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desires of a perfect lady
In spite of his firm resolve, regardless of his best intentions or the fact that he thought he had hardened to her long ago, Sterling’s heart twisted the moment Olivia stepped into the room.
She nodded coolly. “Good day, my lord.”
“Good day,” he murmured.
Her gaze met his, and at once he was swept back to the last time he’d spoken with her, the last time he’d been so close to her. When the world had seemed a wonderful place, and he had known the rest of his days would be spent with her by his side. She was every bit as he remembered, every bit the woman who lingered still in the unguarded recess of his dreams. He’d never seen her in black before, but the gown, almost severe in its simplicity, molded to her like the caress of a hand. She looked exactly the same. Her eyes were as green, her skin as fair. Her blond hair still rivaled that of any Renaissance angel, and her lips still begged for his kiss. She looked exactly the same, and she was entirely different.
There was an air of subtle strength about her, as if she had faced adversity and survived. She carried herself straighter, with the quiet grace of a woman who knew without doubt who she was and her place in the world. The look in her eye was cool, measured. Ten years ago, she had been a product of nature. An untouched gem. Beautiful as it came from the earth yet only a hint of what it might become. Now, she had been cut and polished and shaped. Forged by fire. The thought flashed through his mind and he winced to himself.
He, along with everyone else, had heard the rumors about Rathbourne. About the kind of man he was. Yet there had never been talk about his relationship with his wife. Odd in itself, as the ongoing battles, affairs, and scandalous relations involving husbands and wives in society were the lifeblood of gossips, in spite of the queen’s disapproval of such misdeeds. And in truth, did anyone ever truly know what transpired within the privacy of a marriage?
Shortly after their marriage, Olivia fairly vanished from public sight. She attended few social events, stopped calling on her friends, and, for the most part, retired to the country. Sterling had been well aware of her disappearance but had had other matters to occupy his mind. He was ashamed to admit, even to himself, that her absence from society had made his own life easier.
Looking at her, he couldn’t help but wonder how much of the gossip about Rathbourne’s nature was true. And what Olivia’s life had been like.
“Why are you here?” she said, without preamble.
“I am here…” He said the first thing that came into his head. “…to offer my condolences.”
“You sent a note. It was sufficient and appreciated.” Her cold glance swept over him. “If there is nothing else?”
“There is.” He drew a deep breath. “Your father came to see me.”
Her expression hardened so subtly he wasn’t sure he had seen anything at all. “I no longer acknowledge my father’s existence. If you are here at his behest, my apologies, my lord. There is nothing he has to say that I wish to hear.” She smiled, nothing more than a slight, polite curve of her lips. “Now then, as I am confident you have any number of other matters to attend to—”
“Livy, this is important.”
Shock and anger flashed in her eyes, as if she’d been slapped. Her brow rose, but there was no softening of her expression. “I can’t imagine anything my father would have to say that would be the least bit important, Lord Wyldewood.”
He stared for a moment, realization slamming into him like a fist to the stomach. She hated him every bit as much as she detested her father. Knowing what he now knew, he couldn’t blame her. And hadn’t he hated her for just as long?
A tiny voice in the back of his head whispered, “No, never.” He ignored it and drew a deep breath.
“My apologies, Lady Rathbourne, for my impertinence.” His tone was clipped and controlled. “For a moment I forgot myself.”
“A great number of years have passed since anyone has called me that.”
And I was the only one who ever did.
“Like all else in the past, it is best forgotten. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes.” He nodded. “However, it is because of the past, our past if you will, that your father came to me. I gave him my word that I would speak to you.”
“Ah yes.” She studied him. “And do you always keep your word?”
“Yes,” he said sharply, ignoring the one time he hadn’t.
“Very well then.” Her expression remained unchanged. “Go on.”
“I’m not sure where to begin.”
“I scarcely care where you begin as long as you finish quickly.”
“Yes, of course.” He certainly didn’t want to be there any more than she wanted him to be. Furthermore, she had no right to hate him. He didn’t desert her or abandon her. His only crime was believing her father. In truth, there’d been no reason not to believe him. Certainly, he hadn’t read her letters, but he’d been in too much pain himself to read the first. At the time, he’d assumed it was no more than an apology of sorts. She had at least owed him that. The others had arrived during those days when his father had been so very ill. He hadn’t ignored them as much as put them aside and forgotten about them. No, she had no right to look at him the way she did. “Your father is concerned about your welfare.”
“My father is concerned about my welfare? My father?” She stared for a moment then laughed, an odd, mirthless sound not at all like the laugh he remembered. The laugh that had once filled his soul now tore at it. “I can scarce believe that, my lord.”
“Nonetheless, he came to me because he is worried.”
