Two Years Later
Deborah sat up in bed. What had woken her? A dream? She couldn’t remember. There were no sounds from the household below, or from her infant daughter in the nursery next door.
Beside her, Leonard was asleep on his side, his breathing deep and rhythmic, his long fingers splayed out across the pillow.
Deborah felt wide-awake and oddly unsettled. She slipped from the bed and pulled a robe around her. Crept out of the bedroom on bare, soundless feet.
Waiting until she was out of her bedroom to light her candle, she made her way downstairs, the tiny flame bouncing off the walls and making shadows dance.
Where am I going?
The movement felt instinctive, as though her feet had a mind of their own. She reached the entrance hall of the manor. The space was dark and silent, the flagstones cold beneath her feet. Perhaps this was all just a remnant of a dream.
But as she was about to turn back upstairs, she heard it. The crunch of footsteps down the front path.
She opened the door a crack and peeked out into the dark garden. A blast of cold winter air tunneled into the house. She held up the dancing candle. It did little to penetrate the darkness. The faint light cast shadows over the front steps of the manor. Sparse patches of snow glittered in the moonlight.
And she saw the dark shape of a figure standing at the end of the path. She could not see his face. But Deborah knew at once that this figure was her father.
Her heart began to thunder.
Is this fear?
No, she realized. She was not afraid of the Viscount. Not anymore. He had done all the harm to her family he was ever going to do.
This wasn’t fear. Just curiosity.
Why has he dared come back?
At the sight of her, he began to move slowly toward the door.
Deborah didn’t speak. Finally, he stood in front of her on the doorstep. She held up the candle, letting the flame light the contours of his face.
He didn’t look the way she remembered. His once neat gray hair was now overgrown and thin, his eyes underlined with dark shadows. His shoulders were hunched and he seemed far smaller. His chin was sprinkled with ragged stubble.
“What do you want?” she asked, finding her voice.
He didn’t speak at once. Just stood staring, his lips parted. Deborah could feel him taking her in, watching, analyzing. She lifted her chin.
Can he tell I am not afraid?
“I just wished to see you,” he said after a long moment.
Deborah’s grip tightened on the candleholder. “I ought to call for the footmen,” she said brusquely. “Have them haul you out of this place and turn you in for murder.”
“You would turn in your own father?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“You know I will hang for it. Is that what you want?” The question was not a rhetorical one. His eyes met hers pleadingly.
Deborah swallowed heavily.
Is that what I want?
She wanted justice for Lord Averton. Wanted justice for Edith. How was it fair that her father got to live when they did not?
But, whatever else he had done, this was her father.
Deborah knew she did not want him in her life. Did not want him anywhere near her, or her mother. Most of all, she did not want him near her daughter. But nor did she want his death on her conscience. Justice or not, she knew she would come to regret it if her actions sent her own father to the scaffold.
“No,” she said finally. “That’s not what I want.” Seeing her father hang would bring her nothing but guilt. Perhaps a part of her recognized that the Viscount of Chilson was not worth guilt.
It had been almost five years since Edith’s death. Two years since Deborah had learned the truth of the things her father had done. Two years filled with love, with passion, with breathtaking happiness at the arrival of her and Leonard’s daughter.
Time had begun to push away the bad memories. When Deborah thought of Edith now, it was of the two of them tearing through the garden as children, the two of them hiding under the bedclothes and whispering ghost stories. The horror of her sister’s death had begun to fade away.
A year and a half ago, Lord Averton’s manor had burned to the ground. Alerted to the fire by the column of smoke billowing from the trees, Leonard and Deborah had made their way toward it and watched from a distance as the flames swallowed the shell of the house.
The talk was that the fire had been deliberately lit.
Stevens, perhaps? Or one of my father’s other footmen haunted by the things he did that night?
She had stood with Leonard’s arms folded around her, staring captivated at the fire. How glad she was to see the place go. Let it vanish. Let its site be overgrown with trees and scrub and wildflowers.
