your name is Bellamy, idiot boy,” the Duke growled.

“Aye,” Cathkin said, laughing. “But I would be called Bay.” He leaned closer to Belle to inform her mischievously. “I find it much more dashing.”

The Duke harrumphed, prowling over to the window to look out on the vast gardens as if they were of great interest. He glanced briefly at Belle’s father with a nod, but immediately thereafter returned to glowering at the grounds.

“Pay no mind to him,” Lady Eaglesham said, smiling warmly as she kissed Belle on each blush-tinged cheek. Her own husband was standing by, smiling indulgently. “He puffs about like a bear with a sore head no matter how happy he is, and have no doubt that he is quite happy.”

“It is his way,” Bay agreed. “I cannot fathom how one such as he produced one such as I.”

“The fall from your horse onto your head when you were but seven years old would about do it,” the Duke said, folding his hands behind his back.

He was rocking on his heels, as if eager to be elsewhere. He did not like to be the subject of attention, she noticed, putting himself in a place where he would not draw the eye. Perhaps, he was uncomfortable with society, if he lived much of his time in his Scottish estates.

Bay made a face, drawing another smile from Belle. “He might well be right.” He offered her his arm and escorted her over to the couch where her father was sitting. He looked pale, which worried her, but was smiling warmly.

“Congratulations, my girl,” he said as she leaned down to kiss his cheek. “Or should I call you your Grace?”

“Papa!” Belle said with a shy laugh. “No such nonsense.”

He caught her hand, drawing her down to sit beside him. “Lady Eaglesham has kindly offered to accommodate me for the present,” he murmured, his voice low as if imparting some paternal wisdom. She looked at him, startled. “M’dear, you are a wife now. You cannot take your father with you, wherever you go.”

Belle felt as if all the air had left her body.

In all the haste and excitement, she had not paused to think that she had married a Duke who spent much of his time in the climes of Scotland. Papa had his own lands and estate, and he could not freely leave them, even if he had his health. She would have to leave him, and would not see him for months on end.

Her father saw her distress and reached up to brush her cheek with his hand. “There, dear, there,” he said softly. “Lady Eaglesham will be my guardian on your account. I have no doubts she will keep an eye on me at all times.”

Belle put her arms around him and embraced him fast. “We will write,” she whispered, “as often as possible.”

“Of course,” he agreed, drawing back to look at her. “You will be a marvellous Duchess.”

Belle touched his shoulder, then his chest. “And you will have Hopper take the utmost care of you,” she murmured. “I would not have you fading away to nothing.”

He covered his hand with her own. “You forget, m’dear,” he murmured, “you have given me the unspoken promise of grandchildren.”

Belle’s cheeks flamed quite beautifully. She granted him her most reproachful look, then rose from the couch. “Lady Eaglesham,” she began.

“Blanche,” Lady Eaglesham said with a warm smile. “I told you that I would find some means to have you call me by my name, and it is only fitting now that you are a rank above mine own, my goose.”

Belle wondered if it were possible to swoon if one’s colour rose too often. “Very well,” she stammered, lowering her eyes. “Blanche, thank you for your kindness of today. My father and I are both very grateful.”

“Tush, my little poppet,” Blanche said, smiling broadly, “this is but a drop in a bucket. We shall have a quite lovely dinner before your husband whisks you away to that unfashionable hole of his in town.”

The Marchioness was as good as her word. The meal presented was by far the grandest Belle had ever encountered. She was placed between her husband and her father at the table, and it seemed that even her papa was unsure which of the many pieces of silverwear were to be used at the relevant dish.

Her husband took pity on her, and when each dish was served, he would touch the relevant piece subtly, though she had no doubt that the Marquis and Marchioness would hardly bat an eye if she picked the wrong spoon.

It was only when every dish and platter had been cleared away, and the lazy afternoon sun was dulling to a softer, cooler glow in the window that she was gently reminded that she was not to return to her own home or bed. Indeed, she would not do so again.

Her father had been modestly retired to a suite in the east wing of the manor. He was wearied, so Belle bid him a quiet and tearful farewell, before returning to their hosts, her husband and her husband’s son.

Her husband seemed loath to remind her that they should depart. Indeed, she caught Bellamy glancing at him furtively, and frowning, as if concerned that they were still present. She did not mind, in truth, for it delayed the inevitable conclusion of the evening.

She was not afraid to be alone with her husband, of that she was becoming more and more certain, but what she did fear was what was expected of her. She did not like to be ignorant of her role or position, and to be a wife, on a wedding night, was not something anyone would speak of to a young woman.

Blanche’s words had done a little to reassure her, but the fear of the unknown was waiting, as sure as night followed day.

It was only when the Marquis of Eaglesham - no doubt nudged by his own wife - observed that they would best make use of light to return to town, that the Duke grunted in acknowledgement.

“I think they would be rid of us, my Lady,” he said with an expressive roll of his eyes.

Bay snickered. He had already partaken of a great deal of wine and raised his glass. “One might think you would want to be rid of us,” he said, then bit his lower lip as if he had misspoken when his father glared at him.

“Excuse my son’s manner, my Lady,” her husband said, rising. He bowed to her. “I believe we should take mine host’s suggestion and depart before the conversation turns.” He shot a dark look at his son. “And I have no doubt it shall.”

Bay raised his glass quite happily. “Indeed it would.”

Belle looked from her husband to Blanche, who gave her a small, encouraging smile. She drew on all her courage and looked back to her husband. “If I may have a few moments to make my toilette, then we may depart.”

For the span of a moment, he seemed to be surprised at her acquiescence, but he masked it well and made a leg. “Very well, my lady.”

Belle rose on legs that were trembling anew. “Lady…” She hesitated, then began again, wetting her lips. “Blanche, might you show me to a suitable room?”

The Marchioness smiled and rose. “Of course, dear,” she said, taking Belle’s arm and leading her out into the hall. They entered a smaller room some doors away, little more than a study, and Blanche closed the door behind them. “Now, you have questions?”

Belle felt relief flood her. “I hope I am not too direct?”

“Not in the least,” Blanche replied with a smile. “You are a new bride, and I would that I had been brave enough to ask. I will answer what I can, but I cannot promise I will be able to answer all. Each husband is different to the next, I am told.”

Belle sat down on one of the elegant wooden chairs and looked down at her hands. The wedding ring caught her eye once more and she twisted it around her finger. It was a plain gold band, nothing more, but somehow all the more significant for its simplicity.

“Does it hurt?” she finally asked in a small voice.

Blanche drew another chair closer to her. “Only a little, only at first,” she assured her, catching Belle’s hands between her own. “Rutherglen knows you are an innocent, my dear, and he would not wish you pain.”

Belle bit her lower lip, then looked up, feeling heat washing across her face once more. “You said, before, that there is pleasure in it? For us also?”

Blanche giggled, her cheeks flushing as much as Belle’s. “Oh, very much,” she said, her eyes dancing. “Perhaps not at first, for it is strange for the first few occasions, but once you become accustomed to it, you may find it pleasing.”

Belle ducked her head, wondering at how hot her cheeks felt. “How… how do I please my husband?” she asked in a whisper.

Blanche patted the back of her hand. “That is for each wife to learn alone, I fear,” she said. “I do not know Rutherglen’s foibles and tastes anymore than you might know my husband’s. If you wish to know him, you must discover it yourself.”

“He is layered with masks of indifference,” Belle murmured, almost to herself. “A mystery to be uncovered.”

“Quite so, dear,” Blanche said. She lifted a hand to stroke Belle’s cheek. “Do not be anything but yourself for him. Trust yourself to know him.”

Belle nodded, then rose, drawing a great breath. “I should return to him,” she said.

Blanche smiled. “I have no doubt you will find your way,” she said. “But first, we must to toilette and make pretence of freshening your features. It would not do to have our husbands think we are idly gossiping.”

Belle stifled a soft laugh. “No. We would do no such thing.”

It was some half hour before Belle met with her husband in the grand lobby. She was attired in one of Blanche’s warming cloaks, for the evening had turned chilly. Rutherglen looked her up and down, then reached over her shoulders to draw the hood up snug around her head. His fingers brushed the edge of her jaw, a brief flicker on contact, and she saw his tongue dart out between his lips to dampen them.

“Are you ready, my Lady?” he asked, his voice rougher than it had been.

Belle did not trust her voice and could only nod. She hesitated a moment, then offered him her small hand, palm down. Rutherglen looked at it for a moment, then slipped his own hand beneath it, her fingers curling over the edge of his.

He lifted his eyes to her face. “Your carriage, my Lady,” he murmured, leading her out into the courtyard, where his carriage waited for them. It was far grander than her father’s, and when her husband helped her ascend the steps, she gasped softly at the richness of the interior.

“I find it resembles a boudoir,” he said, the acerbic tone returning to his voice. “I fear it does little to ease the road, well-upholstered as it is.”

“It is better than a wooden seat, I am sure,” Belle said, looking at him with a small smile. “I will not complain about cushions compared to that.”

He rolled his eyes expressively as she settled herself on one of the cushioned seats, then chose to seat himself directly opposite her, lacing his fingers together across his middle. He stamped his foot twice, and the carriage started forward.

Despite his words, Belle found the carriage far more comfortable than any she had had the fortune to travel in before. It was much smoother, and the cushioned seats meant that any jolts were less bruising. She let her gaze drift out of the window at the countryside flying by, the sky painted in a thousand hues as the sun descended.

Her husband was silent, half-hidden by the shadows of the carriage’s wall. He barely moved, and she could feel the moment his gaze turned to her. She allowed him to look, knowing her face was still bruised and the scar on her brow still livid. If he wished to look at her, even damaged as she still was, then he could.

It was without thought at all that she brought her hands together, the fingers of her right toying with the wedding band once more. It was a strangely comforting action, simply turning, turning, turning.

“Is the ring too large?” His voice startled her after so long in silence.

“Your Grace?”

He made a sharp gesture with a hand, as if swatting away a troublesome insect. “I am no longer your Grace, woman,” he said irritably. “You call Bellamy by his name and Lady Eaglesham, and yet, your demmed husband, you insist on calling by his title.”

Belle bit her lower lip, then asked, “What would you have me call you, then?” she asked.

He blew out a noisy breath. “I have a name. Have you not considered that?”

She looked across the carriage at him, picking out his dark, gleaming eyes in the shadows, and nodded. “I had,” she said softly. “I did not know if you would wish me to call you so.”

He shifted in his seat. “It would suffice.”

It felt scandalous to call a Duke by his forename. Belle knew it was ridiculous for her hands to tremble, but tremble they did. She took a nervous breath and whispered, “Very well, James.”

She heard a hitch in his breathing, but he said nothing more, subsiding back into his seat.

The carriage rumbled on in silence for several minutes.

Finally, she asked, “What was your question?”


“You were asking,” she said. “Before I called you ‘your Grace’.”

He hummed for a moment. “Ah. Yes. You were fidgeting with your demmed band. If it’s too large, I shall have it adjusted.”

“Oh! No,” she said at once, holding up her hand. “It fits quite perfectly. It is only that I like to have something to occupy my hands.” She ventured a smile. “Now, I have something that I might occupy myself at all times.”

He made a brief sound, as if the answer was acceptable, and lapsed back into silence.

She drew the cloak more snugly around her, watching the countryside rolling by once more, lulled by the rocking of the carriage. She wished it were light enough to look at her husband, but evening was descending all to quickly. Some part of her wished she better knew what to say to a man, but he seemed content with silence for now, and so, she was silent.

Night was all but upon them when they reached Scotland Yard.

The Duke stepped down from the carriage first, then offered Belle his hand to help her descend, and did not relinquish it once she was safely upon the ground. It was almost as if he feared she might flee or vanish if he did not hold onto her.

The door of the townhouse was opened for them by the butler, who did not look in the least surprised that his Master had returned with a woman.

“May I present her Grace, the Duchess of Rutherglen, Henry,” her husband said.

“Your Grace,” the butler said with a low bow. “You are most welcome.” He divested her of her cloak with a swift efficiency, then seemed to simply melt away.

Belle felt a flutter of nervousness. She was not used to such manners directed at her. “Thank you,” she said cautiously. She clasped her husband’s fingers a little tighter, and knew he was looking to her instantly. She met his eyes imploringly. “Might we retire? I am somewhat weary.”

“Of course,” he said at once, running his thumb along the back of her hand. That small touch, barely more than a brush of skin upon skin made her tremble. He led her up the staircase, her gown rushing in soft whispers against the stairs and the banister, and into a grand room easily twice as large as the drawing room in her father’s townhouse.

There was a richly-hung four-poster bed, with sheets and warm blankets. A fire was burning low in the grate, warding off the chill of the evening, and candles were lit. It seemed they had been expected for some time, if she were to judge on how low the candles were burning.

Rutherglen released her hand to walk over to a table by the window. There was a crystal decanter upon it, and several glasses. “Bellamy will doubtless wax lyrical about the unfashionable furnishings,” he said, looking anywhere but her.

“I think it is lovely,” Belle said in all honesty, drinking in the drapes and tapestries and painted panels. It was only when her eyes drifted back to the bed that she felt the tremor of nervousness rush through her again.

There was a quiet clink of crystal upon glass.

“There is a matter, my Lady,” her husband said, his back to her, looking out of the window of the grand room. “Something we must speak of before this evening proceeds.”

Belle’s knees trembled beneath her, but she steeled her spine and clasped her hands together before her. “Very well,” she said quietly, doing her utmost to keep the tremor from her voice.

Her husband turned, approaching. He was holding two glasses, each containing a measure of an amber liquid. He offered her one of the glasses and she hesitated. “You may find it fortifies your nerve,” he said mildly, before draining his own in one short gulp.

Belle cradled the glass between her hands, sinking to sit when he gestured sharply to one of the broad-backed chairs by the fire. It was warm, with the flickering flames in the grate, yet her hands felt icy cold.

The Duke sat in the seat opposite, balancing his glass between a fingertip and the ornately-carved arm of the chair. By the softer light of the fire, the lines of his face faded somewhat, and he no longer exuded the air of quiet, simmering anger.

“You are my wife now,” he said after several moments of silence. “It is binding and legal in the eyes of the Church and the eyes of the law.”

She nodded. “I understand,” she said in a whisper.

He tapped the glass on the arm of the chair, frowning at it. “It is only considered… a whole marriage, if there are…” He paused, glancing at her and away again. Whether it was the fire or some other cause, there was a flush to his face that was not there before. “To put it crudely, there is the matter of consummation.”

Belle flushed and looked at the glass in her hand. So it would fortify nerves? She took a cautious sip, then started coughing, the spirit far stronger than anything she had ever tasted.

He was on his knee by her chair in an instant, saving the glass from her hand and setting it aside. He rubbed her back until the coughing passed, and she raised her eyes to his, blinking hard. “What was that?” she asked, a little hoarse.

“Whisky,” he said. He almost sounded sheepish. “I did not intend to poison you, little cat.”

He started to rise, his hands braced on the arms of her chair, but she put out her hand, touching his shoulder. “Please,” she said, her voice small and nervous. “What would you have me do?”

He searched her face, his own so close to hers that she knew she could count each and every line of age and experience scored about his eyes and around his lips.

“I wish for you to do nothing,” he said quietly, his far more honest tone. “This marriage will protect you, dearie, but I would not have you give up your virtue to me simply because I am able to protect you. If you find another, someone younger, more to your tastes, then an annulment may be arranged. None would query it, if the marriage were not consummated.”

She stared at him, her hand still resting on his shoulder.

He had given her the chance to refuse him when he offered his hand.

He had again offered her the chance to refuse him at the altar.

Even now, in the privacy of the marital bed chamber, he was offering her a way out, should she wish to accept it, without losing any of the protection that his name and mantle would bring.

He was offering her everything for no price at all.

She remembered Blanche’s words, that the Duke had sought her out, that he was taken with her, that his actions spoke far more than his words.

He was a man, with his wife in his bed chamber, and he was offering her naught but kindness and security. He demanded nothing. He forced nothing. He had tended her when she was hurt. He listened to her when she spoke.

She curled her fingers against his shoulder and her other hand moved to cover his on the arm of the chair. His dark eyes flicked to her hand, then returned to her face, and she saw him wet his lips. He swallowed softly.

“I am your wife, James,” she said, trembling but certainly. “Your wife, if you will have me.”

“Isabelle,” he breathed, and once more, a strange tingle of pleasure ran through her. He whispered her name as if it were the air he breathed. He closed the distance between them, his lips brushing hers, and she trembled. “My Isabelle.”

She met his eyes, his breath warming her lips, their faces so close to one another. Her hand rose from his shoulder, and trembling fingers brushed back loose strands of his hair from his eyes. “My James,” she whispered.

What fear she had dissipated at the wondering look in his eyes.

He kissed her then, again, and when he drew her into his arms, she went willingly.

Chapter Text

Aston was there.

James, her husband, her protector, drew away from her, and Aston was there. The candles were burning, the fire low, casting his handsome face in diabolical shades. He caught her by the arms, as he had, his grip bruisingly painful.

"You do not break a gentleman's agreement," he snarled, shaking her. “Even your fancy Duke knows that. You are my wife.”

She stumbled, tried to flee, her feet catching the abandoned whisky glass on the floor. It was knocked flying, and the scent of it coiled around her, a reminder of the taste of her husband's lips, the husband who was now gone, leaving her with Aston. He said she was safe here, but now, it was clear she was not.

Aston dragged her, still fighting, towards the bed. What ignorance she had of the bedchamber was now diminished, and she knew exactly what Aston intended when he spoke of breaking her. He pushed her down, as cruel as James had been kind. She called out, fought like the beast Aston said she was, and screamed.

"Isabelle!" James' voice woke her, hoarse and rough, and she was shaken. "Isabelle, wake up."

Her eyes flew open and she found herself in her husband's grasp, her fingers clutching at his shoulders through the silk of his nightshirt. He was all but kneeling over her, holding one of her wrists in one hand, his other arm around her shoulders.

Her breathing was ragged as if she had run a thousand miles, and she was trembling from head to toe.

Her husband released her wrist to press his hand to her cheek, his thumb brushing tears from her skin. "It was only a nightmare," he murmured, his voice still roughened from sleep. "You have naught to fear, little cat. Sheath your claws."

She drew her hand from his nightshirt to touch his face. His skin was unshaven, rasping against her fingertips, and so real, so very much not the man who had turned his back on her in the darkness of the dream. "Aston," she whispered through a throat thickened with fear.

Her husband's features tensed beneath her hand and he lifted his hand to cover her own. "I begin to see the appeal in Bellamy's idea of drumming the rogue onto the first ship to the colonies," he said darkly. He tilted his head to kiss her palm, then leaned down over her and gently kissed the wound that still marred her brow. "I would sooner cut off my own leg than let that brute harm you."

She closed her eyes. Her husband took this as wordless invitation to continue his gentle attentions, and brushed his lips over her brow, her closed eyelids, the very tip of her nose, until their lips met. It was a new, delightful game, this way his lips teased over hers, encouraging her to play against him as much as he encouraged her to duel him with words.

He delighted in drawing her out, garnering a response, and had done so every moment of the previous night.

The consummation had not been anything like she had expected.

She had been much embarrassed as he disrobed her, but he only spoke in gruff admiration and told her that she was lovely. It had warmed her, and both thrilled and terrified her the way her looked at her. As Blanche had warned, there was some pain, but her husband had been as careful as if she might have shattered in his hand. Only when the candles had guttered and the fire burnt out, did he remember their nightgowns. She had barely strength left to attire herself, and hardly noticed whether he chose to sleep beside her, as she closed her eyes.

It was fortunate, she realised, that he had. If the nightmare had been allowed to continue, she knew what horrors would have come.

She drew back only a little and opened her eyes. "Your pardon," she said softly.

He braced himself over her, propped on one arm, his other hand resting against the side of her throat, his fingers brushing in diverting patterns across the bare skin. "What nonsense are you speaking of now?" he asked, though not without gentleness.

"That he troubles me."

"Dem it, woman," he grumbled, one fingertip skirting the edge of the collar of her nightdress, tracing it lower. It almost distracted her from his words, colour warming her face. "The wretch thrashed you and left you bloodied only half a dozen days past. It is no small wonder you are still troubled."

Her hand had slipped to rest on his shoulder, and toyed with the collar of his nightgown. "It is foolishness," she murmured.

"Aye," he agreed and claimed a kiss, taking advantage of her diversion to draw her nightgown off her shoulder. "I would rather," he murmured, as his lips wandered off hers and ventured down her jaw, "that you did not think of him in my bed."

Belle shivered pleasantly. It was strange that such light, teasing contact could cause the blood to race in her veins. Even the cool strands of his hair brushing her cheeks and the rasp of stubble on her throat were an intimate caress. "Yes, your Grace," she whispered against his ear, stifling a giggle when he growled into her own ear.

"My name, wife," he breathed, his teeth and lips worrying her lobe in a strangely delightful way.

She curled her fingers into his hair. "James," she whispered.

His intentions became more focussed then, and all thoughts of Aston were driven from her mind.

It felt utterly scandalous that they did not emerge from the bedroom until close upon noon. A light meal had been brought to them in the room. She had blushed when he took great care to ensure that she took a firm hold of her tea cup, while grumbling about having too few pieces to spare if she insisted on throwing china around. He then huffed in indignation when she deigned to suggest he might eat a little more to put some meat on his bones.

It was a quiet, lazy and pleasant morning, and sometimes, she caught him smiling, though he immediately pretended otherwise.

She was still grateful that he chose to dress behind the dressing screen as she sipped at her lukewarm tea. When he emerged, he looked elegant, though he had no cravat and his shirt was loose at the collar. She supposed he would have his man tie his cravat shortly, when she was not still curled up in her nightgown. meantime, he was content to let her have her peace and finish her tea.

"Your maid will be up to dress you by and by," he said, arranging his lace-edged cuffs. "I shall come for you once she's done, and you will meet the staff."

"Yes, your Grace," she murmured over the lip of her tea cup.

He paused, his hand still lost in the lace of his cuff, then prowled closer to her and braced his hand on either arm of her chair. "Your Grace again, hmm?"

She looked over the cup at him, then took a delicate sip. "So it would seem, your Grace," she said, trying to stop her lips from twitching at his playful indignation.

He placed his hand over the cup and pressed it down, then lifted her chin with a single finger. "You are demmed fortunate you are charming," he said, a low growl in his voice. It was belied by the gentle kiss he placed on the tip of her nose. "Now, finish your tea, woman, or else you will have to dress yourself."

She smiled. "Yes, husband," she said.

His finger curled beneath her chin, his eyes searching hers, and for a moment, he looked as if he wished to devour her whole. Instead, though, he simply nodded, straightening up, and bowed briskly, before marching from the room.

Belle sank back in the chair, wondering at the intensity at which he looked at her. No man had ever looked at her so before, and certainly, no man had ever touched her so. She had no doubt that he desired her. That much, he had made apparent.

And yet, when he looked at her, it felt like so much more than simple desire. It felt, she mused, like she was water placed before a man dying of thirst. It made so little sense. She was naught but a Viscount's daughter. She had nothing that marked her as remarkable, save her quick and ready tongue. Her husband seemed to admire that, but that was no cause for looking at her so.

The door of the room opened softly, and she turned in her chair to greet her maid.


The tiny blonde girl stepped into the room, looking around with awe. "Lud, Miss, it ain't half posh!"

Belle laughed in delight, setting down her cup and rising. "Ellanor, how is it you are here?" she asked, rushing across the floor.

"Your Duke, Miss," Ellanor said happily. "He sent his man to come and fetch me when you were off being wed." She turned around, taking in the whole room. "Do you think this is what the King lives like, Miss?" She waved down at her dress. "And look, Miss! They gave me a new frock!"

Belle embraced her. "I'm glad they brought you," she admitted. "It was all so unfamiliar."

"His Grace said I'm to dress you, Miss," Ellanor said. "He says I'll be your lady's maid, if you'll have me." She frowned. "Miss, do I call you 'your Grace' and all now?"

Belle could not help but smiling. "I would be delighted to have you as my maid," she said. "I fear we will both need to learn a great deal, if I am to look like a Duchess." She petted Ellanor's cheek. "And if you wish, you may still call me Miss Belle."

Ellanor gave a happy cry and embraced her warmly. "Are you happy, Miss?" she asked, dancing from foot to foot. "You look happy, Miss. Like a right proper bride."

Belle's cheeks pinked once more. "I think I may be," she admitted. She looked towards the door that her husband had walked out so recently. “I think I should dress, Ellanor. The Duke wishes to introduce me to the staff.”

The girl nodded eagerly. “His Grace said you can choose anything in the true-sew,” she said, shaping the word carefully. “What’s a true-sew, Miss?”

Belle looked about the room, then spotted the chest. “There,” she said, frowning. “He said nothing to me of it.”

Together, they crossed the floor, opening the large chest. Ellanor gave a small squeal of wonder and Belle was hard-pressed not to echo it. The chest was full of gowns of the most exquisite and tasteful cuts.

“He said they might be a bit big,” Ellanor confided, but Belle could not have cared less. She drew the first out, a simple but perfectly shaped object in palest gold, and held it to her body, looking down at it.

“This one,” she said softly. “I will wear this one. It will match his waistcoat.”

Ellanor beamed in delight. “You will look like a Queen, Miss!”

“Not unlike one, I think,” Belle agreed.

With some care, they spread the dress on the bed, and Belle left Ellanor to find the suitable undergarments as she went behind the dressing screen to cleanse herself. The wash basin had been left empty, and the large jug of water was still warm and half-full.

There was only a little blood between her thighs, she noticed as she shed her nightgown, and a dull ache that was bearable. The memory of the cause made her flush, and she forced the thought aside, scrubbing herself quickly with a coarse sponge. It would not do to blush and giggle before her husband's household.

Ellanor helped her dress. The rapid promotion from housemaid to Duchess’s lady’s maid seemed to have had a good influence on the girl, and she fussed carefully, ensuring that every part of Belle’s gown was lying perfectly.

By the time her husband rapped briskly on the door a short while later, her hair was also drawn up. It was not wholly fashionable, but it suited her far better than the more extravagant court styles. A few curls coiled loosely over her shoulder, and she smiled to herself. It became her very well.

“Come,” she said, rising from the dresser.

Her husband strode in, but stopped short, one hand on each of the door handles, his lips parting in what she could only surmise was surprise. Indeed, he stood there, speechless, for a moment. His eyes moved from her face, down over the gown, then back, taking in every inch of her. It was as if he scorched her with his gaze, the very warmth rising in her cheeks like a fresh-stoked fire.

“It fits quite nicely,” he observed finally. “The colour is not as garish as I feared.”

Belle lowered her eyes and bit her lip to contain a smile. “Indeed, my Lord,” she murmured, folding her left have over her right, her ring catching the light. “Thank you for your forethought and consideration.”

“Tush,” he snorted, as if he had not provided her with more dresses than she had ever seen in near ten years. “You are my wife. You must have only the most suitable clothing.”

“All the same, my Lord,” she said, sinking into a perfect curtsey, the skirt fanning about her most beautifully. “Your wife is pleased.”

He tried to school his features, but she saw the quick, lightning smile. It was like watching for a fish in the river: a glimpse so fast that you might not even be sure it was there at all.

“I am satisfied then,” he said. He bowed, offering her his hand, and led her down the stairs to the parlour. She settled on the couch, smoothing her skirts. The staff filed in once she was seated, her husband standing behind her, his arms folded and his expression fixed and stern.

There were some dozen staff, but not nearly the full complement that the size of house would allow. Belle recognised the calm, passive expressions of the butler and housekeeper who had seen enough not to wonder at their Master’s latest behaviour, though she could also see the faint puzzlement in the eyes of the younger staff.

They were each presented, bobbing in a curtsey or bowing, when the Duke barked their names. Belle knew she would not remember them all, but she smiled at each of them and nodded. Only when they filed back out and she and her husband were alone once more did she feel at ease.

"There is no need for this nonsense, but I vow the demmed creatures are curious as cats," he said, striding over to the window and glancing out into the street. "We leave for my estates on the morrow, and they could not abide not seeing you before we depart."

Belle's heart gave a startled flutter. "Scotland?"

"No, Belgium," he retorted with a roll of the eyes that was becoming familiar. "Of course, Scotland. That is where my estates lie."

"I had no notion we would go so soon," she said, her heart drumming. "After all, the season..."

"Devil take the season," her husband said shortly. He turned to look at her, and the softness about his eyes belied the harshness of his tone. "You have no need of being poked and prodded at by the echelons of society, and I have no desire to set tongues wagging."

"Tongues will wag no matter if you are here or there," Belle murmured, gazing at him. Her fingers were toying with her ring once more. "But thank you again, husband, for your consideration."

He made a curt, dismissive gesture. "Town does not become me. I become quite unpleasant."

"I had no notion," she said mildly before she could stop herself, and was quite pleased when she saw the slight twitch of his lips that preceded a smile. "Will I find a gentleman in the country?"

"You might look," he replied, "though I would caution against hope."

She rose from the chair, adjusting her skirts. He watched her as she approached him, and she wondered if he was making certain that she was undamaged by her wedding night. "What is Scotland like?" she asked, bringing herself before him.

His arms were still folded over his chest and he leaned against the wall framing the window. "You might as well ask what England is like, my Lady," he murmured. "Not one foot of the country is like another. There are mountains in part, valleys in others. Lakes and castles. Farms and villages."

"High lands and low lands?" she said, remembering what little she could of the rough north.

He chuckled. "You might say so," he agreed.

"Where do your estates lie?" she asked, curious. "In the high lands?"

He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then unfolded his arms and took her by the hand. Without a word, he led her through the house, up onto the first level, and into an opulent study. There were maps on the walls, some of the British isles, others only of Scotland.

"This is where we are," he said, tapping the mass that was London, then trailed a long finger up the map. A fine dashed line marked the border, and once across it, he traced his finger a little further north, then west. Some short distance from the western coast, he tapped the map. "These are the Rutherglen lands."

Belle stared at the map. "Please," she said, "can you show me where Colchester is? I have visited there with my father."

He looked at her in amusement, and indicated a point that seemed barely a hand's span from London itself. "Is that the extent of your travels, my Lady?" She nodded, looking up the length of the map to the far off land of Scotland. He hummed to himself in thought. "I fear you will find the journey quite arduous."

"How will we travel?" she asked.

"We will take a ship north to Leith, which is upon the east coast," he replied, placing his fingertip against the map. There was a river, which opened out to the sea. "From there, we will journey to Edinburgh.” His finger followed the path they would take. “Then onwards by carriage to the west." He looked at her, and the concern in his eyes touched her. "It will take some days, but we shall stop at travel inns as often as necessary."

Belle felt that strange nervous sensation in her belly, Ellanor's mother's butterflies no doubt awakening once more. "It will be a great adventure," she heard herself say. She put out one hand and touched his arm. "Do not fear, my Lord. I am not so fragile as I may seem. To see new parts of the world will be very exciting."

He patted her hand where it rested on his forearm. "You shall be as bored as I within two days," he said with that crooked smile. "To travel is the most tiresome waste of energy in the world. Would that the demmed great minds of our land would come up with some means to propel us across the land at greater speed."

She looked up at him. "Will we travel alone?" she asked quietly.

"Aye, but for my man and your maid," he said, drawing his arm from beneath hers to capture her hands in his. "We will go under the guise of a Merchant and his wife. Better that we are undisturbed by idle gossip.”

She understood his concerns. After all, she had no doubt that her last appearance, on George Aston’s arm, had left an impression. Her hand trembled suddenly on his arm. The last she was seen in public, she was dressed in such a shameful way, and now, she had tied that appearance to the name of Rutherglen.

His finger curled under her chin, lifting her face. “Something is troubling you,” he said, his expression serious, with no trace of mockery. “Would you stay in town? Is the journey too great so soon?”

She shook her head and would have lowered it, were it not for the warm fingertip beneath her chin. “I only wonder at your choice, my Lord,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I fear you have taken to wife a woman who is the laughing stock of London society.”

“To the devil with London society,” he said, leaning close to her, his eyes holding hers. “If I wished for a wife who bleated and tittered and thought only of fashion and dancing, then I would have allowed Bellamy to seek me some little strumpet with hardly a couple of thoughts to rub together.” His lips were drawn back from his teeth in contempt at such a thing. “I have no need of London society, as much as it seems to believe I must.”

She brought up one hand to slip it into his. “Instead, you wished for a wife who was none of those things?” she said quietly.

He lifted their linked hands and pressed a kiss to the back of her palm. For a moment, she almost thought he might speak, explain why he had done such a socially absurd thing, but the moment was broken like a glass by a hammer when the front door crashed inwards.

“Mama, Father! I am home.”

The Duke stepped back from her instantly, turning to stalk towards the door, his face black as thunder. “Damn you, boy,” he snarled, as Bellamy all but tumbled into the room. “You were to remain in Lady Eaglesham’s care.”

Bellamy leaned closer to his father and poked him in the chest. “Tush,” he said, beaming from ear to ear. “I have come to see that you didn’t break my new mama! I quite like her in one piece, you see.”

Belle put her hand to her lips to hide a smile. “I am quite well, Master Bay.”

Bellamy threw up his arms rapturously. “La! It seems my concern was all in vain! I needn’t have climbed out of the window and stolen a horse after all.”

His father folded his arms. “You stole a horse? From Lord Eaglesham? While drunk?”

“Mm.” Bellamy nodded, putting out one arm to brace himself against the wall. “I called him Reginald Billingsworth Poole.” He glanced a winning smile at Belle, who could barely keep herself from laughing. “We had a lovely ride, Reginald and I, but I do believe that while we were mounting the steps, he took a sh…”

“Bellamy!” The Duke’s angry bark brought his son up short.

“Father, you do not need to grouse so,” he said huffily. “I had thought you might be in a better mood.”

“And I thought you had a more civil tongue before a lady.”

Belle moved forward, laying her hand on her husband’s arm. “I do not mind, truly,” she said with a small smile at Bellamy, who beamed at her. “He only means it in good spirits, I have no doubt.”

“Hmm.” The Duke continued to glare at his son. “Henry!” The butler appeared moments later, bowing slightly. “Take my wineskin of a son, toss him in the horse trough, and once he is sober, have him clean the steps to teach him the importance of sobriety.”

“Father!” Bellamy exclaimed indignantly. “How dare you!”

“You let a stolen horse shit on my step,” Rutherglen said succinctly. “I think I am quite justified.”

“But I am wearing silk!” Bellamy wailed, as Henry steered him through the door.

“Hold,” James said. He looked down at Belle, who was still hiding a smile behind her hand, though her ears burned at the profanities her husband had used. “Should I be merciful to my son, wife? Should his misdeeds go unpunished?”

Bellamy looked pleadingly at her.

Belle looked back at him, then at his father, who raised an eyebrow in challenge.

“His silks should at least be spared,” she suggested, and saw that flickering smirk cross her husband’s lips.

“You heard the Duchess, Henry,” he said, without raising his eyes from hers. “Strip him, then toss him in the horse trough.”

“Traitors! Cruel traitors!” Bellamy wailed as he was dragged away.

Belle bit her lip to contain the smile that was struggling to escape. “A suitable punishment for drunkeness, my Lord?” she said.

“A suitable test for a Duchess,” he murmured, lifting her hand and kissing it. “I pray you are always as you are now.”

Belle’s throat felt suddenly dry. “And how is that, my Lord?”

She barely heard the whisper as it brushed across her knuckles: “Perfection.”

Chapter Text

Belle's first day as a wife passed quickly.

Her husband sat with her in his study, showing her the maps of his estates, and the lands that were now hers in part. He explained the business that kept him so busy in both Scotland and in London. He owned a shipyard on the Clyde, responsible for the building of new vessels, and worked in trade with many of those who bought his ships.

It had proved a lucrative matter, with the net of the British lands flung far and wide across the world.

She looked with fascination at schematics for some of the ships that were his. She had only once been to the docks at Dover, and the ships had been clustered there in many-masted swarms. They had all seemed so large, yet the designs showed that even the largest of them depended on the smallest parts.

For his part, her husband seemed pleased by her interest, answering any questions she might have about them easily. He knew what he was about, of that she had no doubt. It struck her as strange that he knew a trade so well, when he also had lands that proved profitable also.

"Will we take one of your ships?" she asked, as he rolled the maps and schematics away.

He glanced at her. "Not on this occasion," he replied. "It would be far to conspicuous, and I would that you are undisturbed for the journey."

She nodded with a small smile. His quiet gestures spoke of a consideration that she had not anticipated, when confronted with his gruff, direct manner. The pride with which he presented the afternoon news sheet to her, showing the announcement of their marriage, told her he was not ashamed of her in the least. He did not wish her to be stared at or discomfited, and had made it quite clear that while he was pleased to have her to wife, he did not wish her to be distressed by petty gossips and whispers that would no doubt occur.

They took tea together while he read the news sheets and any correspondence, and in the afternoon, she excused herself to write a letter to her father. It took some time, as her hands shook with the very thought of not seeing him for some months.

Once she concluded the letter, blotting it and letting it dry, she sat quietly at her husband's desk, overlooking the street outside. It was a blustery day, sunny but cool, and she watched people rush hither and thither. Her fingers twisted her ring again.

She did not notice her husband approaching, until his fingertips brushed across the nape of her bare neck, his touch light. "You are done?" he asked quietly.

She looked down at the letter and nodded. "Would you add anything, my Lord?" she murmured.

He gazed down at the letter, one hand braced on the edge of the desk as he read. "I think it will suffice," he said. He tilted his head to look at her. "Belle?"

Her name on his lips was pleasing enough, but that most private of names made her shiver. "Yes, my Lord."

The hand at her nape moved slightly, the fingers brushing softly. "Would you prefer to be called so?" he murmured, watching her.

She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to ignore the thrum of the blood in her veins. His touch was so soft, barely contact, yet was making her light-headed. "If you believe it becomes me," she whispered, her voice quivering.

"Aye, it does at that," he murmured, his palm spreading against the side of her throat. His thumb grazed up the pale skin and beneath her chin, to gently tilt her head up. "Will you not look at me, wife?"

It took a good deal of concentration to open her eyes, and his face was so close to hers that her heart leapt. "My Lord?" she whispered, her mouth feeling everso dry.

"Do you wish for me to call you Belle?" he asked. "Would it please you?"

Belle licked her lower lip. "Yes, my Lord," she whispered.

He leaned that little bit closer and kissed her lips softly. "Very well, ma belle dame," he murmured, "Je vais vous appeler Belle."

Belle's eyes widened. "You speak French?"

His eyes glinted with amusement. "You observe well, my Lady," he murmured, his thumb caressing beneath her jaw. "I studied there for some time in my youth." There was some pleasant heat in his eyes as he murmured, "I have always had a passion for the country, you might say."

"Oh," Belle breathed weakly. So often, her mother's origins were a source of scorn and derision.

"Consider it an extension of the Auld Alliance," he murmured. He was perched on the edge of the desk, now, gazing down at her, his fingers still lazily caressing her throat. "An alliance between the French and the Scots."

"I am half-English, m'Lord," she managed to say, only a little breathless.

"And part-cat also," he said, his mouth curling at one side. "I see that you like to be petted. Shall I fetch you a dish of cream?"

She wrinkled her nose at him delicately, drawing back from his hand. "You tease, my Lord," she murmured.

He straightened up from the desk. "On occasion," he agreed. He offered her his hand. "Will you join me, dearie? I believe we will be tormenting Bellamy over dinner."

"Tormenting?" she asked, laying her hand lightly in his and allowing him to draw her up.

The devil's grin crossed his lips again. "The boy knows how drink goes to his head," her husband replied. "He knows better than to present himself in this house when he is in his cups, for he knows I have no care if his head is delicate."

"Poor Bay," Belle said, trying to contain a smile. "Pitched in a horse-trough already. Have you no mercy?"

"Not a whit," her husband replied with malevolent good cheer. "The impudent brat never ceases his complaints of the house, of my parsimonious manner, of most anything that takes his fancy. I take the chance to take something akin to vengeance when he deserves it most."

Indeed, when they entered the dining room, Bellamy was sitting at the table, looking utterly wretched. He was dressed in his usual fine clothing, but his cravat was a tangled mess and he was leaning his cheek heavily on one hand, his elbow propped on the arm of the chair. There was a fine shadow on his chin, suggesting he had not yet been shaved, and his eyes were half-closed.

"Bellamy!" His father roared.

Bellamy leapt to his feet before his eyes even opened, his chair falling over with a crash.

Belle covered her lips, trying her utmost to keep from giggling as the Marquis of Cathkin turned a reproachful, bleary-eyed look on his father.

"That was demmed unkind," he complained, turning and cautiously leaning down to retrieve his fallen chair. "I might have done myself an injury."

"I had no notion that my hand poured the wine down your throat to put you in such a state," Rutherglen snorted, leading Belle towards the table. He released her hand to draw a chair out for her, inclining his head in a slight bow as she sat. "Any injury you might have done, it is all your own demmed fault."

Bellamy huffed, sitting back down on his chair. He offered Belle a wan smile. "I apologise, mama," he said solemnly. "I did not warn you of the awful brute you would be married to."

Belle looked up at her husband, who was scowling. "He is not so awful," she said, earning one of the Duke's rare smiles. He took his seat adjacent to hers at the head of the table, placing her on his right hand, and his son on his left.

"Ha," Bellamy said gloomily. "He torments me, mama. You must defend me."

"Pray do not call her mama," her husband said. "She is far too young to be burdened with you as a son."

"Then you should not have wed her, for mama she shall be," Bellamy said, his nose in the air. "And she shall teach me all the manners you have failed to provide."

Belle looked at her husband in amusement. "Your son is very insolent," she observed.

"Very much so," he lamented.

"Much like his father?" she suggested.

His brown eyes gleamed, and she knew he was pleased with the comparison. She supposed they looked so unlike, that to be alike in nature was a matter of pride for both of them.

"La, I am not a jot like him," Bellamy complained, but he was smiling. "I do not dress in any way that is less than fashionable, whereas father will tromp about in a suit that is demmed near as old as I am!"

"Do you find fashion so important, Master Bay?" Belle asked shyly.

Bellamy grinned at her. "I'faith, mama," he said, "I believe that the most important thing in the world is that I look well enough to make all the ladies swoon when I step into a room. Fashion is a wondrous device to that effect."

"As I recall," the Duke said dryly, as wine was poured for them by a servant, "my lady did not swoon in your presence."

Bellamy looked mournfully at her. "No, tis true," he said, his hand pressed to his heart. "But it seems that our lady has a taste for a different vintage." Despite his delicate disposition, he raised a glass, his smile returning, warm and genuine. "Welcome to our family, Milady Goldacre. As you and I were never to be suited, I am glad that you will have my father's toes to tread upon."

Belle felt her cheeks pink. "Thank you," she murmured, lowering her eyes for a moment, then looking back up at him. "Though if you feel impelled to have your toes stepped upon again, your mama will be glad to teach you."

Her husband chuckled quietly. "I may yet attend a ball," he said wryly, "for it will be worth the mirth to see my son and my wife treading upon one another’s toes."

"Your wife," Bellamy said virtuously, "is a fine dancer."

Belle found her husband's eyes on her. "Is she, indeed?" he murmured. "That is well. One of us should be able to dance."

"You do not dance?" she asked.

Bellamy laughed aloud, then groaned and put his hand to his head. "Father does not see the necessity of dancing for aught but to win a lady's hand," he said. "As I recall, he once said that 'now I have an heir, what need have I to dance'?"

Belle glanced at her husband, who had become quiet. He did not look angry at his son's words, but his expression was sterner than usual. He studied his wine-glass, choosing not to look to her, and raised a hand to indicate to Henry that the meal should be served.

The food was simple, but delicious.

While they ate, it fell to her and Bellamy to converse. The Duke seemed to have fallen into a dark mood, adding little to the conversation. As she had observed at breaking of fast, he did not eat a great deal, which explained his slight frame, and for much of the dinner, he gazed broodingly into middle distance.

