Letters to a Lover - Crime & Passion, Book 2
Crime & Passion - London, 1851
In the shadow of the Great Exhibition, poverty and crime stalk the meaner backstreets of the city. But sin is not confined to the underworld. One couple passes seamlessly between the neighboring worlds of privilege annd privation, solving crimes and enabling love to bloom
Will blackmail wreck their marriage? Or save it?
When Azalea, the beautiful Viscountess Trench, receives a note threatening to expose her adulterous love letters unless she pays up, she faces even greater anxieties than most blackmail victims. Not only is her marriage a little too frail to withstand such revelations at this moment, but she can’t actually remember the adultery, let alone writing the letters.
In fact, there seems to be a great deal she can’t remember, which puts her at considerable disadvantage when facing down a blackmailer. In desperation, she turns to her sister Grizelda, recently returned from her honeymoon, to track down the culprit before her beloved husband finds out.
But Eric, Lord Trench, has grown tired of waiting patiently for his wife to come back to him. When he finds her in a bizarre assignation, he sees red, and demands that she gives him her trust and her love. If it is not already too late. For worse dangers than scandal stalk Azalea and they will need to work fast if they are to save their marriage – and Azalea’s very life.
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Only one guest remained in Lady Trench’s drawing room. Since it was the handsome Mr. Gunning, tongues would inevitably wag. His hostess did not mind in the slightest, for she had her own reasons for courting the risk of social disaster, reasons that went beyond natural devilment and had nothing whatever to do with Mr. Gunning.
“We are alone,” he observed softly.
“Don’t allow me to detain you from more interesting pursuits,” Lady Trench drawled.
His eyes glowed in a familiar manner. “You know I have none.”
“Then you must acquire some immediately. Lest you become dull.” She smiled. “More tea, Mr. Gunning?”
He leapt from his chair and all but threw himself onto the brocade sofa beside her. “We are alone,” he repeated. “Where is the need for this sudden return to formality? Will you not call me George again?”
She stared at him, hiding her sudden unease. She could not remember being on such friendly terms with this stranger. Was it happening again?
“No,” she replied flatly.
He tried to take her hand from her lap. She moved it casually out of reach, pretending to pat her perfectly pinned hair into place.
“My sweet Azalea—” he began.
“I would rather you did not make free with my name,” she interrupted.
“That isn’t what you said before.”
Oh, God, please let it not be happening again… “I think perhaps you should go.”
“You are expecting your husband?” he asked quickly.
She stared at him. “No. I simply find your conversation tedious. I did warn you.”
The color of annoyance seeped into his face. “Dash it, Azalea, must you blow hot and cold so constantly? I’ve had enough.”
Azalea stood. “So have I. Good afternoon, Mr. Gunning.”
Azalea had been adept at dealing with over-amorous gentlemen since she was in her teens. But it seemed that at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, she had finally misjudged her opponent. He did indeed rise to his feet, but only to seize her in his arms.
Outraged, she grabbed the teapot from the tray, but blood was singing in her ears and panic stole her breath. Had she invited him here? Something terrible surely must have happened, was about to happen…
As she froze, rigid, his open mouth latched to her throat, greedy, wet…disgusting.
She gasped, raised the teapot and upended it over his head. At the same time, she stepped smartly back out of his suddenly loosened arms. The lid had dropped first, bouncing off his head onto the Turkish carpet and releasing a deluge of cold tea behind it.
He grunted with the shock, and stood still, shoulders hunched, staring at her open-mouthed as tea dripped down his hair and neck and coat. A scattering of dark leaves had spattered over his shirt.
Calmly, Azalea lowered the pot, although she kept hold of it for fury quickly replaced his astonishment and the set of his mouth turned ugly.
He took a pace toward her. “Why you little…”
“Dear me,” observed another, very different voice.
Azalea’s gaze flew to the doorway.
Eric Danvers, Viscount Trench, strolled into the room, filling it with his presence. He had always been a handsome man, tall and fair, with deep set blue eyes and a well-defined mouth inclined to smile.
At the sight of her husband, the last of her panic fell away, drowned in a sea of very different emotion. She didn’t know if it was fear or gratitude or simple annoyance, but it was threatening to erupt as laughter.
Gunning whipped around to face the man he had, presumably, been hoping to cuckold.
Eric glanced from him to his wife. “Has there been an accident, my love?”
“Why, yes,” Azalea managed. “Mr. Gunning has become covered in tea.”
Behind the vague concern, her husband’s hooded, sleepy eyes betrayed the kind of conspiratorial laughter she had always found irresistible. She looked hastily away.
“What appalling luck,” he said mildly.
