Alastair knew he would not be able to sleep now. The view could no longer soothe him. He left his room, walking swiftly down the stairs, past the snoring night porter, for the distractions of the library.
Inside, a single lamp was burning. Its dim light illuminated—he felt a strong premonition, a sense of inevitability—his housekeeper curled up on the sofa, a billowing white dressing gown bunched over her feet. As she pored over a book, she tickled her mouth with the ends of her long red plait.
He stood there a moment, gripped by conflicting urges. A housekeeper should not be making use of her master’s library. She should not wander barefooted in her bedclothes. She should not look so young, so untouched, so solid despite her slimness, so composed despite her undress.
He had invited this temerity, of course. Hell, he had hoped for it. If he could have stolen her self-sufficiency, her fierce sense of direction, by laying his hands on her, he would have done it in a moment. He had never felt more of an ass than when viewing himself through her eyes—the eyes of a woman who had been turned out upon the world at the tender age of seventeen, and had made do.
“Good evening,” he said.
She flinched violently, then snapped the book shut and yanked her gown over her toes. “Goodness,” she said. “I didn’t think...”
When she rose, the light was strong enough, or the robe thin enough, or his appetites imaginative enough, to discern the contours of her body: the slimness of her waist; the curve of her hips; the fecund thickness of her thighs, which tapered neatly into square knees and rounded calves.
He did not admire her simply for her courage.
She took a step toward him—or rather, toward the door. She intended to leave. She felt the way his gaze devoured her. She knew where his interests lay.
He should let her go. But she had started this, somehow. Until she had opened the curtains and disrupted his solitude, he had been content to stay lost. Did he blame her for it? Or was this anger owed to indebtedness? He had never wanted to owe anyone anything. “What are you doing here?” he said.
She came to a stop just out of reach. Very wise. She had called herself tall, as though it was a mere matter of height, rather than abundance. So many more inches to her, so much more skin, white, smooth. He’d learned Margaret too easily, and never learned her at all. He would not make that mistake again. The next time, he would not leave the bed until he had mastered the woman in it. He would learn that trick, no matter how much study it took.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. Her voice sounded strange, unusually rough.
He reached for the light. For months, he had lacked any clear sense of his own motives. But clarity was coming back to him, bit by bit. If he decided to keep the lights low now, it was simply to blur this scene, and what he intended to do here.
He felt disoriented, as though the room had swum around him. Crying? Why? “Are you well?”
She dashing her wrist across her eyes, a furtive and embarrassed gesture. “Yes. Of course. Forgive me—I shouldn’t have come in here.” She glanced beyond him. By the way she shifted her weight, he knew that she was contemplating a dash for the door.
He should let her go. He did not like the sight of her, upset. It squared with nothing he knew of her. But her distress should not concern him. He would let her go.
“Take a seat,” he said instead.
She obeyed with obvious reluctance, choosing the wingchair nearest the door. He picked up the book she’d abandoned on the sofa. “The Tale of the Midnight Voyager,” he read from the spine.
She grimaced. “A piece of rubbish. It—” And then she appeared to recall whose library this was, and reddened.
“Would you like another?” He browsed the shelf. Augustine seemed too weighty, though the saint’s prayer held a sudden interest for him: Grant me chastity, O God, but not yet. “Austen, perhaps?” Always a favorite with the ladies.
Her reply was hesitant. “Oh, I…didn’t see her books there. Yes, please.”
He pulled out two titles and offered her the choice. She took Pride and Prejudice and then sat staring at the cover, an air of bewilderment about her, as if she did not know what to do with it.
He carried the other volume to the sofa, opening it pointedly. “Do read, Mrs. Johnson,” he said.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her…
At last, he heard the whisper of a turned page. Leather creaked as she settled into the chair.
He eased back against his own cushions. It was a forgotten luxury to share the silence with someone. He could hear, if he listened for it, the soft rhythm of her breathing. The small noises, the whisper of cotton, as she shifted again.
“You’re really going to read Northanger Abbey?”
He glanced up, found her gawking. “That surprises you?”
She went pink. “No, of course not.” Then she shut her book and rose. The flutter of her robe provided a brief glimpse of her ankles, sufficient to burn them into his mind completely. They looked all the better without stockings: trim, pale as snow. “If I may borrow this—”
“Or you may read it here,” he said. “Unless you fear an impropriety.”
