Watching pain, bitterness, and despair wash across Arabella’s beautiful face, Gareth thought the musket ball that had plowed into his left leg at Salamanca was no more than the prick of a pin in comparison with the blow of her words. Her father had gone to Newgate Prison. Gareth hadn’t known that until he returned from Spain. Lord Barr had been transported to New South Wales, a felon never to return to England, stripped of his title, for all practical purposes, stripped of his lands to pay back the Crown, and not one person had come to his innocent daughter’s aid, especially not the man who should have been there to pick up the pieces of her life and fit them together.
“Arabella.” His throat felt raw. He swallowed and took a deep breath before plunging on. “I can tell you what happened.”
“There are no excuses good enough to explain away your behavior.” She clutched the back of a chair, and for a moment, Gareth thought she might throw it at him. Instead, she swayed, her face whitening.
He rounded the table and caught hold of her shoulders. “You’re faint. You need to sit.”
“Perhaps she should lie down in the other room,” Mrs. Polglaze spoke from the corner.
“I’m all right.” Arabella’s voice, so strong in condemning him a moment earlier, had grown wispy. “I smelled bacon is all. And pastry. . . She bowed her head and a flush rose in her cheeks.
The fineness of the bones beneath his hands struck understanding into Gareth’s head. Delicate, bird-like bones with no flesh upon them. She was too thin. She was faint because she was hungry. She was hungry because she didn’t have employment and now her purse had been taken with likely the last of her worldly wealth.
“I’m a slow-top.” He released Arabella and strode to the door.
He couldn’t expect her to listen to him on an empty stomach. Jesus had fed the multitudes before he preached to them. Gareth should have taken that as a model of behavior and offered Arabella food first. He should have taken the Lord as his model for all behavior a long time ago and spared Arabella and himself a great deal of pain and suffering.
Along the gallery outside the private rooms he had taken for the day, he found a maid and gave her orders. Then he returned to the private parlor. “Viands will arrive as soon as possible.”
Arabella had seated herself at the table. She didn’t so much as glance at him. Curls loosened from her chignon spilled around her face, masking her expression. Only the whiteness of her knuckles on fingers gripping the edge of the table betrayed her emotion—betrayed her humiliation, if he knew his Arabella.
Not his Arabella. He had lost her years ago because of his own stupidity and pride. All he wanted now was for her to let him help her.
No, that wasn’t all he wanted; it was all he hoped to receive to ease his guilt. More no man could expect with the past that lay between them.
Arabella said nothing. Mrs. Polglaze took knitting out of an embroidered bag and began to click away at a stocking. Arabella’s hands slipped from the table edge to her lap, one coming up every few moments to brush curls from her cheeks only to have them tumble back again.
Gareth paced between window overlooking the stable yard below, to the door. Outside both, noise rose and fell like waves upon the rocky shores of Cornwall—waves during a storm. Men shouted. Doors banged. Carriage wheels rumbled over cobblestones. And, at last, the knock sounded on the parlor’s portal, soon followed by the arrival of two inn servants carrying trays of coffee, cream, and sugar, a pitcher of lemonade, and platters of bread, meats, cheeses, and apples. In her corner, Mrs. Polglaze shot to her feet and bustled forward to serve the meal. She, too, must have noticed Arabella’s hungry look, for the kindly housekeeper piled Arabella’s plate high and ladled a quantity of thick soup into a bowl.
“Eat slowly,” Mrs. Polglaze cautioned.
“Yes, ma’am.” Arabella began with the white soup, sipping from her spoon with her eyes closed, as though she analyzed the contents of the food. “Beef for the broth, not veal, as it should be. Cheese-paring ways.” She spoke in a murmur, addressing no one in particular.
Still, Gareth seized the opportunity to begin a conversation. He drew out the chair across from her and poured himself a cup of coffee. “You were looking for work as a cook?”
“I was too young for anyone to hire me as a housekeeper and not respectable enough to be a companion or governess.” The tip of her tongue darted out to taste another spoonful of soup. “But I learned to cook from Father’s chef on all those days I was alone in the house save for the servants.”