If such behaviour was unusual, Bellamy gave no indication of it, talking easily of society and the latest fashions.

Long after the meal was done, they still sat as evening fell, left only with wine and Lord Cathkin's wit. He spoke well of Lady Eaglesham, and lamented that he would not be able to display his new mama to all the world.

"And now," he said, "he drags you to the north. You will need a new wardrobe, m'dear, for the place is beastly cold."

"He has already provided much," Belle demurred, colour warming her cheeks.

"I note your dress," Bellamy agreed. "Has he told you how lovely you look?"

Belle glanced at her husband, who was toying absently with his half-empty glass. She recalled the look on his face when he saw her first, and smiled. "Yes," she said. Without even speaking a word, he had said far more eloquently how well she looked.

Now, though, lost in thought, there was a quiet sadness about him she had not noticed before.

She put out her hand, covering his, and drawing him back from whatever it was that cast a melancholy pall over his features. His eyes drifted to their hands, then to her face.

"I am weary, husband," she murmured softly. "Might we to bed?"

His lips turned in that slight, brief flick of a smile. "Of course, dearie," he said. "We will begin early in the morrow. Early to bed is wise." He looked at his son. "I trust you will not bring the house crumbling about our ears in my absence, my boy."

Bellamy widened his eyes in feigned shock. "Father, you offend me."

"I know you," his father corrected. "And no, you may not have your allowance extended to redecorate."

"You allow me no joy," Bellamy grumbled, though he rose as his father did. He circled the table and bent to modestly kiss Belle's cheek. "I wish you happiness, mama, and do not let his grumbling tire you. If you feel the need to stifle him, a pillow upon his face would suffice."

"Bellamy," his father growled. "Do not jest so."

The younger man rolled his eyes expressively, and turned to his father. "I will miss you too, old man."

Rutherglen harrumphed, but clasped his son's shoulder. Something unsaid passed between father and son, the fondness between them near tangible. The Duke then offered his wife his hand, assisting her to her feet, and taking her hand on his arm.

It was strange, the difference a day made.

The ascent towards the bedchamber brought no fear or trepidation. Instead, she only wondered if - in the privacy of their shared bed - he might speak of what troubled him. In truth, she did not believe he would, but at least she might feel that she could ask.

She was unsurprised to find that Ellanor was there once more, waiting attentively. There was a fire in the grate, and her husband released her arm to go and throw himself down into one of the high-backed chairs, waving her away.

Ellanor ushered her behind the dressing screen, looking nervous. "Is he in a temper, Miss?" she asked in a whisper, as she set to work unlacing Belle's gown.

"Never you mind," Belle chastised gently. She slipped her shoes from her feet beneath the skirts, the floor cool beneath them. She breathed more easily as the dress was loosed, and stepped out of it gratefully as Ellanor drew it down. The maid helped her out of her rich new underwear and into her simple silk nightgown and robe, then reached for her hair.

Belle hesitated, then said softly, "Leave it be. I can tend it."

Ellanor eyed her then giggled. "You can, Miss?" she whispered. "Or someone else can?"

Belle tried to keep her expression stern, but it didn't quite work. "Off with you," she whispered, shooing the girl towards the door. she waited until Ellanor slipped out before emerging from behind the dressing screen.

A glance to her husband told her that he was gazing at the fire, lost in thought once more, so she crept across the floor to the crystal decanter and poured him a measure of the spirit. By the time she turned to approach him, he had tilted his head to watch her progress, his features shadowed by strands of his hair, which fell loose around his shoulders.

The uncarpetted parts of the floor were cool beneath her feet, and she shivered as she neared. Her husband frowned, holding out his hand to her.

"Are you chilled?"

"Only my feet," she demurred, though she took his hand, allowing him to draw her closer. It was much preferred to sitting far from him, when he was in such a morose mood.

He looked up at her, standing over him. He seemed torn as to what to do with her, and she wondered if he might draw her to sit with him upon the chair. The very thought made her cheeks flush, and it seemed the sentiment was shared, for he drew his footstool from beneath his seat and set it between his feet.

"Rest yourself there, m'dear," he murmured. "You may warm yourself better before the fire."

"Thank you," she said softly. She offered him the glass, and his fingers brushed hers as he took it. "Is it too little or too much?"

He looked at the measure. "Quite enough," he murmured, uncurling his other hand in invitation.

Her cheeks felt absurdly warm as she gathered her nightdress in her hand and sank to sit between his splayed knees. He was quite right, she realised, setting her feet out before her. The warmth of the fire washed over her pleasantly, and she gave a soft sigh, leaning back.

Only then did she feel the warm press of his limbs against her upper arms and fresh heat flooded her at the thought of being so very close. He shifted his legs down invitingly, and she lifted one arm to rest atop his thigh, laying her cheek against her arm as she watched the flames.

For a long while, they were silent, companionably so, then she smiled quietly when she felt his empty hand pluck at her hair, drawing a pin free.

"Demmed maid forgot to undo your hair," he murmured.

"So she did," she replied, tilting her head just enough to allow him better access.

He drew one pin after another free, letting dark coils of hair spill loose over her shoulders. It was only when she heard the rattle that she realised the liberated pins were being dropped into the empty glass. She shivered as he drew his fingers through the loosened strands, even as his other hand plucked the last of the pins free.

“There,” he murmured, coming his fingers through the soft curls, letting them spill around her shoulders. “Much better.” His tone was softer, whether through the drink or through the diversion of tangling his fingers into her hair.

Belle nibbled her lower lip, then twisted about on the footstool to look up at him. He brushed her hair back over her shoulder gently, the back of his fingers trailing against her jaw and throat as he did so.

His brow furrowed. “Something is troubling you, dearie?” he asked, still twisting a curl of her hair between his fingers.

“A little,” she admitted, blushing to realise her hand was resting on his thigh. She dared not move it, for fear of seeming cowardly. “You spoke little at dinner.” She looked down then back at him. “Did we say something that distressed you?”

She could see the surprise cross his face. “Distress me?” he said, shaking his head at once. He smoothed the fabric of her robe on her shoulder, and she noticed he was not meeting her eyes. “Not at all, my dear.”

Her heart was drumming, but she knelt up on the footstool, her hand bracing her against his thigh, and lifted her other hand to touch his cheek. His eyes flicked up to her face, half-hidden in shadow, and she stroked his cheek as he had hers only hours earlier.

“You need not tell me,” she said softly, “but if you should ever wish to do so, do not doubt that I will listen.” She felt his cheek twitch beneath her palm, a half-smile, but not quite so convincing. She leaned a little closer, drawing her hand up his leg to rest at his waist. “I am in earnest,” she whispered. “My husband.”

His lips claimed hers suddenly, hotly, and his hand sank deep into her hair, holding her close.

Only when she was breathless and trembling did he draw back.

“You could draw secrets from the saints, ma Belle,” he whispered close to her lips, every whispered word making her trembling, his fingers curling against the cusp of her ear. “But this is not a night for secrets.” He kissed her again, more softly. “I fear we must rest. The journey will be wearying.”

Her tongue darted out to touch on dry lips that felt swollen, soft and warm. “Will you join me?” she asked in a whisper.

“Join you?”

She nodded. “Please…” she whispered, then fell silent, unable to voice the plea.

“Lest nightmares trouble you?” he offered quietly.

She nodded once more, then shyly confessed, “I do not want to be alone.”

The smile that crossed his lips was fleeting and bittersweet. “Then you shall not be,” he said. He moved his hands, catching her elbows gently and drawing her to her feet. “Get you to bed. I shall join you shortly.”

She caught one of his hands and squeezed his fingers. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He covered her hand with his own and patted it gently, gazing at their linked fingers. “It’s no matter,” he said quietly, then released her to her bed.

She curled between the cool sheets and for some time, she believed he might not join her, but by and by, the candles were snuffed and the fire damped. Finally, she felt the sheets stirring, and when he slipped into the bed beside her, she turned at once to seek his warmth.

His arm slipped about her shoulders as she curled against him. His fingers buried themselves once more in her hair, and she sighed softly, feeling safe.

Chapter Text

The journey from townhouse to the docks was made early in the morning, just as the sun was breaking through the heavy fog.

The household was roused enough to provide a light repast, before Belle found herself bundled into the coach with her husband, Ellanor and her husband's man. She was still half-asleep, and only distantly noticed that her husband's arm was about her shoulders to keep her from slipping off the cushioned seats.

He led her onto the ship that would bear them north, and by the dim morning light, she looked around. It was a two-masted vessel, and it rolled gently on the incoming tide.

"This way," her husband said, guiding her across the bustling deck. "We have been given a cabin below, and they prefer us not to walk abroad while they make ready to depart."

"Will we be able to come on deck, once we are out of dock?" she asked, as he helped her down the swaying stairs.

"It is usually permitted, if the sea is not to turbulent," he said, leading her into a small cabin. It was tiny, modest, and there was a single narrow bunk. "That will be yours. I will sleep either in a chair or a hammock."

Belle looked about the room. It felt like an adventure, to be on a ship, to stay aboard overnight. The journey was not expected to take more than a day, but all the same, it was thrilling.

Her excitement waned within hours of breaking port. Though the weather was grey and overcast, it should have been an easy journey. It seemed, however, that the sea did not intend to oblige. Within a matter of two hours, she retreated to the bunk, green and queasy. Any food she had eaten returned on her with vigour. She was not alone in her suffering. Ellanor was abovedeck, according to her husband, leaning over the rail.

A pail was provided for Belle, and she groaned faintly as her stomach roiled and rebelled against the strange motion of the ship. The room was reeking in no time, and that did naught to aid matters.

Her husband sat at her side throughout, smoothing her flushed cheeks with a damp cloth, holding back her hair as she folded over the bucket, even when her stomach was emptied to the point of pain.

"You must think me wretched," she mumbled between bouts of sickness.

"Lud, no," he said, setting the pail down on the floor once more. "I have seen grown men crying like children when the sickness came on them." He pressed the cool, damp cloth to her brow and she closed her eyes, taking the little relief it offered. "Would you prefer to take the carriage? We can be put ashore, if it would make the journey easier for you?"

She forced her eyes open. "It would take a good deal longer, would it not?"

He grimaced and nodded. "Alas, tis so," he said. "The blasted country is too demmed big. To travel by ship cuts a good number of days from the journey."

"Then aboard we shall stay," Belle murmured. "I would not have you cooped up in a carriage for days on end." Her lips twitched weakly. "You would become quite intolerable."

"Your tolerance, m'dear, must have a wondrous high threshold," he said, cooling her brow again.

She closed her eyes again. "Perhaps," she murmured, "I enjoy being waited upon by you."

He was silent for a time, then she felt him lean over her and kiss her sweat-sheened brow. "You, wife, are a remarkable creature."

"And you, for sitting with a wife who has been sick upon your shoes," she murmured, enjoying the cooling press of the cloth to her cheek, then to her throat.

He snorted in amusement. "You are not the first woman to do so," he murmured. There was a quietness in his tone, and she kept her eyes closed and kept her silence to let him speak should he so wish. "Bellamy's mother was sick as a dog when she was first with child."

It was the first he had ever mentioned his first wife. Bellamy never spoke of her, not even in reference to her as mother.

Belle tilted her face towards him, baring her throat a little more, and he took the invitation to cool the pale skin. "Your poor shoes," she murmured. "They suffer greatly for your care."

She cracked her eyes open, when his hand stilled, and found him gazing at her. His expression was so grave for a moment that she barely recognised him. Her stomach rebelled abruptly, and she folded upon her side. He caught the pail just in time and held back her hair as she was sick once more.

She wished she could speak to him, but for the rest of the journey, nausea vied with dizziness, and it was all she could do to lie still and quiet in the small bunk. He barely left her side. Even though she slept fitfully as night fell, each time she woke, she found him sitting by lantern light, watching over her.

By the time morning came, he looked as haggard and worn and she felt. His jaw was darkened and unshaven, and his eyes ringed with shadow, and he barked angrily at any who approached them. All the same, he helped her to her feet with a gentleness and concern that warmed her.

"You are feeling better?" he asked quietly, as he helped her towards the door.

"I do not imagine I could feel much worse," she admitted. Her stomach ached with emptiness, but at least - she mused - there was nothing else that could be wrung from her.

The scent of fresh air washed down through the hatch above them and she felt almost giddy with relief. The cabin's air had been thick with the stench of sickness, and even though the ship still rolled beneath them, as she emerged into the day, the clear air was as refreshing as a pitcher of ice water.

"Oh!" she breathed, looking about her.

They were entering a wide estuary, and she could see the land to the north clearly. There were mountains visible in the distance, hazy with morning mist, and the sky was bright even though there was no sign of the whereabouts of the sun through the pale layer of cloud overhead.

Her husband guided her to the rail of the ship, his arm about her waist to support her. It was most unseemly by the standards in town to be seen so, but she leaned into him regardless, trusting him to hold her up when her legs trembled.

The rise and fall of the ship cast up fine spray and she closed her eyes, smiling as it dashed across her warm cheeks.

"This suits you better," James murmured, his free hand covering hers on the rail. "Welcome to Scotland, my Lady."

She opened her eyes to look at him. "Thank you," she said quietly, significantly.

He made a gruff sound of dismissal, patting her hand once more. "It would be demmed awkward to let one's wife expire from sea-sickness," he said. "The rumours surrounding me are bad enough, but to lose a wife within three days of wedlock? I fear I would be hunted down and burnt at the stake by polite society."

She stifled a quiet laugh. "You are not so terrible as you would have them believe," she murmured. "And as you said, a fig for polite society."

He looked at her with such pleasure at her words that she felt her colour rise. He leaned close and kissed her brow gently. "I fear I may be corrupting you, dearie," he murmured. "Such shocking notions from such an innocent mouth."

"Bay would be horrified," she admitted.

He snorted gruffly. "The demmed boy thinks far too much of his polite society," he said. "A pity you can't thrash common sense into a child." He lifted his hand to tilt her chin up. "You will not miss being displayed at the season?"

Belle made a face unbecoming a lady. "It did not suit me, I fear," she admitted. "I only went with the intention of seeking a match."

"And instead," he said with a quirk of his lips, "my demmed son made you quite cross."

She lowered her eyes, remembering the reason she had been so annoyed with Bellamy.

In part, she wished she had listened to him that night. It would have made matters far less troublesome in the days that followed. "He did," she agreed, "but I fear my anger was quite unfounded." She glanced up at him. "He warned me against Aston. I ought to have listened."

Her husband gazed at her, and tapped his thumb against her chin. "Once in a while, my son proves he is quite intelligent," he mused. "And had he not angered you so, then you might never have come to tea, and my favourite tea set might be intact."

She gave him her sternest look. "I maintain, my Lord, that your huffing about is the reason your cup was broken."

He chuckled. "And yet, you have not yet broken more, and I huff about most each and every moment. No, my dear. You broke the cup. It was none of my doing."

Belle narrowed her eyes a fraction. "Hmm."

His arm pressed closer about her waist and he nodded ahead. "Look to the shore, m'dear. The port ahead is our destination."

Belle had no notion what to expect of Scotland, but the port of Leith was every bit as busy and bustling as the docks on the Thames. Many ships were docked there, and buildings spread south into the verdant landscape. There was even a building that might have once been a grand fort, though it was in a state of disrepair.

"Cromwell harassed us," her husband said by way of explanation. "There is hardly a castle along this coast that the demmed man did not pepper with cannonfire." He grinned suddenly, wickedly. "And yet, the Stuarts still crept back and took the crown back." He gave her an almost playful squeeze. "England ruled by the Scots, dearie. And they hardly even remember it anymore."

She nudged him in amused reproach, leaning against him. "The House of Hanover," she reminded him. "Hardly a Scotch name."

“Descended from our very Kings,” he said with that knowing grin.

“Stubborn man,” she said, then smothered a yawn with a look of surprise.

He looked down at her, his expression much softened compared to London. "We shall be on shore soon," he said, "and you shall see the best that Edinburgh can offer you in a hot bath and a soft bed." He dropped another kiss on her brow. "I'faith, never let it be said that I do not know how to treat a cup-cracking clawed cat well."

She rested her head against his shoulder. "When I have wit, m'Lord," she murmured, "I might yet argue."

"I shall anticipate it," he murmured, his hand resting against her hip.

As soon as they stepped ashore, he guided her through the crowds to a carriage that was awaiting them. It was such noise and bustle that she felt quite small in the throng. A horse and rider went racing by in one direction, while a cart rumbled along in another. Men shouted and hallooed to one another, and the quiet darkness of the inside of the carriage came as respite from the sudden rush of noise.

Ellanor and his man joined them. Ellanor looked as wan as Belle felt, but her eyes were bright with excitement at this new place. While Belle laid her head wearily on her husband's shoulder, Ellanor peeked out of the window as the carriage rumbled out of the busy docks.

"You seem better, girl," the Duke said.

Ellanor flushed and nodded. "Yes, your Grace," she said. "Mr McEwan gave me a dose of his tonic and it made it all much easier."

Belle slanted a glance at McEwan, who was looking stoically ahead.

If his tonic was as medicinal as the contents of her husband's crystal decanter, the girl would doubtless have been happily distracted.

She closer her eyes, her head resting heavily on her husband’s shoulder. She must have slept for the short journey, for when her husband gently shook her to wakefulness, Ellanor and McEwan were both already absent.

“You can rest within,” her husband promised, helping her to her feet. “There will be food and a bath drawn, and you shall have all day to rest.”

He stepped down from the carriage, holding both her hands in hers. She was only relieved that she did not stumble as she descended to be greeted by two rows of servants, all of whom were trying to pretend that they were not looking to her.

James offered her his arm, and she took it at once, lowering her eyes. Her cheeks felt warm again, and she darted a look to him. “Our Edinburgh household,” he murmured. “It is only small, but they will tend our needs while we are in the city.”

“Small,” she echoed, remembering her father’s staff of four in London.

He led her into the entrance of a grand and very new house. It was beautifully bright with high windows and a glass dome high above them, casting light down over three flights of open staircases that circled the walls to each of the upper levels. Belle’s lips parted in wonder as she looked up.

“Mama! Father!” Her mouth opened that little bit wider, as Bellamy’s head poked over the rail on the second level. His hair was dishevelled, as if he had not had time to groom himself, and he waved a hand extravagantly. “I wondered when you might arrive!”

“Bellamy?” Her husband sounded as stunned as she felt. “How in damnation are you here?”

The younger man laughed, the sound echoing off the walls. “You paid too little attention to the rest of the passengers on your boat, father,” he said, as he cheerfully bounded down the stairs. He all but gathered Belle in a hug and kissed her warmly on both cheeks. “Welcome to our homeland, mama.”

His father grabbed him by the cravat. “Bellamy,” he snarled. “Damn you, what the devil are you about?”

His son caught him by the shoulders, and the devil’s smile that was his father’s crossed his features. “Come now, father,” he said. “Surely, you do not wish to introduce Belle to Grandmama without my presence to soften the blow?”

Father and son stared at one another for so long that Belle felt that time was standing still.

She reached out, her head wretchedly lightly. “James?” she said quietly.

He was at her side so swiftly, he might never have moved from it, and he caught her about the waist. “We will talk shortly, Bellamy,” he said, a dark undertone in his voice. “For now, Isabelle must rest.”

Bellamy’s expression was uncommonly serious. He nodded. “I shall be in the drawing room, when you are done,” he murmured.

To Belle’s tired surprise, her husband bent and scooped her up in his arms, as if she were as light as air. Her arms went about him automatically, and he carried her up the staircases to a beautifully furnished bedchamber on the second level. Daylight streamed in through the windows, and he set her gently on the edge of the grand bed.

“Are you still unwell?” he asked.

“Only a little light-headed,” she demurred with a small smile. “I thought I was dreaming when Bay showed his face.”

“More like a nightmare,” her husband grumbled. “The demmed boy should have stayed in London.”

She touched his shoulder. “I have no doubt he means well,” she said, then lifted her hand to his unshaven cheek. “Will you not rest with me? You must have slept even less than I.”

He turned his head to kiss her palm, her fingers curling gently against his cheek. “You will rest better without me puffing beside you, I wager,” he murmured. “Your maid will take you to the bath and there will be food for you momentarily.”

“And you shall brook no refusal?” she guessed.

“I have an unrepentant son to chastise,” he said with a sigh that was far too weary.

Belle brushed her fingers along his cheek again. “Is your mother so terrible?”

For a moment, some strange emotion flickered in his eyes. “We should not talk of such matters when you are so tired,” he demurred, rising. “Eat, bathe, rest. Once you are refreshed, we may talk at length.”

She knew she should protest, ask why he avoided the matter, but he was right. Her head ached with heaviness and if she did not sleep and eat soon, she knew she would end in a heap upon the floor.

He bent over her to kiss the top of her head, then left her to Ellanor’s attentions.

Quite how the girl managed to get her bathed, fed and into a nightgown, she did not know, but all at once, she was laid among the softest of pillows, and the drapes were drawn around the bed, steeping her in quiet darkness.

When she woke, it was much later in the day. She pushed the drapes open, squinting against the brightness of daylight, and was unsurprised to find Ellanor curled on the couch beneath the window, snoring quietly.

Belle slipped from the bed, drawing on her robe and pulling it close around her. Ellanor did not even stir as Belle crept across the room and opened the door. The halls were quiet and still, not a servant in sight, so she tip-toed out into the house.

Now that she was awake, she could appreciate the beauty of the building. It must have been built within the past few years, for everything about it spoke of the height of fashion and luxury. Paintings adorned the walls, some landscapes, some portraits, and rich carpets lined the staircases from top to bottom.

On light feet, she made her way down the stairs.

Even from the first level, she could hear her husband’s voice, raised and ragged, and bit her lip in concern. His shock at seeing his son had been obvious, but she had not believed that he was truly angry.

She continued down the stairs, one hand trailing lightly on the polished wood of the banister, following the sound of her husband’s voice.

“It won’t make a damned bit of difference!”

“Father, be reasonable.”

There was the sound of a fist meeting the wall. “Bellamy, damn you, could you not do as I asked for once?”

There was a long silence. Belle put her ear to the door cautiously.

“I will be gone soon enough,” Bellamy finally said. “There are people looking into it on our account, father. We do not both of us need to hold their hands.”

“One of us ought to,” his father’s replied, his voice quieter now. Belle could hear the weariness in his tone and it pained her, much to her surprise. He had been so attentive and kind to her, and now, it only seemed right that she could comfort and calm him. “This is not something that can be done lightly, Bay.”

“I know, papa, but you know why I had to come along with you.”

“Aye, my boy.” His father sighed, quietly, almost sadly. “I know.”

The choice of names brought Belle up short.

Her ears felt like they were burning.

She was intruding on something private between father and son, and she knew she should not have heard any of it. She gathered up her nightdress and robe and darted back up the stairs, then descended again, loudly enough to be heard in the drawing room.

Their voices fell silent, and she paused on the bottom step a moment before her husband opened the door of the room.

“Ah,” he said with one of those fleeting smiles. “Awake already?”

Belle smiled shyly and nodded. “I hope I’m not intruding?”

“Not at all,” he said, offering a hand and drawing her into the room.

Bellamy was sitting in one of the chairs, and for once, was as dishevelled as his father. His forearms were resting on his knees and he looked up with a crooked smile that belonged to his father. His cravat was off entirely and his hair was mussed as if he had been pushing his fingers through it.

“You look much better, Isabelle,” he murmured.

That brought her up short. “Thank you,” she said, confused and a little concerned. “Are you quite all right, Bay?”

Father and son exchanged a look.

“We have neglected some rather important matters,” her husband said finally, drawing her to sit beside him on the couch. “Bellamy and I both realise that we should have brought them to your notice sooner, but I thought it best to have you out of London first.”

Belle looked between them nervously. “What is the matter?” she asked.

Her husband took her hand between hers. “Aston learned of your marriage,” he said quietly.

Belle’s stomach roiled and her hand trembled. She wet her lips. “What of it?” she asked in a trembling voice. “He cannot undo what has been done.”

“He was displeased,” Bellamy said, folding his hands before him, between his knees. “He was not incorrect when he said a gentleman’s contract was broken.”

“Papa,” Belle whispered, her heart thundering in her breast. “He will go after papa.”

“Hush, m’dear, hush,” her husband said urgently. “The boy’s father is not an imbecile. He knows the importance of rank and station, and that no Baron can hope to be favoured over a Duke when it comes to society matches.”

“Aston is… he would not care for society,” Belle’s voice broke. “Please, my father. I cannot have my father broken and disgraced because of that man.”

Her husband put an arm about her to hold her, calm her. “We will see to it that no harm comes to your father,” he murmured. “The Marchioness of Eaglesham holds no love for that scoundrel and is more than willing to hide your father from prying eyes and idle gossip.”

Bellamy leaned over to close the gap between them and clasped her other hand. “We protect what is ours,” he said softly, and for a moment, she could truly see that he was his father’s son. “Have no fear, mama. He will be safe.”

She looked from one to the other, fighting back tears. “Truly?”

Father and son smiled matching smiles. “On my oath,” her husband said, his hand warm and firm around hers. “Aston will not harm another hair of any of you nor yours.”

Bellamy’s wolfish smile returned. “And God help him if he tried.”

Chapter Text

The stay in Edinburgh was brief, but long enough for Belle to be swept through all of the most fashionable shops to be measured for a new wardrobe. Bellamy insisted on escorting her, with Ellanor trotting along behind them, looking around in awe.

Belle knew he meant it to distract her from the thought of Aston causing disruption in London, and was grateful.

She had to admit that the city was striking.

New districts were in the process of being built, while old parts of the city twisted in complex labyrinths between the castle at the west end and the Royal Palace a mile to the east. London was much larger, but Edinburgh seemed like a city that had been rucked up like a rumpled blanket, with inexplicable ridges and valleys laced throughout.

"It's much more interesting, don't you think?" Bellamy said cheerfully. "One can hardly find a city made of volcanoes dull."

"Volcanoes?" Belle echoed sceptically.

"Of course," Bellamy said, waving vaguely to the hilly ridges to the east, visible from their current position on one of the bridges. "It feels very suitable, given the temperament of most of the people around here, to live on a city that might explode in fire and brimstone."

Ellanor gave a small shriek of fright.

"You jest!" Belle said at once, noticing the impish look in Bellamy's eyes. "You awful beast!"

He laughed openly. "I am a little, aren't I?" he said. "But in truth, the city was once volcano, and then swamp, and now, it strives to be a jewel in our northern crown." He looked around them happily. "It is my favourite place of all, and when they finish building the new town, I shall buy as fine a townhouse as my allowance permits and have all the best of society to attend upon me."

Belle shook her head fondly. "You are so unlike your father in many ways," she murmured, taking his arm as they started to walk again. "Why does he deplore society so?"

He looked down at her. "Lud, Mama," he said, "have you not heard the tales of his youth?"

Belle nibbled her lower lip. "I recall rumours of a duel?" she said. "And eloping with a bride on her wedding day?"

Her step-son's expression was uncharacteristically serious. "Aye," he said. "All very much true."

Belle stared at him. "Truly?"

"You can imagine," Bellamy said with a familiar crooked smile, "he caused quite the uproar in his day. Even now, it is still remembered. Many a decent man feels he must hide his daughters when father is in town." He nudged her with the very tip of his elbow. "Did you have any notion of his reputation before you wed him?"

"Only vague tales," she admitted, then exhaled quietly, "And now, he will be the subject of gossip anew, marrying so far beneath his station."

Bellamy pinched her arm, making her cry out in surprised indignation. "None of that," he said tartly. "They can think you married him for his fortune. They can think he married you because you were his leman. They can think their daughters safe from his nefarious clutches. They can think whatever they demmed well please. They know neither you nor my father, and thus, their thoughts are quite inconsequential."

"And why," Belle asked, glancing up at him, "did he marry me?"

Bellamy wrinkled his nose. "Tush, mama," he said, "if you believe I know my father's mind, then you are sorely mistaken. I had no notion he intended to offer himself as husband until he offered you his hand, and we have had little opportunity to speak of it since."

"He says it is not simply kindness."

He snorted. "Odd's fish," he said. "He may deny it, but he's as soft as butter for you."

Belle felt her cheeks warm. "He has no cause to be," she said. "We had met but thrice before he offered his hand."

Bellamy waved a hand dismissively. "Thrice you met. The first, you spoke to him as boldly as a man. The second, you showed heart and pride in the face of contempt and shame. And the third? Dear, had I known my father had a desire to meet a woman who could wield a poker as a weapon, I would have been far more successful in finding him a suitable match."

She was silent as they walked down to the grand streets of the New Town.

"Your father," she decided, "wished for someone who was unafraid of him."

Bellamy chuckled. "Quite so, quite so," he said. "Given his reputation, many women would have fled, shrieking, from the Scotch ruffian. They find me disconcerting enough, and I am only his son. I am considered quite harmless by comparison, and yet, still a rough and dirty beast from beyond the borders."

"A rough and dirty beast?" she echoed, looking sceptically at his impeccable cravat and tailored suit.

"La," he said with a rueful smile, "you can put a fine-cut suit and the most dashing hat on a hound, but one can still see the shape of it, what."

"Now I know you jest," she said. "Lady Eaglesham dotes on you."

Bellamy's expression softened. "Aye, she does at that," he agreed. "That she speaks well for me has opened doors that might otherwise have been closed." He patted her hand on his arm. "It is well that some houses appreciate the mystery of the north. I would that there was better society here, for then, they would see we Scotch are as gentlemanly, if not more so than some of their prime blood stock."

Belle looked at him sternly. "You surpass many of them by far," she said. "I care not for what they think of you. I find you a perfect gentleman."

To her amusement, his colour rose. "Mama, you flatter your son."

"I am honest," she said, her eyes dancing as she cast his own words back at him. "Some say that it is a great flaw in my nature."

Bellamy gave a great laugh. "Do I hear an echo, m'lady mama? For I fear it is so."

She nudged him gently with her elbow. "Indeed you do," she said. "Fie, Master Bay, fie! Two honest people upon the same street? Should not the world tremble?"

He turned a smile on her so warm and so fond that she could not help but return it. "I had no notion I wished for such a wicked little mother," he declared, "but I am very happy to have you nonetheless."

"Wicked?" she said, widening her eyes.

"Aye, mama," he declared. "I shall call you wicked, and I shall be demmed honest about it. I believe father has you marked right well, cat-claws and all."

She shook her head with a small smile. "The clawed cat and the rough beasts," she murmured. "What a household we shall be."

They walked some little time more, but when the clouds gathered in brooding swells, they made their way back in the direction of his father's townhouse. The rain was spattering upon them as they hurried up the steps to the front door.

The Duke emerged from his study only moments later. "Have you done spending all my money, already?"

"Alas, father," Bellamy said cheerfully, "the rain has saved some small part of it."

His father arched an eyebrow, then approached them, offering a hand to Belle, and bowing over her fingers. "How do you find our fair capital, my Lady? Is it to your satisfaction?"

"It is like a labyrinth tossed across a maze with a puzzle poked into the places in between," she replied, which earned an amused chuckle. "But I like it well enough." She smiled at the gentle press of his fingers around hers. "Are your estates anything like these parts?"

"Not in the least," he admitted. "Flat and dull and covered in demmed nature."

Bellamy grinned. "He makes it sounds terribly dull, but have no fear, mama dearest," he said, "you will be very much entertained. There is much for a little cat to bury her claws in."

"Bellamy," his father snapped.

The Marquis bowed extravagantly. "Excuse me, father," he said, "I had no intention of unleashing her wrath, nor yours."

"You had best not," Belle said, drawing her hands from the Duke's to remove her hat. "As you observed, the cat's claws are sharp." She gave him her sweetest look. "You would not wish to make me cross again?"

"Lud!" The Duke turned about sharply. "McEwan! Secure the china cabinet! The Duchess is professing to be cross."

Bellamy burst into merry laughter. "That was your crime, father," he said, shedding his coat.

The Duke harrumphed indignantly, but his expression softened when Belle leaned close and brushed a kiss to his cheek. "That does not repair a damaged cup, woman," he grumbled, though he slipped an arm about her waist and drew her closer.

"Would that I knew that a mere peck to the cheek would soften you up," Bellamy lamented. "I would have not been in such trouble in my childhood had I such a tool at my disposal."

"You overestimate your appeal, my boy," the Duke said. He held Belle a moment longer. "Now, off with you and into something more suitable for dinner." He tugged the side of her skirt. "As much as marching about in the grime with this rogue suits you, it is hardly dinner attire."

"I will take that compliment, such as it is," she replied with a smile. "Ellanor?"

The maid bobbed into a curtsey.

Together, they ascended the staircase, but she glanced down and saw her husband and his son put their heads together in private conclave. She knew she should not be suspicious nor wary of their intentions, but such secrecy made her wonder at what was so urgent that it must be kept from her ears and spoken in whispers.

She did not broach the subject at dinner. It was much easier to let Bellamy entertain them with tales of his adventures about the city. It seemed that he knew everyone, and had been hosted at the castle and the palace both more than once.

Her husband even admitted to attending functions at the castle, and acknowledged with a crook-lipped smile that sometimes, when one was surrounded by fellow countrymen, a social gathering was not such a trial to attend.

When the meal was done and Bellamy had talked himself into silence, her husband accompanied her up the stairs towards the bedchamber, she observed quietly, "Do you Scotchmen see yourselves as so different from Englishmen?"

His lips twitched. "We have spent so long fighting the English, it's demmed difficult to remember we're meant to be friends now," he said. He lifted her hand to his lips and gently kissed her knuckles, and his eyes met hers. "Would you rest, my Lady? My chamber is also prepared, should you wish to slumber in peace."

She blushed, knowing what he was asking, and what she would not refuse. "I am not yet so tired, my Lord," she murmured. She opened the door with her free hand, stepping into the room without relinquishing her hold on his hand.

His eyes never left her face, and his grip tightened enough on her hand to make her tremble in anticipation. She did not know if it made her wanton to enjoy being desired by her husband, and nor did she truly care to know. The heat in his eyes sent delightful shivers through her.

He pushed the door to behind him, blindly, then closed the distance between them to draw her into his arms and kiss her once more.

Some time later, he gathered the bedsheets about them both. She curled against his chest, quite breathless and warm, her fingers resting lightly above his breastbone. It still made her flush with the knowledge that she was quite naked beneath the sheets, as was he.

She had nightdresses, quite lovely ones, but his urgency seemed bound with her own growing curiosity, and the soft, heated need she felt when he kissed her meant that common decency was forgotten. She wondered idly if it meant she was shameless.

His fingers were coiling curls of her loosened hair about them once more. He seemed to enjoy the diversion provided, and murmured in lazy triumph whenever he found another pin, which he then flicked away onto the floor.

"Must you?" she murmured, spreading her hand on his chest and watching the way the fine sprinkle of hair flattened beneath her fingertips. It sprang up once more, almost as soon as she lifted her touch away.

"Come now," he chuckled, his chest rumbling beneath her ear, "your maid must earn her keep. She has barely needed to undress you once since you were wed." His fingers drifted across her cheek as if to assess how well she was blushing. "Hmm. Quite pink."

"It is hardly my fault if you have no patience," she said, her voice only a little shaken with both the memory of his eagerness, the heat within herself, and some little amusement. She remembered the way he watched her, when control slipped from her, when she thought she might sob aloud, when she bit her lips to messes and she trembled from head to foot. The heat bloomed again in her cheek and he chuckled.

His fingertips traced the line of her jaw, then up over her chin to brush lightly against her lips. "Hush, ma Belle," he murmured, running the very tip of his index finger along her lower lip, drawing a quivering little breath from her. "One would think you did not enjoy it half so much as I."

Out of some sense of righteous, though not entirely well-founded, indignation, she bit lightly on his fingertip. To her surprise, he drew in a breath as if she had surprised him. She nipped again, more softly, worrying at the very tip, then soothed it with the very tip of her tongue.

"Belle..." Her name seemed like a growl seated in the very depths of his chest.

"Your Grace?" she whispered against his fingertips.

His other hand moved, tilting her face up to his, and she knew the heat in his eyes well. What intent she had of simply nestling against him was forgotten as he drew her up to meet his lips with her own. It felt wicked, somehow, when the sheet fell away from her, and his hand splayed low on her bare back, making her quiver over him.

"My teasing wife," he whispered between kisses, as he tumbled her onto her back.

She made a small, breathless sound as he lowered himself over her, his mouth moving down her throat. "Yes, your Grace," she gasped, giggling as he lifted his head to look down at her with indignation. Her hands slid against his bare arms. "Husband," she murmured. "James."

It was well into the night before they lay in breathless silence again.

She was spilled on her back beneath the sheets, smiling vaguely at the canopy above them, and he half-propped, half-lying against the pillows. Between them, somehow, their hands had found one another, fingers tangled together.

“I knew I should have left you at the door,” he said finally, a lazy, satisfied tone in his voice. “I fear you will be quite worn out for the journey tomorrow.”

Belle turned onto her side to hide her face in the sheet beneath her. She could barely contain the smile that was fighting to curve her lips. “Yes, your Grace,” she whispered impishly, her fingers tugging against his. His thumb brushed her knuckles and she tilted her head to look up at him.

It was darker now, the candles never lit, but by the faint light that cut in through the windows, she could see his face, half-cast in silver, his eyes on her and dark and gleaming. His mouth turned in a smile, warmer than the familiar half-smile.

“You will be the death of me, woman,” he murmured, as he pushed himself down to lie amid the pillows. He drew on her hand, bringing her closer to him. “Come. Rest beside me and take some little sleep.”

“Should we not fetch our nightgowns?” she asked, her cheeks warming once more.

He was silent a moment. “Would you prefer that, dearie?”

She laid her hand - trembling lightly - on his bare belly. “No,” she whispered. She felt rather than heard him sigh with soft relief. With daring, she moved just a little closer, until her legs tangled about his and her cheek was pillowed on his chest. She felt his hand settle in her hair again and smile quietly.

To her surprise, she drifted to sleep quite easily with his fingers still combing through her loose hair. That same hand was the one which roused her with the morn, and she looked up at him sleepily.

“Time to be on our way, Belle,” he murmured, “before the market traders fill all the roads from here to Glasgow.”

Within an hour, she was upright, dressed, and mostly awake. Ellanor drew fresh blushes to her cheeks when she exclaimed over a pattern of reddish marks adorning Belle’s throat and most especially the one on her inner thigh. Belle dismissed it as some manner of biting flea in the bed, which was at least in part true.

All the same, she insisted on a ribbon to put on her throat, to cover the worst of the marks. She knew her husband would be far too pleased with himself at seeing them, especially as he had been so eager in administering the same.

When she joined Bellamy and her husband in the hall to go to the carriage, her husband smiled slightly, but the moment he saw the ribbon at her throat, it turned into a perfectly cat-like grin, his eyes gleaming with pride.

“Good morning, my Lady,” he murmured, offering her hand. “A new accessory?”

She narrowed her eyes at him in feigned annoyance. “I believe it is quite fashionable,” she said.

He bowed over her hand, smirking all the while. “I am quite certain I could make it so for you.” She almost shivered when he pressed his lips to the fine lace of her gloves for just a moment too long.

“Father,” Bellamy said with a roll of his eyes. “If you intended to moon over mama, could you not keep it to the bedchamber?”

His father smirked that little bit more. “I can do as I please,” he said, “after all, it is my carriage.”

“Husband!” Belle squeaked, blushing furiously.

For a moment, he almost looked recalcitrant. “Your pardon, my Lady,” he said. “That was uncalled for.” He kissed her hand again, more gently. “Come. We should be on our way. If we make good time, we may reach Westfall by nightfall.”

She knew from their conversations that Westfall was the common name for the great house of Rutherglen, and she was very curious to see the place that her husband called home. It was a good distance, but they would pause and change horses from time to time.

The ride out of Edinburgh itself was uneventful, slow even, with bustling carts and traders on their way in to market day in the city. Only once they were beyond the noise and bustle of the city was it possible to speak.

“What shall we talk of?” Bellamy asked, stretching out his legs. He was sitting on the opposite side of the carriage, facing Belle and her husband, and looked quite comfortable with himself.

“Of Westfall?” Belle suggested. She looked between father and son. “You have told me so little of it. Will I meet many more family there?”

Bellamy made a face. “Alas, there are few of us left,” he said. “Father and I hold all of the lands now. Any relatives we have seem to have an unfortunate gift of dying.”

His father blew out a noisy breath. “And you have a gift of being demmed terrifying when you choose to be,” he said to Bellamy. “‘A gift of dying’ indeed.” He looked at Belle. “Our family is hot-blooded. There has been many a Rutherglen on the wrong side of a battlefield out of a pig-headed need to make sure the enemy is beaten.” His lips twitched mockingly. “It is only a shame that even if they are beaten, the survivors dislike being reminded of it.”

“La!” Bellamy said with a wave of his hand. “Only the stupid ones did that. The clever ones, such as we, bide our time and strike when least expected.”

“That is something of a relief,” Belle said with a cautious smile. “I am so new come to the family that I would find it troublesome to make my own way without assistance.”

Bellamy clasped his hands to his heart. “I am the very embodiment of assistance,” he said with a winning smile. “What would you know?”

She looked at him at once. “You mentioned your Grandmother.”

She saw the expression change. It was but a flicker in his expression, but it was enough. His eyes darted to his father and back. “Ah. You remembered that.”

She inclined her head. “I did,” she murmured. “You said your presence would soften the blow?” She looked at her husband. His expression was drawn tight, his lips compressed to a line. “Am I expected to be such a disappointment?”

Her husband’s eyes flicked to her. “Not in the least,” he snapped. “And what she thinks is not a matter to be concerned with.”

Belle frowned. “Is she not your mother?”

His lips twitched tightly. “No,” he said. “She is not my mother.”

Belle felt as if the air left her body, leaving her drained and empty. That could only leave one person, the mother of Bellamy’s mother, who would no doubt be displeased that her daughter had been supplanted by a lowly Viscount’s daughter.

“Oh, no!” Bellamy exclaimed at her expression. “No, mama, have no fear. She is not my true Grandmother.” He flashed her a quick, nervous smile. “She is the Dowager Duchess, my grandfather’s second wife and widow.”

“She’s a grasping bitch,” James snarled.

Belle stared at him, her ears burning at such crudeness. “The Dowager Duchess? And she lives at the estate, still?”

Her husband looked at her, and for a moment, his expression softened. He reached out to take her hand. “I had not thought to mention her,” he said after a moment, “for she has no part in our affairs. As my father’s widow, she has the rights to a small house on the land, so you will doubtless meet her, even if I would prefer never to see her again.”

“She likes to believe she should still have a say in the keeping of the estate,” Bellamy added, with a quick smile. “She cannot seem to comprehend that my grandfather is long since gone, and even if she was the lady of the house, she is no longer.”

“There is another?” Belle asked.

“Of course, mama,” Bellamy said with a beaming smile.

“Surely, if she knows the household…”

Her husband’s grip on her hand tightened. “It is your household now, Belle,” he said with quiet vehemence. “She might wish and believe it hers, but you are my wife, and the household is yours.” He pressed a kiss to her palm. “Do not trouble yourself with her.”

All the same, a pall had fallen over the carriage.

Belle longed to ask more of the Dowager Duchess, if she would be willing to teach a new, young interloper the management of a grand household, but Bellamy was looking so warily at his father and James’s expression was unreadable and blank.

She subsided into silence, but after a little time, she cautiously put out her hand to cover her husband’s, where they were tightly knotted in his lap. His fingers unfolded little by little, and he let her claim one of his hands.

A moment at a time, she slipped along the seat until her arm was resting against his, and he looked down at her, his expression so bewildered, so wondering, that she wished she could embrace him and ease his mood.

“Tell me of the places we pass?” she suggested gently.

Grasping at her offer, he drew her closer to him and pointed from the window, telling her of the small towns and villages scattered across the green and golden landscape. It seemed to distract him, and for that, she was grateful. Bellamy caught her eye with an approving nod and half-smile.

They stopped briefly in a small town, stretching their legs and refreshing themselves.

