Margaret McPhee


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Chapter Three

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Mistress to the Marquis

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Chapter Three


Razeby fixed his drawers and breeches into place before sitting up in the bed. Leaning his spine against the massive carved-oak headboard, he stretched his long still-booted legs out before him over the counterpane.

Alice felt the rush of cold air to fill the space where he had been. She shivered at its icy touch as she pulled the sheet to cover her nakedness and sat up next to him, leaning back to rest against the headboard in the same manner.

And even though he moved his hand to cover hers, threading their fingers together, her stomach dipped and a cold draft moved across her heart. She waited, knowing what Razeby was going to say and willing with all her heart and mind and soul that it would turn out to be something different, that later she would laugh over this foolish pound of her heart and tight fear in her throat.

‘You best get on and tell me then.’ She smiled as if dread were not trickling like ice through her veins.

‘I have a duty, Alice, to my title, to my estates and the people upon them. A duty to safeguard them for future generations. And part of that duty is to marry and produce an heir. I was raised for that purpose. I must produce a son who will do the same. I must marry.’

‘Of course you must.’ She had always known it, they both had. But he would marry at some distant time in the future, not now, not when what they had together was still so fresh and vital. ‘But you’re young enough yet. Surely you don’t need to step upon that path right now?’

‘I’ll be thirty in six months’ time.’ He glanced away and raked a hand through his hair.

‘What’s the significance of thirty? Is there some kind of stipulation that you have to be married and breeding an heir by then?’

A shadow moved in his eyes as he glanced away. ‘Something like that,’ he said. ‘Atholl will be coming home on a stretcher. It could too easily have been a coffin.’

‘Your cousin who got shot in battle.’

‘As it stands he is my heir, Alice.’

‘I thought he was on the mend.’

‘He is. Now. He very nearly was not. What happened to Atholl... it has forced me to reconsider things. I have deferred my duty for too long. I can defer it no longer. I have to find a bride for Razeby.’

Their fingers still lay entwined together. Neither of them had moved, both just sat leaning back against the headboard of their bed, as if this was just an ordinary conversation, one of the thousands they had had before, when it was anything other. She sat motionless, feigning relaxation, pretending that she was not shocked and reeling from his words.

‘So is this you giving me my
congé?’ She smiled with the incredulity of it, half expecting him to deny it, to tell her they could still go on as before. On the ivory of the bedcover she could see where the dust of his riding boots had smudged dark.

But he made no denial. ‘I am sorry Alice.’

She slipped her fingers from his. Looked round at him, but he stared straight ahead, as if seeing in the distance, and did not meet her eyes.

Not five minutes ago they had been making love, their breaths and bodies and hearts merged as one in that ultimate act of intimacy. Now he was sitting there dismissing her. It felt like she had just been punched in the stomach.

She glanced down at the diamond bracelet that glittered as beautiful as a night sky full of stars. ‘That’s why you brought the bracelet!’ She laughed a mirthless laugh. ‘As a pay off.’

The silence hissed.

Her fingers unfastened the latch and slipped it from her wrist. The diamonds sparkled and cast shimmering lights against the shadowed walls as she let it fall on to the pale counterpane.

She could not think straight. Her thoughts swayed and staggered as she struggled to understand. ‘You were going to tell me the other day, weren’t you? That’s why you came round unexpectedly.’

Again he did not deny it.

She gave an ironic laugh and shook her head.

His eyes were dark and serious.

The tide of emotion threatened to engulf her. She turned her face away, barely able to conceal her anger and incredulity, and the splintering unbelievable hurt. How could she have been so blind? Six months of thinking that everything was happy and good and wonderful. And believing that he had felt the same. She could barely take it in that he was telling her it was over.

‘You can stay here as long it takes to find other lodgings. There is no rush to leave.’

‘How kind of you.’

He ignored the irony. ‘I will, of course, make a settlement of money on you.’

‘I don’t want your money, Razeby.’

‘It is part of our contract.’

‘Oh, so it is.’ She thought of the piece of paper with its fancy black writing, secure and tied neat within its green ribbon. ‘How could I have forgotten?’

The silence seemed to pulsate between them. There were so many thoughts running through her head, so many words crowding for release upon her tongue. She closed her mouth firmly to prevent their escape.

Climbing from the bed, she grabbed an old dressing gown from where it hung over the back of a chair, pulling it on and tying the belt around her waist as she walked to stand by the window and stare down on to the lamp-lit street below. In the continuing silence she watched the occasional group walking along the pavements. Theatre goers who had gone elsewhere after a late show. Women who, despite the quality of their dress, were ladies of the night, plying their trade; Alice could pick them out with an expert eye – like could always recognise like. A carriage passed and then a gentleman on a horse.

