Wedded to the Enemy
-Emily Barrow’s Cook Book
Falkirk House, England
Cool hands sponged his forehead. Stephen Chesterfield fought against the vicious darkness that threatened to pull him into oblivion once more. Pain lashed his skull, ripping through him in violent waves. His mouth felt lined with cotton batting and the scent of rotting fish seemed to invade his clothing.
“Drink,” a woman said, lifting a cup of warm tea to his mouth. It tasted bitter, but he swallowed. “You’re very lucky, you know.”
Lucky? He felt as though someone had cracked his skull in two. He hadn’t even the strength to open his eyes to see who was tending him.
“How am I lucky?” he managed to whisper. Lucky to be alive, she’d probably say.
“You’re lucky I haven’t got any arsenic for this tea,” she remarked. “Or another poison, for that matter. Otherwise, you’d be dead by now.” A warm poultice dropped across his forehead, scented with herbs.
“I beg your pardon?” His knuckles clenched around the bedcovers, and he forced his eyes open. His vision blurred, and he tried to grasp his surroundings. Where was he? And who was this woman?
The creature intending to murder him had the face of an angel. Her hair, the color of warm honey, was pulled back into a loose chignon. Long strands framed a face with tired amber eyes. Despite the hideous serge mourning gown, she was actually rather pretty, though her cheeks were thin.
She was familiar, but her name hovered on the outskirts of memory. Like a childhood acquaintance, or someone he’d known long ago.
“If it weren’t for you, my brother would still be alive.”
Anguish lined her voice, eroding the waspish anger. Her eyes glistened, but she kept her chin up.
She blamed him for her brother’s death? There had to be a mistake. He didn’t even know who she was, much less her brother.
He pulled off the poultice, and the malodorous scent of fish invaded again. What he wouldn’t give for a bath. “Who are you?”
She blanched, as if he’d shot her. “You don’t remember me?” The question held sardonic disbelief. “And here I thought this day could not get any worse.” With a clatter, she set the saucer down.
He had little patience for her frustration. Damn it all, he was the one who’d been wounded. And each time he tried to reach back and seize the memories, it was as if they had been eradicated. Like a soldier upon a battlefield, he couldn’t remember anything surrounding the accident.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“My name is Emily.” She leaned in, her gaze penetrating. Almost as if she were waiting for him to say something.
Hazy bits of the past shifted together. Emily Barrow. The Baron of Hollingsford’s daughter. My God. He hadn’t seen her in nearly ten years. He stared hard at her, unable to believe it was true. Though her rigid posture proclaimed her as a modest woman of virtue, he remembered her throwing rocks at his carriage. And climbing trees to spy on him.
And kissing him when he’d been an awkward, adolescent boy.
He shook the thought away. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here.” With an overbright smile, she added, “Don’t you remember your wife?”
Her revelation stunned him into silence. His wife? When had he gotten married? “You must be joking.”
He wasn’t an impulsive man. He planned every moment of every day. Getting married to a woman he hadn’t seen in years wasn’t at all something he would do. Unless he’d gotten extremely deep in his cups one night, she had to be lying. And by God, if Emily Barrow thought to take advantage of him, she would be sorry for it.
“I would never joke about something like this. Believe me, my life would be much easier if you had never returned.” She held out the cup of tea, but he dismissed it. He had no intention of drinking anything she gave him. His vision swam, and a rushing sound filled his ears.
Closing his eyes, he waited for the dizziness to pass.
When the world righted itself, he studied the room. Heavy blue drapes hung across the canopied bed, while bookcases overflowing with books filled another wall. The pieces of remembrance snapped together as he recognized his bedroom within Falkirk House, one of the country estates. For the life of him he didn’t know how he’d gotten here.
“How long have I been at Falkirk?”
“And before that?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t seen you in three months. Why don’t you tell me where you’ve been?”
He tried to reach for the memory, but nothing remained, not even the smallest fragment of a vision. Like a gaping hole, he’d lost a part of himself. It frustrated the hell out of him, having pieces of his life gone. He could remember most of his childhood and adolescence, the years of working with each of the estates. He even recalled working upon a list of accounts for his father’s estate Moorsgate, dated January the fourth. But nothing remained of yesterday or the day before that.