Her husband offered her arm and they walked down to the river. “I must apologise,” he murmured, “if I startled you with my manner. There was no excuse for using such language before a lady.”

Belle gazed out at the water. “Do you have cause for speaking of her so?”

He laughed quietly, briefly. “She believes it her right to rule in my house,” he said. “I am not one to appreciate that. It did not please me when my father died. It does not please me any better now.”

“I imagine not,” she murmured.

They returned to the carriage, and she settled more comfortably against him, feeling better for understanding of his annoyance. He put his arm about her shoulder, and as the journey got underway once more, the rocking motion lulled her closer and closer to drowsiness.

It was dark when the carriage finally halted.

Belle had to admit she was a little disappointed that she did not see the Rutherglen lands as they approached, but the scent of nearby forests and fields filled the air. She leaned to the window to look out and gasped in delight.

Westfall House was lit in readiness for the Master’s return. It was a sprawling building, with a grand stair leading to the main doors to the centre, and jutting wings to the east and west. Tall windows shone in the pale stone, and Belle could see the shapes of people moving there, no doubt the staff coming to welcome their Master home.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.

To her surprise, her husband murmured in agreement. “It is.”

The carriage trundled down the drive, rattling to a stop close to the foot of the stairs, and her husband pushed the door open without waiting for the footman. He kicked the steps out and leapt down from the coach like a cat. He turned to offer her his hand, but a female voice called out from the house, making him freeze on the spot.


Belle looked out of the door of the carriage to see the most beautiful woman she had ever seen rushing down the staircase. She was clad all in dark silks that framed her perfectly, crowned with luxuriant dark hair over brilliant bright dark eyes.

Though older than Belle, she was far younger than James, and she swept towards him, as if she was welcoming her long-absent husband home. Belle fell back into the seat of the carriage, dizzied. It felt as if the her legs had been cut out from beneath her.

“Ah,” Bellamy said quietly. “I see you have spotted Grandmother.”

Chapter Text

Belle was a Duchess.

Her place was at her husband’s side.

She was a sharp little cat with claws.

Her legs were trembling beneath her and she saw her husband embraced by the woman that Bellamy called ‘Grandmother’. She looked nothing like any grandmother Belle had ever known, all smiling and youthful and more suited to being a wife to the Duke of Rutherglen than Belle ever was.

The only thing that prevented her from crumpling in a heap was the look on her husband’s face, the way the flesh tightened over bone, the way his lips pressed tight upon one another as if he wanted nothing more than to push the woman away.

Fortunately, Bellamy was there.

He threw himself out of the carriage. “Grandmother! My dearest Grandmama!”

For a moment, the woman’s features were almost as soured as the Duke’s. “Bellamy,” she said, releasing his father and offering her hands to him. “Must I continue to implore you to call me anything but that wretched name?”

“So it would seem, Grandmama,” he said brightly. “I first knew you as Grandmama, and you know I am always a creature of habit.”

“Of course you are, my dear boy,” she said, the smile returning to reddened lips. “But I had not thought we would see you both back so soon, at the height of the season.” Her eyebrows arched upwards. “It seems you have broken that particular habit.”

Belle’s attention moved from them to her husband. He had one hand braced against the side of the carriage, and she could see from the tension in his body that he wanted naught more than to be elsewhere.

Without thought for her own appearance, she slipped down from the carriage to his side and touched his arm. He twitched, as if expecting someone else, a fierce look turned on her, which softened at once.

Belle’s fingers slipped through James’s, her eyes on his face, and she tried to smile, but it faltered when the woman spoke.

“And who is this little dear?” The woman, the Dowager Duchess asked in honeyed tones.

James’s hand tightened around Belle’s and he lowered his other hand from the side of the carriage to turn around to face the woman. “May I present Isabelle Goldacre, Duchess of Rutherglen, madam,” he said, his voice cool and even. “My wife.”

Belle’s eyes darted up enough to see the brief look of absolute rage that crossed the Dowager Duchess’s elegant face. As suddenly as it had come, the moment the Duchess realised Belle was looking at her, it was gone, and Belle knew it would be pure cowardice if she lowered her eyes now.

“A new bride?” The woman prowled closer, putting Belle in mind of a predator. “This wee little thing?” All at once, she had Belle’s chin in her hand, tilting her face up, and was staring at her with those dark eyes which didn’t seem so bright anymore. She smiled, and it would have looked genuine, if Belle’s eyes hadn’t been trapped by hers. She leaned closer and kissed the air close to Belle’s cheek. “Congratulations, my dear.”

“Th-thank you,” Belle said, trying her utmost not to lean back from the formidable woman. She tried to smile again, though it was difficult to muster. “I hope we can be friends.”

“That would be lovely.” Again, a smile, but like a blade.

“Oh, you’ll adore Isabelle, Grandmother,” Bellamy said, looping his arm through the Dowager Duchess’s. He intended to draw her away, Belle knew, but the woman seemed to be content to be where she was. “She’s a dear.”

“I imagine so,” the Dowager Duchess said, smiling that same thin smile. “She must be something very special to have captured your attention, James.”

The Duke bowed stiffly, slightly, at the waist. “Indeed, madam,” he said, his words as sharp and cutting as her smile. “She is a lady.” He lifted Belle’s hand and set it on his arm. “If you will excuse me, madam, my wife and I are weary. We wish to retire.”

Belle could not have been more relieved when he put his arm about her waist, guiding her up the steps towards the house. Her legs were still trembling beneath her, and she could hear Bellamy doing his utmost to divert the woman. All she could think of was the dark, sharp smile on the woman’s face and the expression that told her she was both unwanted and unwelcome in Westfell.

Her husband’s strides were longer and brisker than her own, and she all but had to run to keep up with him, holding her skirts in her free hand. She wished she could tell him to slow, but he was striding as if the very devil was behind him.

Servants and staff ducked in bows and curtseys as he passed, but he barely gave them a look, leading her up the grand staircase to the second level and along halls that she knew would astonish her if she had a moment to stop and look at them.

He barely slowed until they reached a broad pair of double-doors, and only then, did he slow to throw them open and lead her in. It was clearly his room, and had been a single man’s room for a long time. There was little in the way of decoration, only a couple of paintings, but he released her hand to let her loose there and turned about to slam the doors closed behind them.

“That thrice-damned bitch,” he whispered, his hands closed about the door handles.

Belle did not dare to look at him, instead picking her way over to the bed and sitting down on the chest that stood there. She smoothed her skirts carefully over her knees, and breathed deeply before speaking. “She is very beautiful.” She forced herself to look up. “Younger than I expected.”

Her husband was still standing by the doors, his hands resting on the handles, his brow pressed to the wood. “Yes,” he said in a dull, flat voice. “She is.” He pulled his hands from the door, letting them fall by his sides. “I am sorry, my dear. I had no notion she would be waiting to catch us on arrival.”

“So I saw,” Belle said quietly. “And fond of you.”

He turned sharply, as if she had struck him. “What the devil makes you say that?”

Belle stared blankly at him. “A lady does not wait by the door for hours for a man she does not care for,” she said. She almost wished she might weep, sink into a heap, and just let the emotion take her for a moment, but she knew she dared not. Her husband did not need her in pieces, not when he clearly was already unhappy.

He folded his arms over his chest. “Regina is no lady,” he said darkly.


His lips twitched tightly in something as far from a smile as humanly possible. “Our friend, the Dowager Duchess,” he said. He walked closer, his eyes fixed on her face. “I should have known she wouldn’t leave me in peace.”

Belle tried to rise despite her trembling knees. “You said that her thoughts do not matter,” she said slowly.

“No,” he said, close enough to catch her hands. “They do not. She does not have any say in what I do nor whom I choose to be with.” He drew her hands to his lips, kissing them hard, with a violence that unsettled her. “She has no place here.”

She pulled her hands free from his. It was all too apparent that even if Regina had no place there, she haunted him at this moment, a shadow at his shoulder, and all Belle could see was the chilly little smile in her mind’s eye.

“It has been a long day,” she said quietly, stepping back from him. “I would rest.”

“No,” her husband said, urgently. He caught her by the shoulders, drew her back towards him, his hands shaking. There was a desperation in his tone, trembling in his voice. “Belle, I would have you.”

She looked up at him in dazed astonishment. “Now?”

In response, he put his lips to hers, kissing her hard. It was lacking in his usual care and gentleness, and the bruising grip of his hands on her shoulders brought back far too many unpleasant memories. She hissed, jerking her lips from his, turning her face away, but he seemed not to notice her discomfort, kissing her throat instead, his hands moving to fumble with her gown.

“James,” she said hoarsely, pushing her hands against his shoulders. “James, not tonight.”

He lifted his head to look at her, and there was a strange, fevered madness in his eyes. “I must, Belle,” he whispered, pushing her back towards the bed. “Belle, she has no place here, not any. You are my wife. Be my wife.”

She trembled, feeling sick to her stomach and pushed harder against him. “No,” she said, her voice shaking. “Please, James.”

He seemed lost in his own furious, fraught thoughts and had her on her back on the bed before she could break free. Only when he lifted his hands from her to fumble clumsily with his breeches did she manage to scramble partway across the bed. He caught her by the hips and she gave a soft cry as he started pulling her back.

“Belle, please,” he said, the strange emotion in his face doing little to ease the fear that was making her fight and shake from head to toe.

She had no weapon, no means to defend herself, only her own little hands.

She curled her right hand into as tight a fist as she could and when he leaned over her again, she struck with all the strength she could muster, catching him in the eye. He stumbled back, cursing, and whatever dark mood had caught him was knocked asunder, replaced instead with stunned shock.

Belle scrambled back across the bed, now that he was not holding her, and all but fell off the other side. On shaking legs, she darted to the fireplace and took up the poker, his one-time jest no longer so amusing.

Her husband was staring at her. He did not seem surprised or angry, not with her, and his face twisted in guilty anguish. He skirted the bed slowly, raising his hands in a gesture of utter submission. “Belle…”

She clung to the poker, the metal rod trembling in her hands, and backed away from him. “You will not touch me so again,” she whispered fiercely. “You will not have me when I say no. You will not touch me when you are thinking of naught but her.”

Her husband stopped where he was, knowing that to approach would only drive her further away. He lowered himself to his knees, spreading his arms. “Strike me, my lady,” he said, bowing his head. “I have earned that.”

Belle’s lips trembled and she blinked back tears. “What is she to you?” she asked in a trembling voice. “What cause could she have to make you behave so? Where is the husband I knew?”

“Belle,” he whispered, his voice rasping as if his throat were closing on it. “Belle, forgive me.”

“I would have my own room,” she said as steadily as she could. “I would have a room with a lock.”

He raised his head, the look of pain like a lance beneath her breast. “As you wish,” he said, though she could see it pained him as much as it did her. She could stay with him, she knew, but not now, not this night, not with her heart trembling with sudden terror as it was.

He slowly got to his feet. “Are…” he hesitated, “Did I hurt you?”

She gave a small, tight sob. “You, who know my nightmares, ask that?”

If she had struck him with the poker, he could not have looked more stricken. “Belle, oh Belle,” he said, his voice trembling as much as hers. “I did not intend…”

“Please,” she whispered. “A room.”

He nodded, keeping his hands open and where she might see them, and crossed the floor to ring for a servant. That he was unarmed made no difference. He could have done as he pleased with naught but his hands.

To her relief, it was McEwan who appeared, rather than some new stranger.

“McEwan, my lady is weary,” James said, his eyes fixed on Belle’s face. She looked away from him, unable to face looking at him. “She would have a private room. Take her to the winter bedchamber.”

McEwan bowed slightly to her. “My lady?”

Belle skirted around James, as if he might grasp at her again, but he only stood, hands by his sides, and watched her go. She heard him whisper a faint apology, but could not look him in the eye as she left the room.

The chamber he had appointed for her was only a short distance from his own. It was cool from disuse, but she could not have cared less. She stood, shivering, a few paces within as McEwan lit candles here and there.

“Would you have a fire, my Lady?” The man turned to her, passive and solemn.

She shook her head. “This will suffice,” she said, proud of how steady her voice was. “You may go, McEwan.”

He withdrew, closing the doors after him, and the moment he did so, the poker dropped from Belle’s unfeeling hands, clattering on the floor. Her legs gave way beneath her and she sat heavily, the very thought of walking to chair or bed too much, far too much.

She did not know if she wept. She only knew she sat and sat until the cold of the floor seeped to her very bones, and her hand ached. Her knuckles were all bruised, where they had struck her husband’s face. One of them was cracked open, bleeding.

A tap at the door made her grope blindly for the poker again.

“Wh-who is it?”

“Mama?” Bellamy’s voice was soft with concern. “Mama, may I come in?”

She closed her eyes tightly against tears. “Please,” she whispered.

All at once, Bellamy was kneeling beside her, and without thought for decorum, he gathered her in his arms, holding her close. He was broader than his father, and had he wished to do her harm, she had no doubt he would have succeeded, but she knew he would not.

“Father is a demmed imbecile,” he said quietly. “And Grandmother knows that she provokes him, I fear.”

Belle leaned into him, her head heavy against his chest. “Why did you not warn me of her?” she asked in a small voice. “Of who she was to him?”

He sighed. “She is nothing to him, if truth be told, mama,” he whispered. “But she has been here almost as long as I have been alive, and she knows him well enough to slip beneath his skin and drive him mad.”

Belle looked up at him. “She is nothing to him?” she echoed in disbelief. “She is more than that, even if he wishes it was not so.”

Bellamy’s expression was serious. “She means nothing to him, I swear it, mama,” he said, taking one of her hands in his and holding it fast.

Belle wished she might believe him, but the fevered look on her husband’s face, the urgent need he had to claim her and possess her suggested that there was far more to the Dowager Duchess’s presence than Bellamy realised.

He touched the corner of her eye, catching a tear that was still lingering there. “Mama,” he said, anxious, gentle. “Mama, he would never harm you, not intentionally. He fears he has done some terrible deed. Did he hurt you?”

Belle lowered her eyes, shaking her head. “He was stopped in time,” she said quietly.

Bellamy crooned softly, rocking her, and for a little moment, she felt safe. “This is what I feared,” he confessed in a low voice. “This is why I came. To soften the blow.”

“Not for her,” Belle said quietly, closing her eyes. “You were here for me.”

He nodded. “Mama, Grandmother Regina was my grandfather’s wife. She only stays because she has nowhere else to go. She raised me as much as father, but she is only the Dowager Duchess. Father has no fondness for her.” He lifted her face to his gently. “I did not doubt you would find it hard to believe your husband could live in a house with one who looks as she does, and have no intentions towards her.”

“Does he not?” she asked, faintly. “He thought enough on her when he would have taken me to bed.”

Bellamy looked stricken. “My father is an imbecile,” he said again. He stroked Belle’s cheek with a gentleness that reminded her of her own father. “She pricks and prods at him. She likes to push him to respond, for there is no one else of her rank here to speak with her. I have never known someone to anger father as much as Grandmama does, but it is only anger and frustration. He knows he cannot drive her out, for she has no place else to go.”

“So he stays here, with her?”

To Belle, it seemed quite apparent that if one hated a woman in his household so much, one merely needed to go to town or elsewhere, but this was where James chose to be. He chose to live here for the greater part of the year, in the house of someone who drove him to fury and distraction. There had to be more than simply anger in their relationship.

The way Regina, the Dowager Duchess, had greeted him suggested far more complex and unnatural things between a stepmother and stepson.

“She is very young,” Belle whispered, “to be his stepmother.”

Bellamy nodded slowly. “Grandfather was not pleased when father married my mother,” he said quietly. “My uncle, father’s eldest brother, had died shortly before, so Grandfather sought a new wife to have new heirs. He intended to disown father, once the title was secure.”

“So he took her.”

Bellamy smoothed Belle’s hair gently. “She was to produce sons for him, and he was quite urgent about it, but none took.” He sighed quietly. “Grandfather died unexpectedly. A riding accident. Father was all at once Duke, and I his heir. Grandmother was left a widow at barely twenty.”

“And here, she remains.”

Bellamy shrugged a little helplessly. “She always believed it better to be a Dowager Duchess and widow than married unhappily,” he said. “Mama, she is not so terrible as she might appear. I fear she came across as cold. For so long, it has only been we three. I think she fears that you will try to drive her out.”

Belle remembered the dark eyes, the coldness in them, the fury when the woman realised that she faced James’s wife. That was not the look of a woman who was afraid of being driven out. It was the expression of a woman who was angry and who, given ample opportunity, would act upon it.

“I will not try to drive anyone out,” she said quietly, “though I fear she may.”

Bellamy stroked her hair again gently. “Father would not allow that. He chose you and married you. She has no say in that.”

“So I am told,” Belle said quietly. She felt as if all the peace and joy she had enjoyed for the last few days had been burned to ashes. Now, it felt she was to face a new battleground, with an enemy more direct and single-minded than society in London.

It was one thing to encounter a mother, or even a stepmother.

It was quite another to face a woman who was very likely to have been her husband’s lover.

She did not doubt that he had lovers. He was a man after all, and had lost his wife some dozen or more years past. No man would be without a woman for so long, especially not one as ardent as the Duke.

The way Regina looked at her, even the way she looked at him, suggested there was some long-burning flame there, and Belle felt sick to her stomach knowing that she would have to face that every day she spent on the estate.

“I think I should rest,” she finally said, pushing herself from Bellamy’s arms. “It has been a long day and I have much to think on.”

He nodded, rising and help her up. “Please don’t fret,” he said, clasping her hands. “I know it is all a shock, but Grandmother cannot be so terrible if she raised one such as me, can she?” He smiled hopefully at her. “You may find her pleasant.”

“I may,” Belle agreed, though privately she doubted it. She brushed her fingers over her cheeks, catching any last lingering moisture, and tried to smile to show him that all was indeed well. “Would you have my trunk brought up? And Ellanor?”

Bellamy studied her intently. “Of course, mama,” he assured her. “And tomorrow, you will take breakfast with father and I?”

Belle hesitated. If she hid from her husband once, she knew she would continue to do so, but if she faced him, she knew all she would think of would be his hands holding her down. “I will think on it,” she said, lowering her eyes.

It seemed answer enough and he leaned close to kiss her cheek gently. She could see the concern in his face, but knew he would not press the matter.

Once he left her, she went to the large, chilly bed and sat down.

With one trembling hand, she pushed the sleeve of her gown up. The skin was reddened, and she knew from experience it would blacken with bruising by morning. It was well that she had dresses that would hide such marks, though she would know they were there.

The little love marks her husband had left on her skin suddenly seemed so harmless and her eyes filled with fresh tears, which she tried to force down.

It would not do her any good to be reduced to tears and misery.

James had insisted this was to be her household.

If the Dowager Duchess was going to be there, then she would have to face her at some time.

She took long, slow breaths.

Perhaps, she thought, she was seeing what she feared. She knew she was only a meek little wife with little knowledge and few skills in the household or the bed. Perhaps, her own doubts in herself were the reason that Regina seemed so formidable and suited to her husband. She was of the same class, knew the house and household staff, knew James and Bellamy. It was enough to make any woman fear that she was insufficient.

Belle rose from the bed.

She would be stalwart and face matters head on, as she had with Aston.

Her husband…

Her husband was another matter. They would have to face what he had done, but the Dowager Duchess could be faced. If she was not hostile, then that was well. If she was hostile, then Belle knew she would have to face it. Bellamy said himself that he would soften the blow, and so he would.

Until he had to depart, she knew she had him as an ally.

She looked at her face in the mirror over the dresser. She was pale as a ghost and her eyes were red-rimmed and blood-shot. Tomorrow, she decided, looking away from her reflection, she would draw on her very best smile and no one need ever know that she was sure her heart was cracking.

Chapter Text

Belle slept badly.

She was in no way surprised.

For the first time since her wedding night, her husband slipped into her dreams. Aston was no longer the one holding her down, not now that her husband had actually done so. She was woken when she was slapped sharply.

Ellanor was kneeling over her, looking shaken. There was blood on her cheeks and Belle could see the marks of fingernails. “Miss? Miss, are you all right?”

“Your face, Ellanor,” Belle whispered, reaching up. “You’re bleeding.”

Ellanor looked startled, and touched her cheek. “Oh, don’t mind that, Miss,” she said. “You were in a bit of a state.”

Belle sat bolt upright in the bed. “I did that?”

“You were dreaming something horrid, Miss,” Ellanor said, catching her by the shoulders. “I thought you were going to do yourself a hurt, so I tried to stop you thrashing about and you caught your nails on my cheek is all.”

“And you were hurt instead?” Belle was trembling. “Ellanor, I’m sorry.”

Ellanor gathered Belle in her arms, clumsily but comfortingly. “It’s all right, Miss,” she said, “I’ve had much worse.” She stroked Belle’s hair gently, petting her and soothing her. “Don’t you worry, Miss. You just settle down.”

Belle could barely keep herself from shaking as she was gently guided back under the sheets and blankets. She hated to hurt people, and to know that Ellanor had been wounded, all because Belle was too afraid to sleep alone, was horrifying.

Her little maid snuggled against her back, wrapping her arms around Belle’s. “I’ll keep you safe, Miss,” she whispered, her cheek resting against Belle’s. “Don’t you worry. I’ll keep you all safe and sound.”

Somehow, she slept again, though in stops and starts.

She only woke in earnest when the sun broke in through the half-closed curtains. Ellanor had tried her best to close them, but they were too long and too heavy, so there was a long, narrow crack of light, which crept across her face and roused her.

She remained where she was, Ellanor nestled against her, too exhausted to stir herself. It would be cruel to wake the girl too, when Ellanor was clearly tired out from taking care of her in the small hours of the night.

Belle tried to think on all that had happened.

She could remember their arrival all too clearly, and the look on Regina, the Dowager Duchess’s face. The woman was beautiful, but there was a frightening intensity in her dark eyes that unsettled Belle more than she cared to admit. Regina had not been hostile to her, but her words had been spoken without any pleasant expression whatsoever.

And then, there was her husband. She was not afraid of him, not truly, but the flesh of her shoulders and upper arms was tender, and she knew without looking that she would see the imprints of his fingers in her skin. She did not fear him, but she did fear the violence that he and so many men seemed so readily capable of.

Though it made her stomach twist to think on it, she forced herself to think on what had passed between them in the bed chamber the night before. He had seemed completely unlike himself, from the moment they arrived until he fell to his knees and offered his bowed head for a blow in penance.

He wanted to claim her, make it clear to her but also - more importantly - to himself, that she was his wife. Was he so afraid that she would not be, now that they were in his home? Did he fear she would reject him for some secret he had hidden here?

Belle pressed her cheek against the pillow, blinking back fresh tears.

Had he asked, had he been patient, had he not forced his hand, she would have happily embraced him, soothed him and kissed his brow. But the matter was as it was: he had been so desperate to reassure himself that he had done her wrong, and now, her maid was scored and she was bruised, and they were each of them alone.

“Miss?” Ellanor whispered. “Miss, are you awake?”

Belle nodded. “I am,” she replied quietly. “Did I wake you?”

Ellanor sat up, shaking her head. “Not at all, Miss,” she assured her. “I woke up a little bit ago. You were just so quiet, I thought to let you sleep.” She slid out of the bed, pattering around to the chest of clothing. “Do you want to dress for breakfast, Miss? Or shall I get them to bring you something?”

Belle continued to stare blankly at the window for a moment. “I will dress,” she said finally, ignoring the rapid pound of her heart. “Master Bay invited me to breakfast, and I will attend with him. And his father.”

Ellanor nodded at once, kneeling to dig through the chest of clothes.

Belle had not told the girl the truth of the what had happened the previous night, only that she and the Duke had agreed that it was better for a lady to have her own chamber, in a house as grand and large as this one. She suspected that if Ellanor were told, then her husband would find himself privy to some very hostile looks, and she did not need any more questions to be asked about her place in a household that already had a Dowager Duchess.

She rose from the bed, filling the wash basin from the heavy white pitcher and washing herself with a small cloth. To her shame, she saw flecks of blood caught beneath her nails, no doubt from the moment she caught Ellanor’s cheek, and she scrubbed at it until her skin was pink and clean.

She hardly noticed the clothing Ellanor selected for her, donning it without a second glance, and letting the girl lace her into her gown. She sat at the polished dresser, ignoring her reflection, as Ellanor brushed and arranged her hair in a suitable fashion.

“There, Miss,” the girl said finally. “You look lovely.”

Belle’s lips trembled in a smile. “Thank you,” she said, rising. “You should go down to find the other staff. I fear you might have missed your chance to eat.”

“Lud, Miss,” Ellanor said, smiling. “Mr McEwan said he would save me something, if I were late, being my first day in a new place and all.” She folded Belle’s nightdress. “Would it be right if I cleaned up after? I am a bit hungry.”

“Of course,” Belle murmured. She walked over to the door, hesitating there. “If you have any trouble, you can come and find me, you know.”

Ellanor nodded. “I’ll be fine, Miss,” she said. “You should get to your breakfast, else it’ll get cold.”

Belle looked at the door handle and the great heavy key, then unlocked the door. She took the key with her, just in case, slipping into the small purse at her waist. It was a tooth bag, she was told, very fashionable for the ladies who chose to carry their false teeth with them. It would serve well enough as a key pouch instead.

She emerged into a bright hall, the sun already high enough that it looked like broad daylight, and she could see open land, green and lush, for miles from the window. It was as flat and expansive as her husband had said, but far more beautiful than she could have imagined.

The house was equally beautiful, with beautifully decorated halls and fine carpets and paintings everywhere she looked. Much of it had clearly been there for years and generations, but some little pieces she recognised as new touches, but so tastefully done, it seemed they were at one with every other piece.

She tried to retrace her steps through the long hallway, imagining that the breakfast room would be on the lower levels. It was not a difficult house to navigate, if one was looking only for the stairs, and she found them easily enough.

“Ah!” She froze halfway down the stairs at the merry, female voice. “I do believe I spy our new Duchess.”

Belle looked up the stairs, her heart pounding. Regina was on the upper landing, clad in a dark riding dress and jacket, her dark hair elaborately coiled up and pinned at the back of her head. “Good morning, madam,” she said as cordially as she could around a tongue that felt it was turned to stone.

“Madam?” The woman descended with such easy grace that Belle felt like nothing more than a clumsy child in her presence. “Tush, dear, that makes me sound quite old.” She stopped the step above Belle and smiled down at her. “We are to be friends, after all.” She lifted her hand to tilt Belle’s chin up. “You must call me Regina.”

“Very well,” Belle stammered, looking down, then back up. “I hope my presence did not upset you, Ma… Regina.”

The smile was almost wholly convincing. “Upset me? Of course not, my dear.” She laughed quietly, shaking her head, and her eyes remained dark and fixed on Belle’s face. “Do not imagine your coming troubles me at all.”

Belle felt as if the air had been squeezed from her lungs. Words that might have sounded gently comforting on anyone else felt like a blade on Regina’s lips.

So, that was to be the way of it, was it? They were to be enemies? This woman, who drove Belle’s husband to despair and violence was to be her enemy? This woman, who would even stand on the step above her to belittle her?

Belle’s mouth curved in something that was no smile. “I had hoped not,” she said. “After all, Bellamy speaks so well of his grandmother.”

The twitch of anger was visible at the very corners of Regina’s red lips. “The boy knows he should not call me such things,” Regina sighed, as if it was a mild irritant, but Belle could see that it rankled her. She did not want to be a Dowager or a Grandmother, or anything that might make her seem old.

“I see no reason why not,” Belle said with wide-eyed innocence.

Regina’s eyes narrowed, but only a little. “I suppose you are but a child yourself,” she said, stepping down and taking Belle’s arm. Belle fought the impulse to recoil from her, and allowed the older woman to lead her down the stairs. “I hope you don’t find James too much of a rough Scotchman.” She smiled an unpleasantly knowing smile. “He does tend to lose his temper from time to time.”

Belle schooled her expression to blank calmness. “I am sure that is only if he finds the company displeasing,” she said, smiling as sweetly as she could. It was another bolt that struck true, and from the corner of her eye, she saw Regina’s smile tighten a notch.

At the foot of the stairs, Regina surveyed her. “I suppose you must eat,” she said in tones that suggested that Belle clearly did that far too often, which was a clumsy, amateurish blow if ever there was one, and not worthy of retort.

“Indeed,” Belle murmured. “Would you be kind enough to direct me to the chamber where my husband and your grandson take breakfast?”

Regina waved a gloved hand to the west wing, her irritation near palpable. “They will be in the dining room there,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, my horse tends to impatience if I do not ride him hard before breakfast.”

“I am sure you will be sorely missed,” Belle murmured, curtseying elegantly.

Regina arched an eyebrow, but returned the politeness with a bow of her head. “And I am sure you shall find James quite wretched company in my absence.” She smiled thinly. “He is not adept at dealing with mornings.”

“Oh?” Belle said. “I find him quite amenable.”

Regina looked her up and down. “You will learn, child,” she said, then turned and strode out of the main doors, her gait strong and almost mannish. She believed herself so superior, holding herself above all, Belle realised.

She drew a breath, steadying herself, and her hands which were trembling.

Their first battle had taken place now.

She could not be sure, but she was almost certain she had emerged as victor.

The halls seemed infinitely long as she made her way through them. It was quiet, though she glimpsed the occasional servant flitting here and there. Her mind was awhirl.

Regina wished her to know that she and James had some manner of relationship, and had no shame about flaunting said relationship before James’s wife. The woman did not want her position usurped, nor did she want Belle to feel comfortable or confident in the household she had clearly managed for years. If her suspicions were correct, Belle was quite sure that Regina had hoped to be Duchess herself, whether out of desire for the position or out of a desire for James himself.

Belle wondered if knights of old felt such ferocity before a battle.

In the eyes of the law and the Church, James was her husband, and fool as he may be, she intended to keep him. No Dowager, not even one who was a noble lady and grand and elegant as Regina, was going to drive her away from that which was legally and rightfully hers.

All the same, when she reached the doorway of the dining room and heard her husband’s voice, speaking to his son, it felt as if a block of ice had settled in her belly. She remembered the look on his face, the violence of his hands, the way he dragged her to him as much as she fought him.

She took a shaking breath.

Bravery was the key to it all. Even if she felt none, giving the illusion of it would suffice.

She walked into the room, her head held high, her expression calm, and her hands in neat little fists by her sides to contain the tremors.

Bellamy was the first to notice her and smiled in welcome. When James noticed his expression, he turned, and spotted Belle. Her heart thundered in her chest as he rose sharply to his feet, his lips parting as if he wanted to speak, but the words died in his throat.

She swallowed hard, then walked towards the table. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, mama,” Bellamy said, raising a hand to summon one of the maids, who hurried to fetch a fresh platter for her.

Belle hardly looked at him. Her eyes were on her husband, and he was still standing, his gaze flicking from his hands knotted before him to her face, then back again. He was keeping his hands occupied, so he would not touch her. He wished her to see he was restraining himself.

She walked forward until she stood before him, an arm’s length.

She would not be a coward. She would not let Regina ruin what had been so carefully built between them. She would not be afraid of a man, who was clearly afraid of himself and what he might do when provoked.

Belle offered her husband her hand, her eyes holding his, her lips pressed together.

“Belle…” he said, barely above a whisper.

She inclined her head. “Will you not kiss my hand, husband?” she asked, forcing her voice to absolute steadiness.

He stared at her, as if he could barely believe it, but unlocked his fingers from one another, and extended his right hand - trembling violently - to lift her hand to his lips. It was barely any contact at all, and he dropped his hand away almost as soon as he had touched her, shying back, for fear even that brief touch might do some terrible injury.

He looked so very lost and broken that she wondered just what had happened to him.

“Sit down, mama,” Bellamy urged, pouring tea for her. “You look quite exhausted.”

She sat in the seat adjacent to her husband’s, and looked down at her skirts as she murmured, “Yes, I did not sleep especially well.”

“Nightmares?” James asked in a tight, pained voice.

She looked at him, unsympathetically. “Yes. Dreadful ones.” She inclined her head. “And, for once, not Aston.”

Had she slapped him, he could not have flinched harder.

“Belle, I cannot apologise enough,” he said quietly.

“No,” she agreed. “You cannot.” She fell silent as the maid approached to set the plate of food before her, then retreated. She had not really felt hungry since the night before, but now, she felt ravenous.

“Belle,” James began again.

She looked at him, steadily, evenly. “This is not a conversation I wish to have over breakfast,” she said. “You have apologised several times. You will continue to do so. Now, however, I am tired and hungry and covered in bruises. I do not want to have my appetite spoiled by apologies.”

He nodded, lowered his eyes.

Belle took a shaking breath and turned her attention to Bellamy on the opposite side of the table. He had clearly watched their exchange, but was trying his best to pretend otherwise, nibbling on a piece of buttered bread.

“I met your Grandmother on the stairs,” Belle murmured. She heard James draw a sharp breath, but did not turn to see his expression. “She said that she was going riding. Does she always do so?”

“Mm.” Bellamy nodded. “She always was a keen horsewoman. She taught me to ride, when I was but knee-high to a man.”

Belle could not help but smile. “You ride?”

“Awfully,” he admitted. “I cannot make the demmed creatures obey me for all the sugar lumps in the world. Give me a carriage and I am quite happy to be carted around by them, but astride? I swear they like to toss me for their own amusement.”

“It could not be that you have no sense of balance,” his father said quietly, his tone so much more subdued than it usually was. “I swear you would fall off a step if you turned to briskly.”

“Oh, I have done,” Bellamy said amiably. He looked thoughtfully at Belle. “Would you ride with Grandmama, if she asked?”

“No.” Both Bellamy and Belle looked at her husband in surprise for the sharp vehemence in his voice. His hands were resting on the very edge of the table, and there was some strange fear in his features. “No one should ride with her. She pushes too far and too fast. There have been accidents in the past.”

Belle felt a strange tightness in her belly, remembering what Bellamy had mentioned in passing the previous night: her husband’s father was killed unexpectedly in a riding accident. He did not want her to meet the same fate.

“I do not ride,” she said quietly. “I did not have the opportunity to learn.”

The relief that flooded his features was heartbreaking.

“Good,” he whispered. “Good.”

She looked away from him and to her breakfast. The food was simple fare, but all the more delicious for her hunger. She barely spoke as she ate, letting Bellamy lead what conversation there was, his father occasionally adding a word or two here and there.

Only once the food was done with and she was nursing her cup of tea did she look to her husband again. His hands were resting on the table, loosely laced together, and he was gazing into nothing, a tense look about his face.

“Bay,” Belle murmured, “might I have a moment with your father?”

Both father and son looked at her in surprise, but Bellamy nodded at once.

“I shall take a pipe on the terrace,” he said, rising from the chair and walking briskly towards the doors at the far end of the room. The message was clear enough: he would be outside the doors, if she needed to call him back.

In the moments after his departure, there was silence.

Belle took the napkin and delicately wiped her lips, then set it down.

“Do you recall,” she said quietly, “what you said to me, when I woke in our marital bed for the first time? Do you recall how you soothed me after that nightmare?”

Her husband lifted his eyes to her face. “I do, my Lady,” he said quietly.

“Then why,” she asked, “should the rules be any different for you, husband? You forbid me to bring my past to our bed, and yet, you would bring yours.” She forced herself to keep her eyes on his face, and he lowered his eyes, ashamed. “Am I aught like that woman? Would you prefer that I was?”

“No!” The vehemence in his voice once more startled her and he looked up to meet her eyes, some strange wild emotion there. “Belle, you are nothing like her.”

He pushed his chair back so forcefully that she flinched, and it took all her courage not to rise nor flee when he stepped closer to her. He dropped to his knees by her chair, one hand reaching out for hers, then jerking back, as if he feared she might reject his touch.

“You are nothing like her,” he repeated, his voice shaking. “I would not have you like her, not in any way.”

Belle looked down at him. She wished she could be angry or frustrated, anything but this quiet, aching sadness for her husband who was so clearly unhappy. “What hold does she have on you?” she asked quietly. “Why does she trouble you so that you would do as you did?”

He lowered his head. “Once,” he said quietly, “I considered taking her to be my wife.”

Belle closed her eyes, the blow now struck. So that was the cause, the truth of it. The reason that Regina looked at her with contempt and loathing was because Belle had taken the position she saw as rightfully hers.

He had considered it.

Those words rang in her ears.


Belle’s hand trembled, but she reached out and laid her hand on his bowed head. “Why did you not?” she asked quietly.

He lifted his head to gaze at her, her hand slipping to his cheek. She withdrew it at once. It was too intimate, too soon upon his ill behaviour. “You have seen what she does to me,” he said quietly. “I am an ill-tempered man at the best of times. She brings out the very hottest of my blood, simply to amuse herself. I do not… appreciate what it causes in me.”

“Yet, you let her stay.”

He looked towards the open doors. His expression was for once unguarded, desperately sad and utterly frank. “She all but raised Bay,” he said quietly. “She was a mother to him, when Bay’s own mother was ill, and after she passed. He knows that I shall never care for the woman, but he does, and for him, she may stay.” He looked back at Belle. “I fear you shall know her as I know her, without the rose-tinted glass that Bay sees her through.”

“I fear I already have,” Belle said quietly, remembering the expression in Regina’s eyes when they met on the staircase.

He looked at her with a sudden wildness in his eyes. “Did she harm you?” he asked, his hands wrapping about the arm of her chair. “Did she touch you?”

Belle shied back, alarmed. “No,” she said. “No more than to show me to this room. She spoke pleasantly enough, but I have known enough noblewomen who speak pleasantly but mean otherwise.”

“That damned bitch,” he whispered, sinking back on his heels. He looked at her, his expression so urgent that it made her heart race in something not unlike fear. “Promise me you shall not be alone with her, Belle. Have your maid or some other servant with you when you and she are alone.”

Belle stared at him. “Do you believe she would harm me?”

He ran a hand over his face. “I do not believe so,” he said, looking up at her, “but all the same, I would not risk your well-being for anyone.” He sat heavily on his heels. “Would that we had stayed in London. At least there, we might have had peace.”

She gazed at him quietly. “There, we would have had Aston and all of society to contend with,” she said. She took a fortifying breath and reached out to touch his cheek, lifting his face. “I have met women like her before, husband. You have brought a cat into the house of a raging aging tabby.” She managed to smile at him. “This cat may be small and young, but do not doubt that her claws are sharp. She will do me no harm.”

He turned his head to brush the very lightest of kisses across her palm. “Please God, I hope not,” he whispered. “Belle…”

She knew he intended to apologise once more, beg and plead and grovel, and it did not become him at all. She stopped his lips with her fingertips.

“No more,” she said quietly. “Will you promise that your thoughts are of me? That they will not stray to her?” He nodded urgently. She drew a breath again, calming herself, then brushed her fingers lightly across his cheek. “I am still your wife. So I shall remain. But for now, in name only. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” he said hoarsely. “Belle, I would never do such a thing again.”

She pushed her chair back and rose. “I do not doubt it,” she said quietly, “but for now, let it be enough that I allow you near me.”

He remained where he was, kneeling at her feet, and she laid her hand on his head, almost a benediction, before turning and walking towards the doors. Her legs were trembling and her heart pounding, but she felt stronger than she had moments before, and far braver.

Perhaps, she thought, this was what it was to be a Duchess.

Chapter Text

The next few days were made easier by the fact James was called away on business early the next morning.

He came to her chamber, though he did not enter, and explained quietly that there were matters at the shipyards demanding his attention. He said he would return as soon as business allowed, but meantime, she could look about the house and lands as she pleased.

It felt like they were strangers, Belle thought. In some way, they were. They hardly knew each other at all, even though they were man and wife.

They were standing on opposite sides of the doorway, their stances mirroring one another, hands folded stiffly before them. His eye was still puffed from her strike, and she knew her own arms were still as bruised as ever. The wounds were healing, but it felt as if the rift between them was only growing.

Yes, she was his wife, but he was afraid to touch her, as she was afraid to let him touch.

“I will miss you,” she said quietly, offering some small token that he was not as despised as he seemed to believe.

“And I you, my Lady,” he said, his voice a little rougher than usual.

When she offered her hand, it did not shake, though his still did as he caught her fingers and bowed over it. He looked up at her, and there was hope and fear and some desperate sadness in his eyes, a darker reflection of those she had first seen on their wedding day.

Only now did she begin to understand why.

Bellamy sought her out, immediately after his father’s departure, taking her out onto the terrace to take tea in the afternoon sunshine. “You do not feel too abandoned, I hope?” he asked, as she sipped at her tea.

She offered him a brief, small smile. “I think the respite will do us both good,” she said. “It has all been such a rush. It will be a relief to catch my breath for a moment.”

Bellamy leaned closer to stare at her searchingly. “And are you well?”

She lowered her eyes from his, her fingertips white against the edge of the saucer. “I shall be, I think,” she murmured. The nightmares, at least, had diminished. Seeing her husband trembling and shaken seemed to have driven them away. It was hard to fear a man who was too afraid to lay a finger on her, even in kindness.

“Are we having a tea party?”

Belle’s eyes flicked up, to see Regina ascending the terrace. She looked as regal as ever, in a summer gown and ridiculously fashionable hat. “Would you care to join us?” she offered, indicating the free chair close to Bellamy.

Regina’s lips turned up. “Why that’s very gracious of you,” she said. She paused, frowned. “I’m dreadfully sorry, my dear. You name seems to have slipped my mind.”

“Her name is Isabelle, Grandmama,” Bellamy said reproachfully. “I told you the very night she arrived.”

Regina turned her smile on him, and Belle could not help notice that it softened her expression, reaching her dark eyes. “You must recall, my dear,” she said, reaching over to pat his hand, “that I had been given something of a surprise that night.” She looked back at Belle and the frost returned. “One tends to miss information that might be considered important when one has been given something of a shock.”

“Oh, tush,” Bellamy snorted. “You remember every misdemeanour I ever caused as a child, and every one of them shocked you.”

Belle almost smiled at that. “It is no matter,” she murmured. “I am only glad I was informed of my Lady’s name. Otherwise, I might have called you Mother.”

“We couldn’t have that,” Regina said at once, a twitch of her mouth giving her away just enough. “Regina and Isabelle we are, and friends we shall be.”

Bellamy looked between them. “Perhaps, I should leave you to know one another better?” he suggested, rising from his seat. “A gentleman knows he should not interfere in the business between ladies.”

Belle’s heart leapt, remembering James’s words about being alone with his stepmother, but she knew that if she was not safe on a sunny terrace, with servants somewhere nearby, she could not be considered safe anywhere.

“I would find it a pleasure,” she said, smiling as if her life might depend upon it.

They smiled at each other across the teaset, as Bellamy made his leg and excused himself, leaving them alone. There was a maid standing just within the door, only just out of sight, but Belle preferred that this battle was between them alone.

She poured Regina’s tea, then set the teapot down.

“I trust you are well,” she murmured.

“Quite so, dear,” Regina said, smiling like a cat. “I am sorry you have lost your husband’s company so soon. The yards do command much of his time.”

Belle inclined her head. “He will return soon enough,” she said.

“A shame,” Regina murmured, stirring her tea with a silver spoon. “One would think his new bride would be far more important than the work he really has no business doing. After all, he has men who should do such things for him.”

Belle’s lips were still smiling, but she wondered if it would be the height of ill manners to throw the contents of her teacup in Regina’s face. “If something is important to him, I have no doubt he will return to it when he can.” She looked at her own tea, then raised her eyes to Regina. “And you. What do you find to do with yourself? You must have so little to occupy your time, as a widow in this lonely place.”

“I have my little diversions,” Regina said with a smile. “And, of course, James and Bellamy are my companions.”

“Alas, that I am quite stealing James from you,” Belle said, smiling so charmingly her cheeks ached. They were barely looking away from one another. “I hope you will not find matters too trying with only your charming Grandson for company.”

“La,” Regina said dismissively. “Bellamy is more a son to me than grandson.” She set her teacup down in her saucer delicately. “And his father has been more like a husband to me than my own husband ever was.”