She heard him move and glanced round to see him get to his feet, all six feet of him, with his tight dark breeches and his naked chest, and that ruggedly handsome face. And, despite what he had just told her, her traitorous body reacted with the usual rush of desire for him.

‘Arrangements like ours are not meant to last, Alice.’

‘They’re not,’ she agreed.

‘I have to do my duty, Alice.’ His mouth, that had always been so warm and smiling, was unhappy and determined, the expression in his eyes unreadable.

Her heart was beating harder than a horse at full gallop. ‘Maybe you should have considered your duty six months ago.’ When he had pursued her while the play in which she and Venetia had starred together took London by storm. When he had wooed her and swept her off her feet and made her his mistress within weeks of their meeting.

‘Maybe I should have,’ he said.

His quiet admission stripped her raw.

They stared at one another. He was grim-faced, serious in a way she had never seen him before.

‘For what it is worth, I really am sorry, Alice.’

‘So you said.’

He swallowed. ‘Thank you for everything.’ His eyes clung to hers. He took a step towards her, reached a hand as if he meant to touch her.

Alice recoiled, sweeping her eyes over his extended hand with its long manly fingers, at its lightly tanned skin. It was a hand that had caressed her lips and stroked against her naked skin, a hand that had touched her in the most intimate of places. It was all she could do to stop herself from striking it away with every ounce of strength in her body.

She raised her eyes, meeting his gaze with fierceness.

He swallowed, glanced away, let his hand drop to rest by his side. ‘If there is anything more you need-’

‘There isn’t. You should go now,’ she said with feigned calmness before turning away again to the window. Clutching her dressing gown all the tighter around her, she stared down at the gas-lit street, seeing nothing of it, waiting only for him to leave.

But he did not leave.

She heard him come up behind her. He did not touch her, but she could feel the heat of his proximity scorch the length of her spine.

‘Alice...’ there was a straining pause ‘...I hope I have not...hurt you. ’

She turned to him, held her head up to look him defiantly in the face. ‘Hurt me? Don’t flatter yourself, Razeby. It was nice while it lasted, but...’ She gave a shrug as if she did not care and bit hard at her bottom lip to stop the threat of the betraying tremor.

She saw the bob of his Adam’s apple in his throat, the way his dark eyes studied hers.

‘That at least is something.’ He gave a nod. ‘Goodbye, Alice.’

‘Goodbye, Razeby.’ The words were tight. She forced a smile and turned away to the window again as if she were more interested in the dark view.

He turned and walked away, but she could see the reflection of his leaving in the glass of the window pane and her own face watching, pale and haunting as a ghost.

The bedchamber door closed with a quiet click that seemed louder than an almighty slam.

She stood there and listened to the stride of his booted footsteps along the corridor and down the stairs. Her breath caught in ragged gasps, but she caught her hand to her mouth to silence them. Five minutes later the front door shut. Only then did she let herself sag back to lean against the wall, and allow the sob to escape.




For what remained of that night Alice sat in the little blue armchair by the fireplace and stared into the flames. They licked high around the fresh coal she had thrown on to it, devouring the black rocks with a ferocity that matched the force of emotion whirling and tumbling through her. It did not matter how much heat they threw out it did not warm the chill from her bones. Nor did the dressing gown or the woollen shawl clutched tight around her shoulders. It was the shock, she thought to herself. And the anger. And that feeling that she had drunk ten cups of coffee and that it did not matter if she lay on the bed and closed her eyes; her thoughts were running so wild she would never sleep again.

Don’t you dare shed a single tear for him!

But her eyes were swimming and she felt she could have wept a waterfall. She swallowed down the lump in her throat, but no amount of swallowing could shift the boulder from her chest that felt like it was crushing her.

It was just sex. It had always been just sex. And the way she was feeling now, so scraped and raw and bleeding, was down to the shock of it; that was all. Razeby’s words had come out of nowhere, catching her with her guard down.

She breathed, calmed herself. Stared into the flames. She had survived worse things than this. She thought of her family back in Ireland, of her coming to London to find a job that she might help them, of the hunger and the desperation. She thought of playing the role of the masked Miss Rouge in Mrs Silver’s high-class brothel, her identity hidden from the world. So few people knew. But Razeby did. God only knew why she had told him. She was regretting that now.

Her eyes glanced across at the bed with its sheets still rumpled from their lovemaking. Amidst them she could see the sparkle of the diamond bracelet, so brilliant and beautiful and expensive. She gave a shaky laugh and shook her head at what a fool she had been.

Never let them see how much they hurt you. Her mother’s words, drummed into her across a lifetime, played in her head. The bastards can’t take your pride away from you, unless you let them. Look life straight in the face, Alice, and always, always keep smiling.

Alice was not clever. She was not smart. But she was practical and hard-working and determined. And she still had her pride, every damn inch of it.

She turned her face away from the bed and, staring into the low golden flickers amongst the red glowing coals, made her plans.


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