“What day is it?” he asked, trying to pinpoint the last memory he had.
“The twentieth of May.”
Several months, then. He closed his eyes, trying to force himself to remember. But the harder he struggled, the worse his head ached. “I don’t know what happened,” he answered honestly. “And I certainly don’t remember getting married.”
“Rest assured, if I had any other choice, I would not be here with you,” Emily snapped.
But in her voice, he heard desperation. Something was wrong, something she wasn’t telling him.
“You are welcome to leave.” He watched her closely, but she kept her reaction veiled.
“Perhaps it is my Christian duty to tend the wretched.”
“Somehow I doubt your Christian duty includes murder.”
She looked away, guilt flushing her face. Good. He wanted her to regret her earlier threats.
She crossed her arms over her chest, drawing his gaze toward her silhouette. A bit on the thin side, but the soft curve of her breasts caught his eye. The top button of her gown had come loose, revealing a forbidden glimpse of skin.
She lowered her arms, gathering her courage as she stared at him. But her full lips parted, her shoulders rising and falling with a quickening breath. The fallen strand of golden hair rested against the black serge, a coil of temptation, beckoning him to touch it.
She’d never been able to tame her hair, even as a girl. He’d helped her with hairpins on more than one occasion, to help her avoid a scolding.
Now the task took on an intimacy, one more suited to a husband. Had he truly married her? Had he unbuttoned her gowns, tasting the silk of her skin? From the way she drew back, he didn’t think so.
“If you were truly my wife,” he murmured, “you would throw yourself into my arms with joy.”
Her whiskey eyes flared. “There are other places I might throw myself. Off a cliff comes to mind.”
No, he most definitely had not shared her bed. Beneath her hauteur, she was terrified of him.
“I want to see a doctor,â€ he said, changing the subject. â€œUnless you’ve murdered him as well.”
She gave him a withering look. “Dr. Parrish examined you last night. I’m to change your bandages and keep the wound clean. He’ll return tomorrow.” She lifted the lip of the teacup to his mouth again, but he didn’t drink.
The china clattered, revealing her shaking hands. Despite her bitterness, there was a look on her face that didn’t quite match her words. He caught a glimpse of something more . . . something lost and lonely.
He forced himself not to pity her. For God’s sakes, the woman had threatened to kill him.
At last, she gave up and set the cup down. “I didn’t poison this cup,” she said with reluctance. “There wasn’t any arsenic to be had.”
“Laudanum would work,” he advised. “In large doses.” Though why he was offering suggestions, he didn’t know.
“I’ll remember that for next time.” Color stained her cheeks, but she didn’t smile.
“Why did I marry you?” he asked softly.
She picked up the tray containing the teapot and cup. “You should rest for a while. I’ll be happy to answer your questions. Later, that is.”
“I want to know now. Sit down.”
She ignored him and moved toward the door. He might as well have been ordering a brick wall to sit. If the unthinkable had happened, if he really and truly had gone off and gotten married, one thing was certain. He had lost more than his memory.
He’d lost his mind.
* * *
Emily fled to a nearby bedroom and set the tea tray down with shaking fingers. The Earl of Whitmore was back. And he didn’t remember a single moment of their marriage.
Damn him. Hot, choking tears slid down her cheeks, despite her efforts to keep herself together. She’d tried so hard to forget about him. Every single day of the past three months, she’d reminded herself that she meant nothing to him.
Her hand clenched, and she wept into her palm. He’d gone from his wedding night into the arms of another woman. His London mistress, so they’d said. And she, the naÃ¯ve little wife, tucked away at the country estate where she wasn’t supposed to hear about her husband’s indiscretions.
Marriages were like that, she’d heard. But she hadn’t wanted to believe it. Such a fool she had been. She’d been swept away by his charm. Her fairytale had come true, with the handsome Earl offering to marry the impoverished maiden.
But it had been a dream, hadn’t it? He’d used her, wedding her for reasons she didn’t understand, and had all but disappeared from her life.
