My True Love Gave to Me
…a partridge in a pear tree…
Christmas Day, 1814
A jolt of excitement shot through Marcus, Viscount Weatherby, as he spotted her after scanning the crowd packed into the ballroom at Pemberton Hall. He had carelessly tossed aside the invitation he’d received to the lavish Christmas Ball the Duke and Duchess of Pemberton hosted each year. Then when Penrose mentioned at White’s yesterday that Lady Surrey would be in attendance, he knew nothing could keep him away.
Almost as if connected by an invisible cord, he headed in her direction, snatching two glasses of champagne from a passing footman. Trying his best to shoulder his way through the crush, he groaned in frustration when Lord Leighton stepped up to Emma, and extending his arm, led her to the dance floor seconds before Marcus reached the spot where she’d stood.
He downed both glasses and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed as he watched her turn in Leighton’s arms. His groin tightened when she smiled up at her partner, her lovely face lighting up in pleasure.
In the three years he’d been in India, she’d not changed from the beautiful, passionate woman he’d had one glorious night with. Merely days before her parents announced her betrothal to the Earl of Surrey.
Piled in a knot at the top of her head, her golden hair caught the sparkling candlelight as she turned and twirled, the slender twists of curls at her temples caressing her creamy skin. He knew first-hand her crystal blue eyes would be glowing with excitement. His fingers itched to cup her face and pull her to him, covering her lush mouth in a soul-searing kiss.
Once again, the rage and hopelessness of reading her betrothal announcement in the newspaper swept over him. His beautiful Emma to be sold in marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
He turned as someone slapped him on the shoulder. “Weatherby. Thought you gave up on these affairs.”
Marcus shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to pop in once in a while.” He lowered his gaze to the cane Richard, Viscount Tetterly, leaned heavily on. “What the devil happened to you?”
Tetterly grimaced. “Attended a hunting party last weekend at Drake’s place.” He joined Marcus against the wall, sighing with relief at the added support to his frame. “Lord Buckley insisted on hunting those dratted little birds. Had the beater thrashing the bushes to get the little devils moving. Wouldn’t you know one of them flew up into a tree. So as Buckley took aim at a partridge in a pear tree, he stumbled backward, knocking me to my arse, then landed on my bent knee.”
Marcus grimaced. “Sounds painful.”
“With Buckley’s girth, I’m duced lucky he didn’t break the bloody thing. I’ll be hobbling around for weeks.” He grinned. “You should have seen the head gardener railing against the beater for ruining his shrubs.”
Tetterly sipped his whiskey. “You didn’t answer my question. What brings you here? Could’ve sworn hearing you loudly proclaim you’d never again step a foot in a ton affair, right before you hied off to India.”
“No particular reason. Perhaps I wanted to celebrate Christmas with my friends.”
Tetterly snorted. He studied Marcus for a minute, then turned to see what had captured his friend’s attention. “Ah. The glorious Lady Surrey. I should have guessed.”
Marcus stiffened. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Give over, old man. If memory serves, you and the charming lady were quite the thing before her parents whisked her off the marriage mart and betrothed her to Surrey. A shame, that.”
Marcus pushed away from the wall. “Later Tetterly, I see someone I need to speak with.” He made his way through the dancers returning to their chaperones.
Emma curtsied to Lord Leighton, then snapped her fan open, moving the heated air across her face. She fingered the dance card dangling from her wrist. The next dance, the first waltz of the evening, had been promised to her old friend, Stephen.
Emma turned towards the whispering voice. Her best friend, Lady Cecile, the Duke of Alford’s sister, grasped Emma’s elbow in a grip sure to leave marks on her tomorrow.
“What are you talking about? Who’s here?”
Emma felt all the blood drain from her face. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s in India.”
Cecile shook her head. “I have it on good authority he returned a few weeks ago, and he’s here now.” She glanced up, her eyes growing wide. “In fact, he’s headed this way.”
Emma whipped her head around to see Marcus stalking in her direction, a slight smile on his beloved face. Beloved−hah! She hated him. He’d left her when she needed him the most.
“Cecile, you must go with me to the ladies’ retiring room. I can’t face him. I’m still too angry.”
“You must. The day was bound to come when he would return home. You can’t avoid him forever.”
“Maybe not, but I can right now.” She scurried away, dragging Cecile with her. Emma glanced over her shoulder to see frustration on Marcus’s face. Tall, dark haired, with the perpetual curl falling over his forehead, her heart melted despite her resolve. His broad shoulders were encased in a tight fitting black jacket above buff breeches outlining every muscle in his powerful legs. The hunger in his hazel eyes started the same fluttering in her stomach as it did three years ago. She dragged her gaze away, and attempted to fill her lungs with air as she propelled Cecile forward and jostled people out of the way to make her escape.