She once confided in him that her father left her with servants while he took long journeys—out of the country—smuggling trips they all discovered too late to avert disaster.
She said no more as she finished half the soup, then pushed the bowl aside, poured herself coffee, and fixed Gareth with her big, dark eyes. “So tell me why you just ruined my chances of gaining employment today.”
The chill of her voice belied the warmth of the late spring day, sending a shiver up his spine and freezing his tongue. His carefully planned speech fled from his head, and all he could think to say was, I never ceased loving you. But he couldn’t say that. She wouldn’t believe that when he told her of the past three years. She certainly wouldn’t believe it now.
“I want to offer you a home.” The end of his prepared speech came out first.
The words were the wrong ones. For a moment, as she stilled in the act of raising her cup to her lips, Gareth feared she would toss the contents across the table and into his face such an expression of outrage twisted her features.
He flung up his hands to stop her. “Wait, wait. Hear me out before you fly into the boughs.”
“I am waiting.” Her voice was low, rasping.
“Thank you.” Gareth took a deep breath. “When I returned from Spain, I heard what had happened to you—or rather that you had vanished—and I went looking for you. I hired a Bow Street Runner to hunt for you. But you seem to have changed your name and. . .vanished and I didn’t even gain a clue until a party at the Featherstone’s last month.”
“How magnanimous of you.” Sarcasm dripped from her tone. “Why were you looking for me? To pledge your everlasting love?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“Not unless you left for Spain with your regiment by force instead of attending your own wedding.”
Gareth dropped his gaze to the scarred surface of the table. “I left with my regiment quite voluntarily.”
“I thought as much.” Her voice sounded scratchy, as though she had been talking for hours. She blinked several times in rapid succession, took a long breath, then rose and pushed in her chair.
Gareth shot to his feet, knocking his chair over. “You can’t leave.”
“Can I not?” She glided to the door. Despite her shabby gown and cloak, her stride held both vigor and grace.
Gareth reached the door ahead of her and rested one hand on the latch. “You haven’t eaten enough. Mrs. Polglaze, do pack up the rest of this in-in”—He darted his glance around the room. “Something.”
“Of course, Sir.” She proceeded to empty the contents of her knitting bag and began to wrap the meats and cheese in serviettes.
Arabella waved her hand. “I can’t take that with me. It will spoil before I can eat a tenth of it.”
“Then what will you do? Where will you go?” Gareth’s hand shook on the handle.
Arabella shrugged. “Someone will hire me.”
“I will.” Gareth knew he sounded desperate, but he didn’t care. “I inherited my uncle’s estate and am in a position to hire staff. A secretary. A steward.”
“Anything but housekeeper?” She shot Mrs. Polglaze a smile.
“Or cook,” that venerable lady affirmed. “We have a fine and loyal cook.”
Arabella turned back to Gareth, the moment of lightness shoved behind a mask of contempt. “Do not think you may assuage your conscience by offering me work. Now, please step aside so I may leave.”
Gareth opened the door and stepped aside. Once she passed through the opening, he closed it behind them both and fell into step beside her. “Will you please hear me out?”
“And have people think you have hired me for something disrespectable?”
“No one will if we leave the fair.”
“And then how do I get employment?”
“The less you argue with me and give me a quarter hour of your time, the sooner you can get back to your—“ Gareth paused at the top of the steps and looked down at her. “How will you get employment without references or the tools of your trade?”
She looked away from him, her posture stiff. “Scullions need no references.”
He gazed at her small but long-fingered hands in gloves so darned they barely showed the original fabric. The idea of her working with soda and lye soap all day appalled him. “You would be a scullion before you accepted my assistance?”
“A scullion still has pride.” She gripped the banister and charged down the steps and out the door of the inn.
He had always loved her fierce pride, her determination to get her own way. But a lady of good birth, wealth, and fine looks could afford her pride. All Arabella still possessed was her fine looks and a desire to keep her dignity and her pride in tact. Even eating a bowl of soup he provided had humiliated her. Under her current circumstances, her pride was likely to kill her.
