An Excerpt from Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal,
Book 1 in the Scandalous Regency Widows Series
Harcourt House, London
Elizabeth Harcourt, Lady Beauchamp, sat before her cherrywood dressing table, determinedly brushing her hair with slow methodical strokes, trying in vain to relax. The simple routine always used to be soothing. A balm to her taut nerves.
But not anymore.
Especially not tonight.
The longcase clock in the hall outside suddenly heralded the hour. Midnight.
With a shaky sigh, Elizabeth placed the brush upon the silver tray and glanced at her candle-lit reflection. A grave young woman stared back at her. Shadows as dark as bruises marred the pale skin beneath her gray eyes. She was so tired. And so anxious, she felt as brittle as a dried-out birch twig that was going to snap at any moment.
But she couldn’t break now. All going well, in six hours she would be gone from here in a hired hackney cab that was scheduled to arrive in the mews behind the servants’ entrance where her traveling trunk had been carefully stowed. Despite her fatigue, she doubted that she would be able to sleep at all between now and then.
There was too much at stake.
The unexpected sound of her bedroom door opening made her start. In the dark shadows behind her, the reflection of her husband’s tall, lean frame appeared. He paused on the threshold and by the way he leaned against the door frame, it was obvious that he was drunk—not an unusual circumstance for this time of night. Elizabeth knew that he’d probably spent the best part of the evening at his club or some gaming hell.
But what was unusual and caused her heart to hammer against her breast was the fact that he had come to her room at all.
Hugh hadn’t entered her bedchamber for more than a year.
She tried to read his expression, judge his mood. Desperately tried to fathom what could have prompted this unexpected nocturnal visitation. But Hugh’s blue eyes, indeed the sculpted planes of his entire face, were hidden in shadow.
“Elizabeth.” Pushing away from the door he prowled toward her bed, then with a heavy sigh, sank onto the pale blue silk counterpane. The lingering odor of port and stale cigar smoke assailed her. Even though Elizabeth’s stomach cramped with fear, she forced herself to remain still as she watched and waited. It made no sense at all that Hugh had come to her instead of seeking out the more titillating company of his latest mistress or a prostitute in a high-class bawdy house—his usual custom at this late hour.
Unless… Does he know what I have planned?
Despite her rising panic, Elizabeth was suddenly struck by the realization that her husband was uncharacteristically maudlin. Turning to face him, she was acutely conscious of the fact that she only wore a thin, white cotton night rail. Although it buttoned all the way to her throat and had long sleeves, she felt vulnerable. Exposed. It bothered her that her feet were bare.
But she couldn’t afford to show any weakness.
“Are you all right, my lord?” she asked carefully, forcing the words past her tight, dry throat. It seemed safer than asking: What do you want? Or: Are you here to stop me leaving you?
She hoped to God he hadn’t uncovered her secret. She must tread carefully. Her life depended upon it.
His gaze traveled over her, but quickly returned to her face. Grimacing, he then ran a hand through his golden blond hair, ruffling it into messy spikes. At the age of twenty-eight, he still looked boyishly handsome, although Elizabeth had long since ceased to think of him in that way.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he replied at last.
Honest. That was a word that Elizabeth no longer associated with her husband, Hugh de Lancey Harcourt, the Earl of Beauchamp. Strangely enough, she did believe him tonight. He was in a peculiar mood indeed.
The silence between them stretched. Surely he could hear her frantic heartbeat. She was unsure what to say or do next. She just wanted him to leave.
Please, God, make him leave.
He started to speak again, his words slightly slurred. “It has been a long time since I… Since we…” His gaze dropped to her chest where her breasts were well concealed beneath her chaste night attire.
Elizabeth noted that he couldn’t bring himself to complete the thought. Perhaps he was going to say, “Since I fucked you,” or, “Since we made love.” The latter statement would have been grossly inaccurate, of course. In three years of marriage, Elizabeth did not believe that they had ever truly made love.
Though what he had intended to say mattered little. What mattered was, it was not like Hugh to be inarticulate, or melancholy, or in her room. His behavior was troubling. And it disturbed her that she could not predict what he would do next.
Elizabeth didn’t know what to do either. Terror trickled an icy trail down her spine and rendered her mute. All she knew was that regardless of his mood, she could not let him touch her. If he did, she would be damned just as much as he was.
Hugh didn’t seem to notice her petrified silence. Perhaps he was distracted by his own personal demons. She knew all too well that he had many. But there was one in particular that plagued her. The words of the letter her husband’s lover sent to her a mere fortnight ago had tainted Elizabeth’s mind as surely and insidiously as the contagion Hugh now undoubtedly carried.
Your husband has the great pox, my lady.