Marcus watched Emma skitter away from him, dragging Lady Cecile with her. Why the devil did she look angry? With him? He ran his fingers through his hair, and caught the last glimpse of her blue silk gown as she made her way up the stairs. From past experience he knew women could be doing whatever it was they did in the retiring room for ages. He sighed and turned on his heel, heading to the card room.
He took a seat across from Lord Swann, who most likely was dodging all the females in his family. Seven daughters, and not one of them wed. Marcus had seen them floating by before in a group of pastel gowns like a bouquet of wildflowers. He couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Lady Swann, her face flushed from the effort of trying to chaperone that gaggle.
“Weatherby.” Swann nodded in his direction, and began to deal the next hand. Marcus picked up his cards and studied them, pleasantly surprised.
He passed the next hour winning and losing, until finally confident that Emma would have returned to the ballroom by now, pushed his chair back, gathered his winnings, and left the room.
It didn’t take long to spot her. She and Lady Cecile had their heads together, chatting behind their fans. They made a captivating pair. Emma with her pale beauty, and Lady Cecile with her dark hair and snapping brown eyes.
He ate up the distance between them, hurrying before someone else claimed Emma for a dance.
Two red dots appeared on her cheeks when she spotted him, and once again she turned to flee. In one long stride he managed to grasp her hand to stop her. Lady Cecile cast him a slight smile, eyes twinkling. The girl seemed relieved. He’d heard she was quite the romantic. Perhaps he’d thank her one day for keeping Emma from catching sight of him too soon.
“Lady Cecile. You’re looking splendid this evening.” He bent over her hand and gave it a slight kiss. Then he turned toward Emma and his heart stopped. All the memories of their one night together flooded his senses. In a flash he saw her perfect rose-tipped breasts, heaving with passion, her eyes a deeper blue as she stared up at him and whispered she loved him. He could still smell her fragrance, a light floral scent, along with the heady perfume of her arousal. Startlingly delightful, she was all grace and beauty. And glaring at him in anger.
What the bloody hell?
“May I have the pleasure of this dance, Lady Surrey?”
She raised her chin and stiffened her shoulders. “I’m afraid not, my lord, it appears my partner stands behind you.”
“That’s right, Weatherby. Lady Surrey is mine for this dance.”
Marcus turned towards Lord Beaumont, a pleasant smile on his face.
“If you will excuse us.” Beaumont reached for Emma’s hand.
Marcus clamped his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Say old man, do me this favor, if you will.”
Beaumont glanced between Marcus and Emma, and shrugged. Extending his hand to Lady Cecile, he asked, “May I have this dance?”
She curtsied gracefully, then raised a blushing face to him.
“Shall we?” Marcus extended his arm to Emma.
Emma bristled. “It appears you’ve left me no choice, my lord.”
It was truly foolish to continue to avoid Marcus. As Cecile had remarked, Emma had to face him sometime if he planned to make his home in England again. From the gossip she’d picked up since returning from the retiring room, that was precisely his intention. If she could just get through this one dance, she would wish him well, and return to her comfortable life with her pride and secret intact.
As they lined up for the quadrille, she snuck a peek at him. His dashing good looks had been enhanced by the slight tanning of his skin. She shivered, remembering his strong hands stroking her body until she felt she would catch fire. Their one night of passion−any nights after that cut short by her parents’ edict to marry Surrey, and Marcus’s abandonment.
Oh, how she’d hated her parents then. But nothing compared to the wrath that enveloped her at Marcus’s easy acceptance of her betrothal. They’d made love, and she envisioned her life with him. Then within days of that blasted newspaper announcement he apparently threw up his hands and left for India. And took her heart with him, never suspecting what he’d left behind.
The dance began, and they came together.
“I’ve missed you.” Marcus touched her hand lightly as they moved around each other.
“Indeed?” She put as much disdain as possible into that one word.
They retreated once more and switched partners. Their eyes remained linked as they studied each other as they moved, like two animals, circling, each waiting for the other to strike first.
“I wish I could offer condolences for your late husband, but I’m afraid I’m too selfish to feel remorse.” They came together, and then parted quickly as they again circled each other.
They touched hands and moved in time with the music. “I want to talk with you when this is over.” Marcus squeezed her fingers before releasing her.
Emma hesitated, losing her steps, receiving upraised eyebrows from Lord Hawthorne to her right, who waited for her to circle him.
“No thank you, my lord. My next dance is spoken for,” she whispered furiously.
Marcus reached out and tore the small card that dangled from her wrist by a slim gold ribbon. “I have all your dances for the rest of the evening.”