Belle’s teeth ground together. The implication was clear, and if her husband’s response to the woman had not been suggestive enough, the very thought of this woman, this harlot, believing herself to have some claim to James, against his wishes, angered her more than she could say.

“Could you not find yourself a true husband, then?” she asked. Though she normally velvetted her claws for propriety, anger let slip a sharp edge. Regina’s eyes flashed, and she softened the words by adding, “After all, one so handsome as you should have no difficulty in drawing the eyes of any man.”

For a moment, Regina seemed to have been caught off-guard by the unexpected compliment. “I had no desire to wed another old gentleman,” she said, then the smile returned. “Though you, it seems, are quite taken with one.”

Belle set down her empty cup with a small, placid smile. “I appreciate the finer vintages,” she said.

That garnered an appreciative incline of Regina’s head. Her dark eyes narrowed a little. “You are nothing like Eliza,” she said. “I always thought James had a very particular type, but no. I can see little of that in you. Eliza and I, we were very alike, you see.”

Belle felt a flutter of anxiety. “Eliza?”

Triumph lit like a flame in Regina’s eyes. “Why, his first wife, of course. Did he not mention her to you?”

“Only by title, never by name,” Belle said, feeling foolish. She glossed over it as smoothly as she could. “You were friends, then?”

Regina’s expression faltered for a moment, almost into something like sadness. It looked strange, awkward on her refined features. “Yes,” she said quietly. “We were friends. She came here as a wife only months before I. Though my husband forbade me to speak with them, we were of an age and similar station, and this is a quite lonely part of the country.”

Belle watched her carefully.

For a moment, the woman seemed to have lost the rigid control of her own emotion, and it was all in relation to the late wife of a man she clearly had some hold over. Had grief thrown them together, when James’s wife, Eliza, had passed away?

“Perhaps, then,” Belle suggested quietly, in this crack in the icy façade, “we might be friends as you and she were?”

As suddenly as the emotion was there, it vanished like a shadow in the sun. “You think you can replace Eliza?” Regina’s eyebrows drew together, her expression ice-cold. “You are very presumptuous, Miss Maurice.”

That was a verbal slap to the face.

Belle stood up abruptly. “My name, Madam,” she said coolly, “is Mrs James Goldacre, though I would not be adverse to being called Duchess.” She curtseyed elegantly. “After all, Madam, that is my title now, not yours.”

She did not wait to hear Regina’s response, instead turning her back and descending the stairs into the gardens.

She did, however, hear the smash of the teaset being overturned.

Poor James, she thought, storming across the lawn. Surrounded by women with a penchant for smashing his china.

She walked briskly, the morning still so new that the dew was heavy on the grass. Her slippers and stockings were quite soaked by the time she reached the trees bordering the very edge of the gardens.

She darted in between the trees, and only once she was sure she was out of sight of the house did she sit down heavily on a thick, gnarled tree root. Her hands were still shaking from her encounter with Regina, and she knew she had probably gone too far, making herself a true enemy. Careful counsel might win friends, but the blatant disrespect overruled that very notion. To be called her family name was downright insulting.

She smoothed her skirts, trying to steady herself.

Bellamy would be very disappointed.

She had no doubt that his dear Grandmama would be bending his ear, whispering all about the rude and wicked new Duchess.

Belle forced the thought aside. It did not matter what the Dowager Duchess thought of her. It was not she who had started this war between them. She only responded to parry against Regina’s words. She did not ask to be baited or taunted or mocked, but she would not merely sit and tolerate such insults.

To divert herself, she looked around at the forest about her.

The gardens had been striking enough, groomed and designed beautifully, but the forest was breathtaking. She could hear birds trilling overhead, though the types she could not recognise, and the scent of nature wrapped around her like a cloak, the air humid and verging towards warm.

She arranged herself on the tree root, leaning back against the mossy trunk.

It was almost like her father’s estate, when it had gone half-wild at the edges. She loved it there, the trees grown so thick together that the only sunlight that could break through was green and pale and made it feel as if she were swimming in some mysterious underwater world, surrounded by strange plants and flowers.

She plucked idly at the moss with one hand, letting her eyes wander over the different trees, identifying those she could and studying those she couldn’t curiously. Her mother had taught her all the names of the trees on their estate in both English and French, and she murmured them softly to herself.

It was a long time since she had really thought on her mother, or in French.

Belle closed her eyes briefly, wondering what Mama would have thought of her new husband and this grand house he had brought her to. She would probably have laughed at the position, but his love for his son, his lands and the shipyards that were his own would have done him credit. He was not wholly dependent on his title for his fortune. Mama would have liked that.

Papa liked him.

She liked him.

She did.

He was her husband, and he was a good man. She knew he was. One mistake, when he was clearly distressed and shaken, could not undo what she knew of him. He had been nothing but gentle with her on every other occasion. He had tended her when she was wounded. He had carried her to her room, when she was too weak to walk. He had knelt, submissive and broken, when he knew he had hurt her.

Despite her best intentions, her eyes grew moist again.

She breathed in and breathed deep, swallowing in great lungful of fresh air.

Though a tear or two may have escaped, she refused to give in to self-pity. She was holding her own against the Dowager Duchess, and when her husband returned, she would sit with him and they might find some means to understand one another better.

She rose from the tree root, determined to walk a litter further. It felt better to be out of the confines of the house and away from the eyes of dozens of servants. While she did not mind their presence, it felt freeing to be without them for a while.

She climbed over fallen logs, walking along them, her skirts gathered in one hand. She hopped across a stream, using rocks as stepping stones. Her shoes and stockings, already damp, were wet through again, but she could not care less, feeling utterly free for the first time in months.

Her father was safe, protected by Lady Eaglesham.

She had a husband and did not need to be concerned about seeking a match.

Yes, there were troubles, such as her husband’s lapse in control, Aston and her newest enemy, but they could and would be faced. Now, though, she was free and there was fresh air on her face and the scent of nature all about her, and all felt well.

Quite how long she wandered, she was not sure, but it was coming close on noon when she sat to rest.

The sun was high, breaking through the branches, dappling across the forest floor in delicate patterns. It was mesmerising, strangely calming, to watch, and she settled at the foot of a grand oak, leaning against the rough bark.

It seemed it was even more calming than she realised, for she was woken by someone coughing close at hand.

It was not a cough of someone ill, but the cough of someone attempting to garner attention in as polite a way as possible.

Belle opened her eyes to find a silhouette standing over her, the sun directly behind it. She raised a hand to shield her eyes, and realised that it was a man. He was some years older than Bellamy, with a much coarser look. His clothes spoke of labour and his face was unshaven.

“Good day, Miss,” he said. “Are you lost?”

Belle sat up, looking around. She could guess which was she had come from, but it was probably not wise to do so. “I was walking,” she admitted sheepishly. “I left Westfell house this morning, and I’m afraid I have no idea how to get back.”

The man laughed. “No tae worry,” he said. “You’re still on Master Jamie’s land.” He offered her a hand. “Cannae hae his guests getting lost in his woods, can we?” She hesitated, warily, and he drew his hand back. “How would you like some soup? I’ve got some back at the lodge?”

“The lodge?” she said, picking herself up.

He nodded. “My wee spit of home,” he said. “It’s quite a walk back to Master Jamie’s house, and you’ll be half-starved. The lodge is only a little way north, and then we can get you back to the house before anyone even notices you’re gone.”

Belle hesitated again. He seemed harmless enough, but then, she had thought so of others before. “I think I should really start back,” she said, offering him a tentative smile. “Maybe another day for soup?”

“Aye, Miss,” he said, jerking his head. “We’ll go the quickest way, if you don’t mind muddying your shoes?”

She looked down at her skirts. They were muddied enough that the shoes were probably even worse. “I think they’re past salvation,” she admitted. “The quickest way is fine.”

He moved like a deer, leaping lightly from root to rock, pausing to check on her progress and keeping a polite distance from her. The path was a little rougher than the one she had used, but it was a challenge and she enjoyed that.

“Do you live on the Duke’s land?” she asked, pausing to catch her breath.

The man looked back with a quick smile. “Master Jamie’s, aye,” he said. “His father would have drummed me out, but Master Jamie thinks it useful to hae someone who knows the land keeping an eye on the forest as well as the grounds.”

She looked at him. “What’s your name?” she asked.

He looked at her in surprise. “Graham, Miss. Rab Graham.”

“Graham,” Belle murmured, then smiled. “And you call the Duke Master Jamie? That’s very informal.”

Graham snorted in amusement, reaching out to steady her as they descended a muddy bank by a stream. “Master Jamie doesn’t stand on ceremony, when he’s tanning your hide for stealing his father’s rabbits,” he said.

Belle’s eyes widened. “You’re a poacher?”

“Was, Miss,” Graham said, offering his hands again to help her across the stream. She took them this time, and was grateful she had, when one of the rocks tilted beneath her feet. “Like I said, Master Jamie lets me work the land for him now. Easier for him to hae me hunting his poachers than hae me poaching instead.”

Belle laughed. “That’s… practical of him,” she said.

“Aye, Miss,” Graham agreed. “That’s the word he used.”

She looked at him curiously. “Have you been here long?”

“All but seven years,” he replied, as he led her up a slope, using roots as footholds. He looked back at her with a curious expression on his face. “You ask a lot of questions for a visitor, Miss.”

She shrugged with a small smile. “I’m a curious person,” she said. “And I have never met a former poacher before.”

“And I’ve nae found a sleeping lady in the woods afore.” He leaned closer conspiratorially and said, “I might have thought you a shìth, if I hadnae seen that you were breathing like a living soul.”

“A shìth?” she echoed, frowning.

His brown eyes glinted with mischief. “A faerie, Miss.”

She stared at him, then laughed. “A faerie? Me?”

“Why else would a pretty lady all covered in mud and moss be in the woods?” he said, pushing aside a low branch for her, and helping her over a cracked stump. “I cannae think of any reason for such a thing.”

“Perhaps she just wanted to take some air,” she suggested.

“Och,” Graham said with a laugh. “You’re a town lass right enough. Only they think of ‘taking some air’. To the rest of us, it’s just breathing.”

She smiled ruefully. “Maybe I was just breathing, then?” she suggested.

He laughed again, pushing through thick brush. “Aye, you were that,” he said. “And snoring like a hog in muck.”

Belle stopped dead, a blush rising rapidly up her face. “I did no such thing.”

He looked over his shoulder at her, and she could swear he was trying not to laugh. “If you insist, Miss,” he said. “This way. We’re no a long way off from the house now.” He paused, raising a hand. “What’s your name, Miss? I think someone is calling you.”

“Isabelle,” she replied cautiously, listening as hard as she could.

“Aye,” he said, catching her by the hand and leading her down a narrow gully. “Sounds like you hae been missed after all.”

They emerged from the edge of the forest a good fifty paces from the point where she had entered, and her companion cupped his hands around his mouth, calling out a loud halloo. A moment later, Bellamy rushed out of the forest, the anxious look on his face fading at the sight of them both.

“There you are!” he exclaimed, rushing up to them and embracing Belle. “I feared you had become quite lost.”

She looked sheepishly at her feet. “I had,” she said. “Master Graham was kind enough to bring me back, after he found me wandering.”

Bellamy looked at Graham, who was staring between them. “Thank you, Rab,” he said, reaching out to clasp Graham’s shoulder. “Father would have been most displeased if I had lost his new wife within hours of his departure.”

Graham’s mouth opened in surprise, and he bowed hastily. “You didnae say you were the Duchess, Mi… er… your Grace!”

Belle coloured deeply. “I did not wish to be for a moment,” she said self-consciously.

Graham shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “I hadnae heard that Master Jamie had married, Master Bay,” he said gruffly, avoiding Belle’s eyes. “There was nothing ill-favoured, I promise you that. I barely touched the lady.”

“There was no question of that,” Bellamy said quietly, his hand still resting on Graham’s shoulder in silent reassurance. “Rab, don’t worry. I know you wouldn’t have pressed yourself on the lady, and the lady would certainly not have pressed herself on you.”

Graham lifted his eyes to Bellamy gratefully. “Your father willnae be displeased?”

“I think he’ll be more pleased that we didn’t lose her utterly,” Bellamy said. He lifted his hand from Graham’s shoulder, turning his attention to Belle. “Mama, did you and Grandmama fall out? Grandmama would not say what had passed between you, but she was quite upset.”

Belle looked at him in surprise. “She did not say?”

He shook his head. “She seldom does, when she is upset, but I know her well enough to know when her smiles are false,” he murmured. “I had hoped you would be friends. I have no doubt this is a lonely place for her, but it is her home.”

Belle rubbed at a stain on her skirt. “If she wishes to be,” she said quietly, “we shall be, but she gives me no impression that she would want such a thing.”

Bellamy sighed hugely. “Womenfolk,” he declared, “make no sense whatsoever. You were all smiles and niceties when I departed, and when I returned, you are lost in the woods and Grandmama is picking up the pieces of a broken teaset.” He shook his head. “It is much simpler to be a man.”

Belle reached out to touch his arm. Surely, she or Regina had to show themselves to be the better woman, and if that meant unbending her pride a notch, then so be it. “If you will speak to her,” she said, “please let her understand that I am willing to be friends, and that if I have offended, it was only because I felt I was offended in turn. I have offered my hand, but I cannot make her accept what is put before her.”

Bellamy embraced her abruptly. “Thank you, mama,” he said quietly. He drew back and looked at her, his expression serious. “It has been many a year since there has been in peace in this house. I would that you can help me rediscover it.”

“I am only a woman, Bay,” she said quietly. “I cannot make miracles.”

He tapped the end of her nose. “You made father smile,” he said. “That is quite a start.”

Belle looked down. “Less so now, I fear.”

Bellamy lifted her chin gently. “We shall, then, the both of us together.” He smiled. “I know it is a terrible burden to ask you to shoulder, mama, but would you not like to be happy in this house? For I would like you to be. And father. And grandmama.”

He looked at her so hopefully and earnestly that she could not refuse. “I can but try,” she said with a sigh.

Bellamy smiled at that. “That is enough for now,” he said. He looked at Graham. “And you have a new and loyal friend.”

Graham’s cheeks darkened and he ran a hand through his rumpled dark curls. “If you say so, Master Bay.”

Bellamy looked at the man with an uncharacteristically quiet smile. “Aye, Rab,” he said quietly. “I do.”

Belle hesitated, then asked, “Graham, might we walk again in the woods?” He looked at her in surprise. “I would like to learn the difference betwixt taking air and breathing. You seem the fellow to teach me best.”

Graham darted a look at Bellamy. “Will people nae find it unsuitable, your Grace?” he asked her, shifting from foot to foot.

Bellamy answered for her. “When has this house ever let that stop them?” he asked quietly.

Belle glanced at him, wondering at his choice of words, then to Graham again. “If you feel uncomfortable, I can bring a maid also,” she offered. “A chaperone, if you will.” She tangled her hands together. “Please, I would like to know these lands better.”

Graham looked askance at Bellamy again, and the Marquis nodded at once. “Aye, then, your Grace,” he said. “I’ll be your guide.”

Chapter Text

Graham was as good as his word.

When Belle was not exploring the house or dining with Bellamy, the groundskeeper took her on walks in the forest that skirted the gardens. It was far bigger than she imagined, and on the dryer days, they could walk for any number of miles.

He taught her the names of the plants she didn’t know, though some of them, she was sure he was making up, if the glint in his eye was anything to judge him by. She started collecting wildflowers she did not recognise too, pressing them in the evenings between heavy books from the library.

It was such a simple thing, to return to nature.

Too often, she had run wild on father’s lands. Mama encouraged it, telling her to know the world around her, and now, in this new place, it felt right to know this world.

Graham knew the lands well and picked out the easiest paths, though his manner was more reserved than their first encounter. It seemed that her title and position stopped his tongue from time to time, which saddened her.

He did, however, speak of her husband, when she asked.

It seemed that he had been but a child when he had been caught poaching. James’s father was still alive then, and wanted him flogged or even hanged for the crime, but James had taken Graham under his protection, and that arrangement had lasted well over twenty-five years. He spoke of James with such fondness that Belle found herself missing her husband, despite the terms on which they had parted.

She still spent time with Bellamy and - occasionally - with Regina. It was easier to be cordial to the woman when Bellamy was present. His sallies and smiles seemed to ease the hostility from Regina, as much as they calmed Belle’s own temper. The older woman’s dark eyes still watched her guardedly, as if expecting some verbal strike, but Belle knew that as long as Regina kept a civil tongue in her head, she could do the same.

Bellamy wanted them to be at peace, and even if the woman wanted naught more than to drive her out, if Bellamy believed they could be friends, then she would work to become so.

All the same, it was a trial each and every time.

There was such history between the Dowager Duchess and Bellamy.

Once, Belle saw them sitting in the gardens when she returned from a walk with Graham, Ellanor huffing along at her heels. She shooed the maid towards the house, pausing just out of sight of her stepson and the older woman, concealed by a statue of some kind of nymph. She could only see Regina in profile, and the top of Bellamy’s tousled head.

“You know father does not make decisions lightly, Grandmama,” Bellamy said. He was sprawling back on the stone bench, his head resting in Regina’s lap. One foot was propped on a cherub statue at the far end of the bench.

“Less than at three weeks, and but four encounters, Bay,” Regina murmured. She was looking down on him and stroking her fingers through his hair gently. “How is it that is not considered a decision made lightly?”

Belle bit down on her lower lip, sinking to sit on the statue’s pedestal, her back to the stone limbs. Of course they were talking of the courtship.

Bellamy laughed ruefully. “Ah, but she made quite an impression after the fashionable set,” he said. “You know how peculiar father can be. He came in, stamping and huffing, and she was not in the least afraid.”

“Why would anyone fear a dragon who blows nothing but smoke?” Regina said, a sneer in her voice, but even without seeing her face, Belle could hear there was no true venom in her words. “McEwan said she was penniless and her father verging on disgrace.”

“True, alas,” Bellamy agreed, and Belle flinched as he added, “They barely had two farthings to rub together.”

“And now, she is Duchess, wife of one of the most wealthy men in Scotland. Convenient.”

Belle heard Bellamy snort. “Stuff and nonsense, Grandmama!” he said. “If you believe that Isabelle gives a fig for father’s fortune, you are quite mistaken. She was betrothed to a man, a brute of a creature, because she was too proud to confess their troubles to anyone.”

“Betrothed elsewhere?” Regina’s frown was audible in her voice.

Belle wished she had the nerve to make her presence known, to prevent Bellamy from telling the unfortunate tale. Even now, it felt that Regina only sought weapons to use against her, but she dared not speak up to admit she was eavesdropping on them.

What was said next, however, brought her up short.

“Mm. You remember Baron Alderley?”

“I remember mention of him in your letters,” she agreed. “The upstart fellow with a crude tongue and cruder manners?”

“That’s the chap,” Bellamy agreed, crossing his ankles one over the other. “His son, George, and I met at Finsbury. I never met a sorer loser than young Aston. Bashed his team-mate quite black and blue over a misstruck ball. Dem near killed the fellow over a game with barely any stakes at all.”

Belle leaned against a nearby statue, feeling quite sick. No wonder he had tried his best to warn her away from Aston, that first night. It wasn’t simply out of concern for her discomfort, but concern for her well-being in the company of such a man.

Regina was silent for a long while. “The little ninny was engaged to him?” she finally asked quietly. “What kind of fool is she? His reputation was quite damning enough, even without knowing of that incident.”

“A desperate one, Grandmama,” Bellamy murmured and Belle covered her mouth to smother a small, tight sob. “He dressed her up, paraded her like a show-horse, and would have quite broken her, and she would have let him, as the only means she had to keep her father from the poorhouse.”

“Ah.” There was a depth of understanding to the sound that startled Belle in her hiding place, and she dared to peek out. Regina’s expression was uncommon stern, as if carved from the same stone as the statues around them. “And instead, your father sees a pretty and desperate young thing, and weds her without a thought, then flees off to his yards rather than face the consequences of his thoughtless behaviour.” She laughed bitterly. “In that way, he is like his father, not a thought for what might follow his actions.”

Bellamy sat up and took Regina’s hands in his own. The tenderness in his expression quite took Belle’s breath. “Do not be angry with him, Grandmama, or with Isabelle. You know he means no offence to you.”

Regina sighed, lifting her hand to stroke his cheek. “You think so well of him,” she said. “I would that you could see what a stubborn fool he can be.”

“La, Madam,” he said with a laugh, catching her hand and kissing it. “I know well enough. I merely need to look in the mirror.”

Regina laughed, the sound soft, barely audible, catching Belle utterly by surprise. “My sweet, silly boy,” she murmured. “You are more your mother’s son in nature than your father’s. You trust so easily.”

“I trust those I know to be trustworthy,” he replied with a smile. “Now, come, Grandmama. I am growing parched with all this chatter. We shall have tea in the parlour, then I shall see if I can find my little Mama, to see if she will join us for dinner.”

Belle slipped down behind the statue, hidden by statue and shrubberies.

“Your little Mama,” Regina said with a sniff. “Some half dozen years younger than you and you call her Mama? And what am I left with? The name of crone. And all I did was raise you, you ungrateful little toad.”

Bellamy laughed. “Oh, Grandmama, you know I adore you, and that is why I call you so.”

There was a wet, smacking sound and Regina exclaimed in disgust. “Oh, you filthy little cretin! Have I not forbidden you from kissing my face! You slobber worse than the hounds at feeding time!”

“You have also forbidden me to call you Grandmama,” he said as they swept passed Belle’s hiding place, “and yet, I do.”

Belle watched them go, walking arm in arm towards the house.

Her legs were shaking much more than she cared to admit.

It was all too much to try and understand, to know that from the first time he met her, Bellamy was trying to save her from a violent and cruel man. To know that Regina somehow understood the significance of sacrificing one’s own well-being for the sake of one’s family. To know that the woman had believed her to have married James solely for financial gain and status.

Regina was not simply the Dowager Duchess. She had been friend to James’s wife. She had all but been mother to Bellamy, after his own mother’s demise. Perhaps there had been other more intimate relationships between James and his step-mother, but Belle realised that the woman was only protecting that which had been hers to protect for years.

She believed Belle to be a selfish fortune hunter, so no wonder she spoke out in hostility.

And yet, even as Belle considered this new information, she could not help thinking of her husband, and his harsh words. He believed his stepmother dangerous. He spoke of her as if she had committed some awful sin against him, and for her part, Regina seemed to hold some bitter grudge bound up in a flame of affection.

She spoke of him with such contempt, of his disappearance to the ship yards, of his motives for marrying Belle, and yet, beneath it all, there was some strange emotion that Belle could not quite grasp.

It was all so complicated. Her own parents had been so simple by comparison: her father loved her mother, married her, and even though he lost his reputation and his fortune, he was happy enough with his family.

She could not imagine growing in an unhappy household. Bellamy’s words rang back to her that there had not been peace in this house for a long while. He clearly loved both his father and his step-grandmother, and yet, they clearly loathed one another.

Belle couldn’t help but wonder what had changed.

James had said, after all, that he considered marrying the woman years before. There must have been some affection there once, no matter how inappropriate it seemed to marry one’s father’s widow.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, turning over everything that she knew. At least in town, there was the gossip-mill. Information was scattered like dust in the wind in town, but here, it was all hidden secrets and sadness. It was confusing and painful, and sometimes, quite frightening.

In the end, she forced herself to her feet, but could not face returning to the house.

Instead, she walked around the edge of the grand building, seeking out the tiny, private chapel. She had stumbled on it only the day before, and it looked like little more than a stable, but within, it was the most peaceful place she had found on the estate.

There were only a dozen benches, all of them polished and gleaming, and on the walls, there were small plaques and memorial stones to those long gone. Some of them were faded almost to nothing, but others were newer, with names she was coming to recognise from the portraits around the grand hall.

She sat down on the bench closest to the doors, facing the back of the chapel.

There was a stone plaque there, the memorial to a woman she wished she could meet, to know what had happened to break apart the Rutherglen family.

It was a simple engraved stone, with no title. It simply read Elizabeth Lucas Goldacre, and was followed by the dates of her life and the quote ‘Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

Bellamy had freely confessed that he could barely remember his mother. He was but four years and ten months when she had passed away, and the only recollections he had were of a dark and lovely woman, who always smiled for him and would let him curl beside her on her bed.

There seemed to be no paintings of her displayed openly within the house, no matter where Belle looked. She had explored most every part of the house, sometimes with Bellamy, sometimes alone. There were galleries with row upon row of painting of the Rutherglen ancestors, and yet no sign of the former Duchess.

Belle did not tell Bellamy that was who she sought, for fear it might alarm him. After all, it must seem quite morbid to try and find the face of one's predecessor. The only place she could think that there might be any such painting was in James's chamber, but she could not yet face that room.

Belle gazed at the memorial stone.

Elizabeth - Eliza - Lucas must have married James when she was but eighteen years old, younger even than Belle was now. That she and James had eloped was scandal enough, but Belle knew the Lucas name. Anyone who moved in even the fringes of court circles did. There were ties to Royalty there, and she had no doubt that Eliza Lucas' parents had been outraged that a mere second son of a Duke with no prospects had stolen away one of their prizes.

The scandal must have been terrible indeed, if James's father had considered disinheriting his younger son. The marker to James's brother showed he died some months after his brother married, though the details of his death were nowhere to be found in the chapel, but it was enough that his demise had left the title to his downtrodden younger brother.

James seemed to delight in rebelling against society's expectations of him. First to marry such a high-born lady in such a scandalous way, then to live with his father's widow, a rumour which had fortunately not extended beyond the walls of Westfell, and then to wed again, to a penniless and desperate Viscount's daughter.

It could surely not simply come down to rebelliousness.

One did not simply steal away a woman on her wedding day out of a need to thumb a nose at society.

There was love there, Belle had no doubt. He had loved his first wife. The very words carved on the memorial stone revealed that. The presence of Regina also made some manner of sense: she was a link to his lost wife, a mother-figure for his son, and once, he had perhaps cared for her.

Yet, why he had married Belle herself, Belle could not fathom. Sometimes, she thought he might hold affection for her, though she could not understand why. When he looked at her, there was such longing in his eyes, that she might almost believe he could love her.

"Would that you could help me," she whispered, rising and brushing her fingertips across Eliza's engraved name. "How can I help your husband find peace? Your son? Your friend?" She lingered a moment, as if she might hear some whisper across the decades, but there was only silence.

She emerged from the little chapel, momentarily dazzled by daylight.

Rather than return immediately to the house, she elected to wander along the edge of the grounds once more. It was easier to think when there was no one to intrude on the process, and she walked on and on, lost in thought. Her feet ached, but she only stopped when she heard a call.

Belle turned to see Graham standing on the edge of the forest-line, watching her. He had a deer slung over his shoulder. "I wouldae thought you'd walked enough already, your Grace," he said, as she walked back towards him.

She offered a rueful smile. "Sometimes, fresh air helps clear my head," she said. "A successful hunt?"

He patted the haunch of the carcass. He didn't seem to notice that there was blood matting his hair. "Aye," he said. "It's only a wee one, but it'll keep for Master Jamie's return. There are too many for the land to manage, so I thought it best to cull a few of the younger bucks." He offered her a knowing smile. "The big house disnae complain if there's extra venison on the table."

"May I walk back to the house with you, then?" Belle asked.

He looked around. "Your little maid?"

"Worn out, I fear," Belle admitted. She folded her hands demurely. "Have no fear, Graham. I shall restrain myself with all the decorum I can muster. Your virtue is safe."

To her amusement, the huntsman blushed. "It's only that it's no proper, milady," he said, ducking his head. "A fine lady like yourself in the company of one such as me."

"We are only walking," Belle demurred, "and you are far too burdened down to do anything one might think of as improper." She looked at him imploringly. "Please, I would have someone to distract me from the thoughts that make my head whirl."

He nodded reluctantly. "If it'll help, your Grace."

She smiled more strongly and nodded.

Together, they set back across the broad expanse of the gardens.

For a few moments, Graham was silent, then he asked, "What is it that troubles you, your Grace?"

Belle smoothed a rumple from her skirt as they walked. "Only finding my place within the household," she admitted. She hesitated, folding her hands before her. "I cannot begin to understand the relations between them, nor if I am even suited to be here at all."

"Ah," Graham said with a nod. "You speak of the Lady and Master Jamie. Aye, they have butted heads many a time." He smiled briefly, crookedly. "It was not always so."

Belle glanced sidelong at him, her heart pounding. "No?"

"Och, no," he said. "She was brought here as a young bride, wed to his father."

"Bellamy mentioned," she murmured. "Something about his grandfather wanting fresh heirs to replace James?"

Graham snorted. "Aye," he said. "After his brother got himself killed in a hunt, Jamie thought he might be safe to come home, as the only heir." He shook his head. "The old Duke was a right and proper bastard, if you don't mind me saying so. He despised Master Jamie, and thought him too soft to be a proper Lord." He paused, hiking the deer carcass higher on his shoulder, shifting the weight. "When Master Jamie brought home his stolen bride, one he'd carried off to Gretna to keep out of an ancient sot's greedy hands, his father thrashed him to within an inch of his life."

Belle shuddered. "He sounds like a horrible man."

Graham offered her a lop-sided smile. "He was a big man with a ready fist," he said. "Master Jamie only escaped with his life because of Miss Eliza. Any Duke would hae been pleased to hae such a high-ranked daughter-in-law, but she faced him, as fierce as a hellcat, and he didnae like that. That's when the Lady was brought in. He wanted fresh sons and he wanted to be sure that Master Jamie knew it was being done."

"And she befriended James's wife?"

Graham nodded. "As close as cousins," he agreed. "The Duke didnae want them to talk, but you know what ladies are, for talking in secret whispers and corners."

"And now, James and she are at loggerheads. Was it when James's wife..." She hesitated.

"Not at all, milady," Graham replied. "They were at peace for some years, all their attention on wee Master Bellamy. The lad was doted on. T'was when he went off for schooling, some years later. Master Jamie willnae speak of what happened, but I dinnae doubt it was some awfy row."

"Some awful row," Belle echoed quietly, looking up at the house. It must have been awful indeed for James to speak of the woman in such bitter tones, some ten years on, and for Regina to look at him as if she wished she might both embrace him and strangle him with her bare hands.

He stopped on the path, looking at her. "You shouldnae worry, milady," he said. "You have a great heart and enough will to make yourself a place here." He offered her a smile. "And I see Master Bay will keep on hunting for you, whenever you go astray."

"He will?"

The huntsman nodded beyond her with a smile. Bellamy had just turned the corner of the building and was striding towards her, a stern look on his face.

"Mama, if you persist in wandering off, I shall have a string tied about you that I can find you!"

Belle wrinkled her nose at him. "I was walking with Graham this morning," she said, "as you well know, and have only been in the chapel and the gardens since."

He huffed. "You missed tea," he said indignantly, "There were even scones!"

Belle's lips twitched. "I am deeply ashamed," she said. "Will you forgive me?"

He folded his arms, feigning indignation. "Only this once," he finally said, then glanced sidelong at Graham. "Hunting, were you?"

"Aye, Master Bay."

Bellamy stepped closer, examining the carcass, then grinned boyishly at the other man. "You spoil us, Rab," he said. "It's a fine specimen."

Graham snorted in amusement. "It's just a wee thing, Master Bay," he said. "Your father might consider it a small wedding gift for him and the lady." He patted the buck's haunch again and offered Belle a bow of his head. "If you'll excuse me, milady, I'll hae it taken to the kitchens."

"Of course," Belle said with a smile. "Thank you, Graham."

The huntsman bowed as much as he could, then set off around the edge of the building.

"He's a demmed good fellow," Bellamy said, watching him depart. "Father was very wise, when he took him on as our groundsman."

"He knows the lands around here very well," Belle said, taking Bellamy's arm, leaning closer to confide, "Though I think he doubt my intentions, when I say I would walk with him in the woods."

Bellamy looked down at her in amusement. "He believes my virtuous mama would woo him?" he said, as they walked back towards the main doors of the house. He shook his head, half-laughing. "Well, I suppose he is a handsome fellow, in a very hirsute, blood-spattered way." He nudged at her playfully. "You don't intend to have your wicked way with him, do you, mama?"

"Bellamy!" she exclaimed, blushing and laughing in equal measure. "You are more likely to do so than I!"

Bellamy gaped at her. "Mama!" he protested, sputtering. His cheeks were quite flushed. "That is quite ridiculous!"

They both huffed and stared at one another, then broke into helpless giggles.

She patted his arm, once their mirth was calmed. "I vow, Bay, I have no intentions towards young Master Graham," she said, "but to learn a little more about the land hereabouts."

Bellamy shook his head, smiling. "I have no doubt he shall be most relieved to hear it. Poor rough baggage. He has quite enough to deal with, what with the deer running rampant and poachers creeping in. To have the Duchess pining for him..." He shuddered. "The poor fellow would have to flee for the hills."

Belle swatted his arm again. "You are a beast," she declared. "An absolute beast."

"Alas," Bellamy said gloomily, "such traits are hereditary."

For a moment, Belle's thoughts drifted to his grandfather, and all that she had heard of him. James's first wife had been saved from a cruel marriage, and no doubt, Regina had been protected from the same by her stepson. Even now, she too was protected by his name and rank, and he had put distance between them that she might feel safer still.

"No, Bay," she said with quiet understanding. "Some traits are not."

Chapter Text

“At least we can’t go walking today,” Ellanor said smugly.

Belle pulled a face at her maid, as they looked out of the window. The rain was beating against the window, drumming a rhythmless tattoo. The land outside seemed to be covered in a thick, dull cloud of grey, even the end of the gardens obscured.

Despite her obedience to her Mistress, Ellanor made no secret that she did not especially like the countryside. All the greenery, she said, was too big and wide-open, and she missed the feel of good, solid cobbles and road beneath her feet. Even so, she still had collected enough posies to fill a dozen small pots and bowls around their room.

“If I may, Miss,” Ellanor said hopefully, “perhaps I can go down to the kitchens. Cook said she’ll teach me how to make proper cakes for supper.”

Belle waved her away, looking out of the window with a sigh. Her daily walks had been enjoyable, and there were still so many parts of the forest to see and explore. She went to her desk, sitting down and taking up her pen.

Each morning, after breakfast, she wrote a page-long letter to her father, telling him of all that she was seeing and learning, even though any correspondence was only take twice weekly. Her father had slipped one of his seals into her possessions before they went to her wedding, and each letter she wrote was carefully sealed with his crest.

She neglected to mention the troubles within the family, for it would not do to concern him, but she spoke well of Bellamy and of the fact that her husband’s yards were having trouble that kept him away at length. She described the grounds, the gardens, the house, the library which had taken her breath so sharply that she could barely dare to venture back yet.

The letter of the day was much the same, lamenting that she was experience the wetter of Scotland’s weather for the first time. She mentioned the little chapel in the grounds and that she and the Dowager Duchess Regina had taken a quite civilised supper together. She concluded the letter in saying she would write again soon, and sealed several of her pressed flowers into the little parcel.

She made her way to the dining room, surprised to find Regina standing by the window, looking out at the grounds. She looked as disheartened as Belle felt at the grey weather. Belle hesitated at the door. It was the first time they had been alone together since Bellamy had intervened and insisted they take their meals altogether.

“You cannot ride this morning?” she said carefully, one hand resting against the door.

Regina whirled, and for a moment, her features were not as blank as usual. Then she smiled, quick and bright. It was a smile Belle was beginning to recognise as one that a lady learned to use, no matter how she was feeling within. In society, it was essential.

“Unfortunately not,” she said. “I would, but the ground can be treacherous when wet.”

Belle walked a little further into the room. “I was hoping to walk today,” she said, offering the chance to simply talk as an olive branch. “The forests here are much wilder and more beautiful than any near my home.”

Regina’s eyes fixed on her face. There was less hostility, it was true, but there was still some manner of suspicion there. “Only the forests?” the Dowager Duchess asked, folding her hands one over the other before her waist.

Belle drew a breath. The question could have been asked much more pointedly. Regina had sheathed her blade. The edge was still there, but it was covered now. “Only the forests,” she replied quietly, meeting Regina’s eyes. “When my husband returns, I hope he will show me the rest of his lands, but in his absence, I must seek other guidance. I would not wish to be lost.”

Regina gazed at her for a long while, putting her head to one side. All at once, she extended a hand to Belle. “Come, my dear,” she said, beckoning. “I think we may have stepped out upon the wrong foot.”

Belle hesitated only a moment before approaching. Bellamy’s obvious affection for the woman, and the exchange she had witnessed had brushed aside a large part of her wariness, but James’s obvious hostility still concerned her.

“I truly did not mean to try and replace the late Duchess,” she said, the words tripping from her lips clumsily. “I did not mean to imply so.”

Regina’s expression softened a little, enough to allow the smallest of smiles to reach her eyes. “Tush, child, I know that,” she said, drawing Belle to sit with her at the table. “You were hardly to know you were putting your finger to a tender wound.”

Belle felt colour burning in her cheeks. She licked her lips nervously, and said, “I meant no offence in what was said before.”

Regina actually laughed, her dark eyes glinting with quiet mirth. “Oh, I believe I deserved every word of it,” she admitted ruefully. “I have been so long and so far from society that I forgot the foremost decencies that befit a lady.” She took Belle’s hand between both of hers and looked at her with grave earnestness. “Might we begin again?”

Belle looked down at their linked hands, then up at the older woman’s face.

There was still the question of what was between Regina and James. That thought curled away in her mind like a worm at the heart of an apple, but Bellamy wanted peace in the house, and Belle was brave enough to offer friendship to a woman who smiled like a tiger, even though it frightened her.

If she was to make a home here, she would rather it were peaceful, than at war. The cat could withdraw her claws, but they would still be there, if needed.

“We might try,” she said quietly.

Something not unlike relief crossed Regina's face. "Bellamy speaks well of you," she said, "and I hope he knows what he is about."

"And of you," Belle said, withdrawing her hand from Regina's, to lace her fingers together in her lap. "I was not forewarned that there would be another lady in the house." She dared a brief, tentative smile. "It was something of a shock to be told of a Dowager Duchess. I imagined a silver-haired old woman."

Regina's nose wrinkled slightly. "Most do," she admitted. "I was not brought into the household to be a grand and elegant Duchess, as you have no doubt heard from Bellamy. They needed fresh blood, and I was seen as suitably-ranked and vital enough."

Belle hesitated. "You were very young?"

"Fifteen," Regina replied quietly. "Barely that."

Belle blanched. "I'faith," she stammered, "that is very young to be wed in this age."

"Aye," Regina said. Her smile remained, but there was tension about it. "It was that." She gazed at Belle. "You are fortunate, dear. You have some years on me."

Belle lowered her eyes. What little she had learned of Regina was beginning to take a familiar and unpleasant shape. If the previous Duke was as terrible as Graham implied, she had all but been bought as a child bride for the simple purpose of being a brood mare for an angry and cruel man.

"And you have been here since?"

"I have," Regina murmured. "I might have returned to my family, had I wished it, but the new Duke and Duchess offered me a place here." Belle looked up to find the woman smiling wistfully, looking to the window. "It became my home."

Belle folded her hands together. No wonder the woman had hated her on sight. She had believed Belle would drive her from a place that had been her home for near twenty years, away from the man who was all but her son.

"Perhaps," Belle suggested, "you would show me the house? Bellamy seems to know precious little but the location of the rooms and where best to avoid the servants. He cannot tell me much of the house itself."

Regina looked at her in surprise. "Truly?"

Belle nodded. "If this is to be my home also," she said cautiously, "then I should learn from the person who has been mistress of the household all this time."

The smile that crossed Regina's face was illuminating, and she seemed like another woman entirely. She reached across the clasp Belle's hand. "I would like that very much," she said, though her expression turned serious. "I fear your husband may not approve."

Belle's lips pressed together. He probably would not. But he was not here. "He may not," she agreed, "but I am here and he is not." She looked at Regina, met the woman's dark eyes. "If I ask, will you tell me why you and he do not see eye-to-eye?"

It was fortunate that she was watching so intently. Had she not been, she would not have seen the tremor that rocked the Dowager Duchess, nor the paling of her features. "No," Regina replied, a tightness causing her voice to shiver. "No, I am afraid I would not. It was a private matter."

Belle looked down at her hands. "It was a serious matter?" she asked, glancing up.

Regina inclined her head, not meeting her eyes. "Very much." She smiled, though it was brittle. "But that is no matter now." She rose from the chair, adjusting her skirts with one hand, and asked, "So, Isabelle, what would you like to see?"

In the end, it seemed they explored every nook and cranny of the house.

Regina seemed happier by the moment, as she pointed out hidden features that Belle might not otherwise have noticed. There were concealed balconies overlooking the stairs, so a Lord might watch his guests arriving without being seeing. There were window seats in small turreted towers, and Belle could easily imagine curling up in one with a book on a warm afternoon.

The rain was still driving against the windows when they reached the library. Belle looked around the vast chamber, breathing in the scent of hundreds of books.

"I could spend forever in here," she said.

Regina looked at her. "You enjoy reading?"

"Oh, yes," Belle said happily. "Do you?"

Regina shook her head. "It never appealed," she admitted. "I can write well enough, but I cannot sit still long enough to enjoy a book."

Belle glanced at her. "You prefer to be active?"

"I ride as often as I can," Regina said. "I love it best. My father's gift to me, when I came to this house, was my favourite horse from his stables." For a moment, something dark, sad, shadowed her features. "She was a tame creature compared to my gelding, Daniel, but she was my Snow until the day she died."

"A good horse?"

Regina nodded. Her eyes were focussed on a time that was not the present. "Small, white but for a patch of brown between her eyes, and such a turn of speed. I remember her as being tall, but I suppose I was only small myself.”

Belle barely dared to move, or even speak. For a moment, Regina looked younger than her years, her expression softened, her eyes distant. “What happened to her?” she asked quietly.

Regina seemed to come back to herself, drawing herself up a little. “A fall,” she said. “I was not riding her at the time, but I should have been.” She looked down, away, cleared her throat quietly. “It was not a happy time.”

Belle reached out, touching her arm. “I’m sorry.”

The other woman looked down at her hand in surprise, then back at Belle’s face. “What cause have you to be sorry?” she asked, her voice lost. “You did nothing to her. You did not cast her down where she fell.” She laughed, a strange sad sound and asked again, “What cause have you to be sorry?”

Belle caught her hands. “You are grieved, my Lady,” she said, “and can the eye turn itself from what is directly before it?” Her fingers clasped Regina’s, earnest and warm. “When I say that I am sorry, it is for your loss and the pain it caused you.”

Regina stared at her blankly, as if she had never heard of such a thing before. “You do not know me, child,” she said in a trembling voice. “You should have no care for one such as I. You should listen to your husband.”

Belle laughed quietly. “My lady, if there is one thing I do not do well,” she said, “it is to do what I am told.”

“Why are you being kind?” Regina demanded, her voice breaking completely. “What do you want?”

“I want what Bay wants,” Belle replied, holding fast to Regina’s trembling hands. “He would have a peaceful home, a happy home. I would have that also.”

Regina drew her hands free of Belle’s. “I fear you seek the impossible, child,” she said, turning away, “as does Bellamy.”

Belle smiled quietly. “That which is called impossible very seldom is so,” she said. “Only two days ago, would you not have said it would be impossible that we would talk as civilised women?”

“That is hardly similar,” Regina said. “Two days of anger is nothing to fifteen years of the same.”

“It is entirely the same,” Belle replied. “Surely, there is no cause so terrible that it cannot be remedied? You are all but mother to his son. You have cared for his home. What possible cause could he have to hold onto such anger?”

Regina looked at her so bleakly that it was like a blow. “No cause at all,” she said. She straightened her back, drew on her Lady’s smile. “I fear I have walked abroad too much. If you will excuse me, I think I shall retire to rest.”

“Of course,” Belle murmured, watching her with concern.

She knew she would have to broach the matter with James on his return. There were too many untold stories, too many secrets hidden behind civil smiles, too many secrets that were keeping this fractured family in pieces.