Elizabeth did not doubt the veracity of the writer, anonymous though she was. She had already seen traces of the telltale sore on the ring finger of Hugh’s left hand. The lesion was so inflamed, he no longer wore his favorite sapphire-set signet ring. Dr. Morton had called the sore a “chancre” after she’d described it to him.
She could not see it now because Hugh still had his gloves on.
Her husband drew in a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking…” he began then trailed off as if the attempt to clarify where this out of the ordinary encounter was heading was a struggle for him. “Elizabeth…” He at last met her gaze. “I think it is time that I got you with child.”
Elizabeth stifled a gasp and somehow managed to stay upright. Her hands gripped the sides of her velvet covered seat. Surely he jested.
But no, he was deadly serious. He took off his gloves and removed the sapphire pin from his cravat. Even though he was a few feet away, she could see the mark of the pox—the chancre.
Didn’t he know that he had the disease? How could he not know?
Elizabeth suspected he must know yet did not care. And what scared her most at this particular moment was that she believed he was fully capable of acting with depraved indifference toward her. He had always been selfish. It obviously mattered little to him that he would be exposing her to the infection in the attempt to conceive an heir. Dr. Morton had warned her that any child resulting from their union would also be inflicted with the pox and Elizabeth could not countenance such a diabolical act.
She had to get away, now more than ever. If only she could make it through the next few hours without Hugh touching her.
Strange to think she’d once longed for his touch…
As Hugh stood and moved toward her, she summoned what she hoped was a convincing smile. “As you wish, my lord.” Her voice was husky, but not with desire. She prayed he couldn’t discern the difference.
He laid a hand upon her shoulder. His touch was hot, heavy.
She smiled up at him. “Hugh, it has been such a long time, and clearly you have taken me by surprise. I feel at a…disadvantage. If you would indulge me, I would like to change into something more…pleasing to the eye. I know how you loathe these night rails.”
Hugh’s eyes locked with hers. Speculation, perhaps even interest flared in the deep blue depths. A corner of his wide mouth lifted in a sensual smile. “Of course, my lady.”
He brushed the pale curtain of her hair aside and when he dropped a hot, open-mouthed kiss onto her neck, she struggled to suppress a shudder. She couldn’t even recall the last time he’d kissed her. He hadn’t even kissed her goodbye before he left for Belgium to serve in Wellington’s army in April. It was now September. She swallowed and dredged up her voice again. “Give me a few minutes. I will come to you in your room.”
He drew back. She could clearly see his erection, pushing impatiently against the fall of his navy-blue silk breeches.
“I look forward to it, my dear,” he said with another slow smile.
Then, thank the Lord, he left.
Elizabeth didn’t have much time. Opening the top drawer of her dresser, she retrieved her household keys before slipping out of the door into the hallway. She didn’t bother to close it. She was afraid Hugh would hear it.
Picking up the hem of her night rail, she rushed away, grateful that the plush Aubusson carpet deadened her footfalls.
Where to hide, where to hide? That was the question. She headed for the servants’ quarters. She knew there was a spare bedroom. One of the footmen had left their service just recently.
By the time she reached the fourth floor, she was breathless. She paused for a moment, trying to control her ragged gasps. It wouldn’t do to wake the servants. She recalled that the vacant room was at the beginning of the corridor, adjacent to the landing where she now stood.
Fumbling, she pulled out her keys, trying to find the right one. The only light she had to work by was a frail shaft of moonlight that spilled through a small window at the head of the stairs.
A door slammed. Hugh was coming. She tried key after key, her shaking fingers making the metal rattle in the lock. Someone would hear her. She brutally choked back a sob. Then mercifully a key slid in and turned easily, tumbling the lock. She pushed open the door, offering a silent prayer of thanks to their butler that it did not squeak. Jenkins was worth his weight in gold.
Shutting the door as silently as she could, she then locked it again from the inside. It was so dark, she could hardly see at all. But there seemed to be a closet on the opposite side of the small, barely furnished chamber. She swiftly skirted the narrow single bed and tried to open the door, her sweaty palms slipping on the handle. No, no, no. It was locked and there was no key.
Hugh sounded closer. Too close. She could hear his heavy footsteps on the stairs.
How had he tracked her so easily? Swallowing down a wave of nausea, she glanced about the room. Aside from the closet, the bed and a wooden chair, there was no other furniture. But there were floor length curtains partly drawn across a small window to the left of the bed. She slipped behind the dusty, moth-eaten fabric and waited, barely breathing. Trembling.
And then she heard it. The doorhandle rattled slightly. She bit her lip to stop herself crying out.
Please, for the love of God, go away. Leave me be. Don’t come in, don’t come in…
Copyright © 2014 Amy Rose Bennett