“Arabella,” he called over the heads of the throng between him and his former fianceée, “pride lost me the only lady I ever loved.”
She flinched, but kept walking.
To words of encouragement and wishes for good fortune on his endeavor, Gareth wound his way around those blocking his way until he reached the inn yard, where Arabella was about to step into the area set aside for those seeking work. When she turned, she caught sight of him and swerved to duck behind the stables. Gareth caught up with her on a lane leading to the harbor, where white-capped swells told of a storm out to sea despite the clarity of the sky over the land.
They had always enjoyed walking together, strolling along the ramparts at Lyme Regis, along the Stene in Brighton, daringly along the dark walks of Vauxhall Gardens in London. For a few minutes, this walk felt like those other times—calm, contented, companionable. Then she stopped as though she had run into a wall and demanded, “All right. Give me your excuses for your terrible behavior and then let me go.”
Gareth blew out a sigh of relief. “Agreed.” He offered her his arm out of habit, and she took it, perhaps out of habit. “As soon as I heard your father had been taken up for treason, I went to talk with my commanding officer. He was agreeable about my marriage and not returning to the continent with my regiment for a few months, but once the scandal broke, I new he deserved to know of the fate of the future father-in-law of one of his officers.”
Her fingers flexed on his arm. “And your career would have been ruined.”
“It would have been.” He sighed. “It nearly was. The colonel didn’t want me associating with a lady part of such a scandal, even if it wasn’t of her—your—making. But I thought I could persuade you to come with me until the scandal died down.” He stared at the rough cobbles beneath his feet so he didn’t accidentally look at her and meet her eyes with all his shame. “And when the colonel said I must choose between you and keeping my commission. . .”
“You chose your commission.” The words spilled from her lips like the cry of a wounded gull, like a sword through his heart.
He had to clear his throat twice before he managed to affirm, “I did.” He inhaled the sharp tang of sea air and added, “I can make the excuse that I had no other way to support a wife. My father would have pulled my allowance and my colonel intended to find a way to cashier me rather than have one of his officers married to the daughter of-of—“
“A felon, a common criminal. I suppose I can’t blame him.” Suddenly she stopped and used his arm to spin him to face her, where she jabbed his chest with a forefinger. “You could have sent me a message. Instead, you just ran away.”
“I did write to you.” He captured the poking finger in his fist. “I wrote you before I left the country.”
“I never received it.”
“I know. I waited to long to send you word of my whereabouts.”
“You mean to tell me you chose your career over me?”
“I—yes. I convinced myself you would be all right. When my colonel saw that you had nothing to do with your father’s activities, he would come around and you could join me. . .”
“You were wrong. No one wanted me near them.” Her eyes grew luminous with tears.
He brushed a stray drop off her cheek with the pad of his thumb. “I was wrong. But I found out too late to change my own actions. By the time I wrote you, you had already fled London without giving anyone your direction.”
“I had no direction. I had no home. You abandoning me like that robbed me of the last of my friends in town.”
“Oh, Bella.” He closed his eyes. They felt wet. “I was such a coward. Nothing I faced in battle frightened me so much as when I received my letters to you back.”
“You received them back?” She sounded surprised.
“That first message, all my letters to you, ended up at my father’s house in Sussex. He forwarded them to me in Spain.”
“I dared not leave any forwarding address with the Crown taking everything we owned. I thought they might commandeer the few things that were mine by my mother’s will and leave me with even less until I found work.” She removed her hand from his arm, tucked her hands inside the folds of her cloak, and recommenced walking toward the sea, her head bowed.
Gareth strode beside her, one hand tucked beneath her elbow. “I was wounded at Salamanca. Little more than a flesh wound, but it laid me up for a while. Then the war was truly turning in our favor and by the time I returned to England, all trace of you seemed to have vanished. I resigned my commission and began to hunt for you.”
Her face averted from his, she asked, “Why?”