Her breath caught. “Indeed.”
“Allow me to ring for the footman to – er – dry you off,” Trench offered, reaching for the bell pull.
“There is no need,” Gunning said shortly. “Forgive my hasty departure. My lady, your servant.” He bowed jerkily. “My lord.”
“You are very damp,” Trench observed as Gunning strode past him to the door. “Be careful you don’t catch a chill.”
Azalea shivered, for a distinct threat lurked in the amiable words. She hoped Gunning heard it, too. As his footsteps retreated to the staircase, Eric walked away from her. For a moment, Azalea thought with considerable pique that he was simply going to leave the room, Until he closed the double doors.
Her heart gave a funny little twist.
Eric turned to face her. “You do enjoy flirting with disaster, do you not, Azalea?”
She tilted her chin as he walked deliberately back toward her. “It certainly seems to stalk me.” God help her, she had almost forgotten the butterflies, the pleasurable little jumps of the heart caused by his increasingly rare presence.
He came to halt on the carpet, right beside the tea stain, and stood gazing down at her. His heavy-lidded eyes, which could seem either sleepy or hawkish, gazed down at her.
“Tell me,” he murmured, “how did Gunning become—er… covered in tea?”
“I poured it over him,” she replied candidly.
“No, though I did quite enjoy it.” She held his gaze. “I misjudged him and my ability to deal with his advances. He is a vulgar fool and I am ashamed not to have seen it.” Catching a certain flash in his eyes, hope sprang up once more. “Are you angry?”
“No,” he replied. “Merely surprised you did not actually hit him with the teapot.”
“I thought about it,” she confessed. “But it’s my favorite teapot. And truly he is not worth that. Although,” she added in the interests of honesty, “I am glad you arrived when you did or I might have been obliged to break it over his head.”
“That would have been a pity.” Eric bent and picked up the lid. As he took the pot from her, their fingers brushed. He laid both parts on the tray. “You need not worry about him any more.”
She curled her lip. “I don’t worry about him now.”
He continued to regard her, his expression impassive although she didn’t think he was. “How was it, do you think, that he came to believe his advances might he acceptable to you?”
“Because he’s a coxcomb who thinks he’s irresistible? How should I know?”
“You are not a fool, Azalea,” he said dryly. “I imagine you might have an inkling.”
“He seems to think I encouraged him,” she blurted. “But I assure you, I did not. To be frank, I barely noticed the man.” Hidden in her skirts, she crossed her fingers.
An instant longer, he searched her eyes, his own unreadable. Then he walked away to the cabinet and poured two glasses of brandy, one of which he presented to her. She took it in some surprise and sat on the sofa.
To her secret delight, he chose to sit beside her, his arm resting along the sofa back. He sipped his brandy thoughtfully. “Perhaps you and I are giving the wrong impression. We are so much apart that a certain type of man might imagine you are fair game.”
She stared at him. “What am I? A pheasant?”
“A wife involved in an admiring social whirl that is mostly separate from her husband’s. If you do not hate the idea, perhaps we should show both— er…whirls a more united appearance.”
She regarded him cautiously over the rim of her glass. “You mean…spend more time together?”
“We are married. The idea should not be too shocking.”
“Why should you imagine I am shocked?” In fact, she was delighted, but they had been here before. “If you have no better plans, we could cancel our engagements and dine together tonight. To counter any talk about us, of course.”
His lips twitched. “Of course. But I believe I don’t need a reason to dine alone with my wife.”
“Of course not,” she managed. There was a glow in his eyes that suddenly made her as nervous as a bride.
His hand covered hers in her lap, his fingers clasped and held. Her heart thudded, for she had missed his touch, his attention… that particular spark in his deceptively sleepy eyes. His thumb caressed her wrist.
“We could do better together, Zalea,” he said softly.
She clung to his hand. “I would like to.”
His head dipped, almost as if he would kiss her and those butterflies in her stomach took flight in anticipation. How long since he had kissed her? Really kissed her? Too long…
But he paused, the faintest smile flickering on his lips. He raised her hand and kissed her fingers instead. “Then I look forward to dinner.” He clinked the bottom of his glass off hers, drained it and stood.
Disappointed though she was, she watched his graceful stroll from the room with the kind of hope that had eluded her for months, even years. Had Gunning done her a favor after all? Induced her husband to look at her again as a desirable woman? As the wife he had once loved so passionately?
Perhaps he still does love me. Perhaps.
Lady Azalea Niven, eldest daughter of the Duke of Kelburn, had never wanted for suitors. Added to the advantages of her birth and wealth and the considerable political influence of her father, she had been endowed with great beauty and personal charm. Or so everyone told her.