It would not do to mull on it, not all at once. There was too much, too many parts to put together, be it Regina’s relationship to James, James’s ire towards Regina, Bay’s devotion and frustration with them both, all of their thoughts on her.


Far too much.

As best she could, she put the thoughts aside, using the miserable weather and her need for diversion as cause for exploring the library. There were so many books that it did not take her long to get lost in them, some informative, but a handful of them, stories.

She curled up in one of the window ledges with one of the storybooks, propping herself against the frame as she lost herself in the story. It was full of fairytales and magic and the kind of nonsense that she delighted in, so different from the troubles of the real world.

A clatter of hooves from the courtyard below made her look down and her heart leapt.

James, the Duke, was home.

Belle abandoned the book at once. It had been but seven days since he had departed on his urgent business, and even from the library window, she could see the stiffness and fatigue in his body when he dismounted from his horse.

She rose, retrieving her slippers, and gathered up her skirts to go and greet him.

She had not thought she would miss him so much, but seeing him reminded her of those happier moments they had spent together, when he had held her and she him, and she had not been afraid of him. Such thoughts brushed aside the recollection of his bruising hold, his wild eyes, and she only wanted to see him again.

The house was more familiar now, so she was halfway down the stairs by the time he strode into the lobby, his boots clattering on the stone. She stopped where she was and he looked up, dishevelled, unshaven, and for a moment, his expression was that of a man staring upon a saint.

He ran up the stairs two, three at a time, and when he pulled her into his arms to kiss her, her arms wrapped around him, holding his just as tightly. His kiss was quick, urgent, warming her to her toes, and he drew back, drinking in her features with his eyes.

“Still here?” he said wonderingly, brushing his hand against her cheek.

Her lips trembled into a smile. “Where else would I be, husband?” she said.

He laughed uncertainly. “Anywhere but here, woman,” he said. “I had thought my absence was time enough for you to flee back to your father.” He kissed the surprised sound from her lips, softly, urgently, as if drinking the very life from her. “By God, I’m glad that I was wrong.”

She pulled back indignantly and struck him hard on the chest with one small fist. “What manner of coward do you take me for,” she said, but softened it with a lighter knock to his breastbone. “I am your wife, your Grace, even if your ships take prevalence over me.”

He released her to step back down two steps and bow as deeply and formally as he could.

“Your pardon, madam,” he said.

She tried to keep the smile from her lips. “Foolish husband,” she said, offering her hand, which he caught and bowed over, kissing it again. The veritable beard on his chin rasped against her knuckles.

He looked up at her, nervous hope visible in his dark eyes. “Am I forgiven?”

“Perhaps,” she murmured, drawing her hand from his and reaching out to brush her fingers against his chin. “But I do not see a gentleman here.”

He rubbed at his chin ruefully. “Aye, my Lady,” he said. “The last days have been trying at best.” He bowed again, deeply. “If you will excuse me, I will go and make myself presentable, and join you shortly.”

“The parlour overlooking the gardens?”

His smile creased his features, making his eyes shine. “As my Lady wishes.”

As promised, less than half an hour later, he walked into the parlour, where she was waiting with a modest meal for him. Though he still looked weary and walked more stiffly than usual, he seemed refreshed and was clean-shaven once more.

“The work is all done in the yards?” she asked, pouring tea as he sat down on the couch beside her, his eyes on her face.

“So they say,” he said, barely paying heed as she pressed the cup into his hands. “The demmed timbers were damaged and half the wretched tub cracked before any noticed. Half the team they had new taken on were sots and the others imbeciles.”

“And now?” she asked, frowning sternly at him as he set the cup down undrunk.

“And now,” he replied, leaning closer to her, the expression in his eyes making her tremble in no unpleasant way, “I have more reliable men in place, a ship that may yet float, and my wife is still in my house, despite all my certainty that I would come home and find her quite vanished.”

“You underestimate me, my Lord,” she murmured, doing her utmost not to lean back on the couch, even though he was so very close.

His hand brushed her knee through the dress, making her shiver anew. “I believe I always shall,” he murmured, brushing his lips against hers. She did not immediately push him back, his gentleness familiar and warming. “Did you miss me, Belle?”

“Perhaps,” she murmured, pressing her fingertips to his chin and pushing him back.

He drew back and sat up, accepting her gentle reproof. She knew she could forgive him, but she also knew she was not yet ready for such intimacy, especially not in the parlour, on the couch, where any might wander in.

“Perhaps is enough,” he said, reclaiming his teacup. “How do you find my home?”

She smiled truly at that. “I like our home very much,” she said. She saw the flash of a smile at her words, and laughed quietly. Of course, he would like that. “Your woodsman has been showing me about the forest.”

“Graham?” Her husband’s eyebrows rose. “He’s not one for mingling.”

She nodded with a smile. “Bellamy had to assure him that I only wanted to see the forests before he would concede to guide me,” she admitted. “Bay would not stop teasing me that I made the poor man blush.”

“Bellamy can be an inconsiderate rogue,” her husband snorted. “And Graham was not too uncouth? He is not known for his formal manners.”

She shook her head. “He is more a gentleman than some I have met,” she said.

To her surprise, her husband smiled. “Aye, the little bastard is at that,” he said.

Belle’s eyes widened. “Yours?”

James choked on his tea, sputtering. “By God, woman! No!” He mopped at his shirt with his kerchief. “That would be demmed awkward for all concerned.” He shook his head. “No, his mother was one of the girls from the village nearby. I knew her well enough to keep him as groundsman.”

“To protect him from your father’s wrath,” she said.

For a moment, James’s expression closed. “Aye.”

Belle gazed at him for a moment, then leaned over and loosened his tea-dampened cravat, drawing it off and setting it aside. “Was he so terrible as they all say?” she asked in a quiet voice. “Graham did not speak kindly of him.”

“It is not possible to speak kindly of the devil himself,” James said curtly. He put down his teacup. “M’dear, I would that you had not heard any tales of him, for no one should remember him for the brute that he was.”

She nodded. “I’m afraid I was curious,” she admitted. “Regina said she was very young when she was wed to him.”

“Regina… spoke of him to you?” James drew himself up, as Regina had only hours earlier, his back stiffening. He reached out, catching her hand, his grip urgent. “You have spoken with her of her marriage?”

She stared at him, drawing her hand free. “I spoke with her of many things,” she said. “What is it between you that makes you hate her so?”

James rose from his seat. He looked ashen, and his hands were twitching in anxious knots by his sides. “And so, she twists on me again,” he murmured. “Wait here, Belle. I will come back anon.”

He was gone from the room so quickly that she barely had time to realise what he meant to do. Regina had spoken to her. He feared she had spoken of something that was between them. He was not pleased about it.

Belle rose at once, gathering her skirts in her hand.

It was not fair nor right to keep such secrets, not when it was only doing more damage.

She ran after him, though with his longer strides, he was already far up the stairs. She reached the hall where the Dowager’s chambers were, panting and breathless, and could hear his voice raised in anger.

“You intend to turn her against me?”

“I did nothing of the sort!” Regina replied, her voice as furious as James’s.

Belle leaned against the wall, trying to catch her breath. “James,” she called out, but her voice was all but gone. She stumbled towards the door, wondering at how foolish it was to try and run up stairs while wearing a corset.

The doors of Regina’s suite were wide open and the Duke and Dowager Duchess seemed to be circling one another, neither of them taking their eyes off the other. Belle leaned heavily against the doorway, gulping in as deep breaths as she could, pushing back the black crowding in on the edge of her vision.

“I told you to leave her be.”

Regina scowled at him, her features made ugly. “Yes, I know,” she snapped, “but can I help it if your little bride is lonely, after you abandon your marriage bed. She’s but a child, James, and you left her alone in this house.” She leaned closer to him. “With me.”

James caught her by the arm, pulling her closer. “If you harmed one hair on her head…”

Regina hissed, cat-like and wrenched her arm free. “You keep deceiving yourself, James,” she said. “Believe what you wish of me, but this is nothing more than your own guilt, letting you pretend you’re the innocent party.”

“I know what you’re capable of, Regina,” he snarled, the fury in his face making Belle - light-headed as she was - tremble. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

“I know you have not, just as I never will,” she retorted. She was trembling and pale, and she pressed in close to James, her face so close to his. “And do not imagine for a moment that I have forgotten what we shared.”

He pushed her back. “What we shared was a lie.”

Regina lifted her chin, proud to a fault. “I never lied,” she said, her voice steady, and her eyes on James’s face. “Not about what we shared. Not of anything.”

James grasped her suddenly, shaking her, and his voice was as broken as hers. “Then why will you not deny what you did?” he demanded. “Why not speak truly?”

Regina’s face creased in grief, and Belle drew a trembling breath as tears broke from the other woman’s dark eyes. “Because,” Regina said, her voice no longer recognisable as her own, “you felt you had to ask me.” She laughed into a sob. “That spoke enough for you.”

James stumbled back as if burned.

Regina remained standing where she was, trembling. She looked unlike herself, her shoulders slumped and her hands shivering in fists by her sides.

“Enough,” Belle said quietly from the doorway, her vision clear enough and her limbs steady enough to let her walk into the room.

They both turned to her, clearly startled by her presence, but she cared not for pretence any longer. They were both distressed by the others presence, and her husband had been gone from her for too long without explanation of any of the cause.

Belle held out her hand. “Jamie,” she said, remembering Graham’s name for her husband. It was not James as his stepmother called him. It was something more personal, more intimate, and it would make him listen. “Come with me.”

“Belle…” he said hoarsely. There were tears on his face, and she didn’t know or understand why, but she was determined that she would.

“Jamie,” she repeated, softly. “Come with me.”

His tongue darted out to wet his lower lip. He only hesitated a moment, then laid his hand in hers, his palm damp with sweat and fingers all but quivering. Belle closed her hand around his and looked across the room at Regina.

The woman was trying to gather her scattered dignity, her head held high, but her lips were pressed tight together to keep from trembling, and her eyes were bright and shining with unshed tears. She drew a breath and nodded in acknowledgement.

Belle turned, then, and led James - unresisting - into the hall, and away from Regina’s chambers. It was as if she was leading a child, and she could hear the laboured struggle of his breathing as he fought to master himself.

The distance to their marital bedchamber seemed infinitely long, but neither of them said a word as they walked. Even at the door, he hesitated, as if fearing that she meant to leave him there, as she had on their very first night in the house.

She led him in without hesitation.

This was his place, his haven, his private and most secret of chambers.

This was where he felt himself and felt safe.

She waited until he entered, and though it made her heart pound with anxiety, she closed the door behind her.

“Belle,” he said hoarsely.

“Sit down, Jamie,” she said quietly, guiding him to the bed. “I want the truth of this. I cannot stay here, if I am to be lied to and have secrets hidden in front of my eyes.”

He looked at her, stricken. “Belle, you should not know.”

Belle took a deep breath. “Damn you, James Goldacre,” she said, her voice trembling. “I have married you. I am your wife. For better for worse. In all things, I am your wife. Do not lie to me. Not now, nor again.”

“Belle, please…”

She took his face between her hands. “Jamie,” she said, quiet, so much calmer than she felt. “The truth. Why do you hate her so? What terrible crime did she commit that you believe I should not know? What are you protecting me from?”

He stared at her, and hot tears slipped down his cheeks between her fingers. “Belle, please.”

“Husband,” she said softly. “My husband. My love. Please.” He closed his eyes, tried to turn his face away, avoid her gaze, but she held him fast. “Please, Jamie. Please. I must know.”

His dark eyes opened, and he looked up at her helplessly, looking far older than his years, and far wearier. “I think,” he whispered, “that she murdered my wife.”

Chapter Text

“I think she murdered my wife.”

Belle looked at her husband, trembling.

She thought on all of her conversations with him, with Bellamy, with Regina. She thought on the way they spoke to one another.

"Do you really?" she said quietly, still holding his face in her hands. "Do you really believe she could?"

James looked back at her, and looked so lost, so hurt, that she wondered just how long he had carried the painful thought. "I don't know," he confessed, his voice cracked and broken.

Belle released his face and dragged over the chair from the fireplace, sitting down opposite him. She took his hands in hers and looked at him. "If you believed that," she said quietly, "truly believed it, I do not think you would leave Bellamy or I in this house with her."

He looked at their linked hands, then up at her face. "You hardly know her, Belle," he said hoarsely. "I know what she is capable of."

"And she is capable of murdering her dearest friend? The mother of the son who is not hers?" He did not raise his eyes from their hands. "Jamie, do you really believe so?"

He looked up finally. "I wish to God I did not," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

She put her hand to his cheek, her heart pounding rapidly in her breast. "Tell me," she asked quietly. "Tell me what happened. If I am to understand you, her, all that has come to pass in this house, I must know what happened."

He tried to pull away, but she held fast to his hands.

"Jamie," she said, soft and stern. "Do not tell me the end of the tale and leave it at that."

"Belle," he protested quietly.

"You would have me judge her for a crime that I cannot believe she would commit," Belle said evenly. "Give me the tale and let me be the judge."

He looked at their hands once more, then nodded. "You know she was brought here to provide my father with a son whom he could better mould in his image," he said, his voice steady and dull. "Barely fifteen. Her mother made sure she was docile. My father was... intent on his need for an heir. She often took refuge in our house, the small house on the edge of the estate. Father would not allow us into this house, but she would shelter with us, when he was elsewhere."

Belle shuddered at the thought. "How long were they wed?"

He lifted his shoulders. "Some three, close on four years," he said. "There was no child. Then Eliza gave me a son, when father's wife could not. Fortunately, for all concerned, father died shortly thereafter." He looked up at her. "It was said that it was a riding accident. It was better for everyone that they believed it so."

Belle's stomach felt like it was curling in on itself. "It was not?"

"She had no value to him," he said slowly. "I believe he intended to be rid of her. Better an accident than a disgrace. As far as I can see, his intentions turned on him. When I found them, her mare was dead, thrown down a gully. I have no doubt she would have followed had his own horse not thrown him."

"I can hardly believe that," Belle said, feeling sick to her stomach. "Murdering his own wife?"

"Belle, the man damned near beat me to death when I dared to return after Eliza and I eloped," he said, watching his thumbs move in circles on the back of her hands. "He even struck Eliza when she dared to defend me. He had no affection for Regina. He could play at being a gentleman, but when something displeased or disappointed him, his temper was terrible." He lifted his eyes to meet hers. "I have no doubt that he would have simply strangled her and left her body to the dogs, if he thought he could have escaped unpunished."

Belle nodded, her hands trembling around his. "But that does not mean she had a hand in his end," she said quietly.

"She had her skirts crushed over his face, held by every little bit of her." James replied quietly. "I do not know if the fall was his end or if she finished what the fall had begun, but it was her intent. She was all bloodied and she hardly knew me when I pulled her back." He loosed his hold on Belle's hands, giving her ample opportunity to pull away. His voice was unsteady. "You are the first to know, aside from Eliza."


James closed his eyes. "He has no knowledge of any of it," he said. "Neither she nor I can be sure of what killed the bastard that day, and I did not think any should know. She had suffered more than any child needed to. I thought her freedom from his cruelty would be enough."

Belle's fingers felt limp and numb around his hands, but she did not release him. As terrible as a crime as may have been committed, if the man had been so cruel, how was it any different from her own encounter with Aston? Had she not struck him down, when he was on his knees? What difference was there in what Regina may have done to save her own life?

"And that is the reason you believe she might have..."

James turned her hands over in his. "I do not want to think it, but Eliza..." He lifted his eyes to hers. "After Bay was born, she was ill for months on end. Regina became more a mother to Bay when Eliza was at her worst. She doted upon him, and sometimes, he even called her mama. She loved him too, desperately so, as one who has not been able to conceive will."

"If Eliza was ill, then surely..."

"She was recovering," he said abruptly. "She was able to rise, walk abroad, even to try for a second child. Regina was with her at all times." His voice grew tighter, as if the very words were a trial to say. "I had taken Bay riding. We returned and Regina was waiting, quite hysterical. She said that Eliza had taken a fit, and that she had tried to help, but there was naught to be done." He took a breath. "I believed it to be true."

Belle frowned. "What changed?"

His thumbs moved in slow circles on the centre each of her palms. "There was... a change in our relations," he said finally, watching their hands. "She and I. We sought comfort with one another some months after Eliza's passing. I should not have done so. We should not have done so. But there was an emptiness." He lifted his eyes to Belle. "There was not love or anything of the sort. Only companionship to fill a void."

Belle nodded, her mouth dry. It was unpleasant to know that Regina's implications had been true, but the reason, she could understand. "How long?" she asked, even though she did not truly wish to know the answer.

"A handful of encounters over three years," he murmured.

"You did not think then, that she had done anything wrong?" He shook his head. "When did you think on it?"

James withdrew his hands from hers and rose, clearly discomfited. "It was shortly after Bay went to school for the first time," he said, walking along the edge of the bed. "What... comfort we took from one another was at the house on the edge of the estate. Away from prying eyes. But she was grieved at Bay's absence." He looked over his shoulder at the bed, then away. "It became something more, when we came to this room."

Belle closed her eyes in understanding. "Your marital bed."

He nodded rigidly. "She spoke of marriage. Now that her husband and my wife were gone. Now that there was no reason for us not to." He drew a shuddering breath. "She said that she could be Bay's mother. That Eliza's passing might not be in vain." His arms were folded tightly across his middle. "She wanted a husband and a child whom she loved, and Eliza had been recovering. With Eliza gone, she would have both."


He looked around at her, his features tensed with grief. "What am I to think?" he asked, his voice breaking. "My wife was not dying, and then, the woman who was mother to her son is with her, and she is dead? The woman who I know is capable of killing? What was I to think when suddenly, she would be my wife and my son's mother?"

"She loved Eliza," Belle said in a whisper. "You know she did."

He nodded, turning away from her and pressing his eyes shut. "I know," he whispered. "She loved Eliza far more than I ever could have done."

"And yet, you still believe she would?"

"Eliza was not dying, Belle," James whispered. "She had been ill, but she was not dying."

Belle rose from the seat and crossed the floor to embrace him. “Jamie,” she said quietly, resting her cheek between his shoulders, her hands folded over his heart. “Would you place me in danger?”

“Never,” he whispered.

“And yet, you left me here, with her,” she said quietly. “And you did not consider it a true danger. You do not truly believe that she could do such a thing, do you?”

He was trembling. “She was with her,” he whispered hoarsely. “She was with Eliza, when she died. She was well. She was so much better than she had been in months.” She felt his hands skim over hers at his chest, then jerk away, as if he could not bear to touch her. “What other reason could their be for her to die? Why did Regina never deny it? If she did not do it, why not deny it?”

Belle held him tightly, remembering Regina’s sobbed words. “Because you felt you had to ask her,” she whispered. “Jamie, the woman loves your family as if you were her own, and you accused her of slaying her dearest friend. She thought herself one of the family, and to have you think such a thing of her…”

“I know,” he said, his voice cracking on the words. “By God, I know.” Belle felt the hot warmth of tears landing on her hands. “I want to believe her guilty, want to believe that she was doing it to her own advantage, all of it.”

Belle pressed her forehead between his shoulders. “And yet, you cannot,” she whispered.

“Why can she not deny it?” he asked again, his voice trembling. “To hear it, to hear her say she did not do anything, it is all that I would need to hear.”

“And then what?” Belle loosed her arms and walked around to face him. “She would live the rest of her life knowing that you could not simply believe in her innocence. Surely, you and she do not deserve that.”

“Belle,” he said hoarsely. “Belle, Eliza could not simply die. It could not be so simple. There had to be some rhyme, some reason to it. If she had not died, I would not have…” He took a trembling breath. “Regina must have, for otherwise, why would she want me?” He was shaking from head to toe, even as she lifted her hand to touch his tear-sheened cheek. “None ever would have me.”

Belle stared at him. “Jamie Goldacre, are you a complete damned fool?” she asked, dazed.

He shook his head. “So I am told,” he whispered, pressing his cheek to her hand.

She stared at him, poor, broken man that he was. Society had spurned him. His father had despised and half-killed him. His wife, God rest her soul, was so far above him in station that it had caused a scandal. He was pushed aside by society for his whole life. He did all that he might to win approval, and failing that, he did all that he might to prove himself a decent man, and even in that, he had failed.

Belle stroked his cheek gently. “Jamie,” she said gently, firmly. “Look at me.”

His dark eyes opened, wary and bloodshot. She could see the fear that had lingered in them from the moment he offered his hand. He had never been trying to save her, the poor little damsel. He had been looking for someone to save him, someone who was sharp and true and would stand toe to toe with him and not be afraid. He had chosen her, and given her the chance to choose him.

She smiled at him. “I will have you, Jamie Goldacre,” she said softly.

“Belle…” He took a shaking breath. “You need not…”

She lifted both her hands to frame his face.

“I am your wife,” she said quietly and calmly. “And I am small and sharp and poor. You have chosen me, despite these things. And now, I will have you.” She rose on her toes and pressed a kiss to his lips. “And I will love you, my husband, if you will let me.”

“Belle…” he repeated in a whisper, his hands resting so lightly at her waist.

She rose on her toes and kissed him again. The fear that had lurked so quietly at the back of her mind, twisting into bitter knots over a thousand and one dreads, was untangling and fading with this new knowledge. Her husband, loathed by so many, rejected by so many, even to the point that he expected her to abandon him at first chance, would not be rejected again.

When his arms slipped about her, it was as it had been in those first quiet days in London, and when he kissed her, this time, he was following and she was leading.

Little by little, they disrobed one another, her dress pooling about her feet, even as she pushed his waistcoat from his shoulders. Step by step, in an intricate, patient dance, they reached the bed, and this time, she was the one to push him down. He offered her his hand, and pushing down what little fear was left, she lay down with him.

She could not stop touching him, in comfort, in love, in open, honest affection, showing him that here, now, he was wanted. It was gentle and slow, but not without intensity, and if she wept soft and silent as they lay together afterwards, neither of them spoke.

The watery daylight washed over them where they lay, half-clothed and sated and dazed.

“Why?” she asked in a whisper, unwilling to raise her voice to shatter the peace between them.

“Why?” he asked just as quietly. His fingers were coiled into her loosened hair, slowly wrapping strands about themselves.

“The first night, when we came into this room.” She lifted her head from his arm to look him in the face. “What possessed you that night?”

He looked at her, guilt and sadness crossing his feature. “Her presence,” he admitted. “I saw her, and all the hate I felt for her crimes, all the hate for myself for being with her, had she done as I believed, all the regrets and recriminations…” He shook his head. “You were none of that. Pure and good and bright. I wanted to lose myself in you, drive away the dark thoughts that were smothering me.”

“Oh, Jamie,” she murmured, touching his cheek.

His lips twitched into a rueful smile. “Am I Jamie, now?”

She leaned down over him and kissed his chin. “I think it suits you,” she said. “It is not so formidable as James.” She dropped another kiss lightly on his lips. “I think I could better love a Jamie.”

He smiled more truly at that. “Then Jamie I shall be,” he said, lifting his head to claim a kiss.

They did not make love again, though she would not have minded if they had. Instead, they lay tangled together atop the covers, and she told him of all that she had seen and done in his absence, one hand stroking through his hair.

“I am glad that you were not disheartened,” he confided, nuzzling at her wrist as she continued to pet his hair. “I was a demmed villain, and then to up and leave you without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“I was not alone,” she murmured. “Your family was here.” She tapped his lips with her thumb. “All of your family.”

He gazed at her. “You like her.”

Belle nodded. “She strikes me as lonely,” she murmured. “I would be her friend.”

James nodded, tilting his head enough to kiss her palm. “She was a good friend to Eliza,” he said. “The dearest of friends.” He took a breath, his chest rising and falling below hers. “She and I must talk.”

Belle smiled. “Truly?”

He nodded. “Too much has gone unsaid for too long,” he said quietly.

She leaned down to kiss him again. “Sooner rather than later, then,” she murmured, then sat up over him, reaching for her chemise.

“Where are you off to?” he demanded, reaching up to snake an arm around her middle.

She gave him a reproving look. “In case you had forgotten, your Grace,” she said, swatting his arm aside. “I did not have my afternoon tea, as you stormed off like a bad-tempered bear before we could eat. With all these revelations, I am quite famished and thirsty.”

He sat up too. His shirt was still on, though it was undone from top to bottom, and he looked charmingly dishevelled. “Can you not ring for someone?” he asked, drawing her back into his arms again.

She struck him lightly in the middle of the chest and pushed him away. “Fie, your Grace,” she said, doing her utmost to hide a smile. “It is barely afternoon. A lady should not be abed, even with her husband until well after supper.”

He looked at her with longing. “After supper, then?”

She slipped from his grasp and rose, offering him a playful smile. “Perhaps.”

“Lud, woman,” he groaned as she bent to retrieve her abandoned dress and undergarments, blushing under his gaze. “You will be the very death of me.”

“Not for many years to come, I should hope,” she replied, with a laugh. She dressed quickly, then looked at him in expectation. “Will you lace me up?”

He scowled convincingly. “Must I?”

She widened her eyes. “Aye,” she said with a giggle. “I fear you must.”

Complaining all the while, her husband rose from the bed and stalked over to lace the back of her dress for her. All the same, as soon as it was done, his hands slid over her ribs, drawing her back against him. “Must you go?”

“Would you have me starve, you greedy brute?” she demanded, though she clasped his hands briefly at her waist.

He pressed his lips to her throat so heatedly that she trembled. “Never,” he murmured.

She gently loosened his arms from her waist. “After supper,” she reminded him, turning to look up at him. “And you have matters you must attend to also. I would have a peaceful supper with my family, if you please. All of my family.”

For a moment, he looked uncertain, almost frightened.

“Be brave, Jamie,” she said, caressing his cheek. “The lady has been brave enough to stand her ground, even knowing what you thought of her. Now, it is your turn.”

“If you would give me but a thimble of your bravery, woman, I could take the world.”

She rose on her toes and kissed his lips gently. “Have a breath of my bravery,” she offered in a whisper, “and bring together the broken parts of your family.”

The soft sound that escaped his throat was somewhere between wounded and wondering.

She drew back with a last caress to his cheek and darted from the room before he could catch her again and make her change her mind.

The staff seemed to be bustling about, organising a grander meal for their master’s return, so Belle chose to make her way down to the kitchens herself, to seek out Ellanor and to find some small morsel to eat.

The halls that led there were quiet and deserted, and she was startled when one of the doors that led to the gardens burst open, and a sodden figure dashed in. She backed away in astonishment, as the man slammed the door closed, turned and sagged back against it, sinking to sit in a damp heap in the floor. He was beaming from ear to ear.


Bellamy leapt to his feet as if burnt. “Mama!” he exclaimed, startled and wide-eyed. He was more dishevelled than she had ever seen him, his shirt untucked from his breeches, his hair flat and sodden about his face, and he did not even seem to have a cravat about his person.

She looked him up and down. “What on earth have you been doing?”

He tried his best to straighten his shirt and adjust his coat. There were moss-stained on it, and smears of mud about his legs, as if he had fallen most spectacularly, and she could swear he had ruddy bruises upon his neck. “I thought to go for a walk this morning,” he declared.

She narrowed her eyes and leaned forward to tug at his waistcoat. “You were wearing this yesterday.” He huffed indignantly, and the faint, lingering smell of wine on his breath earned a stern look. “And have you been drinking?”

He pulled a face. “Only a little. And perhaps, I went out walking last night.”

“And fell,” she said with a wave to his breeches. “You were not even here to welcome your father home.”

Bellamy’s face flushed and he reached up to attempt to arrange his hair into some more suitable manner. “Father returned? When? Is he quite well? Did he ask of me? Why did no one send for me?”

“He is quite well,” Belle replied, touching his arm gently, “and we did not send for you for we had matters of our own to tend to.”

Bellamy looked at her apprehensively. “Are they tended to?” he asked. “Or are you making your escape through the servants’ passages?”

She squeezed his arm. “They are tended to,” she said, then smiled. “And other matters are also being tended to as we speak.” He looked at her with consternation. “We shall have a family dinner, all four of us, if all goes well.”

“All four?” Bellamy echoed, then drew a breath. “Grandmama and father?”

“If all goes well,” Belle cautioned.

He gave a whoop and hoisted her up into his arms in a warm embrace. “I knew you would be a wonderful mama, the moment I met you!”

“Put me down, you big soggy lump!” she protested, laughing. “Down!”

He set her down obediently and leaned down to kiss her warmly on the cheek. “If you have done what I have been unable to in near twenty years, I shall be your devoted servant, mama, I promise you.”

Belle smiled. “Oh, you need not,” she said, thinking on her husband, and the look of wonder in his eyes when she kissed him. “I already have one of those.”

Chapter Text

The rain had stopped by the time supper came around.

Belle found herself alone for much of the afternoon. James was absent, and she hoped that it meant that he and Regina were finding some kind of closure to the enmity which had lingered for near fifteen years.

It was a good deal to hope for, but she suspected that matters had been left like a splinter buried deep in flesh, festering painfully beneath the surface. That matters had been brought to a head, that the poison was being sapped, she could only hope that it would improve matters between them.

Bellamy, after his misadventures in the rain, absented himself from her company. Given how muddy he was, she had no doubt that he would be scrubbing himself to the bone, and dressing himself in his finest to make up for the terrible appearance he had presented.

When the bell rang for supper, she had to admit she was a little worried that she would find herself the only person in attendance. She was the first to reach the dining room, and elected to wait by the window, watching the sun breaking in chinks through the dull clouds.

The doors were flung inwards and Bellamy walked in briskly. “Good evening, mama!” he said brightly, walking towards her. She darted her eyes down and up. Although he was dressed as elegantly as usual, he seemed to be limping.

“Your fall did you harm?” she asked, proffering her cheek for his kiss.

His cheeks reddened. “So it would seem,” he said, then reached up to adjust his cravat, his collar high and formal beneath his chin. “I have bruises all over and my knees are all grazed to ribbons. It is only fortunate that Graham found me before I fell down a ravine.”

Belle gave him a stern look. “You will be more careful next time?”

He grinned at her, still flushed. “Of course, mama,” he promised. He offered her his arm to take her to the table. “Will it be us alone?” he asked.

Belle looked to the doors. “I cannot be sure,” she admitted. “I hoped it would not be, but I think your father and grandmother had quite a lot to talk about.” She looked up at him instead and smiled. “But we have one another for company at least.”

He even went so far as to draw her seat out for her, sitting down on the opposite side of the table, both of them in their habitual seats, adjacent to James’s seat at the head of the table. It had been the same, even in James’s absence, easier to sit opposite and talk, rather than Bellamy assuming his father’s position.

After waiting another fifteen minutes, with no sign of either James or Regina, Bellamy signalled to the servants to start serving the food.

“Do you suppose they’re all right?” he asked, nibbling his lower lip anxiously.

Belle privately was wondering the same thing. “I suppose they must have more to talk about than either of us realised,” she said. She offered him a small smile. “Bridges must be mended, and even Rome was not built in a day.”

Bellamy sighed. “Parents,” he declared, “and grandparents can be so demmed silly. Did you know that they believed I did not notice their little fight? They smiled and acted as if all was well, but they did not talk or smile as they used to.” He made a face. “And should you ask them, both would deny that aught was troubling them.”

Belle nodded. “Children always see what parents hope they will not observe.”

She could well remember that from her own childhood, when her own mother and father spoke in hushed tones, and mama’s eyes were reddened, no doubt with tears of fury at being dismissed in her own town. Neither of them had acknowledged that there were troubles to their little one, but when she was older, her mother had confided in her, lest the same looks and sneers be turned her way.

They picked through their meal in silence, until the doors opened once more.

Bellamy was on his feet in an instant, and Belle turned in her chair.

James was there, and Regina with her hand through his arm. Neither of them looked especially happy, or sad, only solemn and weary. Regina’s features were swollen, as if she had wept some time before, her eyes lowered.

“Ah. We are late,” James said, leading Regina to the chair beside Bellamy.

Bellamy sat as Regina did, looking anxiously between her and his father. “Are you both well?” he asked urgently.

Regina looked to James, who returned her gaze. There was no longer the crackling hostility which had marked every occasion that they had been in a room together, and Belle hoped that was a sign of things to come.

“We may be beginning to be better,” Regina finally said, then smiled weakly at Bellamy and across the table at Belle. “Our pardon for delaying your supper.”

Belle smiled in return. “I think there are sometimes more important things than punctuality at supper,” she demurred. “You are here now, and we might eat and be done.” She could feel James’s eyes upon her, and remembered well enough their conversation of hours earlier, her cheeks warming with colour.

To her relief, Bellamy took charge of the conversation, demanding to know everything about their cessation of hostilities and whether he could now hope to have at least some support in his intentions to redecorate the London house.

“Bellamy,” Regina said, raising a hand to silence his enquiries. “If that is the only reason you wished your father and I to be reconciled, I fear we have not raised you well enough.” She gave him a stern look and to Belle’s amusement, he blushed beet red. “Now, will you speak of more suitable topics for the dinner table?”

“Perhaps why the devil you are wearing a high collar when you have not worn one in near five years,” James suggested. He swirled the wine in his glass, watching it, then looked at his son. “Unless you have run short of shirts, you are being demmed unfashionable.”

Regina gasped. “Why, he is right!” she exclaimed. “Bellamy, are you sick, dear?”

“I’m sure he is quite fine,” Belle offered, as Bellamy scowled and flushed over his dinner. “I only believe he took a stumble in the woods and bruised himself.”

“Bellamy?” Regina looked at him suspiciously. “What were you doing in the woods?”

James snorted, gazing at his son. “Hiding from too many womenfolk, unless I am mistaken,” he said. To Belle’s surprise, Bellamy’s head jerked up and he stared - wide-eyed - at his father, as if he had been caught stealing from the silver cabinet rather than simply walking out and about on the grounds.

Regina patted Bellamy’s arm gently. “Well, you need not worry about that any longer,” she said, then smiled tentatively at Belle. “We have all of us made a pax. You need not hide in the woods again.”

“Not when it’s raining, certainly.” Belle returned the smile, then offered one to Bellamy as well. “I feel quite terrible that you were driven from your own home.”

He prodded a slice of meat around his plate with his fork. “It’s quite all right,” he said grumpily. “Would that everyone would stop making such a fuss. A grazed knee or two and some bruises are hardly worth all this notice.”

“Indeed not,” James murmured. Belle glanced at him. His dark eyes were fixed on his son, and there was an odd little smile playing about his features. “I go elsewhere on business for but a week and I come home to find you all bruised and grazed. Am I never to leave you unsupervised again?”

“Father,” Bellamy mumbled.

James waved away his words. “Enough fussing,” he said. “Finish your platter, boy, then we shall have the next course. I swear I am famished. We can talk of your wanderings when I do not have a desire to eat.”

For the first time in her recollection, Bellamy was quiet for the remainder of dinner, only speaking when asked a question. He seemed flustered enough by his misfortune, and content enough in having both his father and grandmother present that he did not wish to regale them with tales of mischief and intentions for London.

Instead, it lay with Regina to provide the conversation. She did so, haltingly at first, each time looking askance at James, as if he might change his mind about allowing her presence, but gradually warming to her topic and speaking of her last venture into Edinburgh society.

To Belle’s surprise, it became quickly apparent that while Regina dressed to the height of fashion and spoke of it with fondness, she seldom went out into society. Indeed, it seemed that the thought of being surrounded by so many quite unsettled her. If her brief period as Duchess had been anything to judge by, no doubt it brought with it a world of unhappy memories.

“Perhaps,” Belle suggested, “we might all go to town together.” Three pairs of eyes looked at her in outright astonishment, and she felt the heat rise in a wave across her face. “I think it would be quite pleasant, to be seen together.”

“Capital!” Bellamy said at once. “I think it would be marvellous.”

His father snorted, gazing stubbornly at his wineglass. “You would,” he said mildly, “you and your demmed coterie.” His eyes flicked up, looking towards Regina, who was biting on her lower lip uneasily. “Your thoughts, madam?”

She met his eyes. “Perhaps,” she said quietly. “The Dowager Duchess has no doubt vanished into the mists of myth and legend now.”

“Though not quite the terrible cautionary tales of the evil rebel Duke,” James observed. He slanted a glance at Belle, and for a moment, his lips twitched up. “By God, they must be having a field day with the knowledge that I have stolen away another innocent young woman, this one of lower rank rather than higher.”

Belle gave a haughty little sniff. “That shows all they know.”

James’s lips twitched. “We will make a Duchess of you yet, m’dear,” he murmured.

Belle blushed, almost as much as Bellamy had. “I doubt that.”

The three traded looks, then looked back at her.

“She is rather sweetly naïve, isn’t she?” Regina murmured.

“I am no such thing,” Belle said indignantly. “I simply know I am no Duchess.”

Bellamy waved his spoon at her. “Mama, you are married to a Duke. You order me around quite well. I have no doubt that you are in fact a Duchess.” He beamed at her. “And you quite terrorise father into good behaviour. That is true Duchessing.”

“Jamie,” Belle said, turning pleadingly to her husband.

He met her eyes. His hands were folded before him on the table. “What would you have me tell them, dear?” Belle narrowed her eyes at him, and his mouth curved again. “Your pardon, m’dear. I forget you are a mere Viscount’s kitten.”

She pulled a face at him.

It surprised - and pleased - her, when each of the others laughed.

From that moment, it seemed that the tension in the air was broken. Not wholly, because that would be hoping for far too much, but the pressure that had gathered like a storm about them had been broken by a thunderclap of shared amusement.

By the time supper was done with, even Regina was no longer sitting rigid and formal in her chair. Belle could not help wondering how much easier her first week within the household might have been, had there been peace before.

All the same, while the conversation was amusing, and Bellamy had long since forgotten his embarrassment, Belle was secretly pleased when her husband rose, made their excuses and offered her his hand.

“My lady?”

She looked up at him, and the desire in his eyes quite stole her breath. She was unsurprised when her hand trembled as she laid her fingers lightly in his. “I am also quite weary, your Grace,” she murmured, allowing him to draw her up.

She could swear she heard Bellamy laugh, but could not draw her attention from her husband’s face as he bowed low over her hand, holding her eyes. The brush of his lips to her knuckles made her tremble from head to toe.

“Shall we?” he murmured.

She caught her lower lip between her teeth as his thumb brushed the same path as his lips had. “We shall,” she agreed, only a little breathlessly. She cast a smile to both Bellamy and Regina, blushing at the amused looks on both of their faces. “Milady. M’lord.”

They walked from the room with all proper decorum, but as soon as the doors closed behind them, James pulled her into his arms, his lips finding hers eagerly. Belle clasped his hand, her other hand rising to sink into his hair.

“Lud, Belle,” James whispered against her lips. “You will be the end of me.”

She laughed breathlessly. “I might say the same,” she whispered, then drew back. “I would be abed, your Grace.”

His eyes gleamed. “Would you, indeed?” he said, his half-smile curving his mouth wickedly.

She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles, barely a brush of contact. “Aye,” she whispered, then rubbed her cheek against the fingers clasping her own so fiercely. “With you, my husband.”

All at once, she was caught up in his arms, one of his arms about her waist, the other beneath her knees, and she squealed, grasping at him. He would not let her fall, but it felt so precarious, and an eternity since he had last borne her so.

“Jamie!” she exclaimed.

“This way is swifter,” he said, giving her a devilish smile that she had only ever seen on his son’s face as he turned and darted up the stairs. He carried her as if she weighed less than a feather, and his eagerness buoyed her own, impelling her to nuzzle at his throat as he bound two stairs at a time.

He stopped at the top of the stairs, dipping his head to claim a kiss, and she curled one hand into his hair, holding him there, drinking him in.

Some great tension had been lifted from him, and he seemed to be filled with fresh energy, even joy, that was quite contagious.

Their lips barely parted as he bore her down the hall. Her feet knocked over a bust and his shoulder collided with a vase, which fell with a shattering crash, but she neither looked away to see nor cared for the damage, not with her husband so utterly focussed on her.

He was not lost in brooding dark thoughts, in need of distraction. He was not thinking of another. He was not troubled. His mind was bent to her alone, and she intended to bask in it.

The bedroom door was ajar, and as soon as they were through, he kicked it closed behind them, carrying her to the bed and setting her down with the reverence due a saint. He would have drawn back, but she tugged on the back of his neck, pulling him down over her, her mouth opening to his, her tongue darting daringly to meet his own.

James groaned, his hand sliding down her side. He rolled, drawing her onto her side, that he might better reach the laces of her gown. His lips trailed from hers, kissing her throat, and he nibbled gently, so gently on the curve of her ear, making her shiver.

“Jamie,” she whispered, her hand slipping down over his shoulder to his chest. His waistcoat was in the way, as was his shirt, and she wanted nothing more than to feel the warmth of his skin beneath her palms. Her fingers, trembling, tugged at the buttons of his waistcoat, and she nuzzled at his cheek, his jaw, as he buried his face in her hair.

His hands were fumbling with her gown, and she caught his earlobe between her lips and sucked so gently on it he might not have noticed. But notice he did and she was pulled hard against him, a groan of want gusting so hotly against her throat that she whimpered.

“Belle…” he panted, “Belle, you wicked creature…”

One hand slipped between the buttons of his shirt, his skin so warm, and his heart thundering beneath. The very feel of it, the heart and passion of his life throbbing in him, made her tremble. She pressed her lips to his throat hotly, to the point where his pulse thrummed, bit gently, then pressed again with her lips.

His hand leapt to her hair, holding her there and the other tugged with wild desperation at the lacing of her gown. “By God, Belle, let me have you. Please let me have you.”

Belle trembled at his words, drawing her face back to look at him. He was flushed, his hair dishevelled, his lips already swollen from their heated kisses. “Robed or disrobed,” she whispered, “I am yours.”

He stared at her, hungry, eager, and his mouth found hers again. It felt he was drinking the very breath from her lips, and she was willing to let him.

The laces of her gown were forgotten, and he guided her onto her back once more, the hand that had been fumbling to eagerly with her stays now fisting in her skirts, drawing them up, up, up, an inch at a time. It felt wicked, delightfully so, and she whimpered softly, demandingly, against his lips as his hand skimmed her thigh through the thin silk of her drawers.

He propped himself over her, his other hand stroking tenderly, tremulously through her hair. “By God, I love you, woman,” he whispered.

Belle’s eyes widened, but she had not a moment to speak nor catch her breath before he was kissing her again, as if he might drown if his lips parted from hers a moment longer. Her hand splayed on his chest and she curled her fingers dragging her nails across the skin, making him shudder as he leaned over her.

His own hand moved slowly and she felt the blush rising as he slipped his hand between her thighs, the hot weight of his palm resting there, still, teasing. His fingers were trembling and the delicate flutter was unbearable. Her hips shifted of their own accord, pressing to his palm, and she felt the groan from his throat as if it were her own. Perhaps it was.

His fingers moved, dragging slowly, as if he wished to torture her in the most delightful way imaginable, and she whined into his mouth, her body twitching in delicious need. She could scarce breathe, and his own breathing was staggered, trembling against her.

His name tripped from her lips to his own, and she ran her hand down his side beneath his shirt, pulling at his ribs, begging, demanding, asking what words could not. Her hips lifted, pushing her to his hand, and even through the fine silk, the heat was making her head spin.

“Please,” she whispered, then bit, tugged, on his lower lip.

He groaned, a tight, strangled sound, dragging his hand up from between her thighs to tug at the lace of her drawers. The knot was not tight, and she silently cast up a most inappropriate prayer of thanks for that, as his hand slipped between fabric and flesh and his fingers brushed down, down, down and pressed so hot and eagerly to her.

His lips broke away from hers and he was watching her by the fading daylight, his eyes on her face as he slowly teased her with his fingertips, then just as slowly, mercilessly pressed his touch that little bit deeper. Her back arched and her breath caught, and she forced her eyes to stay open, to watch his face, to watch him, watching her as he moved his hand slowly, in, deep, stroking in ways that made her quiver from head to toe. His lips were parted, and she saw his tongue dart against his lip, felt his hand tremble, and she pulled on his hair, a tug, something, anything, that might articulate what she wanted.