Let the past be forgotten.
But now, with her father on her doorstep, the past felt as vivid as ever.
She put a hand across the door, in a gesture to show the Viscount he was never to set foot inside the Tarsington manor. She did not want to turn him in, did not want to see him hanged. But nor did she want him invading the happy life she and Leonard had built.
“May we speak?” he asked finally.
Her father lowered his eyes for a moment. He looked old, frail. Where was the strong, imposing gentleman Deborah had revered, looked up to, feared, for so much of her life?
“I know nothing I say will make up for the things I’ve done,” he began huskily. “And I know better than to try.”
Deborah nodded again, glad he was aware of such a thing. She could hear the ache in his voice.
“But I want you to know,” he said, pausing to clear his throat, “that not a day passes when I don’t regret the things I did. When I look back on my life, I am anything but proud. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had sought to turn me in.”
Deborah let out her breath. She shivered as a cold wind whipped up, making the candle flame bend wildly. “Where have you been?” she asked finally. “Where did you escape to?”
“I’ve kept on the move,” her father told her. “In the north, mostly. Anywhere I will not be found.”
“I see.” Deborah shivered. “And where will you go?”
“I don’t know.” He met her eyes. “But rest assured I will be far from here. I know I have no place in your life.”
“That’s right,” she said. “You don’t.”
Her father put a hand out suddenly, gripping her elbow. “Deborah. Please. I—” He let his hand fall hurriedly. He swallowed hard. “You’re well? Happy?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am very happy. I have a husband who loves me very much. A family who loves me very much.”
“I’m very glad of it.” The Viscount’s eyes were large and mournful. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “That’s all. I just wanted you to know that. I’m so dreadfully sorry.”
What am I to do with this meagre attempt at an apology?
“Thank you,” she said shortly. What else was there to say? Her father was right—nothing he said would make up for the things he had done. She took a step back, signaling to her father that the conversation was over. Signaling that his chance to be a part of her life was gone. She felt certain in herself. Knew she had done the right thing.
She closed the front door, not speaking again. Stood for a moment with her back pressed against it.
She was glad, she realized, that he had shown himself tonight. In spite of herself, there had been a lingering fear inside her at not knowing his whereabouts. Not knowing whether he had fallen into the hands of the authorities. Not knowing if he was walking the scaffold to his death.
Such a thing would be a fitting punishment, she knew, but she had dreaded it nonetheless.
Upstairs in their bedchamber, Leonard peered out the window, watching the dark figure move across the snow-flecked grounds. He had woken to find Deborah gone from his side. Had caught sight of the figure as he’d made his way toward the door.
He found her downstairs with a candle in her hand, standing in a daze with her back to the front door.
He hurried toward her. “What’s happened, my love? Who was that?”
She didn’t answer at once, just stood there in silence, the candle wavering in her fist.
Leonard took it gently and sat it on the side table. He ran his fingers along her cheek and tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “Tell me what’s happened.”
She didn’t speak at once. “My father,” she said finally.
“What? Did he hurt you? Why was he here?” Leonard felt his shoulders stiffen. Felt a sudden rage begin to burn inside him.
I ought to have the footmen go after him. He cannot be here—
Deborah put a hand to her husband’s arm, calming him. “It’s all right,” she said softly. “He’s gone. I’m sure of it.” She drew in a long breath. “He just wanted to see me.” She smiled wryly. “He made an attempt to apologize.”
Leonard didn’t speak at once.
Does the Viscount truly imagine that an apology can fix the things he has done?
He met his wife’s eyes with concern. Her father had put her through so much pain, so much fear. What effect would this visit have on her?
But there was a look of calm on Deborah’s face. A look that told him she was far too strong and self-assured now to let her father rattle her.
“What did you say to him?” he asked gently, sliding his arms around her and pulling her close.
“I thanked him for his apology,” she said. “And then made it clear he was not welcome here. Made it clear he had no place in our life.”