She bit her lip. Looked between chair and door. “Should I fear it?”
He smiled. A fair question, but her boldness never failed to surprise him. “Not tonight,” he said. Not when she’d been crying.
Hesitantly she sat again. He did not miss the way she ran a quick, furtive hand over her hem, to make sure no hint of ankle remained visible. What a pity. If one must have a young housekeeper, let her be reckless with her hemlines.
“I suppose Ms. Austen is not typical masculine fare,” he said. “I’ll confess I probably would have chosen a different book for manlier company. Something in Latin.”
She fought against her smile and lost. “How fortunate for you that I’m not manly.”
“My thought precisely.”
Her smile faded. She looked down to her book.
He had an inkling of his own villainy, then—a flash, as from the headlamp of a passing train, briefly illuminating his motives. Her tears did not matter, after all.
Where was the regret, the revulsion, which that thought should inspire? He could not locate it. She sat not five feet away, her flush creeping steadily down her throat, soon to stain the smooth wings of her collarbones. The robe bared tantalizing inches of her throat and chest that wool normally disguised, alabaster, so pale that he could see the delicate tracery of veins that surely must slip farther down, beneath the neckline of her robe, all the way to her breast. To her nipples. God, but he would taste them.
She cleared her throat. “What do you like about her novels?” Her question sounded stiff, full of forced cheer. She had noticed his stare, and meant to draw his attention back to more proper pursuits.
“The world she paints.” He watched her thumb fret with a corner of her book, rubbing back and forth over the sharp point. He had no inkling what troubled her. It disturbed him. He had the outlines of her, and a sense of her inner mettle. But the details? Her childhood. Her origins. These large gaps in his knowledge suddenly felt wrong, strange, demanding of correction.
“What do you mean, the world?” she asked.
“The portraits of families,” he said. “How well she paints them.”
Her thumb fell still. “They’re quite quarrelsome, on the whole.”
“Yes.” That was exactly what he liked about them. “Messy, sprawling, imperfect. But they love each other regardless.” He felt briefly amazed by himself, by this sentimental claptrap he was spouting. But she was watching him expectantly, so he shrugged and went on. “Even the villainous ones, like”—he nodded toward the book in her lap—”what is her name? The insufferable one, who runs off.”
“Lydia,” he agreed. His housekeeper’s half-smile put him in mind of a Greek icon—a Sybil, perhaps. He could see her dispensing wisdom from some sacred cave, her long, pale face a light in the darkness, her round, deep eyes bracing a man for solemn predictions. Her hair was the color of copper, sacred metal; men would have made amulets from it, in ancient times.
Bizarre, fanciful thought. Frowning at himself, he turned back to his book.
But then she spoke, hushed, hesitant. “I longed for such a family as a girl.”
He stared at the page. Late nights, sleepless nights, made some conversations too easy to have, and some thoughts too easy to entertain. But he did not want her friendship. He should not want her confidences.
Yet he replied. “As did I.” His family’s unhappy history was hardly a secret. “A larger family, perhaps. Or a warmer one.” Growing up in an echoing house where his parents rarely exchanged two civil words, he had recognized nothing of Austen’s domestic scenes. But even as a child, he’d felt them far superior to his own.
Her chair creaked. “It was siblings I wanted. I think it would have made a difference.”
“I have a brother. But a larger family…” He hesitated. Imagine it: he not the eldest, not the heir. Someone else to rely upon. “I would have liked that.”
“Perhaps you will create one. Have a dozen children of your own.”
“No.” The denial was hard and instinctive. Children would require marriage. Marriage would require that he trust his own judgment, which had been exposed as profoundly and irreparably corrupt. Never again. It was Michael’s job now to carry on the family line. He looked at her. “I will have no children.”
“Oh.” She turned the book round in her hands, a nervous fiddling gesture. “Well. Nor will I, I expect.”
What nonsense was this? “You’re still very young, Mrs….” She was no missus, of course; he knew that now. “What is your Christian name?” The reference from her last employer must have mentioned it, but he could not recall.
She blinked at him. “Olivia.”
It had a musical ring. A slight bite on the V. A name that encouraged one to take one’s lip in one’s teeth. Olivia. It suited her perfectly.
“Olivia,” he said. “Why should you think you won’t have a family?”