“Worried?” She shook her head. “It is far too late for him to be worried about my welfare or anything else regarding my life.”
“He is concerned about the manner of Lord Rathbourne’s death.”
“Is he?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I would imagine anyone who had ever crossed paths with my husband would be concerned only that someone had not slit his throat long ago.”
He winced. “Liv-Lady Rathbourne, I scarcely think—”
“What? Has my candor upset your delicate sensibilities?”
“Not at all.” He met her gaze directly. “It’s the bitterness in your voice that I find distressing.”
“My apologies, my lord, for distressing you. However, you are mistaken. Any bitterness I might have felt was replaced years ago by resolve. I feel no bitterness whatsoever regarding my husband or my father or anyone else.”
“I have outlived my husband, and my father no longer exists as far as I am concerned. Indeed, I feel nothing at all for either of them.” She shrugged. “You are confusing a complete lack of regard for bitterness. But then you should understand that. If I recall, you were always quite good at keeping your own emotions in check.”
He ignored her. He had come with one purpose, and it would be better for them both if he got on with it. “Your father fears there is more to your husband’s death than might at first appear. He is further afraid you too could be in danger, that whoever killed your husband might return. I understand nothing was taken?”
“No, nothing at all. Which leads me to believe that my husband’s killer was here for the express purpose of taking his life. As that is what he accomplished, I see no reason why he would return.”
“Regardless, you don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t know that, but I am fairly confident given that my husband has been dead for two weeks now and there has been nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. And as you can see, I am perfectly all right.”
“I understand the terms of his will have not yet been disclosed. Perhaps the villain is waiting for that.”
“That makes no sense. It is no secret that I am his only heir.” She paused for a moment. “Admittedly, a few days before his death, my husband had decided to establish a trust to found a museum to house his collections. His solicitor was in the process of arranging the necessary papers when my husband was killed. Although they had not been completed or signed, their preparation has left my husband’s affairs a bit muddled, according to his solicitor. Stupid, annoying man.” She shook her head. “That is why the will has still not been read although it will be in a few days. However, as I understand it, his previous will remains in effect which, as I said, leaves me his only heir.” She slanted him an odd look. “If the motive for killing my husband is his legacy, I alone stand to gain. Had I not been in the country, I daresay I would be at the top of the list of potential murderers.”
“Goodness, my lord, did you think I killed him?” A hint of genuine amusement shone in her eyes.
He cleared his throat. “No, of course not. The thought never occurred to me.”
“It had occurred to me,” she said under her breath. “However, I did not kill him; nor did I arrange for his death. My limited allowance does not allow for extravagances like hiring an assassin.”
“Which means the party responsible is still free, and you may well be at risk.”
“I am quite capable of ensuring my own safety.” Her jaw tightened.
“Still, I would recommend—”
“Your recommendations are of no interest to me, my lord.” A hard note sounded in her voice. “You have expressed my father’s concerns. I have assured you that I will take precautions. If there is nothing else?”
“But you didn’t.”
She frowned in confusion. “I didn’t what?”
“Assure me you will take precautions.”
“Very well then.” She heaved a long suffering sigh as if he were a hapless child she was appeasing. “I assure you I will take precautions.”
“What kind of precautions?”
“I don’t know.” Her delicate brows drew together. “I shall alert the servants although most of them are new, and I would hate to frighten them unnecessarily.”
“I would consider a threat to your life necessary.”
She waved off his comment. “There has been no threat.”
“Nothing you know of. Your servants should be warned and aware of anything unusual.” He nodded. “What else?”
“I shall ask Giddings to check all the locks to ascertain that they are in good order and make certain all doors and windows are locked at night.”
“And?” She stared at him. “Isn’t that enough?”
“No.” He paused. “I would feel more confident if you allowed me to speak to your butler.”
“Will it make you leave?” she snapped.
“Very well then.”
“And…” She clenched her teeth. “I shall keep a revolver on the table at my bedside in the event I am accosted in the middle of the night. Are you satisfied now?”
“No.” It wasn’t nearly enough. “But it will have to do, I suppose.”
“Yes, it will.” She drew a deep breath. “I think this vague threat may well only exist in my father’s mind. Therefore, I think your concern is both unwarranted and an intrusion. However, I do appreciate it.” She started toward the door. “I shall send Giddings in to speak with you. As he and the housekeeper are interviewing servants within the hour, I would appreciate your being as succinct and quick as possible.”
“I have no desire to linger. I know my presence is not welcome.”
“No, my lord, it isn’t.” She reached the door and glanced back at him over her shoulder. “Did you expect me to be frightened?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
“Any danger I have been in passed with my husband’s death. In ten years, I have neither felt so safe nor been as safe as I am now.” Her firm gaze met his. “And I refuse ever to be frightened again.”