“Jamie,” she breathed out, unable to do more, her fingers dragging and pawing at his side, her nails scratching and tugging.

His lips claimed hers and the hand between her thighs moved, catching her drawers, pulling and tugging, and she arched her hips from the bed, letting him drag them away, cast them forgotten on the floor, and all at once, he was over her, and she moaned into his mouth as he cradled her thighs in his palms, drawing them wider, letting him fall between them.

Beneath his shirt, her hand moved to splay on his back, finding that spot, that wicked little secret, the place that made him arch against her when her nails scored across it. He hissed into her mouth, his hips pressing down to hers, and even through the cloth of his breeches, she could feel him.

“Belle,” he whispered against her lips.

She shifted one leg, twining about him, drawing him closer. “Please,” she whispered, kneading the nape of his neck, and her nails drawing across his back, over his side, then down, down to the waist of his breeches. “Jamie, please…”

His hands fumbled for a moment, and she wished they had thought to undress entirely, but her own fingers aided him, and her fingers and his brushed against him as he pushed his breeches down. It made her tremble, to touch, so much more intimate than she intended, and she opened her eyes to see the dazed heat in his gaze.

It emboldened her, and she turned her trembling hand, caressed him, and trembled as he did, knowing what it was to be so desired. A faint, stifled sound caught in his throat and he caught her lips with his, his tongue darting against hers, just as he moved against her hand, and her fingers closed about him, held him, and she trembled with want.

“Jamie,” she whispered again, between kisses. “Jamie, please…”

He nodded, resting his brow against hers, catching his breath. “Aye, love,” he whispered, his hands moving to cradle her thighs and he let her hand be the one to guide him, and she felt dizzy with the wonder of it, lifting her hips to meet him.

His body pressed so close to hers, sinking deep and smooth, as if they were born to fit together, and she stifled a small, desperate cry. It was echoed by a faint, hungry sound from her husband’s lips, and his hands brushed her thighs, over and over, soothing, comforting, tender, everything.

She forced her eyes open, looked up at him, so close over her, his brow to hers, his breath mingling with hers, his shirt and her dress between them, and yet, they had never felt closer than they did at this very moment.

His hand moved from her thigh to catch hers, and he lifted it to his lips, turning her palm to his kisses, then her knuckles then the curve of thumb to wrist, then the flesh inside her wrist and slowly, as slow as the turn of the tide, he moved within her, and she arched against him with a low, sobbing cry.

He kissed her then, again and again, over and over, pressing their linked hands on the bedding beside her head, both of their fingers tangling in the spill of her loosened hair. His body moved against hers, slowly, and she wanted to weep, wanted to laugh, and her legs wrapped around him, pulling him closer and harder, deeper still.

He whispered to her, whispered her name, over and over, like a prayer, as they moved together, and her nails scored across his neck, even as their joined hands squeezed one another to breaking point. The dress tangled about them, the shirt fell from his shoulders, slipping down about his arms, and he kissed her hard and deep and breathless and ragged as he moved harder and faster against her.

Belle’s breath was trembling, gasping and she arched with a small, ragged cry as he slipped his hand between them, and stroked with his thumb as his hips moved, and she could feel the pressure, the heat, everything growing, her skin alive and thrumming and her blood rushing so in her veins that she could barely hear him purring her name, purring and growling and breathing her very name, his love, so hotly in her ear she almost screamed of it, and he pushed and stroked and her mind was spinning and breathless and his mouth was on hers drinking in the last of her very breath as she sobbed aloud and the world shattered about her.

He breathed her in, as she trembled, and his body rocked, slowly, gently, slower now, and she opened her eyes, slowly, slowly. Mind was all clouds, all a blur, and he was watching her, watching her with such love, such devotion, his face so close over hers, and he moved still, slowly, gently, deeply, and then, he was still, shuddering, and he was hers, utterly hers and his breath trembled and his brow fell to rest against hers, and they were both still, and breathless and trembling.

Her tongue touched her lips, so softly, and her breath was quivering as rapidly as her heart and she looked up into his dark, dark eyes. “I love you,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Belle was trying to put words to paper.

It was made difficult because every time she looked up from her letter, she caught a glimpse of the rest of the room in the mirror that stood on her dresser. Every time, her eyes were drawn to the figure still sprawled gracelessly in the bed.

Jamie, her husband, was sprawled on his belly, one arm dangling over the side of the bed. He was as naked as the day he was born, though she had drawn a sheet up to his hips for modesty when she rose a short while earlier.

He had curled against her throughout the night, long after their clothing had finally been dispensed with, and though they had talked in whispers into the small hours, and though he had fallen asleep before she had, he was still deeply asleep now. She knew it was probably the first truly peaceful night’s sleep he had taken in many a year, so she was content to let him rest as long as he might.

As soon as she had slipped from the bed, drawing a robe about her, he had protested sleepily, rolling over into the warm space she had occupied, and that was where he now rested, his hair dishevelled about his face. For once, all the lines and creases that tensed his features seemed smoothed away, and each time she caught a glimpse of him, she could not help but smile.

It did not make writing her letter any easier.

She had opened the curtains, just a crack, to allow some light in, and thus far, all she had managed to mark down was her usual salutation. Her pen hovered over the ink well and she frowned sternly at the page, as if it was betraying her.

And yet, all that she could think of was the way her husband had kissed her the previous night, when he murmured of his love, when it made her heart race and her head spin and when he laid her back among the sheets, once they finally freed her from the confines of her gown, and lavished every bit of his devotion on her.

Colour rose in her cheeks.

It was not entirely suitable material to put into a letter to one’s father.

She heard her husband stirring, but resolutely kept her eyes upon the page, as tempting as it was to glance up onto the mirror. She heard the soft sound of his feet touching the bare floor, and bit on her lower lip as she heard the rustle of fabric, which meant that she might be able to look in a moment without flushing.

He padded closer, his footfalls light as a cat, and her eyes fell closed, a shiver rocking her, as he sank his fingers into her loose hair, his fingertips grazing feather-light across the bare skin of her neck.

“Good morning,” she breathed out, then whimpered softly as his mouth pressed to her throat, kissing heatedly. His chin was coarse with stubble, and he dragged it against the smooth, vulnerable skin of her throat, making her shiver. “Husband.”

He chuckled, nibbled on the edge of her ear. “Wife,” he murmured. His other arm slid around her and he pressed his chest to her back, as his hand splayed on her belly through the thin fabric of her robe. “You left me alone in bed, m’dear.” His breath was hot in her ear and she was biting her lip to messes, tilting her head, baring her throat. “I dislike that.”

“You were sleeping,” she said, proud to keep the shiver from her voice. “I was not.”

“Hmm.” She gasped softly as his tongue teased into her ear, even as his hand moved in a slowly descending circle on her belly.

“Jamie,” she protested vaguely, her head falling back against his shoulder.

His teeth scraped lightly at the edge of her jaw and he closed them over her throat with delicious stinging pressure, and she knew full well he was leaving a mark on her in a place that would be impossible to hide, no matter how high the collars.

Too late she realised that he had found the opening of her robe and she grasped at his wrist to stop his hand’s southern venture, his warm fingers brushing in teasing patterns on her bared skin.

“Jamie,” she breathed, turning her head to look at him. His eyes met hers and all at once, he was kissing her, and all thought of stilling his hand was forgotten, the pen in her other hand dropping and rolling away.

It was she who finally broke the kiss, and she closed her hand about his wrist again, firmly.

“Not now,” she said, her voice a little thicker than she might have liked. His fingers were already too nimble for one so soon awake, and she tugged his hand away from her gently. “I fear if we begin, we might never cease.”

The tip of his nose brushed against hers, and his lips teased over hers. “You speak as if this is a terrible thing, m’dear,” he murmured. “I see naught wrong in it. Indeed, I consider it a dem good way to spend time.”

She gave him her best and most stern look, hoping that he would not notice the flush in her cheeks or that her wretched silly body was already starting to see the appeal of what he was saying. “That’s as may be,” she replied, “but I am quite hungry now, and I do not intend to starve simply because you would rather…” The word caught on her lips and she felt the blush rising even more fiercely.

“Rather?” he asked, a wicked glint in his eye, the hand at the back of her neck kneading slowly, lazily. “Would you care to specify, m’dear?”

“You know very well,” she whispered, her breath catching as his lips smothered hers again.

“Lud, I know well, madam,” he whispered against her lips. She was clasping his wrist in her left hand and her right crossed her breast to clasp at his elbow, seeking some manner of anchor as her world span. “I would have you, Belle, every day and night, every morn, every evening, every moment of every day.”

“And we,” she managed to think enough to say, “would get naught done.”

His laughed turned deeper. “Naught else, anyway,” he corrected, and kissed her lower lip softly once more. “Do you wish me to stop.”

It took the utmost of her conviction, but she met his eyes with her own. “For now,” she said, her fingers shivering pleasantly on his arm. She leaned up, claiming a kiss of her own, his hand slipping up to cradle her head and she murmured approvingly.

His lips trailed briefly off hers and along her cheek to whisper in her ear, “For now, love, but only for now.”

The promise sent a delightful shiver running through her and she released his arm, one finger at a time, letting him draw back. His hand slipped from beneath her hair and he took a single step away from her.

For a moment, he stood there, so close to her she could feel the very heat of him, and she forced herself not to look up to meet his eyes, knowing full well that she would want to kiss him again.

“You are writing a letter?” he asked. She could see his hands clasped into fists by his side, and he had donned a robe, but that did very little to hide the affect her closeness had, even so briefly, had on him.

“To my father,” she said, steadying her breathing. “I write daily.”

He leaned over the desk. “You did not get far,” he observed, and she almost wished to smack him on the hand for the smugness in his tone. “Were you distracted?”

She looked up at him then. “I was seeking some polite way to inform him that you are a complete and utter reprobate,” she said, pleased when a grin broke across his features. “I could not think of any mannersome way to inform him of what a scandalous ruffian you are, and that I am barely getting a wink of sleep.”

“Alas, dearie,” he said, propping his hip against the edge of her dresser, “I fear that every man in town knows that of me already.” He flashed that devil-may-care smile she was growing fond of. “After all, that is all they say of me, is it not? Scandalmonger and troublemaker?”

“And reprobate,” she added, smiling.

He reached out to brush a straying curl behind her ear. “What have you in mind for today?”

She tilted her head into his touch. “I have no notion,” she admitted. “Regina and I were touring the house yesterday. I would quite like to finish seeing all that she would show me, if you do not have other plans?”

Jamie brushed his thumb along her cheekbone. “I may need to have words with Bellamy about the dangers of wandering the woods at night while drunk,” he admitted. “The little bastard will find himself in the devil’s own mischief one of these days.”

“Poor Bay,” Belle said, hiding a smile. “To be chastised for hiding from the ladies of the house.”

“Yes,” Jamie said with a snort. “Imagine that. Your company here, and he gads about in the woods like an animal.” He bent and kissed her brow. “I shall leave you to your ablutions, m’dear, rather than risk temptation. Breakfast, fifteen minutes?”

She smiled. “Send Ellanor and it will be sooner,” she said, capping her ink bottle.

Breakfast proved a quiet, contented affair.

Bellamy was still abed, protesting a lingering headache and a mild chill from his night in the woods, while Regina was already out riding.

Belle was secretly pleased, for it was a delight to simply sit and talk to her husband about matters that he would have to tend on the estate. Bellamy seemed to have no interest in it, as yet, and she found it fascinating, given the scale compared to her father’s own meagre lands.

There were several dozen farms bound to the Rutherglen name, to say nothing of the scatter of villages that were considered as much a part of the estate as the land itself. It seemed so vast and expansive, such a great amount to manage, that she wondered aloud at his reason for his shipyards.

Jamie smiled crookedly. “I was not always the heir,” he said. “My father had a very direct train of thought when it came to inheritance. My brother, John, would have received everything down to the last farm. I would have been lucky to receive an allowance until I reached my majority. Father’s will was only changed after John passed away, only weeks after my marriage.”

Belle looked at him thoughtfully. “Did you care for your brother?”

Jamie frowned. “I can hardly recall him,” he said. “I know he was a larger lad, much more like my father than I was.” He smiled crookedly. “I used to wonder why I was called the little bastard.” Belle made a horrified sound. “Oh, lud, woman! No pity. For all I cared for my father, I might have been the farmhand’s get.” He picked up his teacup. “I left the house for school when I was nine, was with the army by thirteen and did not set foot here again, until after John died.”

“That sounds a wretched state,” Belle said quietly.

Jamie shrugged prosaically. “I am Duke. My son is the heir. The estates are all mine, and even if they were not, I have my trade to turn to.” His expression softened somewhat. “And now, I have a loving wife to see that I do not work myself to the bone.”

She smiled, reaching over to clasp his hand. “You can be sure of that,” she said. “I would not wish my husband to exhaust himself.”

He met her eyes and raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?” he said, his voice a growl, and she flushed to the roots of her hair, lowering her eyes. He lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles softly. “Still blushing, dearie?”

She raised her eyes to his, her lips twitching. “I cannot help that you make it so.”

He gazed at her fondly. “I would advise,” he said, “that you flee now, my Lady, else I forget all about my promise to let you be. Flee until evening, and I shall find you then.” He kissed her knuckles again. “May God help you if I find you sooner.”

Belle laughed, pushing her chair back. “I will see you this evening, your Grace,” she said, drawing her fingers from his. She did not look back until she was at the door, even though she could feel his eyes on her every step of the way.

She took refuge in the library, after leaving a brief note with Regina’s maid. She was curled on the window ledge in a pool of thin sunlight when she heard the rush of Regina’s skirts in the hall, and looked up with a smile.

The older woman had clearly changed out of her riding attire, and offered Belle a small, cautious smile. “You are well, dear?”

“Quite so,” Belle said, marking the place in the book she was reading with a ribbon. “But I would take some air and be out of the house for a time, while James sees to business.” She looked hopefully at Regina. “Might you walk with me for a spell?”

Regina’s expression brightened. “I would like that,” she said. “I expect you do not intend to walk the woods?”

Belle laughed. “I fear I would earn as stern a reprimand as Bellamy, when it has been as wet as the past few days have been,” she said, rising from the windowseat. She hesitated, then asked, “Perhaps you can show me the Dower house? James said that he used to reside there.”

For a moment, a flicker of grief crossed Regina’s features, but she nodded. “You ought to see it,” she said quietly. “After all, that was where Bellamy was born.”

It was but half an hour later that they emerged from the house.

Belle had learned well from all her walking that her slippers were nowhere near sturdy enough for her, so had conspired with Ellanor to acquire a pair of boots from one of the maids, who thought it all very amusing. They were, of course, hidden beneath her skirts, out of sight of any who might comment.

As they set out, Belle slipped her arm through Regina’s, earning another puzzled look from the older woman. It seemed that she had been without female companionship for so long that she had all but forgotten how it could be.

Only once they were out of earshot of the house or any servants did Belle ask, “How do you fare?”

Regina kept her eyes ahead as they walked. “I am quite well.”

Belle squeezed her arm gently. “James told me of your dispute,” she said quietly. “I know it must have pained you.”

Regina looked at her, no longer even attempting to mask the sadness. “Aye, child,” she said quietly. “It did.” Her lips twitched briefly. “But we spoke at length for much of yesterday afternoon. He even ventured an apology, if you can believe that.” She looked ahead again. “It was not expected, but it was a relief to hear it.”

Belle nodded. “I wager an apology from Jamie is like drawing blood from a stone,” she said, glancing sidelong at the older woman. It earned her a small flicker of a smile.

“You would not be wrong to imagine so,” Regina murmured. “I believe I have heard him do so perhaps thrice in the twenty-six years I have known him, and this is the first time I have had it directed at me.”

Belle recalled a moment, days earlier, the Duke on his knees, head bowed, all but begging forgiveness. Yes, he had cause to beg so, but for one who never apologised for anything, the fact that he knelt, humbled himself utterly, was dizzying.

She forced her mind back to the present, and to the woman at her side. “I wondered,” she said, “why you chose to stay in the house, when matters were so uncomfortable between you both. Would it not have been simpler to live in the Dower house, as was your right?”

Regina looked at her with no small measure of weary amusement. “Child, if I turned my face from his and hid myself away in the Dower house, would that not have been tantamount to declaring that I was guilty and had reason to hide?”

Belle opened her mouth in surprise. “I had not thought of it so,” she admitted.

“That was the way it felt,” Regina said. “I felt I must stand my ground. I had raised Bellamy in that house, for almost all of his nine years. It was my home as much as it was James’s, and I could not face being driven out over an accusation of a crime I did not commit.” She looked at Belle gravely. “Now, matters are different.”

Belle bit her lip. “Because I am there?”

Regina laughed quietly. “Lud, no, child,” she said, drawing Belle to a halt. “Because I am there.” She lifted Belle’s chin gently with a gloved fingertip. “You are the Duchess in Westfell now. While there may be a place for a Dowager, I fear that there can be no place for a woman who briefly shared your husband’s bed.”

Belle’s cheeks darkened at once, but she forced herself to meet Regina’s eyes. “Who knows of it, but you and James and I?” she asked, lifting her hand to clasp Regina’s at her cheek. “It was nigh before I was born, and it ended then, did it not?”

Colour dashed across Regina’s cheeks. “Aye, it did,” she murmured.

Belle met her eyes calmly, steadily. “And did you love him, then? Did you truly wish to be wed with him?”

For a moment, it felt their roles had turned on one another, and Regina scuffed a booted foot like a worried child. “No,” she finally admitted in a whisper. “I feared he would wed another, and I would be cast out of my home. I did not imagine he would ever let me stay.”

“And so, you offered your hand, and he leapt to his foolish conclusions,” Belle murmured, shaking her head.

Regina’s smile was brief and undeniably sad. “Aye,” she said. “And a bloody inconvenience it has been for us ever since.”

“Inconvenience is hardly the word I would use,” Belle murmured, as they started again towards the Dower house. “I’faith, men can be so adamant in their knowledge that they are right, they barely pause to listen to what they have just been told.”

“You have a measure of James, right enough,” Regina said with a quiet laugh.

“Not just Jamie,” Belle said at once. “I have only known a few men, but every one of them listens with only half an ear, unless you are holding onto it with a good firm grip.”

Regina smiled. “I begin to see what James sees in you,” she said. “When you arrived, you seemed but a little mouse, all wide eyes and nervous. Now, I see the tigress that he saw when he first wooed you.”

“Tigress?” Belle echoed with a laugh. “You jest. He calls me a cat.”

Regina laughed. “My dear, what is a tigress but a much grander and fiercer cat?”

Belle gaped at her. “I hardly did anything of note, when he and I first met,” she protested. “He has no cause to think me fierce or grand.”

Regina looked at her in amusement. “Do you truly have no notion of how he is feared in town?” she asked. “Any reasonable man would be quite sure that James would come after his daughters, based on his reputation. And yet, you stood toe-to-toe with him, showing more ferocity than half the men he met there.”

Belle flushed. “Bellamy told you of that.”

“Bellamy tells me anything that amuses him,” Regina replied, smiling. “I had a letter within two days of your first meeting, waxing lyrical about a toe-stamping young spitfire who dared to speak out at him, and called his father names.”

“Lud,” Belle groaned, hiding her face in her hand. “I hoped that he would forget that.”

“Let me warn you of a simple truth,” Regina said. “Bellamy never forgets.” She drew Belle onwards, the grass longer and wilder as they neared the Dower house. “I swear the demmed boy keeps journals hidden somewhere to refresh his memory, and ensure that no matter what you say, he can recall an anecdote to match it.”

Belle smiled. “I can imagine it would be so,” she said. “He loves his wit.”

Regina paused, bringing them both to a stop. A neatly-tended path led to the entrance of the Dower house. The building was small by comparison to the main house, but still grand compared to Belle’s father’s house in Cranbrook. It had two levels, each of which was lined with broad and tall windows, and the front door was broad, dark, polished wood.

“It has been some time since I have come here,” Regina said quietly.

Belle slipped her hand down Regina’s arm to clasp the other woman’s fingers. They were cold, trembling. “Did you ever live here?”

Regina shook her head. “Not truly,” she said in a whisper. “To me, this was always Eliza’s home. After she was gone…” She looked at Belle. “You must think me terribly sentimental to still consider this her home some twenty years after her passing.”

“Not at all,” Belle said softly. “My father abandoned the master room in our home after my mother died. He said he could not use a room that was no longer theirs, that it could never truly be his without her.”

“A wise man,” Regina said quietly. She drew a breath, as if steeling herself, then led Belle down the path towards the doors. She withdrew a key from a pouch at her belt and unlocked the heavy doors, pushing it inward.

The building within was quiet and dusty, and the feeling of it put Belle in mind of an empty tomb, long forgotten.

Regina released Belle’s hand to gather up her own skirts and walk directly up the grand staircase. She neither hesitated nor looked back, as if this was something she had to face, and if she paused, gave it a moment of thought, she would turn and run.

Belle followed silently, the only sound the quiet clatter of her bootheels on the wooden staircase. She glanced around, recognising the now familiar portraits of family members long gone, these ones clearly less significant to be relegated to the Dower house rather than the main halls of Westfall.

Regina stopped before a closed door. Belle could see she was trembling, but she reached out and opened the door, pushing it inwards. It came as no small surprise that the woman gave a small, pained sob, and Belle rushed to her side, offering her arm as support.

The room within might not have seemed significant at all, but for the clutter. It was a lovely bedroom, of itself, but it seemed packed with chests and boxes, some of them half-covered with cloths to keep the dust off.

“What is this place?” Belle asked softly.

Regina looked at her, tears on her face. “This is where all that was Eliza rests,” she whispered. “Every box, every chest, everything. James could not bear to have it close, and so, it rests here, if Bellamy ever wishes to see it.”

“Forgotten?” Belle said, trembling.

Regina shook her head. “Never forgotten,” she said in a whisper. “This was where she was happiest, and so, this is where all of her belongs. James knew she always despised Westfall house. Almost as soon as her funeral was done, he had all of her possessions returned to this place. Surely, you have noticed that there are no portraits of her anywhere but James’s bedchamber?”

Belle nodded.

“She would have none,” Regina whispered. She drew away from Belle, walking into the room. “This is where she was well and happy. This is where we told tales and laughed, and when she was with child, she would sit in the sunlight and sew.”

Belle felt a shiver run the length of her spine, and it felt that if she turned too quickly, she might see Eliza standing in the doorway behind her. “What was she like?” she asked.

Regina walked in a slow circle around the room. “Gracious,” she said. “She was always gracious and very patient.” She smiled through her tears. “She was as unlike James as could be, yet they always had plenty to speak of. She was only a handful of years my senior, yet she took me in when I was afraid or hurt.”

Belle felt a lump in her throat, and wondered - not for the first time - at James’s relationship with his first wife. “She sounds like a wonderful friend,” she said in a small voice, “and a good wife.”

“She was,” Regina said quietly. She turned where she was standing, her hands clasped in front of her, looking at Belle. “I think there is something she would like you to see, dear.” A small smile trembled across her lips. “I suspect James might disagree, but I think it would do you good to know your predecessor better.”

“What is it?” Belle asked uncertainly.

Regina crossed the room, sorting through some boxes, then returned carrying a small wooden box with an engraved lid. “Her letters,” she said, holding out the box to Belle, who hesitated. “It will only help you, I promise you that.”

Belle looked at the box. “Why?” she asked.

Regina smiled briefly, sadly. “You need to know how your husband and his first wife came to be together,” she said. “There are some aspects that not even a scandal would explain.”

Belle stared at the box nervously. If it contained the love letters of her husband and his first wife, she knew it would hurt more than anything to read them. “I do not imagine it will be beneficial to know their secret confidences,” she said, dry-mouthed.

“Isabelle,” Regina said quietly, “I knew them both. Please. Trust me.”

Belle met her eyes and looked at her for a long moment. Then she nodded, held out her hands and took the box.

Chapter Text

Dinner looked to be a quiet affair.

Regina absented herself from proceedings, claiming a headache, but Belle knew better. The visit to the Dower house had been emotionally exhausting for the woman, visiting the place where her dearest friend had lived and seeing all her possessions collected there.

Even Bellamy was unusually subdued.

"Why so morose?" Belle asked, as they waited for his father to arrive.

"Alas," Bellamy said, toying with a spoon, "I fear I must return to London."

He looked so glum that Belle rose and circled the table to embrace him. "I thought you would be happy to return to town," she said, her arm about his shoulders. "After all, you always say you miss the hubbub of society so much."

He looked up at her. "Normally, it would be so," he said, "but this is the first time home has felt like a true home in years, and now, I must be gone from it." He brought up his hand to clasp hers. "There are matters that must be dealt with in town, and I really should return to attend on them. Some letters came this afternoon..."

She knew at once what he meant. "You have had word? About my father?"

"He is well, have no fear," Bellamy said at once, his fingers pressing about hers. "Indeed, he is far better than he has been in many a month. Blanche sent word that he has taken to walking with her hound of a morning." He smiled at her. "Had you not been out and about for much of the day, I would have told you sooner. I have no doubt father has a letter for you from him also."

Belle's expression brightened. "And if you are returning to town, you might take my letters for him?" she said hopefully. "I know several have been sent already, but to know that you might place them in his hand would be so much the better."

Bellamy drew a smile to his lips. "I will be your Mercury," he promised, putting an arm about her waist and embracing her. "Will you be sure to take care of father and grandmama in my absence?"

She tousled his hair. "You know I shall," she said. "It is but a fragile peace. I will do my utmost to strengthen it."

Bellamy lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles. "My fierce little mama," he said proudly. "I look forward to the day when I can show you off in town, Duchess of Rutherglen."

She swatted his shoulder. "I have no doubt everyone will remember the little goose that George Aston dressed up like an immoral woman," she said with a sniff, as she released him and returned to her seat. "That is not an impression one can easily brush under the rug, as much as one might wish it so."

"Lud, mama," Bellamy said with a grin. "Now, you're the poor little goose that the terrible Duke of Rutherglen stole to have his nefarious way with. Your name was all over the paper, you know. They gasped over how scandalous it was, and at how quickly you wed. The Archbishop's dispensations are not so common as you might believe."

She made a face at him. "I can imagine they are saying there's a child in my belly already. Or that gold will seal any arrangement. Or a title will buy any lady's favour. Or any manner of unpleasantness."

He raised his hands. "Sheath your claws, mama!" he laughed. "I know it was none of that."

She tilted her head, looking at him. "Do you?"

He wrinkled his nose at her. "I'faith," he said, "I bore witness to your meetings, and I know my father is not silly enough to tie his name to a treasure-hunter." He wagged a finger at her. "And you are far too proud for all that."

Belle subsided with a small, rueful smile. "Perhaps, it is simply that I do not know the reason, then," she said.

Even now, she was not sure of the cause.

Despite her initial misgivings, she had read the letters exchanged between her husband and his late wife before they wed. They had explained a great deal about the marriage of Jamie and Eliza, but had also served to raise even more questions about her own situation, and the reason that Jamie had chosen her for his wife.

She had no doubt that he did love her now. The past two days had more than assured her of that, but then, in those first days, after but three meetings, she could not imagine what he saw in her to provoke him to offer his hand.

Her husband's arrival distracted her from further pondering, and she smiled in greeting. He patted Bellamy's shoulder in passing, then took his place at the head of the table, looking between his son and her.

"Your day has been productive?" he asked.

"Enlightening," Belle said with a small smile. "Bellamy said that you have had word from town?"

"Did he?" Jamie widened his eyes, as if this were news to him.

"Mm." Belle propped her elbow on the arm of the chair and cupped her chin in her hand. She met his eyes, raising her eyebrows. She could see his lips twitch, though he tried to school his expression into wilful innocence, a look that little suited the man she knew. "Do you wish to disappoint me, your Grace?"

"Demmed fiendish woman," he said, his features cracking in a smile. He withdrew a sealed letter from the pocket of his waistcoat, holding it up between his fingers. She reached out for it and he held it just out of her reach. "It comes at a cost, dearie."

"And you have the gall to call me a fiend," she said, leaning over the arm of the chair and snatching at the letter.

Her husband laughed, his eyes dancing. "Pay my price, and it's yours."

She glowered at him in indignation. "And what is your price, your Grace?"

"Your Grace twice in but two minutes?" Bellamy said in mock horror. "Father, I fear she is becoming quite cross."

"Mm." Jamie's eyes were on her face and she could see the mischief. "I wager she is at that." He rested his forearm on the edge of the table, leaning closer to her. "My price, dear little cat, is a kiss."

Belle's cheeks reddened. "Here?"

He nodded, his lips curving.

"In... in front of people?"

"Oh, tush, mama," Bellamy snorted. "I am hardly people."

Belle looked at him long enough to pull a face. "You have eyes and a nose and a mouthful of impertinence," she said. "I believe that makes it clear you are certainly people."

Bellamy put his hand to his cheek. "Lud, mama! You have quite clawed me!"

"And I would again," Belle said sternly, returning her look to his father, who was looking all too amused. "And your price, sir, is as impertinent as your son. You know very well what will occur if I deign to kiss you here."

His tongue darted out to moisten his lower lip, and she felt her colour rise. That, in turn, made his eyes gleam. "And what is that, madam?" he asked.

His smugness spurred her to boldness and she met his gaze steadily in spite of the rising colour warming her cheeks. "You, your Grace," she murmured, her chin cupped in her hand, "would be utterly unmanned."

Bellamy gave a great snort of laughter at the look of surprised amusement on his father's face. "A strike, a very fine strike!"

"I fear," Jamie said with a grudging smile, "that my lady might well be right." He held out the letter to her. "I will came my price at a later and more suitable time."

She plucked the letter from his fingers. "Thank you, your Grace."

Bellamy snickered. "I fear you are not yet forgiven," he said dryly. "Mama, you have my leave to be merciless."

"I wager she would not need your leave, cruel little cat that she is," Jamie said, holding Belle's gaze, his lips twitching. She schooled her expression into one of utmost severity, placing her father's letter reverently on the table. "Come, m'dear, surely you shall not pout throughout supper."

"If I only pouted, your Grace," she replied, offering a mild smile, "you would have naught to fear."

The look in his eyes suggested that her words were not as discouraging as they ought to have been. "I have reason to fear, do I?"

Belle rested her chin on her very fingertips. "Just because you cannot see the claws, do not imagine that they are not there." She smiled as sweetly as she could. "They only need some cause to be bared. Would you seek them, your Grace?"

Her husband moved, as if he would rise from the chair, and claim his price, regardless of their audience.

Bellamy coughed loudly. "As romantic as this all is," he declared, "I fear I am quite starved, and if I must witness a moment of this nonsense, my stomach will turn and I shall not be able to eat a morsel."

His father swore cheerfully, subsiding in his chair. "Alas, m'dear," he said, "it seems I cannot drive you to distraction presently."

"I'faith," Belle rejoined, arranging her napkin neatly, as the servants brought in the meal, "I believe you underestimate your skill in it. You can manage quite well as you are."

Bellamy chortled gleefully. "Again, a neat swipe of the claw, father. How lucky you are."

Jamie was still watching her raptly, a smile playing about his lips. "Aye," he said. "I believe I am."

Belle primly adjusted her napkin, keeping her eyes down. It was easier to fight down the rising blush, when she could not see the intensity of his look. Indeed, her meal seemed to be absolutely fascinating to her, and she barely glimpsed her husband's face throughout the remainder of their dinner.

All the same, she could feel his gaze on her, as one can feel the warmth of the sun, even when one's eyes are closed.

He and Bellamy spoke, throughout the meal, and she occasionally made enquiries as to what Bellamy might be doing in London. There was business, it seemed, and of course, they would be checking on the improvements to her father's estate.

"Father's lands?" That caused her to look at her husband, abandoning her attention to her dessert. "Surely, there is naught wrong there?"

Jamie smiled. "Not in the least, m'dear," he said. "In fact, quite the opposite. There are new workers being brought in to prepare for the coming year, and if all goes well, there should be a decent harvest there come next summer."

Belle stared at him. "But the land was fallen to ruin and papa can little enough manage..."

"What is a marriage if a husband cannot give his wife and her family a wedding gift?" Jamie said gruffly with a dismissive wave of his hand. "It is small enough that it will have little impact on the estate, and I had thought it would be considered beneficial."

"Small enough?" Belle said, a tremor in her voice. The estate had drained every resource her father had, every penny they could spare, and Jamie was quite willing and able to pour money into lands that might well fail, all for her.

Jamie looked at her in concerned confusion. "Lud, woman! I thought you might be pleased!"

She blinked hard, trying to flick away the tears that were building, her lips turning up in a smile. "I am," she said. "I am very pleased." She pushed her chair back to approach his chair, lifted his face between her hands and leaned down to kiss him.

He pulled back, looking at her in surprise. "My price is paid?"

She smiled, stroking his cheek with her thumb. "Consider that a gift," she said, then added with a touch of playfulness, "It is small enough that it will have little impact."

His arm was about her waist suddenly and he pulled her closer to his chair. "You, woman, will be the death of me, I swear."

The feet of Bellamy’s chair creaked on the floor. “If I may be excused?” he asked.

Jamie looked from Belle to his son, then squeezed his wife’s waist. “I believe Ellanor was drawing you a bath,” he said. “Go, bask. I will speak with Bellamy about his travel plans and see you anon.”

Belle touched Jamie’s hair lightly, then looked at Bellamy, who was giving them the most absurdly doting looks. “Shall I see you at breakfast before you depart?” she asked.

“I have no doubt of it, mama,” Bellamy replied with a smile. “I would make my farewells properly.”

Jamie gave her a gentle nudge with his hand and she smiled, drawing from him.

She retrieved her letter from the table, then hurried from the room, eager to read how her father fared, and also to indulge in a bath. The Dower house’s dust seemed to still cling to her like a second skin, and she wanted to be free of it.

Ellanor greeted her with a quick smile when she entered the bedroom she shared with her husband again. Belle could have retained the Winter chamber, only three doors away, but she knew Jamie would prefer it if she were closer.

Her maid was still working determinedly on drawing the bath. The large tub had been set up close to the fire, which was lit and burning low. Every so often, there would be a knock at the door, and another of the houseboys would deliver another bucket of steamingly hot water.

“Only a little bit longer, Miss,” Ellanor said, pouring another bucket in.

“There is no need for haste,” Belle assured her, crossing the floor to her dresser. She could not recall clearly, but she was quite sure it had not been there on the first night that she had entered the room. It seemed her liking for letter-writing had not gone unnoticed, which is why it had been arranged. No doubt, the servants were sure the lady of the house would return to her husband’s bed, sooner rather than later.

It amused her that any other lady’s dresser might be occupied with brushes and hairpins, but hers was instead littered with pens and ink and a dozen sheets of unused paper.

She settled on the stool, breaking the seal of her father’s letter and opening it. Her eyes welled with happy tears at the sight of his familiar hand. It was no longer as tremulous as it had been in recent months, and she drank in every word eagerly, as if she could hear them in his very voice.

He was well, he wrote, and the Marquis and Marchioness Eaglesham were both gracious and generous hosts. He ate well each day, though not too well, for the doctors warned against his delight in rich foods and wine. He walked some little way with their hound, Leopold. Like him, the dog was too old to be of much use in a hunt, but was a fine companion for a weary old man with a desire to take some air.

When his concerns turned to her, a lump rose once more in her throat. He hoped she was well, and that married life was suiting her. It was, he wrote, difficult to grow accustomed to her absence, after so many years with her company and her smile.

Belle smoothed the letter flat with her fingertips, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply.

It was strange how words could be so simply affecting.

“Are you all right, Miss?” Ellanor asked quietly.

Belle blinked hard, then turned with a smile. “I am,” she said. “It is only a letter from my father.”

Ellanor smiled at that. “I hope the Master is well, Miss,” she said. “He’s a right good man.”

“He is,” Belle said, brushing at the corner of her eyes. “He’s very well. Blanche seems to be taking very good care of him.” She rose from the stool. “Is the bath ready?”

Ellanor looked at the tub. “Miss, it’s very hot. You’ll be red in no time.”

“I would not mind a soak,” Belle admitted. “It has been some time since I have had the chance to have a proper, hot bath.” She lifted her skirts to slip off her slippers, then turned her back. “I should enjoy it before it chills. Jamie may claim it once I am done.”

Ellanor giggled as she unlaced Belle’s dress. “Calling him such pet names, Miss?”

Belle’s cheeks flushed. “He likes it,” she said, which only set Ellanor giggling even more as she unlaced the rest of Belle’s dress.

It took the work of a few moments to remove the tangle of under things, and Belle stepped quickly into the tub shivering at the delightful heat. Her skin flushed to pink all over in a matter of moments, and she sank down in the tub as deep as she could, the water rising almost to her shoulders, her knees peeking out through the surface like the peaks of mountains through cloud.

“Do you want the screens around you, Miss?” Ellanor inquired, pointing to the dressing screens. They were tall, and Belle knew that it would be cruel to try and ask the petite girl to move them.

“I will be fine as I am,” she assured her. “You go for your supper. I will take my time here.”

Ellanor bobbed in a quick curtsey, then hurried from the room.

Belle closed her eyes, basking in the warmth of the water for a short while, before leaning over the side of the tub, searching for the sponge. She scrubbed herself all over, until every part that was not pink was flushes and rosy. With a small pitcher, she soaked her hair and let the water stream over her face.

It felt quite luxurious to not only bathe in her chamber, in such a large tub, but to do so while the sun still shone outdoors. The lateness of the sunsets so far north continuously surprised her, especially given how early the sunrises were. The whole room was cast in a warm glow that was softer than that of the fire, and she tilted her head back against rim of the tub, watching the colours across the ceiling change as the sun sank.

The door opened some time later.

“Ellanor?” she murmured, pleasantly drowsy, the water no longer hot, but still pleasantly warm.

“Not quite.”

She sat upright, startled, at her husband’s voice, folding her arms over her chest. If she had not been quite pink all over before, she certainly was now. “Jamie!”

He was standing only a few paces shy of the tub, a pleased look on his face. “Why are you hiding, dearie? You have nothing I have not seen before.”

She gave him a stern look, crossing her arms more neatly over her chest. “I hardly find it polite to intrude on a lady when she is bathing,” she said hotly. “Especially without giving any warning that you are there.”

“I did warn you I would be here,” he said, walking another two steps closer.

Belle hurled the wet sponge at him, and he dodged it, laughing. “You cad!” she exclaimed. “I had thought you meant to join me later!”

Another step brought him close enough to see clearly into the tub. She folded her knees up to his as much of herself from his gaze as possible. “This is later,” he said. “I gave you well over an hour and a half. I did not imagine I would find you still splashing about, little cat.”

She pulled a face and cuffed a handful of water at him, spattering him. He swore in indignation, closing the distance between himself and the tub which, to her mind, only offered her a fresh and larger target. The pitcher was still resting in the tub between her feet, and he bellowed in shocked outrage when she tipped it squarely over his head.

He stumbled back a step, shaking himself like a sodden dog, and glowered. Belle bit her lip and looked at the pitcher in her hand, then put it behind her back. He kept glowering, pushing his hair back from his face, tearing off his soaked waistcoat, peeling away his damp shirt.

“You, madam,” he growled, “will pay for that.”

Belle was shaking, but not from fear or trepidation. Rather from trying to contain helpless giggles at the sheer affronted expression on his face. When the sound broke from her lips, his lips twitched too, and all at once, they were both laughing, and he was kneeling beside the bathtub and drawing her closer, his hands only touching her hair and shoulder, and kissing her around a smile.

“Confess that you deserved that,” she said, lifting one arm over the edge of the tub to smooth his wet hair.

“Never,” he replied, smiling, his fingers moving in light circles on her shoulder.

She pressed her lips together, then brought up her other hand, tipping the pitcher over his head again. He roared out again, and she was dragged, giggling and squealing from the tub, thrown over his shoulder and borne to the bed.

She squirmed and wriggled, and with her skin still wet, she managed to escape once, twice, even three times, darting around the room and evading his grasp. Each time he caught her, he kissed her until she wriggled free again, and finally, he tangled her against the heavy drapes of the bed, pressing her against the post and kissing her over and over, until she thought her legs might give way beneath her.

“No more running?” he asked breathlessly against her lips.

“Not today,” she replied, her arms about his neck.

This time, when he laid her down on the bed, she drew him with her. His hands ran all over her, cooler than her bath-warmed flesh, exploring every part of her and making her shiver from head to toe.

When they came together, he cradled her head in his hands, his eyes drinking in her features as she gasped and shivered beneath him. Her every sound of pleasure seemed to please him more, and he murmured her name, breathlessly, encouragingly. She clung to him, with arms and with legs, and held him as if he might vanish.

It was only later that she realised just how wet their play had left the bedding, and she rolled from her back to her side, nestling against him.

“We may have to use a different bed tonight,” she murmured.

His fingers were untangling her still-damp hair lazily. “Adventurous, are you?”

She batted at his chest with a small smile, her cheeks flushing. “You know exactly what I mean, Jamie,” she murmured.

“Aye, love,” he replied, tilting his head to kiss her brow. “Give me a moment to catch my breath, would you? I’m no young pup any longer.”

She shifted, defying modesty and propriety to drape herself over his chest. One of her legs falling to rest between his, and she propped her chin on her folded arms, resting over his heart. He gazed up at her, lifting his hand to stroke her hair back over her shoulder.

“May I ask something of you?” she murmured.

“Anything, love.”

She moved one fingertip in a circle on his chest. “Why did you want me?”

He looked confused by the question. “Now, love?” His smile returned, quick and wolfish, his eyes glinting. “Because you ran around my bedroom naked, and that is quite enticement enough.”

She tapped his chest sternly. “No,” she said. “As your wife.”

He frowned. “What made you think of that?”

She hesitated, then said, “I saw the letters at the Dower house. Yours and Eliza’s.”

For a moment, she half-expected him to push her off him, away, recoil at such an invasion into his most private of affairs. A dozen emotions seemed to war in his expression, then he asked very calmly, quietly, “Why?”

“I was afraid,” she admitted in a whisper. “I was afraid I would never live up to your great love, the woman you courted scandal for. I was afraid of the woman in whose shadow I will always stand.”

He stroked his hand over the curve of her head gently. “And now?”

She smiled, only a little tremulously. “I am afraid for other reasons,” she admitted. “Why did you not tell me?”

He put one of his hands behind his head, gazing at her. “Tell you that my scandalous love affair with a Lucas was not as much a love affair as people believed?” he said. “I had no notion it would trouble you.”

“Of course it would!” she exclaimed, her cheeks flushing. “I imagined you would compare me to her at each moment.”

Jamie stared at her. “Compare you to her?” he echoed. “Lud, m’dear, by comparison to you, Eliza was meek as milk and twice as dull.” He curled a finger under her chin. “You have read the letters. You know she and I were but friends. We met when we were both young at court and we corresponded, and so it remained.”

“You married her,” Belle said quietly.

“Aye,” he agreed with a snort, “because her demmed father insisted on marrying her off to some wealthy high-born drunken bastard who was known for having the pox. That was not a fate I would want for an enemy, let alone a dear friend.”

Belle’s cheeks were burning. “Oh.”

He guided her to sit up, all but astride him, and he sat up to face her.

Under any other circumstances, such a position would have had her scrambling for blankets, seeking some manner of covering, but he was holding her gaze, and she was too nervous of him, of his mood, to do aught but chew her lower lip.

“You should not have read those letters,” he said quietly, cradling her cheek in his hand.

She lowered her eyes, focussing on the hollow of his throat. “I know,” she whispered.

He turned her face up to his. “Did they bring any comfort to you?” he asked, searching her expression. She hesitated, then nodded, a single, sharp jerk of her chin. “And would it please you to know that I did not truly love her, nor she I? Not as you believe we must?”

She looked up at him, startled. “I thought you must,” she said in a whisper. “You risked all of society’s contempt for her. I thought you must love her terribly.”