She met his eyes. “First I must have a home.”
For a brief, clear moment, he felt the stirring of his old skill, the ability to look at an opponent and divine his secret ambitions. Here was hers: a place of her own.
Or perhaps he recognized it because it had once been his ambition, as well. Oh, he’d known he would inherit houses to spare; but what he’d wanted was a place, distinct from his family’s legacy, wholly his own.
He did not think she meant a house, either. Otherwise, would not a girl such as this—clever, bold, enterprising—have found a husband for herself, in whatever bucolic little village had spawned her?
Where are you from?” He had asked her that before. But now, in this strange hush, he knew he would have the answer.
“East Kent.” It gladdened him to a strange degree that she had not even hesitated before replying. And then she elaborated: “My mother’s family lives on the coast, near Broadstairs.”
“A beautiful part of England.” He could envision her walking the seashore, the salt breeze lifting strands of her hair, her skin opalescent in the cool gray light. “Is that where you dream of living, one day?”
Her lashes veiled her eyes. She ran a finger down the page of her book. “I don’t know I dream of a specific place,” she said at last.
He’d been right. “What is it you want, then?”
She shrugged. “A place to…belong. To feel safe,” she said very softly.
He considered her. Yes, it made sense that a girl forced to do for herself would long for stability, rootedness. Why had she not taken the quickest route to it? “Many women leave service for marriage.”
She looked up, meeting his eyes. “And many men remarry. What of it?”
He sucked in a breath. “Well. That was bold of you.” Why was he surprised?
Color came into her face. “It’s half-past three. I am sitting in dishabille with my employer. Etiquette does not address such situations.”
“Touché. Let me be equally blunt. You were weeping, before. Why?”
Her jaw assumed a granite cast. “Surely a servant must be allowed some degree of privacy.”
He snorted. “I have never noticed you nursing a high regard for that concept. Indeed, given that I found you in my private library, our definitions of it seem to differ.”
Her brows flew up. “Given that you rarely leave your rooms, I could not have foreseen that I might interrupt you here!”
He rose, powered by a welter of emotions—chief among them amazement. “I think marriage might be the best thing for you,” he said. “God knows you aren’t cut out for service. Had you been born a man, I would have recommended you to the bar.”
She gave him a look rife with disbelief, one that required no verbal translation: now he would judge her? “Your grace—”
“Did one of the staff molest you? Is something awry below?”
She came to her feet. “I am able to manage the staff,” she said. “Nor would I weep over such passing trifles as disobedience from a servant!”
“I will tell you if you answer me one question,” she said flatly.
It was no longer clear to him who was in control of this conversation. How absurd! He was not bound by her terms; in return for her answer, she could demand the moon, and it would make no difference to him. “Very well, then, answer me: why were you crying?”
“Because I am not the person I hoped to be. And I dislike myself for it.”
That told him nothing. “What do you mean? Who had you hoped to be?”
“Someone better. Someone who abided by her ideals.”
Christ. Blackly amused, he turned away from her toward the bookshelves. “Then we both were drawn here by the same mood. But I assure you, Mrs. Johnson, you will overcome your disappointment.”
“As you have?”
He ignored that. “Good night to you.”
“You haven’t yet answered my question.”
“Welshing,” he said flatly, “is the duke’s special privilege.”
“Very well, don’t answer. But I will ask it anyway: why do you read Austen if you lack all hope for yourself? Why torment yourself with happy endings if you don’t believe one is possible?”
He stared at the books. This had gone too far. Why did she think she had the right to speak to him in this manner?
Why did he constantly invite it?
“You have every advantage,” she said, her voice fervent. “There is no reason you can’t go back into the world, have everything you feel you’ve been denied. I tell you--if I had your advantages, I would remake myself!”
The taunt in her voice speared him like a hook in the chest. Yes, she probably goddamned well would remake herself. She had no notions of respect, of boundaries, of her own place. She had no idea of limitations. He looked over his shoulder to sneer, to deliver her the acidic set-down she so badly needed.