Now that he’d returned, did he expect her to fall into his arms, welcoming him back? Hadn’t he humiliated her enough?
She swiped the tears away with her knuckles, a chastising laugh gathering in her throat. He wasn’t worth the tears. The sooner he left Falkirk, the better.
She forced herself to rise from the chair, suppressing the desire to smash every piece of china on the tea tray. Self-pity wouldn’t get her anywhere. She was married to a stranger, a man who hadn’t kept his promises.
Murder seemed like a fine idea. Any man who was unfaithful to a new wife deserved what he got.
The sound of a shouting child broke through her reverie. Emily gathered her skirts and rushed toward the bedroom she’d converted into a temporary nursery. Inside, her nephew Royce sprawled upon the floor, playing with tin soldiers.
“Attack!” he yelled, dashing a row of soldiers to the floor. The tin soldiers were the only toys he had brought with him after Daniel died. She smiled at Royce’s boyish enthusiasm.
When he let out another battle cry, the shrill fussing of an infant interrupted. Royce’s face turned worried. “I didn’t mean to wake her up.”
“It’s all right.” Emily lifted the baby to her cheek. Her niece Helen was barely nine months old. A soft fuzz of auburn hair covered the baby’s head. Two emerging teeth poked up from Helen’s lower gums. The baby reached out to grab Emily’s hair.
As she extricated Helen’s fist, Emily strengthened her resolve. Though her marriage was in shambles, she had her family. She would keep her brother’s children safe, for she had sworn it upon Daniel’s grave. Now she had to gather up the shreds of her marriage and decide what to do next.
“Aunt Emily?” Royce stopped playing and drew his knees up to his chest. “Has Papa come for us yet?”
“No, sweeting. Not yet.” She hadn’t told Royce his father was never coming back. How could she destroy her nephew’s safe world of hope? Royce would learn the truth soon enough.
She pulled Royce into an embrace with her free arm, holding both children fiercely. “I love you both. You know that.”
Royce squirmed. “I know. Can I play?”
Emily released him. The seven-year-old waged imaginary wars against the helpless tin soldiers, shouting in triumph when one soldier defeated an enemy.
She sat down in a rocking chair, holding the baby. Helen wailed, her eyelids drooping with exhaustion. Emily patted the baby’s back, wishing she could join the child in a fit of howling. She almost didn’t see the shadow of the Earl hovering at the doorway.
“What are you doing here?” She stood, clutching the baby as though she were a shield. “You’re bleeding. You shouldn’t be out of bed.”
His frigid gaze stared back at her. “This is my house, I believe.” Tight lines edged his mouth, revealing unspoken pain. His dark brown hair was rumpled beneath the bandage wrapped across his temple. He leaned against the doorframe, thinner than she’d last seen him, but he did not betray even a fraction of weakness. A rough stubble upon his cheeks gave him a feral appearance, not at all the polished Earl she’d known before.
And suddenly, she wondered if she knew him at all. Not a trace remained of the boy she’d idolized as a girl. Gone was his lazy smile and the way he once teased her.
His eyes were a coldhearted gray, unfeeling and callous. Even in his wounded state he threatened her.
Emily took a step back, almost tripping over the rocking chair. “Your head took quite a blow. You’re not ready to be up and about.”
“That would be convenient for you, wouldn’t it? If I were to stumble and bleed to death.”
She kept her composure at his harsh words. “Quite. But your blood would stain the carpet. There’s no reason to trouble the servants.”
“I pay the servants.”
“And your fortune would continue to do so after you are dead.”
Why oh why did spiteful words keep slipping from her mouth? She wasn’t usually such a harpy, but arguing made it easier to conceal her fear. He could make them leave. And if he did, she had nowhere to go.
“I am glad to see I married such a docile model of womanhood.” His sarcasm sharpened her already bad temper. Then his gaze narrowed on the children. “Who are they?”
Emily’s defenses rose up. “Our children.”
“I believe I would have remembered had I fathered any children.”
“They belong to my brother. You are their guardian.”