“Because I never stopped loving you. I was young and prideful and ambitious.’”
“You put your regiment before me.”
“Guilty. I can spend the rest of my life making that up to you.” He tightened his hold to guide her over broken pavement. “And I doubt it’s enough without the grace of God to help you forgive me. In the meantime, let me offer you work. Respectable work. If it wouldn’t ruin your reputation, I would simply set you up with an independence so you can take your place in society again.”
“I have no place in society. I will always be Jerald Barr’s daughter, forever tainted.”
“Unless you wed.”
She snorted. “As though anyone would ever wed me.”
They had reached the top of a flight of boat steps and stopped with the green harbor water sloshing just below their feet. Gareth rested his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him. “I promised you love everlasting, and I broke that promise. I put you second when you needed me first. You have no reason to believe that I love you, but I do. I’ve spent months seeking you out to tell you this, to ask you to forgive me, to let us begin a future. . . Now I’ve said my piece. The rest is up to you. If you simply need work, come find me in the inn. Or return to the fair and keep your pride in tact, and I will never come near you again.” He kissed her brow, then walked away from her.
Feeling as though an anchor chain were trying to drag him back to her with every step, he didn’t look back. He had to let her go with a choice this time. If she vanished from his life again, he would move on, run is estate and leave it to his older brother’s younger son so he wouldn’t have to choose between his military career and his heart.
Every step of the way, he ached to hear the sound of running feet behind him, the sound of her calling his name. But nothing happened. The crowds thickened. The hiring fair and inn hove into view. Like an old man with rheumatism, he climbed the steps to his private rooms, nodded to Mrs. Polglaze knitting in the corner, then stood at the window to watch. After a quarter hour, he saw her climbing from the harbor and entering the fair. An hour after that, she left with a woman in housekeeper black and a gaggle of other young women. Someone had hired her. She would have shelter and food at the least.
With a burdened heart, he turned from the window “We can leave now. I’ve done all I can.”
“Yes, sir.” Mrs. Polglaze packed up her knitting in the bag from which she had removed the food no one wanted.
A word to an inn servant had his gig brought around to the front, and they headed back to the small but prosperous estate his uncle had left to him. The sun hadn’t yet set as they pulled into the stable yard at Polhenny. Sunlight turned the ornamental lake to molten bronze, and a peacock added it’s color to the shore and green lawn. Arabella would love this land, the beauty, the peace, the house large enough for a family, but not big enough to be ostentatious. She would have scandalized the servants by demanding she cook meals from time to time, but won them over with her appreciation of their skills. . .
An ache in his heart he had bourne for three years and doubted he would ever be rid of, Gareth headed for the house.
At first, he thought he imagined the woman perched on the top step of the portico. Then she rose so she stood eye to eye with him from her elevated position.
He halted and stared at her. “I thought you took a position.”
“I did. A decent one as a kitchen maid.” She worried the edge of her cloak. “But I forgot to ask you a question.”
“So you gave up your position to come ask it?”
She looked him in the eye. “It’s an important question.”
He waited, heart pounding so loudly he wasn’t certain he would hear it when she asked.
She drew in a deep breath. “When did you resign your commission? Before or after you inherited this estate?”
He arched his brows. “Before.”
“Before or after Napoleon escaped from Elba?”
“Why aren’t you with your regiment in Belgium right now?”
He smiled. “That’s three questions.”
He grinned more broadly. “Because I hadn’t found you yet.”
“Oh, Gareth.” Her lower lip quivered.
He took a step toward her. “I put my career before you in the past and hurt you badly. How could I convince you I love you if I were still in the cavalry and could place that before you again?”
“But you didn’t know you’d find me.”
“You are worth the risk I took. It was the least I could do—ooph.”
She launched herself off the step and into his arms. With her hands clasped behind his neck, she buried her face in his shoulder. “I never stopped loving you either. And I forgive you because I must.” She tilted her head back. “But if you ever leave me again, I will—“
He kissed her before she formed a threat, for she had no need to worry he would ever let her go.