Leonard held his lips against her forehead, feeling a sudden swell of love. How was it possible that such a wonderful lady could have such an immoral father?
Deborah glanced up at the grandfather clock thudding steadily in the corner. “It’s past midnight,” she said with a smile. “It’s our daughter’s birthday.”
Leonard slid his hand through hers as they made their way back upstairs. A loud screech erupted from the nursery. He chuckled. “It’s almost as though she knows.”
Deborah opened her eyes to a bright spear of morning sunlight. She reached a hand across the mattress to feel for Leonard, but the bed was empty. She sat up.
How long have I slept?
The door clicked open and Leonard appeared with their daughter, Edith, in his arms. He sat on the edge of the bed. He pressed his lips against hers and held them there for a moment.
“I thought I ought to let you sleep,” he said gently. “After last night.”
Deborah took their daughter from his arms, showering her with kisses until she began to giggle wildly. “Happy birthday, my darling.”
Like her namesake, Edith had a head full of thick blonde hair, along with her father’s dark eyes. Now a year old, she was shrieking with laughter, the sound going a long way toward helping Deborah forget all that had happened the previous night.
“Have I missed breakfast?” she asked.
Leonard scooped Edith from the bed and swung her high above his head. “No,” he told Deborah with a kiss. “Mrs. Barton is just laying the table.”
With the help of her lady’s maid, Deborah dressed, then made her way down to the dining room, Edith clamped to her hip.
The rest of her family were already seated at the table and broke into noisy chatter at the sight of the child.
Deborah had said nothing of her daughter’s birthday—such occasions had never been celebrated among her family—but Edith’s aunt and grandmothers were already gushing with well-wishes.
The Dowager Duchess bounced out of her chair and plucked Edith from Deborah’s arms.
Deborah sat beside her mother and pulled her chair close.
Ought I tell her about Father’s visit?
In the two years since their ordeal, the Viscountess had been happier and more settled than she had been in years. The arrival of her granddaughter had gone a long way toward helping her recover. And uncovering the truth—however brutal—had helped her come to terms with her daughter’s death.
It has helped all of us come to terms with it.
The Viscountess had become a doting grandmother to Edith, and had developed a great affection for both Leonard and Florentina. Slowly but surely, she had begun to walk again with her head held high. The sparkle in her eyes Deborah remembered from childhood had finally begun to return.
She does not need to know about Father’s visit. Such a thing will only upset her.
They had all done their best to push the Viscount from their minds. Push him from their lives. Her mother, Deborah knew, had no desire to ever look back.
Instead, she took the Viscountess’s hand in her own and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Are you well, Mother?”
The Viscountess smiled. “I’m well, my dear. Just waiting for my chance to pry my granddaughter out of Lydia’s arms.”
Deborah laughed. She pulled her hand away from her mother’s and brought her tea cup to her lips. She peered out the window to the front path she had watched her father disappear down.
Yes. The right decision.
“The groom told me he thinks it’s going to snow again today,” Florentina announced, holding her cup out to the butler to be filled with tea. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It will feel just like Christmas already! Although I don’t think I will be able to go out riding. What do you think, Mama? Can I go riding in the snow? Arrow might like it. Or maybe it will be too cold for him. What do you think?”
Deborah laughed to herself. In the two years she had been at the Tarsington manor, Florentina had stopped talking for a total of five minutes.
“Perhaps a walk in the snow instead?” she offered. “It will be far safer than riding. And quite magical, too. Especially down by the river.”
Florentina grinned. “A walk in the snow, yes!” She looked out the window and sighed. “Oh, I do hope the groom was right. The sky looks far too blue for it to be snowing!”
Leonard grabbed Deborah’s hand and gave her fingers a quick, surreptitious kiss. Heat flooded her. Two years together and her body still ached for him, her heart still quickened at his touch. She knew such a thing would never change.
“You’re right,” he said, his voice low. “A walk by the river does sound quite magical.” He smiled, making her chest warm and swell with love. “I can hardly wait.”
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