His thumb brushed her cheek. “My little cat,” he said softly. “I risked nothing. I already had society’s contempt. I did not need to court a high-born woman and steal her on her wedding day to earn their loathing.” He smiled briefly, sadly. “She was my dearest friend, my sometime wife, the mother to my son. Her passing grieved me for those reasons. Not because she was the great love of mine. Had she been…” He shook his head. “If I lost the one I loved more than life, it would have ended me then and there.”

“Oh,” Belle whispered.

He rested his brow to hers. “And all this, because you feared a ghost?”

“I’m sorry,” she said in a whisper. “I know I should not have, but you confuse me so.”

He lifted her chin and kissed her gently. “Then ask me what you will, little cat, and I will answer truly.” He nudged the tip of her nose with his own. “You may plumb the secret depths of my soul if you will.”

She put her hands to his shoulder, pushing him back a little, to look him full in the face. “I would know why you wanted me,” she said quietly. “As your wife. I had little to recommend me, my birth was low, my rank mean, my family poor.” She searched his face. “Why did you want me at all?”

He stared at her, then laughed in disbelief. “By God, woman,” he said, stroking her cheek. “Have you no notion how truly exceptional you are?”

She swatted his shoulder. “Do not tease!” she implored.

He caught her hand, stilling it, preventing another strike, and drew her palm down to rest over his heart. “Do you remember the first time we met, little cat?” he asked. She nodded. “Do you remember how fiercely you glared? How you hissed and spat at me, when all decorous ladies would have lowered their eyes and fanned their features?”

Belle coloured. “I did not apologise for speaking out of turn then…”

“Tush, woman!” he said, smiling. “I admired that. You had more spirit than a dozen of society’s show-ponies, and it was refreshing. I came to Blanche’s demmed party to see if you were quite so bold as you seemed.”

“Blanche’s party…” Belle echoed, her eyes widening. “You saw me in that…”

“That monstrous piece of harlotry,” Jamie said with a nod. “I did, but I cared naught for the dress. I saw your pride, your bloody-minded pride, in spite of the humiliation you must have felt. When Bellamy told me of the reason for it, I would have thrashed Aston.” His mouth curved at one side. “I fear I was quite taken with you then.”

She looked at her hand, over his heart. “And you were not dissuaded by pokers and bloody murder?”

He grinned suddenly. “That was when I knew I must have you,” he admitted. “There are few women who will knock a man’s head when he is twice their size. There are fewer still who will argue etiquette while bleeding and wounded. And the rarest of all is the one who remembers the manners of tying people to chairs.”

Belle stared at him. “Pardon?”

His eyes danced. “You were quite emphatic on that point. Half-conscious, half-dead for all I knew, and still, you were the soul of wit. How could a man not love that?”

Her heart felt like it had skipped. “You loved me, then?”

“Aye, Belle,” he said, his hand clasped over hers. “Then.”

“Why did you not say?” she asked, trembling.

“And frighten the poor little Viscount’s daughter half to death with professions of devotion from a known rogue?” he said, shaking his head. “No, love. I could not scare you so. I offered all that I might because then, the choice was yours. I could not have been happier when you accepted me.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “You stupid, stupid man,” she whispered, flinging her arms about him.

“Aye,” he agreed with a smile against her brow. “Your stupid, stupid man.”

Chapter Text

When Belle woke, it was disorientating to see the walls of the Winter chamber, but to feel the warmth of her husband's body pressed against her back, his arm around her waist. For once, they had both slept clothed, though that was only because the dampness of the bed had necessitated dressing to run from one room to the other.

She laid her hand over his at her waist, tracing her fingers along his knuckles, and circling the heavy stone of his signet ring. His face was buried in her hair, and she wondered idly if he minded it tickling against his features. She could only assume not, for she could feel the slow, steady gusts of his breath close to her shoulder.

Nature was calling, but only quietly thus far, and she was loath to squirm free and wake him, not when she felt so at peace and comfortable where she was.

They had not spoken much more, the previous night. Her throat was closed up by emotion, and her husband had taken refuge in gruff reticence once he had said all he felt needed to be said. She had been 'demmed' and 'woman' at least some dozen times while she snuffled and sobbed at his shoulder.

Secretly, she knew he was both pleased and startled by the intensity of her response.

How could she have reacted otherwise?

To know that he had asked her to wed him, out of love, knowing she only looked at him as the notorious Duke of Rutherglen, made her tremble with wonder. He had loved him for days and weeks, and she had not had any notion of it.

As carefully as she could, she turned in his arms. He grumbled sleepily, his arm tightening around her waist, and she stroked his arm lightly. It seemed it was enough to rouse him gently, and he lifted his face from her hair, his eyes dark and drowsy in the dimness.

"Good morning," she whispered, lifting her hand from his arm, to brush his stubbled cheek.

He nuzzled her fingertips, smothering a yawn against her palm.

She turned fully in his arms, to lie on her back and look up at him. His hair was sticking in all directions, and he leaned down to claim a lazy kiss. His hand wandered on her belly, tugging at her nightdress. Belle swatted him with a giggle against his lips.

"Bellamy departs this morning," she reminded him. "I would quite like to bid him farewell."

Jamie grumbled under his breath, his fingers determinedly twisting into her nightdress. "You can wave from the window."

She pinched his arm. "No, I shall not," she said, grasping his wrist and dragging it away from her. "You would be most aggrieved to see him leave without saying goodbye."

Jamie huffed, lowering his head to nuzzle at her shoulder, tugging at it with his teeth. She pushed her other hand to his face, which only encouraged him to nibble on her fingers instead, drawing helpless giggles from her.

"Jamie, enough," she said, wriggling free. "Breakfast, then farewells, then you might do as you will."

He leaned up in the middle of the bed, looking at her with intent interest. "As I will?"

She sat on the edge of the bed, looking back at him. "Within reason," she amended, then hopped up before he could catch her around the middle and pull her back. "Now, would you excuse yourself so I might dress properly for breakfast?"

Jamie sat up grudgingly. "If I must, love," he said, getting to his feet and stretching. "But you are in earnest? Breakfast, farewells, and then, as I will?"

She waved a hand at him, as if he were an annoyance. "Shoo! I will revoke all such suggestions if you do not let me be to dress."

His grin turned wolfish and he nodded, then prowled to the door. She could all but read the look on his face when he looked back at her, his eyes roaming up and down her body. She had an inkling that as he willed would result in not leaving the bed chamber for some days, if he had his way.

She blushed, wondering if it made her shameless that she did not find the very thought repellent.

By the time she entered the dining room for breakfast, Regina and Bellamy were both there. Regina was in her riding clothing, but had seemingly delayed her morning ride to bid farewell to Bellamy. They were talking quietly when Belle entered, and both looked up with brief smiles.

"How go your preparations?" Belle asked quietly, sitting down opposite them.

"As well as might be expected," Bellamy admitted. "The coach is being prepared presently. Grandmama insists I should ride from here to Edinburgh, but you know what trouble I have with the great brutish things."

"They only tip you because they know you do not want to fall in the dirt," Regina insisted. "If you were bolder, then you would not fall so often."

"La, I would rather sit in a box and be safe and dry, than be tipped because some silly mule believes I am shy of dirt."

His grandmother swatted his arm in sharp reproof. "My horses are no mules, you impertinent little rogue!"

Belle hid a smile, looking around as Jamie strode into the room. He barely glanced at her, though he paused by her chair, giving her time enough to note the fit of his breeches and the fine lines of his shirt, and the place where his cravat should have been. She blushed noticing the reddish mark she had dared to leave on his neck, knowing full well that he was displaying it with the intention of making her colour. She ducked her head, trying her utmost to smother a smile.

"What say you, boy?" he barked at his son. "Have you packed up your cravats and frills and nonsense?"

Bellamy pulled a face. "Must we go about this same merry-go-round again?" he huffed. "You dress as fashionably as I when the mood takes you, father, and one day, I swear I shall show you off, along with mama in London."

"Aye, aye, I have no doubt of it," Jamie said. "We shall come down for October, after all."

Belle's head rose. "We shall?"

"Dem you, woman," Jamie snorted, looking down at her. "Did I not just say so?"

"You did not tell me!" Bellamy exclaimed. "You will come to town?"

"God's teeth!" Jamie said, slapping his hand against the tabletop. "Is there a demmed echo in this room? Aye, we shall come to town. It shall not be until Isabelle's birthday, but we shall be there anon. My lady has her father to visit, after all, and what better time than her anniversary."

Belle's heart leapt. "We shall see my father?"

"Zooks!" Jamie threw up his hands. "Shall I exit and return anon? Perhaps then you shall not repeat each and every word I say!"

"Every word?" Bellamy said, a devilish smirk about his lips.

Belle reached up and caught Jamie's hand to keep him from quite erupting in a temper. "You are in earnest?" she said, looking up at him. "We will return to town?"

His expression softened as he met her eyes. "Aye, m'dear," he said. "I thought it might be a fitting gift, as I had no notion what else you might like to celebrate your passing of a year. One can only give ink and pens so often before it becomes a dull gift."

She squeezed his hand warmly. "It is the most perfect of gifts," she assured him.

He looked pleased, but gruffly said, "It's no matter." He flung himself down into his chair, waving briskly to the servants to bring out the dishes for breakfast.

"You see, grandmama," Bellamy murmured furtively. "She has him quite pacified."

"Bellamy," his father growled.

"Well," Bellamy corrected, as Belle stifled a laugh. "Mostly."

His father shot a stern look at him. "You are not yet back in my good graces, boy," he said. Bellamy blushed darkly, ducking his head. "Now, have you all that you need, to be dealing with matters in town?"

"Aye, father," Bellamy said sheepishly. "Though I will miss being home."

Jamie snorted. "Aye, I have no doubt of that, my lad," he said. "Being cooed at by any you come across, the very cock of the walk. Heaven knows how you survive in town, when there are veritable flocks roaming."

Bellamy pulled a face. "I will have you know I am quite an exceptional specimen."

"Scotch, young, and fashionable," Belle put in with a small smile. "You need only cease shaving and you will be ten times the intriguing ruffian."

Bellamy looked at her with a keen interest. "Lud, you think so, mama? Would being coarser win the eye?"

"You would well know," his father said dryly. "You comment enough on hairy brutes and how out of place they seem in town."

Bellamy blushed, paying closer heed to his breakfast.

Belle looked across the table at Regina. "Will you come to town with us?" she asked.

Regina's fork paused halfway between her plate and her lips. "I?"

Belle nodded with a smile. "You have been closed up here long enough, and I have few enough female friends in town. Would you come? You might help me find some dresses befitting a Duchess, for I have no notion how I might dress."

"Lud," Jamie snorted. "I give her my devotion and she takes my purse too. Am I to be a pauper, wife?"

"Only if you continue to fuss so," Belle replied with a furtive glance at him. He smirked at her, and she kicked out with her foot beneath the table, catching him in the shin. She looked back at Regina, who was picking at her food uncertainly. "Please say you will come? I would like it very much."

"It would be most splendid to have you present, grandmama," Bellamy added, leaning over to pat her arm. "I have told so many of my chums about you, and they think I have quite imagined someone as lovely. They do not believe a Dowager could be as fine as you are."

Regina looked at him in astonishment. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"Speak of my dearest grandmama?" Bellamy widened his eyes in feigned astonishment. "Odd's fish, I know not, grandmama. Perhaps it is because I am inordinately fond of you?"

"Tush," she said, blushing and swatting his arm. Her dark eyes flicked towards Jamie, gauging his expression. "What say you, my Lord? Would you have your weary old stepmother in attendance?"

He tapped his spoon lightly on the edge of his saucer. "If my Lady would have you there," he said, "I see no cause to refuse you."

Regina considered her plate for a moment, then looked solemnly at Belle. "If you will have me there, then perhaps, I will consider it," she said, then exclaimed as Bellamy cheered and flung his arms about her in glee.

The rest of breakfast was consumed at a leisurely pace, with Bellamy in merry spirits at the thought of a family union in London. Belle was happy enough to think on seeing her father again, and could not contain a smile at the knowledge she would see him soon, for the first time truly as a wife and Duchess. She hoped that he would be as happy as she felt.

All three of them escorted Bellamy out to the carriage when it came time for him to depart, and he embraced both Belle and Regina, insisting that they both write to him often. Belle slipped him the small parcel of letters for her father and assured him that if he saw them safely delivered, she would write to him daily also.

He turned his attention to his father, who was standing some paces away, his arms folded.

“Well, father,” he said. “Shall I leave you with this monstrous regiment?”

Jamie’s lips twitched. “You are no Knox, boy,” he said with a snort. He unfolded one arm and put out his hand. Bellamy clasped it at once. “Try not to find yourself in too much trouble when I am not there to retrieve you.”

Bellamy laughed, a small nervous sound. “Lud, father, I am more likely to be in dire straits here than in town.”

With his other hand, Jamie clasped his son’s shoulder. “Best keep it that way,” he said. “You will return soon enough, I have no doubt, and trouble will be awaiting you.” He clapped his son’s shoulder firmly. “Now to the devil with you, boy. Town is awaiting its Prince.”

Bellamy flushed. “You are incorrigible, father,” he said, stepping back.

Jamie smirked. “Aye,” he said. “Someone must be able to put you in your place.”

Bellamy bowed. “One day, father, the son shall surpass the father.”

“I shall hardly dare to hold my breath,” Jamie said, folding his arms. “Off with you.”

Bellamy grinned, swinging himself up into the carriage and pulling the door closed behind him. The coachman cracked the whip and the carriage rolled to a start, catching up pebbles as it went.

Some half dozen of the servants were present and Bellamy waved from the window of the carriage as it picked up speed. Belle was only a little surprise to see Rab Graham standing on the edge of the woods that flanks the gardens, and he too raised his hand as the carriage passed him by.

“They all seem very fond of him,” she observed to Regina.

Regina smiled. “He does endear himself to people by his nature,” she said fondly.

“Ha!” Jamie snorted again. “He primps and fusses and they all line up to stare and see what nonsense he will be about this time.”

Belle drew closer to him, slipping her arm through his, as Regina withdrew into the house, no doubt to prepare for her morning ride. “You will miss him, I know,” Belle said with a small, fond smile.

“Aye,” he sighed, looking after the rapidly shrinking carriage as it disappeared from his lands. “And I have no doubt I will miss the décor within the townhouse as well, but if he is to be kept from pouting and moping, I suppose he must have a pastime.”

Belle’s eyes widened. “You are allowing him to decorate the house?”

“The demmed boy has no notion yet,” Jamie said, looking down at her with mischief in his eyes. “Henry will doubtless wait a day or two before revealing the contents of the chest that I enclosed for him, and the letter detailing Bellamy’s extended allowance for the purpose.”

Belle swatted his chest. “You will allow him to grumble all the way to London?” she said indignantly. “If you had but told him, he would have been much happier to go!”

Jamie caught her hand, covering it on his chest. “M’dear, the silly creature needed to be taught a lesson,” he said. “One cannot reward a child who misbehaves, and so, he will consider exile to London his punishment. Once he is there, he will have a token to show that he is not in as much disgrace as he might believe.”

Belle frowned. “What has he done to misbehave?”

“By God, woman, what has he not done?” he sighed, shaking his head with a fond smile. “If you are to be lady here, you will learn quickly that my son brings with him a trail of sins that could quite plaster every wall of the house. Better you know too little than too much.”

“Jamie,” she said quietly.

He looked at her gravely. “Not yet, love,” he murmured, “and certainly not here.”

That sufficed and she nodded. “What have you to do today, then?” she asked.

The seriousness in his expression was replaced with something entirely different, one side of his mouth curving up. “I recall mention,” he murmured, slipping an arm around her waist, “of breakfast, farewells, then what I will…”

Belle’s cheeks felt warm. “I do recall it was mentioned,” she admitted. She examined the button of his shirt, then looked up at him. “And what do you will?”

“I would spend time with my wife,” he murmured.

Her lips twitched. “I suppose that would not be objectionable.”

“I thought as much,” he said, guiding her back up the steps and into the house. “Now, where should we spend time do you think?”

She feigned all innocence. “Perhaps the library?” she suggested. “I have found the most charming book.”

“I am not in the mood to read.”

She leaned against him as they walked. “I might read to you,” she murmured. “I am told I have a most soothing voice.”

He squeezed her waist. “Do I seem in need of soothing?” he murmured close to her ear, his voice little more than a growl.

She paused on the step above him and turned to face him, their eyes close to level, and placed her hands on his shoulders. He was not a big man, but by comparison to her, he was tall and broad enough to seem so.

“Jamie,” she said in a soft, gentle voice, “You always seem in need of soothing.”

He caught her lips in an unexpected kiss, his hands clasping her waist. It ought to have been awkward and uncomfortable, knowing servants might see them, or Regina might pass by or any number of things, but when he kissed her, it was with every bit of devotion in him, and with such reverence that she felt drunk on it.

All at once, he was the one to pull away, and she was startled to realise she was breathless, and her hands were in his hair, and had apparently been for quite some time. The pleased, predatory expression in his eyes should have been alarming, but instead, it seemed only to bank a flame that had barely been smothered.

She ran her tongue along lips that suddenly felt dry. “What will you, my husband?”

He searched her face, and his hands clasped at her waist. “Lud,” he whispered, “I would live and breathe you, woman.”

She trembled at the heat, the love, the desire in his eyes.

Suddenly, achingly, she wanted nothing more than to hold him, to touch him, to know every part of him as much as he knew her. She laid her hands over his at her waist, gently drawing them from her, and ascended another step.

“Come with me, Jamie,” she said softly.

He followed as if she led him by a cord, their eyes seldom leaving one another, even as they made their way back to the chamber that was theirs. She slipped in first, drawing him after her, and she smiled when he kicked the door blindly closed behind him.

The room was lit by soft daylight, and she could no more resist drawing him to the broad, deep window than she could have left the room untouched. He looked well by candlelight, but by daylight, he had a warmth that she adored.

It should have felt shameful, verging on indecent, but Belle knew her scriptures well. Man and women were created without covering, so there was no reason to feel shame for the lack, when one was with one’s own husband.

His hands lay in hers, and he was looking at her worshipfully. He wanted, that much she knew, but he loved also.

She released his hands to step into his embrace instead, offering her kiss to him, and he moaned softly against her lips as she did so. Her hands ran over his shoulders, combed through his hair, slid down his arms, felt the strength in him.

“Belle,” he murmured, “you need not.”

She looked up at him, his eyes so much darker than usual, and smiled. “I need not, but I will it so,” she said softly, though her hands trembled as she reached for the buttons of his shirt. He drew a quivering breath as she loosed it about him, then splayed both her palms on his skin.

“I’faith,” he said, his voice thicker, “I swear you will be the death of me, by all the means in your most wicked little hands.”

Belle’s cheeks flushed. “I confess I do not know best what to do,” she admitted, only stammering a little.

Jamie gazed down at her, lifting a hand to tangle gently in her hair. “To touch is more than enough, m’dear,” he murmured, though he gasped as if he had been burnt when she bent and pressed her lips to the warm skin above his heart.

Belle raised her eyes to his. He was staring, wide-eyed, trembling, and she knew that was the very expression she wore when he touched her so. It meant well, she decided, and pushing aside a flush of nervousness and embarrassment, she pushed his shirt from his shoulders and set to softly kissing each little bit of flesh that was revealed.

He was not unmarred. Indeed, there were the marks of blades and even pistols about his torso. She supposed it was from his time in the army, but she did not care to know of the pain that caused them.

Instead, she kissed each that she came to, gently for fear of causing further hurt, and by the time she returned to his lips, he was whimpering and trembling so very softly, pained, but not in pain at all.

His hands trembled in her hair and at her shoulder, as if afraid to push her faster or pull her closer. “Belle,” he whispered against her lips, raggedly as her fingers ventured tentatively to the fastenings of his breeches. His hands caught hers, staying them. “You need not…”

She looked up into his eyes. “I know,” she said, rising on her toes to kiss him hard, even as she fumbled with the lacings of his breeches. She was unsurprised that he was all but ready for, his body much more visibly responsive than her own could ever be.

She drew a shaky breath before daring to look down, to see what she had only ever felt thus far. It was warm against her hands, and she could feel the throb of his heartbeat even to the heated flesh.

She raised her eyes to his, holding them, as she touched him. His lips were parted and he was breathing heavily. She felt his fingers sliding up her arms to clasp at her shoulders again, and she took that as a sign that he did not wish her to stop.

With care, she closed her hand about him, swallowing hard at the feel of him resting against her palm and fingers. His hips shifted in trembling urgency and she moved her hand to meet his motion. The low groan, the press of his fingers to her shoulders, the way he trembled at her touch made her heart race.

It was some strange and mighty power, this simple touch. She knew without question she could bring him to his knees if she so wished.

“Belle,” he whispered, “by God, I will burn up.”

She had never understood what it meant when people spoke in hushed whispers of carnality and desire, but in that moment, she knew exactly, and she knew she had to have him touch her, as she touched him.

Belle turned about, offering him her back. “Unlace me,” she whispered urgently, one hand still about him, holding and drawing up, then down again. She could tell by the hitch in his breath that it brought him pleasure, and if his hands trembled, then she knew it was all her doing.

“Little witch,” he protested hotly, bending to kiss her ear through her hair, then her neck, then her shoulder, as his hands fumbled with the binding of her gown. “Lud, has she tied every knot under the sun?”

Belle giggled breathlessly as he pulled his face from her throat to scrutinise the dress, though his hands hesitated, clasping her shoulders when she tightened her grip upon him.

“M’dear,” he warned huskily.

“You are being too slow,” she whispered, blushing at her boldness.

His mouth was on her throat suddenly, hot and sucking greedily, making her quiver, and his hands were gone from her. “Slow?” he whispered. Suddenly, the stays were pulled tight, and just as abruptly, she heard them snap like threads.

“Jamie!” she exclaimed, though it turned to a shiver, when he pulled apart the corset, and with another tug, the skirt dropped to pool around her feet. Her chemise was thin, almost nothing in grand scheme of things, and he tugged her hand from him to press flush against her backside. The very heat of him made her legs tremble.

“May I?” he whispered, sliding his hands over her hips, the feel of his skin scorching through her drawers and chemise.

“Please,” she whispered just as breathlessly, though the glint of a knife made her gasp aloud. “Jamie!”

He snipped the lace of her drawers and they dropped like fallen curtains. “You said I was too slow,” he murmured, nuzzling her jaw as he caressed new-bared flesh. One hand slipped over her hip and she whimpered breathlessly as his fingers delved between her thighs, hidden beneath the pale silk of her chemise.

“Should we not… the bed…?” she gasped out, as he touched so softly at the fore, but pressed so hotly at the back.

“We need not,” he murmured, his other hand caressing her breast through the chemise. “Put your hands to the window ledge, m’dear.”

“H-here?” She trembled.

“Here,” he purred against her ear. “Look upon your lands, my Duchess.”

The very word sent a tremor of wild emotion through her and she clasped at the edge of the window for fear she might fall. “Indecorous,” she whispered.

“Not at all,” he whispered, his hand drawing up her chemise, little by little, until she could feel the very heat of him bare against her. He moved his hips slowly, inciting her to press back against him. “This is your land, my Duchess. You may do as you will here.” He kissed her throat. “You may touch as you will.” His hands gently guided her thighs apart and he pressed flush against her, and she cried out as he sank himself within her. “You may love as you will,” he breathed raggedly, his hand joining hers on the window ledge, the other still brushing gently between her thighs.

She groped blindly along the ledge, until she found his hand, clasped it. “As I will,” she groaned as he pushed himself deeper, raising her on her toes, and she pushed herself back to meet him.

Her body arched against his, and he held her steady with his arm, rocking his hips against her with a swift urgency that left her breathless. His fingers brushed over and over between her thighs, drawing the blood to sing in her veins, and she pawed at the breath-misted window with one trembling hand, the other clinging to his.

Her head span as sensation after sensation assailed her, and she could hear the desperate hungry echo of it in his own panting breaths. She would fall soon, she knew, but the wondrous pleasure she could feel building would be entirely worth it.

On the window ledge, his hand turned over and she clasped his fingers with her own and squeezed, and cried out as she came apart.

Chapter Text

The days at Westfell passed peacefully enough, as summer slowly drifted towards autumn.

Though Jamie and Regina were still cautiously polite when in one another's presence, the hostile tension that had once filled the house was all but gone. Regina would join Belle and her husband in Bellamy's place, and they would talk about civil matters, such as problems on the estate, new business transactions relating to the ships, even letters from town.

Bellamy, it seemed, was having a tremendous time, redecorating the town house in anticipation of their visit, and every time the matter was mentioned in a letter, Jamie positively winced. On such occasions, Belle knew she would have to pet and cosset him and assure him that he would not be returning to a house that would resemble a bordello.

Her secret pleasure came not from the intimacy of the bed. As much as she found herself enjoying such activities, she found the greater pleasure in lying in her husband's arms afterwards. Sometimes, they lay in companionable silence, on other occasions, they talked quietly into the night.

As she knew from the first days of their courtship, he did not feel the need to stifle her words or her thoughts, and sometimes, he would simply listen to her talk of the books she had read.

Of course, reading did not take up all of her time.

Two days after Bellamy's departure, her education began in earnest.

When Jamie had observed her doing her father's books, his comments - it seemed - were not in jest. She was to learn the management of the estates, to know them as well as he knew them. There was much to learn, so much larger than her father's own lands, and she was determined to prove herself.

"Should not Bellamy learn such things?" she asked one afternoon.

"Aye," Jamie said, passing her one of the ledgers. "He has learned much of it, but he also must play at politics." He shot her a smile. "You know him well enough, m'dear. Do not imagine he as vapid and empty-headed as he pretends."

"Oh, I do not believe he is," she agreed. "He is your son after all." Jamie looked pleased until she added, "You have a shifty look about you, and a dashed great cunning streak."

"You are demmed insolent, woman," he said indignantly.

"Lud, my Lord," she said innocently as she examined the ledger, "you mistake my honesty for insolence."

He glowered at her in a way she was beginning to know well. "And you play with semantics, dearie."

"You say so when you cannot think of a reasonable retort," she challenged, her eyes dancing as she looked up at him.

"I can think of a dozen retorts," he said, leaning back in his seat. "I might say you have the very devil's tongue behind that angel's face of yours. I might say that you play with words as does the Sphinx." He propped his elbow on the arm of the chair, resting his chin against his fingertips. "Would you have me continue, little cat?"

"Not if you intend me to finish with these documents before supper," she said primly. "If you would only focus your mind on your work, rather than on taunting your wife, we would be done all the sooner."

He chuckled. "Lud, you are a wicked thing, my cat, turning all my words on me, your helpless mouse."

"And you accuse me of the devil's tongue," she said in feigned horror. "M'lord, if you are a mouse, then the world is turned upside down and inside out." She surveyed the ledger, then slid it back across the table to him. "Now, focus, your Grace. What shall we do about the Norloch farm?"

By the time that the season crept towards October, Jamie had given over charge of two farms to her entirely, to see how well she had learned. Such responsibility thrilled her, as much as it terrified her, and she mentioned it to Regina, as they sorted through their wardrobes, selecting outfits for town.

"Oh, you needn't worry, my dear," Regina assured her. "James knows what he's about. For all that Bellamy is a capable politicker, a hand will be needed to guide the estate in his absence."

Belle looked anxious. "But surely James does not anticipate I will need to know such things immediately? He does not believe he will be gone so soon?"

Regina caught the note of distress in her voice. "Of course not, dear," she said, abandoning her dresses to catch Belle's hands in hers. "The demmed fool of a man is all too enamoured with his little boats, and the more people who can manage his lands for him, the happier he will be. Now you will have the estate, I can care for the house, and he can play about with his ships and trade."

"You cannot deny he is being most organised in seeing that I know enough to manage in his absence," Belle pointed out.

Regina hesitated, then nodded. "He is coming hard upon the age at which his father..." She hesitated. "I know it seems folly, but men are not adept at facing their mortality. Let him fuss and arrange matters, and then find some way to distract him."

Belle's cheeks warmed at a more secret thought, and she his it by turning away and folding a pair of gloves. "I had thought to do so, but his preparations for the journey to town are becoming more frenzied," she admitted. "I am glad we shall travel by coach, but he seems to change the arrangement and the stops with each day."

"He is a man," Regina said with a wave of her hand.

Belle laughed quietly. "You think that excuses such a fuss?"

"Tush," Regina said, "he dotes upon you utterly. He intends to make the journey as easy for you as it might be, though he could make it in half the time, if he took his horse alone. He has done so before, you know.” the woman laughed quietly. “Now, though, he pads the seats with cushions and would have you be a Queen at her leisure."

Belle smiled at her words. "He is a stubborn villain, true enough," she said. "I have told him time and again that we might go by boat to save time."

“And have you quite ill upon your arrival? You know he will not allow that.”

Belle made a face. “And instead, our journey will take a dozen days or more.”

“Consider it,” Regina suggested, “a chance to see the lands between here and there. Some, I fear, are dull as ditchwater, but others might be quite interesting to behold.”

Belle set down the folded gloves. “We shall make the best of it,” she decided. “He can fuss and coddle as he so wishes, but if we are to take the longest route to town, then we shall at least be sure to enjoy it.”

Regina’s eyes gleamed. “May I be there when you tell him so?” she asked. “I would see how he huffs and blusters before bowing to your every whim.”

Belle laughed helplessly. “He is not so easily led.”

“Shall we test him?” Regina said, smiling wickedly. “I would wager he will fold as gently as your gloves within two courses of dinner.”

In the end, Belle was both amused and a little relieved that Jamie’s grumpy protestations lasted as far as dessert, when he set down his spoon with a clatter, threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Lud, woman, you will have us stop at every quaint tavern and patch of flowers!”

Regina stifled a laugh with a napkin.

Jamie’s eyes darted to her, then to Belle, who widened her own eyes innocently. “Wife,” he said, pushing his chair back, a ferocious look in his eyes. Had she not seen it a dozen times before, she might have been terrified. “What is so mirth inducing?”

Belle delicately dabbed her lips with her napkin. “I have no notion what you mean,” she said, folding the napkin carefully and laying it down on the table. She nodded to one of the footmen, who drew her chair back for her. “For shame, your Grace. Stamping so. One might think you a child.”

“No notion indeed,” he snapped, turning an accusatory finger to Regina. “What have you been saying to my wife?”

Regina straightened her back and raised her chin. “Only that she is most persuasive,” she said, meeting his gaze directly. “Would you not agree, James?”

Jamie snorted loudly. “Lud! It is a damnable conspiracy, I swear.”

“People only conspire,” Belle said, rising with a half-smile, “when they wish to bring down a greater rival.” She stepped out from her seat and curtseyed elegantly. “I cannot imagine why you think we might conspire against you.”

Jamie’s chair was shoved aside forcefully. “Do you dismiss me, woman?” he growled, taking a step towards her.

Her lips were twitching with the very effort of remaining in a placid little smile. “Dismiss you, your Grace?” she murmured, taking two gliding steps towards the door. “That would imply I had taken note of you to begin with.”

He took another brisk step towards her, the gleam in his eye all too familiar. “And now, you depart the table so uncivilly?”

Belle met his eyes with cheerful defiance. “Your pardon, your Grace,” she said sweetly, then looked to Regina. “And you also, milady. I fear I must retire for the evening. I am being troubled by a mild ache in my head.”

Regina’s expression was knowing. “I imagine so,” she said. “Rest well, dear.”

“Shall I see you to your room, wife?” Jamie murmured.

She raised her eyebrows as she looked at him. “When you have chastised me so sternly?” she said in mock-horror. “Lud, your Grace! I would fear that there would be greater reprisals still, if I allowed you to do so.”

She turned then and swept towards the door, counting under her breath as she stepped out into the hall. She managed to reach the foot of the stairs before the door slammed open behind her and she heard the clatter of her husband’s boots.

She did not waste a second longer, grabbing up her skirts in both hands and dashing up the stairs as fast as she might without tripping on her petticoats.

“Belle,” he snarled after her, giving chase,

She squealed, dodging one way then the other to evade his grasping hands, as she reached the first landing. One shoe, then another fell behind her, and she spun about to shove him away, making him stumble back down three steps. Her skirts up over her knees, she ran again, laughing and breathless.

He caught her briefly at the top of the stairs, one hand snaring her upper arm, and he pulled her around to claim a kiss. With weeks of practise, she had become familiar with him enough to kiss him as she knew he liked best, leaving him breathless, then she pushed him back again, tottering on the landing, and fled down the hall.

By the time he caught up with her, the closest room was the library, and she threw herself in, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. Jamie pounded on the door with a bellow of indignation.

“Open the door, woman!”

“I hardly think so!” she called back, giggling. “You are being a terrible great brute! I feel safer with a door between us!”

He struck the door again, and rattled the handles, which she was clinging to. “Woman!”

“Aye,” she said mischievously to the crack between the doors. “I am one of those, man.”

He must have thrown all his weight against the doors, for they pushed inwards against her and she squealed in protest, putting her shoulders harder against them. Her stockinged feet slipped and slid on the polished floor, and she took a breath, looking around.

While the library was large, there were not many opportunities for someone to hide, but she spotted one that might suffice for a moment and released the doors to flee towards it. She heard the crash of the doors swinging in, and her husband stumbling at the loss of resistance.

She closed a hand over her mouth to smother any sound she might make and watched from her hiding place for his shadow. To her glee, he walked deeper into the library, not even glimpsing her where she was hidden in the nearby window-nook.

As carefully as she could, she slipped out from her hiding place, tip-toeing across the floor towards the open doors. He had a distinct advantage on her, for his clothes were fitted, and her skirts gave her away by rushing against the floor. She heard his boots as he whirled around, and squealed, fleeing out the doors, pulling them shut behind her.

It was no great surprise that he caught up with her when she had run less than half the length of the long hall. She was too breathless from both running and giggling herself insensible, and he wrapped both arms around her waist from behind and lifted her off her feet.

“Jamie!” she laughed, kicking her feet. “Put me down this instant!”

“Not if you will flee again,” he growled against her shoulder. He stamped immediately in the direction of their bedroom, no matter how she wriggled and squirmed in his grip, and he gave her a firm shake. “Lud, woman, if you keep fighting, I may well tie you down!”

“You would not dare!” she exclaimed, swatting at his arms.

“Would I not?”

She wished in that moment that she could see his eyes, to gauge his seriousness, but was diverted when he turned, pushing the door of their chamber open with his back. Once they were in, he closed it the same way, not relinquishing his hold on her for a moment.

“Now, will you behave?” he demanded, squeezing her around the middle.

“Only as well as you,” she replied smartly, and he set her down with all the gentleness he had, one foot at a time. Still, his arms remained around her waist, and she felt the brush of his lips to her neck. “Jamie.”


“You have not released me.”

“Well-observed,” he murmured, kissing her shoulder. “But you did not promise you would behave, so I fear I have no choice.”

“So you will hold me down until I behave?”

She felt his mouth curve in a smile. “Or I might tie you down,” he suggested, nibbling lightly at her throat. “I have wondered how you might behave if one were obliged to bind you to keep you still.”

She swatted his wrist sharply. “And in the same conversation,” she said, a tremor in her voice, “I recall I had just struck a man upon the head with a poker for pressing intentions that did not become me.”

He made a small sound of complaint in his throat. “Am I not different, love?” he murmured, nuzzling her jaw. “I only speak of play, with your lovely silks on your fair skin.” He kissed her earlobe. “Can we not play?”

She stared into nothing for a moment, her heart drumming. She knew that she wanted him, and had almost wished that he had caught her in the library. There was a couch there that she had considered more than once in the most illicit imaginings. But now, they were here, and he was making whispers of things she had not dared to imagine.

She did not like to be restrained, not truly. It made her fearful. But a thought was emerging from the nervousness that made her lick her lips and made her heart pound a little harder. She twisted in his arms, turning to face him. He was looking at her with such intent longing and a flicker of hopefulness, and she smiled. His eyes widened in surprise, and he pulled her closer.

“Wait,” she murmured, raising her hand to his chest.

“Wait?” he asked, uncertainly.

She tugged on his cravat, loosening it, and drew it from around his neck. He followed her fingers with his eyes, as she tugged it down. She turned back in his arms then his breath hissed between his teeth as he realised her intentions.


“Hush, dear,” she whispered, tying each end of the silk around one of his wrists. Her hands smoothed over the back of his, fingertips resting lightly between each of his knuckles. “Shall we play as you wish? Shall you behave?”

He trembled against her back with such violent ferocity that she thought she might have made some grave misstep, but his arms tightened about her and he buried his face in her hair and breathed her in deeply. “As you wish, my Duchess.”

A warm blush spread across her features, and she leaned back into him and whispered, “I would have you call me your Grace.”

His lips pressed to her very nape through her hair. “Yes, your Grace,” he breathed, and the heat in his voice made her legs tremble beneath her. He nuzzled the back of her neck so softly it was barely tangible. “What would you have me do, your Grace?”

Belle felt dizzy with the very thought. “Lift your arms,” she murmured. “I would be free to choose.”

He did so at once without protest, raising his bound wrists, his arms a circle about her, and let her step free. That done, she turned to face him, heart pounding. The reverence in his expression stole her breath and she took his hands in hers, gazing at him.

“You will do as I ask?” she said softly, her voice trembling.

“Anything you ask, your Grace,” he breathed. “As you will.”

She moved backwards, deeper into the room, drawing him by his hands. Her mind was racing with possibilities, quiet secret thoughts she had concealed with blushes. He did not hesitate to draw her from her bed or her bath and have her in any place he so pleased. Why should she be any less eager, when she had her own secret desires.

She led him to his seat, the grand, heavy monstrosity.

Often, they sat before the fire of an evening, as they had in London. He delighted in toying with her hair, so often, she allowed it.

“Sit,” she murmured.

He did so at once, parting his knees in expectation that she would sit as she usually did. After all, the cushioned footstool was there for a reason. She smiled shyly, and instead, knelt, facing him, resting her hands on his thighs. She saw him swallow, saw his lips part, saw the flick of his tongue over his lips.

“Will you unbind me?” he asked, his hands curling and uncurling eagerly. Belle tilted her head, raising her eyebrows in mild reproof. His lips twitched and he bowed his head enough to let his hair slip against his cheeks. “Your pardon. Will you unbind me, your Grace?”

“I think not,” she said, her voice a little more breathless than she would have liked. “Raise your arms, Jamie. Hold fast to the back of the chair.”

“Belle…” he murmured, leaning forward.

She splayed her hands upon his thighs, holding his gaze. “The back of the chair, Jamie,” she said, determined not to sway back from him, determined to hold the lead she had claimed. “I will be quite cross otherwise.”


She squeezed his thighs with both hands. “I may be unmerciful,” she said, her eyes on his, heart thumping almost painfully. She wondered just how far she might tease before he would break and ravish her. “And you have forgotten what you are to call me.”

His chest was rising and falling, his own breathing almost as tremulous as hers, and he lifted his arms, bending them to reach behind his head and curl his fingers over the high back of the chair. “My apologies, your Grace.”

Her smile came unbidden. “Very good,” she whispered, sliding her hands further up his thighs as she rose on her knees and leaned closer. His eyes were fixed on her face, and he arched his neck towards her. “Ah, my Lord. You are presumptuous.”

“Lud, woman,” he protested. She drew back at once to his obvious dismay. “Your Grace!” he corrected himself urgently. “Would your Grace favour me with a kiss?”

She granted him a small smile, delighting in the hunger in his eyes, and leaned closer to brush her lips to his. It was barely a moment, but he leaned closer to claim more. She lifted a hand to touch his lips softly. “Not yet.”

“You mean to torment me?” he groaned as she leaned flush against his chest.

“Perhaps,” she said with a giggle, her hand slipping between them to undo one button of his shirt, then another until his shirt was loosed and was all but bared to the waist. He looked down at her hand, and she knew it was only fanning a flame by slipping her fingers between the folds of the shirt to press to his chest.

It should not have come as a great surprise, but his heart was pounding as rapidly as her own. No small wonder, she realised, leaning up to kiss his cheek lightly, and feeling the correspondent flutter beneath her palm. He was always in such strict control of all things and in this place, in this time, she was taking that control from him.

He tried to turn his head to claim a kiss, which impelled her to draw her hand and lips from him sternly.

“You do not behave, Jamie,” she said close to his ear. “Behave, and you shall be rewarded.”

The sound he made, low in his throat, was somewhere between a pleading whine and a desperately hungry growl. “Yes, your Grace.”

She kissed the soft flesh just below his ear at the very corner of his jaw. “Very good,” she whispered, letting her fingers slip beneath his shirt again. Her other hand was moving slowly on his thigh, little more than gentle petting, but she could feel the muscle tensing, and he trembled at her very touch.

Slowly, deliberately, she kissed her way down his throat, then traced the edge of his shirt with her lips, even as her fingertips roamed and explored his chest. Even through the corset she wore, she could feel him press up against her. Some little touches made him gasp and hiss and his whole body would spasm as if he had been doused with ice water.

It was not intentional, but she found herself captivated by those very sounds, and the more he made, the more she sought them. His chest was rising and falling so rapidly beneath her hand and her lips, it was as if he had run the length of the house, and he trembled from head to toe.

“By God, Belle!” he groaned hoarsely, as she leaned more intimately against him, her hair trailing over his chest. She barely remembered in time to lift her hand and her lips. His hips twitched, almost violently. “Your Grace!”

She smiled and pressed a warm kiss to his sternum. “Ask me,” she whispered, hiding her blushes in her hair.

“May I have you?” he panted out, his thighs trembling about her. “Please, Belle, your Grace, please?”

She wet her lips, and asked breathlessly, “Where?” He was still, utterly silent for a moment, and she raised her eyes to his. “Ask.”

“Here,” he said hoarsely. “I’faith, I fear I cannot move elsewhere.”

If she had lacked in colour, her cheeks quite flamed with it, but she had not come so very far only to retreat in the face of something new. It would take boldness, to meet him face to face, as he desired. She took a shaking breath, drew a smile to her lips, nodded.

“You have been so very good, after all.”

His eyes widened, as if he could scarce believe it, as she leaned back enough to reach for the buttons of his breeches. He made a stifled sound in his throat, as if he would articulate some protest, but it seemed to catch in his throat when she loosed his breeches, freeing him.

It still have her cause to blush, to see him wanton, but to know she had caused it made her blood thrum heatedly in all parts of her body. She rose on trembling legs, drawing her hands from him, then gathered up her skirts and petticoats, revealing her drawers beneath.

“If you wish it,” she said, her voice trembling, “unlace me, husband.”

He was utterly still, staring at her hungrily. “May I lower my hands then, your Grace?”

The very fact he asked made her tremble and she nodded. “You may.”

His fingers were white-knuckled, and they trembled fitfully as they tugged at the laces of her underwear. He stifled profanities, staring intently at the knot and forcing his hands to obey. She bit on her lower lip as he tugged the silky drawers down to fall in a pool about her feet.

Jamie made a small, strangled around, his hands hovering mere fingers’ breadths from her bare thighs, and she fought down her blushes.

“Show me how,” she said, hoping her tone sounded more commanding and less pleading than it did to her own ears. “You may touch.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” he breathed. He ran his trembling hands down the outsides of her thighs so lightly she could barely feel it, then up and between, and she could see the surprise and the pleasure in his expression when he touched her just there. “You also?”

She darted her tongue across her lip.

“No words, Jamie,” she said. “Show me.”

He nodded, again obedient, and brought his own legs closer together, drawing her forward to frame them as if she might sit in his lap. It felt terribly indecorous, her legs spread so wide above him, and he looked up at her with breathless wonder. It took but a moment to understand her place in his intentions.

“Raise your arms,” she whispered, and when he did so, she slipped closer to him, her hands to his shoulders, her chest to his, her most intimate places so very close to his own. She pressed her brow to his. “Embrace me.”

His arms framed her at once, and she felt his hands spread on her back, still bound in silk, and she tilted her head to touch her lips softly to his. His mouth moved against hers, but he did not move against her, and she realised with breathless wonder that he was trembling, wanting, and yet, he still awaited her leave.