But the sight of her silenced him. She stood with the novel hugged to her chest, a tall, slight girl with coloring like the autumn, hair as red as turning leaves, and there was no taunt in her face. Her expression, rather, was pale, fearful, resolute, hopeful. This slip of a girl, daring him to be as brave as she was. Constantly daring him, as though it were not the most galling, impudent, presumptuous business—
“Can you imagine,” he said, and did not recognize his own voice, the animal viciousness in it. “Is it possible you have lived long enough, hard enough, to guess—that I would devour you in a bite, I would use you, discard you, if it meant I could experience, for a single moment, that idiotic naiveté in your face? A fool’s bliss: that is what it is, Olivia. And life will break you of it. And I would break you of it, right here, if I could have it back for myself, for only a moment, God help me. Your stupid faith in something better.”
Her lips parted. He had shocked her. Good. She believed in happy endings. She thought fairytales had some connection to reality. He wanted to do more than shock her.
He realized he’d stepped toward her when she leapt back. He made himself stop. Fisted his hands at his sides. This leaping flaming need that wracked him so suddenly was not lust: it was far darker, a more ravaging consumption. His nails bit into his palms.
But hope was a drug, was it not? And yes, he was a fiend in withdrawal. No drug would ever feel more exotic to him, or cause him to shake harder for the want of it, than hope. What a false and desperate appetite! Else why would the poor squander their coin on lotteries, and rally to the rumors of tears appearing on the cheeks of wooden idols? How did they profit from such delusions?
But if he tasted her, he might have a moment’s fix. He might.
“A good thing Jones is seeking out a replacement.” His voice came out as a growl. He did not believe in fairytales. He was not going to ravish this naïf. To hell with her. “You will not find a happy ending in this house, I promise you.”
“Nor will you,” she whispered.
“You are baiting the wrong man, little girl.”
“Will you never go out again?”
He lunged at her. She remained stock-still, staring up at him, wide-eyed, unflinching. It infuriated him. “Do you fancy yourself a do-gooder?” The words tore from him in venomous chunks. “Have you conceived, somehow, that you might help me?”
“No,” she whispered. “Or—I don’t know; I only mean to say that you—”
“You are my servant. You do understand that, Mrs. Johnson? It is possible I will not give you a reference. You are insolent and unmindful of your station; in good conscience, I could not recommend you.”
Her expression darkened. He wondered why he had wanted so much to put a shadow in it. The look did not suit her better than hope.
“That is unfair,” she said flatly. “And you are not an unfair man.”
“Am I not?” His laughter burned his throat. “Are you really such a fool?”
“No. I am not.” Her shoulders squared. God damn her, she was rallying; that bloody light was entering her face again. “Even at your darkest, you did nobody evil. And at your best, the good you did the poor, the—the authority with which you guided your party, and the nation no less, through troubled times—and the noble example of your statecraft—you could have all that again, and I don’t understand—”
He grabbed her by the shoulders. Slammed his mouth onto hers. He drank her gasp of surprise and bit her soft lower lip, though some shred of sanity kept him from drawing blood. He wanted her to squeak, and she did.
She tried to break free. His grip on her arms tightened; he was hurting her, yes. Here is reality. No sugarcoating it, no romanticizing it: there is no one to protect you. He licked into her mouth and tasted her tongue. She had recently drunk tea, sugared, and she smelled like roses, always roses—
Her fingers threaded through his hair. Her lips, her mouth, moved beneath his. She was…kissing him back.
Had she caught fire, he could not have been more bewildered. He did not deserve this kiss. His own grip went slack.
She stepped into him. The tight, hot grasp of her hands fell from his hair to his nape, to the breadth of his shoulders. She kissed clumsily, with the same blunt, aggravating enthusiasm, the same desperate fumbling hope, that he had wanted to punish with this lesson: this lesson in disappointment.
But this did not feel like disappointment. She was warm and impossibly, miraculously tall. The angles and swells of her body matched perfectly to his, her breasts crushing into his chest, her waist—his baffled hand fell there—sweetly curved. She smelled like the garden in summer; she kissed his neck and her hair came into his nose, flowers and greenery, fresh and young.
He took her by the waist and slammed her into the bookshelf. “Fine,” he snarled into her mouth. She was stupid enough to believe him a good man? Then she would take it from him—here, and now. “Take it, then.”
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The upstart secretary in That Scandalous Summer was certainly not meant to have a story of her own. Nor was the autocratic, villainous duke! And yet somehow these secondary characters assumed a life of their own, and -- when I sat down to think about each of them -- seemed clearly suited to each other insofar as they were each other’s absolute worst nightmare. Thus was this story born...
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