Certainly, Azalea had taken to Society like a duck to water. She had laughed and chatted, danced and flirted her way through her first two London Seasons with thorough enjoyment. Lauded by all, she knew that she was London’s darling. Sometimes she felt a fraud. Sometimes she was sure the adulation was faked. Either way, she enjoyed the game, a bright, enchanting fairytale that ended, as it was supposed to, with marriage to the handsome prince.
Of course, her prince was actually a viscount, and she met him just as the fawning of other suitors was beginning to pall. But after the first evening she had encountered the teasing, mercurial Lord Trench, the rest of the world had paled into nothing. He had courted and won her with a great deal of fun and no resistance.
They had married and travelled across Europe in a haze of love and lovemaking. For Azalea, young and innocent, had never dreamed of the physical joys of married life until Eric had taught her, with patient tenderness and clear delight. Azalea had adored his passion from the beginning, and indulged him so often that it was not surprising she was already expecting their first child when they came home to Trenchard, his country estate.
It had given them little time for adjustment, but Eric had proved a considerate husband and a loving father to their first born son, Michael. Their life had been perfect.
So where had their idyll gone wrong?
Azalea pondered the mystery yet again as Morris, her maid, helped her dress for dinner. Things had never been the same, she acknowledged, after little Lizzie’s birth. She loved both her children and her husband, and yet some blackness had seemed to fall over her, making her lethargic and snappish, so unlike herself that it frightened her.
Eventually, in desperation, she had begged Eric to take her to London again for the Season, and there, she had forced herself to laugh and play her old part until, gradually, it became real again. She was Azalea once more, adored and just a little fast. Eric had been wonderful then, too, giving her all the space and freedoms of a married lady, and never criticizing. And yet…and yet they had grown apart.
She had only realized it one day when she had arrived late to a ball she hadn’t even known he was attending, and found him waltzing with the beautiful Mrs. Mayfield. There had been no real reason for Azalea’s jealousy – why go to a ball and not dance? But the green-eyed monster had forced her into her own flirtation. She had left early for another party, escorted by a man she could no longer remember.
And when she and Eric had met again, he did not even seem to have noticed.
Silly, foolish incidents, minor in themselves. But amounting to something close to estrangement. And pain. And, on Azalea’s part, a determination to win back her husband.
At last, they had an evening alone together. And now, perhaps, they would talk again, as they had used to.
So it was with rising excitement that she watched Morris dress her hair. She chose her jewels with as much care as if she were going to the largest ball of the year. She knew by Morris’s smile that she looked well and so she smiled back, and rustled off to say good night to the children.
Morris would probably have been aghast at the risk to her artistry as two ebullient children hurled themselves at her from across the room. Elsie the nursery maid merely smiled.
Laughing, Azalea knelt to receive her offspring. Michael landed like a cannon ball against her while Lizzie flew into her lap and climbed. Azalea forgot her determination to look her best and simply hugged them, asking and answering a babble of questions all at once.
Only after several moments did another movement in the room catch her eye, a very un-Elsie movement. A man was rising from a large heap of toy building bricks like a monster from the deep, while the disturbed bricks spilled around him.
The children howled with delight at the sight of this monster in elegant evening dress, who complained, “You forgot about me.”
“Only for a moment,” Michael assured him, grinning. “I knew you were in there.”
“You did not,” Lizzie argued.
It was not the first time Azalea had unexpectedly come across her husband in the nursery but it was a rare enough occurrence to throw her off balance. Of course, she knew he saw his children frequently, but the times of their visits and outings had not often coincided.
“Let your mother stand up,” Eric suggested and at once the children dropped off her. Eric was there to help her rise. “How fortunate Elsie cleaned them up before you arrived. Jammy fingers would have done little for that ravishing gown.”
“I cleaned my own jammy fingers,” Michael said with dignity, which at least enabled Azalea to hide her unexpected blush.
For once, both parents were there to read bedtime stories and tuck them in, which may have made Elsie’s job of settling them to sleep slightly harder, but Azalea knew they were happy as she and Eric pretended to creep from the room.
It was interesting to watch him change from clowning father to elegant gentleman. He did nothing so obvious as adjusting his coat or smoothing his hair, but his posture altered, his shoulders straightened and his expression lost the boyish playfulness that had been such a revelation when Michael was tiny.
There were many facets to her husband and she loved them all. The surge of emotion brought a lump to her throat.
“Dinner is ready to be served, my lady,” Given, the butler, informed her with a bow as they reached the landing. “Shall I have it sent up immediately?”
“Are you ready to dine, my lord?” she asked her husband.
“Famished,” he replied promptly, offering her his arm.