She kissed him again, more slowly, taking her time, tasting him and drawing on his lips, then kissed her way to his ear. She kissed his lobe gently, then breathed, “Have me.”

At once, his hands were at her waist, drawing her down, and she arched with a low, hungry sound as he filled her. Her knees were pressed hard against the leather of the chair and their hips seemed to be moving at cross-purposes, but even that erratic motion was drawing the most delightful pulsing sensations of pleasure through her.

She buried one hand in his hair, the other sliding down his back beneath his shirt, and she pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses to his throat, his jaw, his cheek, and when she reached his lips, it was like being consumed alive.

Her breathless whimpers were feeding his hungry groans, and she felt one of his hands clawing at her stays, even as the other guided her to more frenzied motion. They were both trembling so hard, and were so close to the end when they started, that it felt no time at all before she was crying out into his kiss and he was holding her so tightly she thought she might break apart in his hands.

In the sudden lull after the storm, the only sound was their fevered breathing. They were clinging to one another as survivors might, his hands both clenched on her back, hers tangled in his hair and pressed to his back.

She managed to lift her head from his shoulder, breathing slow and heavy, and slid her cheek against his as she drew back to look at him. His head lolled back against the chair, his jaw slack, but he managed to smile, though it was barely a twitch of his parted lips.

“Lud…” he whispered.

“Quite,” she agreed, her hand drawing from beneath his shirt to brace against his shoulder. “I fear… was that too bold?”

He laughed through his nose, too breathless for anything more. “Too bold?” His hand moved in a caressing circle on her back. “I say bolder still.” His eyes were heavy, dark, intent. “Will you, your Grace?”

She felt the recently abating blush rise again. “Still your Grace?” she asked, breathless and astonished. “Bound and commanded and directed to obedience?”

His mouth curved up at once side, and he slid a hand down to squeeze her backside through skirts and petticoats. “Aye,” he murmured, “your Grace.”

Chapter Text

The journey to London was not as much trouble as Belle had initially feared.

Admittedly, there were a few days of rough roads that made her quite ill, but it was naught compared to the seasickness she endured one her first journey to Scotland.

It was true that it was a long journey, but for most of it, the weather was decent enough to make it enjoyable, and the stops they made were in pleasant villages. Jamie, of course, sneered about quaintness and sentimentality, but he was the one who made sure she had a fresh vase of fragrant flowers by her bedside each night.

Regina simply shook her head. She often let them be, going on brisk walks, with Ellanor as bewildered companion, at each small town they stopped in. Belle knew the other woman was both amused and impatient with how lovesick her step-son was acting, especially since Jamie was well-known for being hard-nosed and callous at the best of times.

Still, by the time they were in sight of London, Jamie was growing surlier. Belle remembered him well that way from their first encounters. He scowled darkly out of the window at the fog-wreathed mass that was the city.

“You do not seem pleased to be returning,” she murmured.

“Demmed filthy place, town,” he said, sprawled in the seat beside her, his arms folded over his chest. “You cannot say that the country is not preferable to the reeking mass that is London.” He leaned sidelong to look out of the window. “We should be there by evening.”

Regina glanced out. She was seated opposite them, and as surly as Jamie was, she looked nervous at the sight of the city. “Lud, I had no notion it was quite so vast,” she said weakly. “How are we to find our way about it?”

“By staying where we belong,” Jamie replied tersely.

Belle looked at him sternly, laying her hand on his arm. “We have every right to be here,” she said. “None of your huffing and nonsense.” She put her shoulder to his, leaning against him fondly. “Are you not eager to see Bellamy again?”

“My son, aye,” he agreed. “My townhouse, less so. I dare not think what he might have done with the place.”

“Bellamy was well-taught,” Regina said with a prim sniff. “If he has decorated it in any way that is unsuitable, he will answer to me.”

“It’s my demmed house,” Jamie grumbled.

“Aye, and he was taught by my hand,” Regina replied mildly. “Thus, in matters of décor, any reproach will come from my lips.” She looked evenly across the coach at him. “You might reproach him about business or land or law, but when it comes to décor, I fear you know enough to fill a thimble.”

Belle looked between them, smothering a smile when her husband harrumphed and sunk himself down more gloomily, as he always did when he was indignant over losing an argument. She nestled against him, and did not even have to look at him to feel his mood lighten a little.

It astonished her how easily a touch could soothe him and calm him.

With a little gentle negotiation, she slipped her arm through his tightly knotted limbs, until the crooks of their arms rested together.

“None of us enjoy town,” she murmured. “We shall do it all of us together.”

He looked at her. “You are a brave little cat, m’dear,” he murmured. “You seemed smaller when last we were here.”

She smiled at him. “Can a cat not grow with time?” she asked softly. She rested her head on his shoulder. “Then, I only pretended to be brave, in the hopes that bravery might follow.”

“And did it, little cat?”

She laughed. “I’faith, I think not,” she said. “With all that has come to pass since I married my rough Scotch brute, I think I have forgotten to be afraid, and one cannot be brave if one does not remember how to fear.”

He bared his teeth at her. “And you do not fear me?”

Belle smiled. “Lud, no,” she said. She leaned a little closer. “And you, your Grace. What of you? Do you fear me?”

“Every moment of every day,” he replied, earning himself a reproving swat to the arm.

“You are both quite hopeless,” Regina declared, fidgeting with her gloves. “It matters not how we feel here. What matters is how we are perceived, and if we are perceived as unafraid, then people will not doubt it is so.”

“Even if we are afraid,” Belle offered, gazing at her. Regina looked quite pale and uneasy, and Belle recalled that she had only been to the cities in Scotland before. “Do not worry, my Lady. We have friends in town who will make matters easier.”

“You speak of Blanche, no doubt,” Jamie groused. “She insists on having you both to tea. I cannot imagine what is so fascinating to speak of that you must take an entire afternoon to revel in it with your blessed tea.”

“Why Jamie,” Belle said innocently, “we speak of you.”

He all but growled at her, which only made her smile and nestle more happily against him.

As he observed, they were close to the centre of London by late afternoon, and by evening, the carriage rumbled into the streets of Scotland Yard. James peered warily out the window of the carriage as they drew up to the townhouse, as if he expected to find the exterior painted in gaudy shades, but it looked as it always had.

“You see?” Belle murmured with a smile, as the carriage came to a halt. “It is not so terrible as you have feared.”

“We will see,” Jamie said, pushing the door open without waiting for his man to open it, and kicking the steps down. He descended in a single step, then turned, offering his hands to help her down, lifting her about the waist.

“I can manage,” she said with a fond smile, as he set her daintily on the slabs of the pavement.

“You should not need to,” he replied firmly. To her pleasure, he then offered Regina a hand to help her down too. It delighted her that they were certainly no longer at odds, and that he would even bow to true courtesy for her.

The door of the house opened suddenly, Bellamy framed in the doorway. “Father! Mama! Grandmama!” he exclaimed, leaping down the broad steps. He caught Belle’s hands, lifting them to his lips, then followed suit with Regina, his eyes shining. “I’faith, it is a joy to see you all here, and looking so well.”

“I am amazed you do not find us all rural farm folk,” Jamie snorted, though he clasped his son briefly by the shoulder. “With all the time we spent in tiny villages, I am amazed we have not all become snaggle-toothed peasants.”

“Good-natured as ever, father,” Bellamy said cheerfully. “It is a pleasure to see that even travelling in the company of two of the fairest ladies in the land does not dull the sharpness of your tongue.”

Jamie huffed, but Belle could tell he was amused. “Come, let me see what ruin you have wrought upon my house,” he barked, stalking up the steps towards the open door. Bellamy’s lips twitched, and he offered his arms to both Belle and Regina.

“How cruel have you been, dear?” Regina murmured, as they ascended the steps.

Bellamy smiled, the expression softer than usual. “Not excessively so.”

They stepped into the hall, and Belle’s eyes took a moment to adjust. She frowned, looking around at the walls and floor. Everything looked almost exactly as it had. There were a few new features, which added fresh colour and brightness, but for the most part, it was the same, only cleaner and brighter.

Jamie was stalking from parlour to drawing room to dining room, then back into the hall, a befuddled look on his face. “What the deuce do you mean by this?” he demanded, waving around at the hall. “You plead and complain about the décor, and you are given leave to change it, and you only replace that which was worn? Where are the colours you spoke of? The new designs? The landscapes?”

Bellamy rounded his eyes innocently. “Oh, I only mentioned that I had found such lovely things,” he said. “I never once said that I had bought any of them.”

“Bellamy,” Jamie growled.

Bellamy laughed. “Are you unhappy with my choices, then, father?” he asked. “Would you have me make the drawing room look like a harlot’s playroom?”

“Language!” Regina exclaimed, hiding a smile behind a gloved hand.

Bellamy bowed elegantly. “Your forgiveness, grandmama,” he said. “I only use direct quotes from father’s own letters.” He shot his father an amused look. “One would imagine he did not trust me to know his tastes. After all, he knows mine well enough.”

Jamie snorted. “You are a demmed impudent pup,” he grumbled. “And what of all the gold you received? Am I to believe a dozen pairs of curtains cost you all of it?”

“Tush, no!” Bellamy beamed. “I have half a dozen new coats and a quite lovely selection of breeches to choose from now.”

Belle could not keep from giggling, and she reached out to pat Jamie’s arm. “Your son is quite as cunning as you are, your Grace,” she said. She looked at Bellamy. “Bay, have you had word from my father? Does he know we will be here?”

Bellamy nodded happily. “He will come for luncheon tomorrow,” he said. “He is most eager to see you, but as we did not know when you might arrive, he could not be present.” He nudged her gently with his elbow. “By then, perhaps father’s humour will have improved.”

Belle made a face. “When he wishes to be tempestuous, I do not believe anything but God’s own will could stop him,” she said, earning a reproachful glower from her husband. “For now, I will gladly rest from the road. Jamie?”

“Would you eat?” he asked, looking at her with concern. “Now that you are back within home ground, you need not worry about the travails of travel.”

She patted his arm. “I am quite well,” she assured him, “though some light meal would not be amiss. Might I eat in the bedchamber? For I am quite weary.” She almost cried out in indignation, when he swept her up in his arms and bore her up the stairs. “Jamie!”

“You are weary,” he said stubbornly, carrying her to the master bedroom where they had spent the first quiet and tentative days of their marriage. “I would have you well rested, for there is much to be done while we are in town.”

“Much?” she asked suspiciously, as he set her reverently down in one of the two chairs by the fireplace.

He nodded. “Blanche would host a demmed great ball,” he said. “I had a notion that we might attend. All of us.”

Belle stared at him. She remembered well the stories that the Duke of Rutherglen was notorious for shunning not only balls, but society itself. Blanche had told her, once, that Jamie only ever attended a ball in the current year to see Belle’s own face.

“You despise them,” she said, as he knelt to remove her shoes. “Why would you attend a gathering that you loathe?”

He looked up at her. “Lud, woman, do you not think the most precious jewel in the society crown should be displayed?” She looked back at him in confusion and he clasped one of her small feet in his warm hands. “You, m’dear, deserve to be worshipped.”

Colour rose in Belle’s cheeks. “Me?”

He laughed, lifting her foot to kiss the very tip of her toe. “Who else?” he said. “Those demmed popinjays and braying women believe themselves so lofty and marvellous. I would have them see you and see just how hollow their vain ambitions are.” He set her foot down at the look of trepidation on her face, and rose on his knees to clasp her hands instead. “Be my Duchess, Belle,” he asked softly. “Walk at my side, and show that I am no more a depraved Scotch brute than you are a meek-mannered Viscount’s daughter.”

Her mouth turned in a smile. “Ah, but that would be a lie,” she said softly. “I am, after all, a meek-mannered Viscount’s daughter.”

He snorted, kissing her knuckles. “You are a Duchess, woman,” he said. “A new one, it is true, but you have the trappings of greatness in you, and I would have their demmed society tremble in awe at the very sight of you.”

She turned her hand in his to brush his cheek. “You would display me?”

He shook his head. “I would celebrate you,” he said. “I would have the whole world see the remarkable and wonderful woman that you are.” He kissed her palm. “We need not, if you would prefer, but I know you would show them the lioness you are.”

Belle considered it, then smiled.

“I would,” she agreed, knowing she would be nothing like the shamed little creature led about on George Aston’s arm. She was the Duchess of Rutherglen, and she knew she could hold her head high, walk tall, and no longer fear mockery and humiliation.

Jamie made as if to kiss her hands again. She was amused by the indignation in his expression when the servants knocked at the door, bringing them a light supper, and he was forced to relinquish all contact with her.

It didn’t last, of course.

As soon as supper was done, he brought across the basin from the dresser, and set to work gently bathing the dust of the road from her skin. At first, it was simply that, proper and courteous, but by and by, it became less so.

It was not as their first nights had been in the same bed, her nervous and frightened, and him holding her as if she were made of glass. Instead, it was loving, quiet, slow, almost luxuriously indolent, and when they finally rested together, his arms about her waist as she lay over him, she knew she was happy.

She touched a kiss to the very tip of his nose.

“Sleep, your Grace,” she murmured, then smiled and echoed his own words, “We have much to be done.”

He draw her down to nestle against him. “Aye, your Grace,” he whispered, drawing the softest of blushes to her cheek in the darkness.

Without the need to rise early to travel, they slept late, only rising a couple of short hours before her father was due to arrive for luncheon. It was pleasant to simply spend a morning doing naught but write correspondence and take note of matters about the house.

Jamie was diverted with invitations and letters received early in the morning, from associates who had been made aware that he was in town. He sat at the desk, while she sat at a small table by the window, watching carriages rattling by, her own letter to Blanche long-since finished.

Shortly before luncheon, she hurried to change, knowing her father would be both delighted and impressed to see her look the part of a Duchess. Ellanor was absent, visiting her own family across town, so she made do with another of the housemaids.

Jamie rapped briskly on the door, as her hair was pinned neatly in place. “Are you ready, m’dear? Your guest is come.”

She rose, waving the maid away, and approached the door, opening it herself. Jamie stepped back, his eyes running over her from head to toe, taking in the elegant, exquisitely fashionable pale gold gown she wore. It took him a moment for the smile to reach his lips, and she knew it was because he was startled in the best of ways.

“A new dress?” he asked, offering her his arm.

She smiled, taking the proffered limb. “Bellamy, it seems, collected the dresses that we had made in Edinburgh and brought them here directly.” She slanted a knowing look at him. “I trust I am respectable.”

“By God, any man who would say otherwise would be a thrice-damned liar.” The warmth in his voice drew a blush to her cheeks. “You mesmerise, m’dear. I’faith, the demmed boy knows your colour well, when he helped you choose.”

Belle smiled. “Thank you, your Grace,” she murmured as they descended the stairs. Her heart was pounding rapidly, which was quite ridiculous, given that it was only her father she would see and hardly the faces of a dozen society people.

The moment she stepped into the parlour, all nervousness was brushed aside at the sight of her father. He was seated on the couch, but he rose with a beaming smile at the sight of her, forgetting his cane to hold out his hands.

“Isabelle, my dear!”

“Papa!” She released her husband’s arm to dash across the floor, embracing her father as tightly as she could. He held her equally tightly, as if he might never let her go. Jamie kindly did not intrude, sitting quietly down in the chair opposite them.

When Belle’s father finally drew back to touch her cheeks, he was smiling. “You look very well, my dear. I see marriage quite agrees with you.”

She blushed happily. “And you also, papa. You look very well indeed.” She put her arm through his as they sat down together on the couch, and she drank in his features. He no longer looked so whey-featured and drained as he had when last she saw him. “I trust Lady Eaglesham has been spoiling you utterly.”

Her father chuckled, patting her hand. “I might almost believe I have a second daughter in her,” he admitted. “She insisted that I concerned myself with nothing but getting well. She would not even allow me to see the news, lest it cause anxiety.” He studied her features intently. “How do you find the wilds of the north?”

“Terribly light,” she admitted. “The sun comes in the small hours and barely vanishes at all by evening. It is not so wet as I assumed, but it is still very damp and cold.” She looked fondly at her husband. “My Lord is kind enough to ensure I have warm enough clothing and fires aplenty, should a chill take me.”

Jamie snorted, sprawled lazily in his chair. “Lud, woman, one would almost think I intended to have you freeze to death in my lofty ruin.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You huff again, my Lord,” she said. “One would think I had not just paid you a compliment.”

Jamie grunted gruffly, but she could see he was pleased, and she looked at her father with a small smile. He, too, looked amused.

“I see you have found a quite suitable match,” her father said.

Belle blushed most profusely, but nodded. “I would say so,” she agreed. “My Lord has a tongue twice as sharp as mine own.”

“And I fear my Lady seeks to dull it at every turn,” Jamie added dryly, earning a chuckle from his father-in-law and a sternly reproachful look from his wife.

It was almost a relief when the maid brought in a tray of tea and sandwiches. Luncheon was to be an informal affair, and she was most relieved to hear that her father would be staying for dinner later in the evening as well.

Despite all the letters that had been written and exchanged over the first few months of her marriage, they had not exhausted all topic to speak of.

She told her father of the estate and her new responsibilities. Jamie only interrupted occasionally, to cast observations at her talent with numbers, and her keen eye when it came to improvements that could be made to the running of the farms on the land. The more that they spoke, the prouder her father looked.

It was late afternoon and several tea trays later, when Bellamy arrived back with Regina. They had been out and about for a walk in London’s parks, and while Regina insisted on changing before coming to the parlour, Bellamy had no such hesitations.

He strode cheerfully into the room, sweeping into the grandest of bows. “Mama, father,” he said with a beaming smile, then looked in consideration at the Viscount Cranbrook. “Sir, might I call you grandpapa?”

Belle could not help but laugh at her father’s incredulous look. “He is in all earnestness, papa,” she said, clasping his hand. “I believe he wishes to expand his family by any means possible. I have been mama since the day I accepted his father’s hand.”

The Viscount looked at the grinning Marquis. Lud, I daresay he will do as grandchild until you provide me with one of your own,” he said, with enough of a glint in his blue eyes to make Jamie laugh quietly over his tea.

Bellamy clasped his hands together in delight. “Wonderful! Now I shall have a grandpapa and a grandmama, both of whom are younger than my father!”

“Boy,” Jamie snapped, though his eyes gleamed, “do not imagine I would hesitate to thrash you as I did when you were knee-high to a man.”

Bellamy only laughed, settling himself on one of the vacant seats and pouring himself a cup of tea. “Oh, I have no doubt of it,” he said, turning with a beaming smile as Regina entered the room, her walking jacket and boots replaced with more suitable home wear. “Grandmama, look! I have a new grandpapa! Isn’t it marvellous?”

Belle was caught by surprise when her father rose and bowed with clumsy gallantry. “Madam.”

Regina looked startled, many years outside of court leaving such unexpected chivalry a surprise to her, but she remembered herself well enough to curtsey. Sir,” she said.

“Papa,” Belle murmured, amused by the dazed look in her father’s eye, “This is the Dowager Duchess of Rutherglen. Regina, this is my father, Thomas Maurice, Viscount Cranbrook.”

The Viscount and the Dowager Duchess exchanged looks once more, and Belle couldn’t help smile at the colour rising in Regina’s face. The poor woman looked very flustered to have a man look at her at all. Given her appearance, it was hardly a surprise that Belle’s father was dazzled, and it would only bode well for her presentation at Blanche’s gathering.

“Will you join us for tea, Regina?” Belle asked.

“I hardly think it is my place,” Regina demurred, lowering her eyes.

“Demmed nonsense,” Jamie said curtly. “Are you or are you not a Goldacre?”

She darted a look to him. “I am,” she agreed, “Some twenty-five years now.”

“Then it is quite clearly your place,” he said. He rang the bell, calling on a servant. Another cup and saucer were brought, and a chair drawn up to join them. Regina sat, still looking at him with no small measure of bewilderment.

“Thank you, James.”

He rolled his eyes expressively. “Might we return to our discussion, now that all this nonsense of introductions and grandparents have been done with?”

“What is the topic?” Bellamy asked, stealing a sweetmeat from Belle’s plate.

“Blanche’s wretched party,” his father replied. “We must decide on how best to arrive.”

Bellamy, of course, had a dozen ideas about the matter, and Belle settled back to let father and son dispute the matter, while she leaned comfortably against her father’s arm. He found her hand with his own, squeezing it, and she knew that he was relieved to find that she had stumbled into a family as boisterous and affectionate as her own blood kin.

The debate was growing quite heated, when there was a knock at the door. Neither her husband of his son appeared to notice, until Henry slipped into the room and murmured quietly in his master’s ear. Jamie’s expression tensed. It was but a split-second, but Belle could see the flicker of rage in his eyes, and he nodded curtly rising.

“I must excuse myself for a moment,” he said. “We have a caller.” He glanced at Bellamy, nodded once, and his son rose too.

The door closed quietly, and whoever the caller was spoke in low enough tones that it did not reach the parlour.

“Business, I have no doubt,” Regina said with an engaging smile. “I hear they are always sought when they do choose to show their faces in town.”

“I have heard it said so,” Belle’s father agreed. “His Grace’s shipping business is well-known, and I have no doubt there are many who might wish to ride upon his coat…”

He fell silent when the voices in the hallway rose in volume.

Belle rose at once, her heart thundering. She recognised the voice. It had crept into her nightmares more times than she cared to admit. From the look on her face, Regina must have realised also, and her father caught her wrist.

“Let them deal with the matter, dear,” he said urgently.

Belle’s feet moved of their own volition, her arm drawing free of his grip, and she crossed the floor, her hand touching the door handle as Jamie cursed explosively. She pulled open the door to see Bellamy half-seated, half-sprawled on the stairs, his nose bloodied, and Jamie between him and the hulking form of Aston.

The fury was all but radiating from Jamie in dark waves, his teeth bared, his eyes wild. “You will walk out of this house now and you will not look back else I vow I will put a knife in your belly, you impudent cove.”

Your whelp insulted me,” Aston retorted furiously. “He and his little law-mongers have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes and ruined me!” His eyes moved to Belle, his expression turned uglier. “And there is the gold-grabbing little whore herself.”

Belle made not a sound as Jamie slammed the arrogant young man back against the wall. There was a blade in his hand, though she could not see where it had come from, and he pressed it to Aston’s throat. “Do not imagine I am afraid to mark you, boy,” he hissed. “You will apologise to my wife and my son, and you will leave this place and not return.”

Aston cursed, shoving Jamie back with a violence that made him stumble. “I am no back-alley fighter,” he snarled. “If you are a gentleman, you will meet me in Hyde Park at eight o’clock on the morrow and we shall settle this matter.”

“Gentleman I may be,” Jamie growled, “but I fear you are none.” He nodded and Henry caught one of Aston’s arms, then Hopper - waiting close to - grasped the other, bundling the cursing Aston out of the house.

Belle rushed to Jamie’s side, clasping his arm. “Are you hurt?”

“Not in the least,” he said, stepping around her to go to Bellamy. “Bay, lad?”

Bellamy dabbed at his nose with a kerchief. “Would that you had put the knife in him, father,” he said, his voice made nasal by his poor crushed nose.

“Had you not called his mother a harlot, I imagine he might not have struck you,” Jamie said, going on one knee on the step beside his son. He checked the wounded nose carefully. “It does not appear broken, only bloodied.”

Bellamy caught his arm. “All the same, father. I do believe he would murder you under the guise of a duel.”

“As I said,” Jamie sad dismissively, “only a gentleman may duel.”

Though she had not asked the question, the fear that had tangled around Belle’s heart at Aston’s words unravelled. She gave a small, shaken sob, and hated herself for it. Even when Jamie gathered her in his arms, it felt like she was back where she had begun.

“I hate him,” she whispered. “The wretch can still cause me to fear, and I hate him.”

“Hush, dear, hush,” Jamie murmured, stroking her hair gently. “The law is on our side, and we have made sure that his father has accepted recompense. It is known that Aston makes claims that cannot be substantiated. You are safe now.”

Even so, Aston’s invasion had settled an ill mood over them like a fog. What cheerful talk there had been of the coming gathering was forgotten. Jamie was terse and seething, while Bellamy occasionally touched his bruised nose.

It was not the happy reunion Belle had hoped for with her father and her new family.

All the same, they took supper, and talked until the evening crept in, and finally, her father made his farewells, informing her he looked forward to seeing her at Lady Eaglesham’s the following evening. She could see the concern in his eyes, and knew he was comforted when Jamie put a protective arm about her waist as they waved him off from the door.

When they closed the door, Jamie looked down at her. “I think you will need a drink tonight,” he murmured. “It might help you to sleep.”

She nodded gratefully, letting him lead her up the stairs to their bedroom. He dismissed the maid and undressed her himself, helping her into her nightdress. She felt drained, though she could not truly say why, and when he helped her into bed, then fetched her a glass of whisky, she drank it without question.

It took several attempts, coughing between each, but finally, she finished it and handed the glass back to him and he smoothed her hair about her on the pillow.


She shook her head. “I would that he did not trouble me,” she whispered.

“Aye,” Jamie murmured. “I wish that also.”

“At least he is gone,” she said in a small voice. “At least you shall not duel. He would have tried to kill you, I know it.”

“Lud, woman,” Jamie murmured, leaning over her to kiss her brow. “Stop troubling your head over the matter.”

She grasped his arms desperately. “You are safe, too. You need not duel him. The law is on our side.”

He smoothed her cheek gently. “It is,” he murmured. “Now rest, little cat. You will need all your strength tomorrow.”

The liquor had helped unravel some of the fear still stifling her, and she exhaled softly. “I should rest,” she agreed, closing her eyes. “That would be well.”

Her husband continued to stroke her hair tenderly, soothing her as if she were a very cat. She felt more at peace, even with the burn of whisky in her throat, and she murmured quietly to herself. The law was on their side. They were quite safe. Quite safe.

It seemed that, for once, nightmares did not trouble her, but when she woke, it was with violence. She struck out in a panic at whomever was shaking her, squinting in the faint morning light.


“Get up, girl, get up!” Regina pulled her upright urgently. “We must hurry!”

Belle stared at her. “Hurry? Where? Why?”

Regina looked back at her, her expression grim. “Your idiot husband has gone to meet Aston in Hyde Park!”

Chapter Text

Belle was terrified.

She was also angrier than she had ever felt in her life, all because her idiot husband had not been able to simply stand by and to allow his disdain for Aston’s challenge pass as insult enough. Instead, he had to go swanning off to a duel in Hyde Park, without so much as a by-your-leave, not even saying goodbye.

The dread that was closing her throat and making it difficult to breathe was that he would have himself wounded or worse, killed, before she could reach him to berate him.

Regina was urging the horse beneath them to high speed. Belle normally hated riding, but no carriage would be quick enough to catch her husband and step-son in their carriage, so Regina had called for Jamie’s stallion. He was a massive beast, vast enough to carry them both, but Regina had assured her he was as mild as milk, and she had believed her.

All the same, she clung tightly on, her arms around Regina’s waist, both of them jolting as the horse picked up speed.

It was still early, so only tradesmen were on the streets to see the Dowager Duchess and the Duchess of Rutherglen go tearing past. The stallion’s hooves kicked up sparks, and Regina hauled on the reins as they neared Hyde Park. They raced through the gates.

“Look out for them!” Regina called over her shoulder. “This place is not small!”

Belle forced her head up from Regina’s shoulder, though the woman’s black hair was whipping against her face in stinging strands. Neither of them were properly attired, only in their house dresses, their hair loose and windswept, but it hardly mattered.

Regina reined the horse in, wheeling about.

“There!” Belle cried out, pointing. “I see the carriage!”

Indeed, the carriage was concealed in a small copse of trees, and Regina urged the horse back to a gallop, tearing up the grass as they raced towards it. The men were nowhere in sight, but the coachman was.

“Where are they?” Belle called up to him, as the horse wheeled and stamped, tossing his head.

“Your Grace?” he said, staring at her.

“My husband and my son! Tell me, damn you!”

The coachman pointed. “They headed that…” he began, pointing, but they were already moving before he could finish speaking. They were onto footpaths now and low branches whipped at them sharply as Regina urged the horse on.

There were voices ahead, and Belle’s heart thundered. It did not sound as if anything had begun, and when they broke leapt a low hedge and into a clearing, the group of men seemed to freeze on the spot, no doubt fearing that the lawmen had found them. Duels, while not illegal, were certainly not openly permitted.

Belle’s arms ached at Regina’s waist, and she flung herself down from the horse.

Jamie and Aston were face to face. They were holding duelling pistols, Jamie’s raised to shoulder-level, pointing casually to the sky, but to her relief, they were too startled by her arrival and her appearance to have made any motions to begin the duel.

“Isabelle?” Bellamy exclaimed, startled. “What the devil are you doing here?”

“I might ask you the same.” She stalked towards them thrusting her hands through her hair to push it back from her face in wild curls. She must look like some manner of wild woman, she knew, but she could not care a fig for appearance.

“Belle,” Jamie said, his expression set. “You should not be here.”

“The devil I should not,” she said, putting herself between him and Aston, her back to the most loathed and despised wretch. She met Jamie’s eyes, holding them. “Would you leave me oblivious and come here to make me a widow?”

He flinched as if she had struck him. “You know I come here to defend you.”

“Ha!” Aston said sharply. “Control your woman, your Grace.”

Belle’s spine felt turned to ice and she forced herself to ignore him, closing her hand about her husband’s around the grip of the pistol. “The law is on our side,” she said quietly, her voice lowered, only for him. “You need not do anything more, Jamie. To deny him, on grounds he is not a gentleman, is enough. You do not need to resort to this base display.” Her fingers slid against his hand, and she held his eyes. “Please do as I ask, Jamie. Do not do this.”

He stared at her, and she could see the emotions warring on his features, then he nodded, barely a fraction of an inch of movement. “Yes,” he whispered, “your Grace.”

It made her tremble, those words, that he acknowledged her, that he would still give her the authority, even in this situation.

“We’re done,” he said, loud enough to be heard by all. He lowered the pistol, Belle’s hand still around his upon the grip. “I will not duel this man.”

Aston exploded in fury. “The devil you say!” he snarled. “First this little whore refuses me, now you are too much of a coward to stand toe-to-toe with me!”

Belle held Jamie’s eyes. He wanted to strike the cove, beat him down, but that would make him no better than Aston himself. It was not his fight. It was a battle that had begun between the Alderleys and the Cranbrooks. It was only right that they finish it.

Her hand moved around Jamie’s and before he could realise what she was about, she took the pistol in her hand, turned, and pressed the muzzle to Aston’s chest.

“Silence,” she murmured, quite satisfied by the way he froze on the spot. She pressed the muzzle closer, indenting his fine waistcoat. “I do not need nor want to hear another word of your poison, you repellent creature.”

“You little…”

She smiled tightly, thinly. “Tread carefully, George,” she said. “I am an angry woman with a loaded weapon that I do not quite know how to disarm. You would not wish for there to be an accident, would you?” He wisely closed his mouth. “Now, I shall speak. You are going to leave this place. You will not come near me, or mine or any whom I profess to care for.”

She could see the rebellious glitter in his eyes, and though her hands were trembling around the gun, she managed to hold it steady.

“If you value anything at all,” she said, “You will do as you are told. For if you do not, if anything becomes of me or mine, I am a Duchess now.” She smiled without mirth. “That opens doors that mere gold cannot, as your father may have found, and it also opens ears.” He was not a clever man, but she could see he was beginning to understand. “If anything should happen, anything at all, word will be spread, by lip or by letter, until your father’s name is nothing but dust, and not a penny of your inheritance remains.” She breathed in, then out, admiring the mottled red fury of his face. “If the letter of the law is not enough to dissuade you and your father’s satisfaction with recompense is not sufficient, then perhaps your own greed will stop your lips, you wicked and damnable villain.”

Aston wanted nothing more than to strike her. She could see it in his eyes and his stance, but with so many about them, and with the pistol at his breast, he could not and would not dare. “You would not dare.”

She looked back at him placidly, then lowered the pistol. He started to move his arm, but she was quicker. The recoil of the pistol made her stumble back a step, but not quite so much as Aston, who shrieked as the lead ball tore through his foot. He dropped his own pistol, falling to the grass and clutching at his foot.

“You crazy bitch!” he screamed, blood pouring between his fingers.

Belle calmly bent and picked up his pistol and this time, she pointed it at his head. “Would you like me to aim this time?” she said. “For it can be arranged.”

He went white as a sheet, flinching back against the ground, and Belle smiled as a sword pressed to his shoulder, holding him there.

Regina had apparently acquired one of the duelling blades from the nearby chest. “It would be a demmed sight easier if we could simply make a pin-cushion of him,” she said, prodding him until the blade sliced through silk. “Such men should be made examples of.”

“Indeed it would be marvellous, milady,” Belle murmured, “but I think Mr Aston begins to understand that I do not make threats idly, not when it comes to matters of the well-being of my family.”

“Belle…” Jamie murmured. He sounded quite dazed.

Belle did not dare to look around at him, her eyes still on Aston, whimpering and sobbing and holding his bloodied foot between his hands. “Do we have an understanding, Mr Aston?” she murmured, the pistol steady in her hands.

“Yes,” he hissed out savagely.

She bent closer, pressed the cold metal to his forehead. “Yes, what, George?” she murmured.

He hated her, utterly hated her, but she knew he could not do a thing about it, not now, not when he knew her threat was entirely too real. “Yes, your Grace,” he gritted out between clenched teeth, and Belle straightened up, smiling truly. Tension that had been bound about her for weeks, months, seemed to be falling away.

“Very good,” she said, stepping back and raising the pistol to rest against her shoulder, as Jamie had when they had first arrived.

Aston scrambled backwards across the grass on his hands and good leg, glowering savagely, but he said nothing as his second and two other gentlemen gathered him up, hauling him away.

“Belle,” James murmured again. She could hear him approaching and turned around to face him, half-afraid that he might be horrified by her behaviour, half-hopeful that he might approve. He was but two paces away, and the look in his eyes quite stole her breath. “By God, woman, you are magnificent.”

She closed the distance between them, her empty hand reaching up to pull his head down and she kissed him hard. He knocked the pistol from her other hand, then wrapped his arms around her, one hand tangling into her wind-whipped hair, holding her there.

They broke apart for breath and he nuzzled the tip of her nose. “Lud, Belle, I love you.”

She twisted her fingers into his hair and pulled sharply. “And yet, you run out without speaking to me of your intentions to get yourself killed for my sake,” she whispered fiercely. “Jamie, if you ever do anything so foolish again, I will teach you a lesson far harsher than Aston’s.”

He stared at her, then nodded. “I do not disbelieve you,” he whispered, his fingertips drawing from her hair to brush along her cheek. His hand was trembling she noticed, almost as much as her own had been, and she tilted her head to his touch.

“I would return home,” she murmured. “I did not sleep as long as I would have liked and I have not yet had breakfast.”

“As you wish, your Grace,” he said, his voice little above a whisper.

“Jamie,” she warned softly, before he kissed her again.

“Mama,” Bellamy said, forcing her to pull back. She looked at him. His face was still puffy from Aston’s attack the previous day, but not so terrible as she feared it might be. He looked pleased, but he nodded to her skirts. “You are all about blood, mama.”

She looked down and her stomach turned rebelliously. Shooting the man in the foot had seemed a good idea at the time, but she had not considered how much it might spatter.

“I should change,” she said weakly. “Jamie?”

He scooped her up, as if she were fragile. “Home, m’dear, before there is any more excitement.”

She had no desire to protest. Instead, she wrapped her arms about him, and did not let him go, not until they were home. Bellamy rode in the carriage with them, while Regina rode alongside on horseback, but Belle hardly noticed them at all, her attention wholly on her husband, the husband she had feared so terribly that she would lose, the husband who would have put his life before hers to ensure that she was safe from the man who threatened her.

She was unsurprised when he insisted on carrying her from the carriage too, and when he deposited her on the edge of their unmade bed, and moved to kneel behind her, unlacing her bloodied dress, she shivered pleasantly when he pressed open-mouthed kisses down her neck and across her shoulders as he bared them.

The dress was pushed down a little at a time, and his arms circled her, caressing each part of newly-bared skin in turn, drawing approving murmurs and delicious shivers from her. It was only when she rose to shake the skirts off her hips that she turned to face him, climbing onto the bed to push him back and down against the covers.

Her hands set to work on his clothing as she knelt over him, offering brief kisses as his shirt came undone. “You frightened me today,” she murmured against his lips.

“Your pardon, Belle,” he murmured, his hand in her hair. He shuddered pleasantly as her fingers reached the waist of his breeches and she dealt swiftly with the buttons. “I am sometimes a dangerous man.”

She moved her hands to spread them on his bare chest, leaning over him. “You misunderstand,” she said quietly, her eyes burning into his. “You were gone. To your death for all I knew. You would have left me alone. I was afraid because I thought I would not see you again. I thought you might be slain, and I could not bear it.”

He stared at her wonderingly and pulled her mouth down on his once more.

What clothing was between them was rapidly divested by hands made urgent with need and love, and she could not be sure which of the closed the space between them. Their hands tangled and she pinned them on either side of his head, leaning over him, as her body moved against his, their eyes fixed on another, as if they might never see one another again.

It was not without pleasure, but there was something more in the heart of it, and when they lay together after, both trembling, his fingers ran along the nape of her neck. There was something in the air that could not be articulated, but she knew that they both understood.

She folded her arms upon his chest, her chin resting upon her wrists. One of his hands was stroking the length of her bare back.

“We need not attend Blanche’s gathering tonight,” he murmured.

Belle smiled quietly. “Oh, no,” she murmured. “We will attend. I have no doubt gossip will be flying about all across town. There will be whispers about town about me after this morning’s little excursion. I cannot let them take their impression from such a source. We shall attend.”

He looked up at her wonderingly. “My cat is grown to a tigress,” he said.

She playfully clawed at his chest. “Do not pull the tigress by the tail, your Grace,” she caution. “She may not like it.”

“Is that so?” he said, eyes gleaming, his hand moving lower on her back.

By the time they eventually emerged from the bedroom, it was far beyond breakfast time, and Bellamy gave them a stern look when they finally entered the dining room. Regina was already absent, and her place had been cleared.

“We have eaten already,” he said. “If we had waited for you, as you asked, we would have starved half to death by now.”

Belle had the good grace to blush, though her husband simply looked self-satisfied. ‘I had no notion we would take quite so long,” she said, directing a reproachful glare at Jamie, who only smirked more prominently.

Bellamy smiled crookedly. “I dare not even ask,” he said. He propped one elbow on the table and leaned his chin upon his hand. “Might I ask you something, mama? Only a small concern I may have?”

She frowned. “Of course.”

He widened his eyes. “If I misbehave, you will not shoot me in the foot?”

Belle flushed. “You know very well that Aston earned that.”

“My nose and I are honoured by your defence,” Bellamy said gravely.

Belle pulled a face at him, her husband laughing over his tea.

By the time they were quite done with breakfast, several letters had arrived, among them missives from both Blanche and Belle’s father, seeking clarity about what had come to pass in Hyde Park, for Aston had been seen by a physician, and rumours were rushing about from the lips of his friends that the cause lay at the hands of the house of Rutherglen.

“People are so demmed curious,” Jamie grumbled, as Belle sifted through the letters.

Belle smiled. “Blanche and father can know the truth, but the rest can wonder,” she said, casting the rest of the letters into the parlour fire. She looked at him. “After, you already have quite the reputation. Now, I fear I must start to build mine own.”

“I shall look forward to it,” he said. The doting look he cast at her made her feel quite warm to her toes. It felt strange and pleasing that everything was at last at peace. There was no one who might threaten them. They knew one another well. They had nothing to fear.

“Belle,” Regina stepped into the room and Belle looked around, startled.

“Is something the matter?”

Regina shook her head, smiling. “I thought we might venture to the Milliners,” she said. “After all, there is no hat that you possess that will adequately show you to be both highly fashionable, and the ferocious woman you are. We must find one.”

Belle looked at Jamie with a rueful smile. “One must look one’s best,” she said.

He waved her away with a fond smile. “As long as you do not feel impelled to carry a pistol everywhere, you may do as you please,” he said. “I only ask that you do not look as if a bird has collided with your head on your return.”

“Even if it is fashionable?”

He snorted. “A pox on fashionable.”

Belle stooped to claim a kiss from him, before hurrying out with Regina.

She did not have a chance to see her husband again on her return, the maids already waiting to dress both her and Regina. They had to look splendid, after all, so she allowed it, selecting the finest and most elegant gown from her new trousseau.

When she emerged to the landing, Regina was waiting, and that she took a breath at the sight of Belle made Belle feel pleased already.

“My dear, you look every inch a Duchess,” Regina said approvingly, taking her arm. “I have no doubt James will swoon at your feet.”

Belle laughed quietly. “I do not need to dress fashionably to achieve that,” she murmured.

Regina’s lips twitched, as they descended the stairs. “I do not doubt it.” They paused at the bottom of the stairs and Regina stepped back. “You must enter first. Your father is waiting with them.”

Belle’s cheeks warmed, and she nodded, pushing open the parlour door. James, Bellamy and her father all rose at once. She hardly noticed Bellamy and her father’s responses, far too delighted by the sight of James standing slack-jawed and staring.

“My dear,” her father said proudly. “You look every inch a Duchess.”

“Thank you, papa,” she said, proffering her cheek to him. He kissed it graciously, then looked beyond her shoulder, and she could not help but smile. No doubt he had caught sight of Regina, waiting in the hall. “Go,” she murmured to him. “You and she should take the second carriage together. It would do you good to speak with her.”

Her father looked flustered, but Belle only smiled, patting his arm.

Bellamy took one look at her, grinned ear to ear, and followed her father out of the room, leaving her alone with her husband.

Belle folded her hands before her. “Will I suffice?” she murmured.

“I’faith, madam,” Jamie said, bowing deeply to her. When he raised his eyes to her, she thought she might catch aflame. “I would that I had not asked you to attend. I would keep you for myself and have none other share you.”

She knew she was blushing, but she held out a hand to him nonetheless. “That would be quite a pity after all the time spent being prepared and made beautiful.”

He caught her hand, clasping it between his. “You do not need any of this decoration,” he said quietly. He took her arm on his, his hand covering her hand on his arm. “You may not see it, but your happiness gives you a glow, m’dear. You are positively radiant.”

“Direct compliments?” she teased as they emerged into the hall. “Are you quite well, husband?”

He snorted. “Dem you, woman, I am trying to be a gentleman for an evening.”

She laughed. “And you were doing so very well.” He grunted indignantly as they walked to the door. There were two carriages, rather than just the Rutherglen carriage, and she barely recognised her family’s old carriage. It had been utterly refurbished, the paint so fresh it still gleamed.

“You restored it?” she said, looking at Jamie, who shrugged.

“I thought your father might look more a Duchess’s father if I did so,” he said.

She squeezed his arm. “You are a dear, kind man, as much as your manner sometimes suggests otherwise,” she murmured.

“Lud, wife,” he huffed, leading her to the Rutherglen coach. “While I at least strive to be a gentleman, you are still nothing more than a vengeful little cat, rending at my deeds with your claws.”

Once they were in the confines of the coach, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you, Jamie,” she said,, nestling to his side. “I know it is not your responsibility to take care of him.”

“Blast it,” he grumbled, turning his face away, though she knew it was only to hide a pleased smile, that she appreciated his generous gestures. “You are bent on making me to seem a charitable creature.”

“Heaven forfend,” she murmured as the carriage moved off.

The journey was made in companionable silence. Some halfway to Lady Eaglesham’s, he moved his hand to thread his fingers through hers. She curled her own hand to clasp his, smiling quietly, as the carriage rattled on.

They were fashionably late, of course, which meant that by the time they arrived, the majority of the guests were already present.

Belle remembered the last occasion she had attended such a gathering. Once, it had made her flush with humiliation, but that poor woman was not the same one that she was now. She could look back at that day without shame, seeing how far she had risen.

“Are you ready, m’dear?” Jamie asked, as the carriage came to a halt.

She smiled at him. “With you at my side, husband?” she said. “I could take the world.”