They remained in stony silence as the dance proceeded. When the final notes faded away, Emma turned to hurry back to her safe spot next to Lady Cecile. Marcus took her arm, and in a firm grip, moved her in the opposite direction. “This way, my lady.”
Left with no alternative save making a cake of herself, Emma moved with him, her spine rigid.
Marcus had not imagined it. Emma was enraged. Her misplaced anger smarted, since her parents were the ones who’d ripped them apart. He led her down the hallway where he remembered the library was located. Marcus placed his hand on her lower back and ushered her through the door. Someone had been thoughtful enough to light a fire, giving off warmth to the dark, silent room. They moved closer to the flames, warming themselves.
He leaned his arm against the mantle and studied the only woman he’d ever loved, her exquisite features tightened. “Emma. I…I don’t even know where to start.” He pinched the bridge of his nose with his index finger and thumb. “I’m not good with words, but I want you to know I still love you, and now that you’re free, I wish to marry you.”
She jerked back as if slapped. “How dare you!”
His brows rushed together. “Sweetheart, I get the distinct impression you’re angry with me.”
Emma paced. “You think so? Very astute, my lord.”
He placed his hand on her shoulder to stop her frantic racing to and fro. “Emma, please tell me what’s wrong.”
Tear rimmed eyes met his and her voice shook. “Why didn’t you come for me?”
Marcus shook his head in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“The night after the announcement appeared in the newspaper−without my permission, or knowledge−I packed a bag and waited for you to come for me.” She swiped at the tears running down her cheeks. “I thought you loved me.”
Marcus pulled her into his arms. “Oh, sweetheart. I did—I do. And coming for you was precisely my plan. I’d arranged for us to run off to Gretna Green.”
She tilted her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Your father caught me about to raise the ladder to your bedroom window. He brought me inside, gave me a drink of whiskey and explained that you were in favor of the match.” Marcus clenched her shoulders. “You’d left me a note, for God’s sake.”
Emma frowned. “A note? I never wrote a note.”
He swore he could hear the sound of his heart landing in his stomach. “No note?”
She slowly shook her head. “No.”
“But he showed me…and I believed the bastard…” He glanced at her.
Emma collapsed into a chair in front of the fire. “They lied.” She raised her gaze to him. “They lied to you. I never wrote a note. On my wedding day I was so livid with both them and you, I thought I would expire from it.”
Marcus dropped to his knees before her, taking her soft hands in his. “My poor Emma. No wonder you’ve been so angry with me. I loved you then, and I love you now. I never would have abandoned you. Never.” He reached out and cupped her chin, his mouth covering hers hungrily.
Tentatively at first, then with a firmer grip, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, moaning as he slid his tongue into her mouth, tasting her sweetness. He pulled back and kissed her eyelids, her nose, her chin. “I’m so very sorry.” He leaned back “I, too, felt betrayed. I thought you loved me, and after our night together would never give yourself to another man.”
He raised his eyebrows. “But you were married, how did…”
Emma shook her head. “Surrey was feeble. He tried. Oh, Marcus, it was horrible. The few times he attempted to bed me, he never succeeded. He died peacefully in his sleep only weeks after we married.”
She shivered, remembering those times. Surrey’s hands were cold as ice, his pale body aged and sagging. When she’d lain awake after his attempts, remembering Marcus and their lovemaking, she’d beaten her pillow in frustration and cried herself to sleep.
Marcus brought her fingers to his mouth to kiss each tip. “I thought I heard you had a child, a little girl?”
She took in a deep breath. This was it, no more secrets. “I do.”
“Then how…?” At the look of love on her face, he knew the answer. “I have a daughter?” Stunned, his lips were barely able to move. He’d left her with a child.
Unable to speak, she nodded, tears spilling from her beautiful eyes. “Yes, Marcus. You have a daughter. Elizabeth is just past her second birthday.” Trembling fingers reached out and touched his face. “She has your eyes.”
Feelings of love, pride, guilt, and longing washed over him. He was a father. He and Emma had created a little girl from their love. Speechless for probably the first time in his life, he pulled her onto his lap on the floor, and kissed her with all the passion and love in his body.
He pulled away. “We must marry immediately.”
Emma grinned. “Well, we have to post the banns, and plan a ceremony.”
Marcus stood, and pulled her up. “Fine, plan whatever you like. But now I want to make love to you more than anything in the world.”
“I’m a house guest. I, ah, have a room upstairs.” She cast him a sideways glance, her cheeks a charming shade of pink.
His heart leapt and he waved her toward the door. “Lead on, my lady.”
Hand in hand, they raced up the stairs, barely noticing Lady Cecile grinning from her spot behind the potted plant at the bottom of the stairs.
“Ah, love.” She sighed and returned to the ballroom.
Join us again tomorrow for Chapter Two of My True Love Gave to Me.