Emily cast him a sharp look, praying she could stop him from saying more in front of the children. It would break Royce’s heart to learn of his father’s death. “We will speak of Daniel later.”
“Where is their nursemaid?”
“I don’t want a nurse,” Royce interrupted. “I want Aunt Emily.”
“Royce, now, you see-” Emily tried to placate him, but he refused.
“I don’t want one!” he shrieked, throwing a tin soldier on the floor.
Emily knew what was about to happen. “Here.” She stood and thrust her niece into the Earl’s arms. He took the baby, holding Helen at arms’ length as though she had a dreaded disease.
She knelt down beside Royce, trying to reason with him. “Shh, now. There, there. We won’t be getting a nurse. You needn’t worry.”
“Papa will come soon,” Royce said, his face determined. “He will take us away from here.” With a defiant scowl toward Lord Whitmore, the boy let her comfort him.
The guilty burden grew heavier. She couldn’t keep Daniel’s death from Royce much longer.
“Emily-” There was a note of alarm in Whitmore’s voice. Immediately, she released Royce and went to the Earl. She took the baby just as Whitmore’s knees buckled and he collapsed against the doorframe. He bit back a moan of pain, and blood darkened the bandage around his scalp.
Quickly, she placed the baby back in the cradle, ignoring Helen’s wails of protest.
“Help!” she called out, hoping a servant would hear her. “Someone come quickly!”
She knelt beside the Earl, supporting his weight with her arms. The flicker of a smile played at his mouth.
“So you decided not to let me die after all,” he whispered.
His eyes closed and she muttered, “The day isn’t over yet.”
* * *
Stephen was not certain how much worse his life could get. He had a so-called wife who despised him, two unexpected children, and no memory of the past several months. This last aspect was the worst, and so he had summoned the butler Farnsworth to find the answers he needed.
He struggled to sit up in bed, though the effort made him dizzy. Farnsworth arrived at last, clearing his throat to announce his presence. The butler had a fringe of graying hair around a bald spot and his cheeks were ruddy and clean-shaven.
“Tell me what happened the night I returned,” Stephen prompted.
“My lord, I fear there is little to tell. It happened two nights ago.”
“Who brought me here?”
“It was a hired coach. He didn’t know who you were. His instructions were only to deliver you to the door.”
“Did he say who had arranged for my travel?”
“He did not, my lord. He was an irritable sort, being as it was the middle of the night, and he insisted on being paid his fee immediately.”
Obviously this chain of questions was going nowhere. “What belongings did I have with me?”
“Nothing. Only the clothes on your back, such as they were.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were in tatters, my lord. Simply ghastly. They smelled of rotting fish, and I had them burned.”
The fish again. Had he been taken aboard a ship? He might have learned more if the butler hadn’t incinerated his belongings.
Stephen controlled his temper and asked softly, “Did you check the pockets before you destroyed them?”
“No, my lord. I didn’t think of that.”
Stephen ground his teeth and said, “Thank you, Farnsworth. That will be all.”
The butler cleared his throat again and hesitated. “My lord, about Lady Whitmore?”
“What is it?”
“Well, sir, the staff and I were wondering.” Farnsworth coughed, delaying his statement once more. Apparently there was some other detail the butler intended to share. Either that, or he was in dire need of some medicinal tea to treat the irritating cough.
Stephen clenched his fists in the coverlet. Get on with it.
“To put it bluntly, my lord, your wife has been making several . . . changes.”
“What kind of changes?”
The agitated Farnsworth fidgeted with his hands. “I have been a loyal servant to your household for over thirty years, my lord. I would never speak ill of the Chesterfields. But I fear she may have gone too far.”
Stephen wondered if Emily had moved a vase in the front hall six inches to the left. Or perhaps she’d poisoned the cat in a fit of vengeance.
Farnsworth’s paranoia seemed ridiculous under the circumstances. He couldn’t recall the past three months of his life, and the butler worried that his wife had gone too far?
“What. Has. She. Done?” he gritted out.
“She’s fired Cook. And–” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “She says she won’t hire another. She’s planning to do all the cooking herself.”
Bloody hell. The woman really did mean to poison him.
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