The Games Lovers Play
An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Available in print, ebook and audio formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-46-0
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-45-3
Release Date: March 18, 2021
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns to the Cynsters’ next generation with an evocative tale of two people striving to overcome unusual hurdles in order to claim true love.
A nobleman wedded to the lady he loves strives to overwrite five years of masterful pretence and open his wife’s eyes to the fact that he loves her as much as she loves him.
Lord Devlin Cader, Earl of Alverton, married Therese Cynster five years ago. What he didn’t tell her then and has assiduously hidden ever since—for what seemed excellent reasons at the time—is that he loves her every bit as much as she loves him.
For her own misguided reasons, Therese had decided that the adage that Cynsters always marry for love did not necessarily mean said Cynsters were loved in return. She accepted that was usually so, but being universally viewed by gentlemen as too managing, bossy, and opinionated, she believed she would never be loved for herself. Consequently, after falling irrevocably in love with Devlin, when he made it plain he didn’t love her yet wanted her to wife, she accepted the half love-match he offered, and once they were wed, set about organizing to make their marriage the very best it could be.
Now, five years later, they are an established couple within the haut ton, have three young children, and Devlin is making a name for himself in business and political circles. There’s only one problem. Having attended numerous Cynster weddings and family gatherings and spent time with Therese’s increasingly married cousins, who with their spouses all embrace the Cynster ideal of marriage based on mutually acknowledged love, Devlin is no longer content with the half love-match he himself engineered. No fool, he sees and comprehends what the craven act of denying his love is costing both him and Therese and feels compelled to rectify his fault. He wants for them what all Therese’s married cousins enjoy—the rich and myriad benefits of marriages based on acknowledged mutual love.
Love, he’s discovered, is too powerful a force to deny, leaving him wrestling with the conundrum of finding a way to convincingly reveal to Therese that he loves her without wrecking everything—especially the mutual trust—they’ve built over the past five years.
“A high-society Regency-era couple explores the genuine affection they share for one another against a sophisticated vintage backdrop. Unwaveringly eloquent, Games Lovers Play is as much a snapshot of a maturing marriage as it is an impassioned, provocative romance.” Libybet R. G., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
“It isn't fashionable for members of high society in mid-nineteenth-century London to be in love with their spouses, but Lord Devlin Cader, seventh Earl of Alverton, is. After several years of marriage, has he waited so long that she won't accept a declaration even if he makes it?” Kim H., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing
“In the power couple of Devlin and Therese, Laurens has conjured a love story that is every bit as enthralling as those of her unmarried lords and ladies.” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing
October 5, 1851
Alverton House, Mayfair
I have to leave. Lord Devlin Cader, seventh Earl of Alverton, lay slumped in his wife’s bed, with satiation a warm blanket, one imbued with the aftermath of sensual pleasure, lying heavy over his limbs.
He did not want to move—not now, not ever. But…
On a primal level, he was reassured by the warmth of his wife’s body, stretched alongside his, and his reckless inner self insisted that there was no good reason he couldn’t remain where he was and let the cards fall as they may.
Yet while his muscles lay lax and unmoving, his mind had come alive, driven by the knowledge that, courtesy of his unwise and impulsive words of yesterday, there was a degree of urgency in deciding what came next, and thinking rationally while lying beside Therese, with the perfume that rose from her hair and warm skin wreathing his senses, was next to impossible.
Aside from all else, if she woke and, with dawn approaching, found him still there, she would be surprised and would question him, and he had no idea what to say.
No idea what it would be safe to say or how to explain that, for the past five years, he’d practiced on her and everyone else what some might call the ultimate deception—not that he’d pretended to love her when he hadn’t, but that he’d allowed everyone including her to believe that he didn’t love her when he did.
That challenge and the stark realization that he had no idea how to respond to it had him easing away from her. Luckily for him, she was deeply asleep.
He turned onto his back and stared upward, unseeing, at the darkened canopy of the four-poster bed. The words she and he had exchanged yesterday afternoon, at her oldest brother’s wedding breakfast, rang clearly in his head.
“I am so utterly in charity with dear Christopher. I’d virtually given up all hope that he would ever be sensible enough to choose a lady like Ellen as his bride—that he would recognize the possibilities, the prospects, even were she to appear before him, pressed upon his notice as, indeed, I gather occurred.”
It hadn’t been the words so much as her smugly proud tone and the depth of satisfaction in her consequent sigh that had unexpectedly pricked him on the raw and resulted in his unwise riposte: “Perhaps your dear Christopher finally opened his eyes and took his cue from me.”
He’d immediately bitten his unruly tongue, but of course, that had been too late.
She’d taken umbrage and sought to set him right, reminding him that, as all the ton knew, she’d had to badger and hound him to the altar—or so she still believed.
He could have smoothed things over by smilingly agreeing and ascribing his gaffe to a faulty memory; she’d been expecting that and would have accepted such a retreat with nothing more than a haughty sniff. Except he’d glimpsed a species of hurt swimming behind the nearly reflective silver blue of her remarkable eyes…and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from responding.
Such a small, inconsequential, even nonsensical word, yet given the context, his faintly taunting delivery, and her character, it had been tantamount to a red-rag invitation to pursue—to doggedly investigate his meaning until she’d uncovered all and had satisfied herself that she truly understood him. Him and their marriage.
He was confident that lure would fix her interest unswervingly on him and allow him to lead her step by carefully judged step forward until she uncovered all he’d kept hidden.
She would believe it more readily if she discovered it for herself rather than through him trying to convince her of it.
Such was his reasoning, albeit assembled after the fact.
Reviewing the events of yesterday, he realized her comment regarding Christopher having had the sense and the courage to seize love when he’d found it had been merely the last straw that had tipped Devlin over the edge of the precipice on which he’d already been teetering. Therese had been the first of her generation of Cynsters to marry, and consequently, over the past four years, he and she had attended a string of Cynster weddings up and down the country. He and she were now one of a group of couples who regularly met at family events such as Christopher and Ellen’s wedding. When he’d embarked on his deception, he hadn’t anticipated the impact that being surrounded by couples united in marriages based on openly acknowledged love would have on him, much less that it would rescript his view of what he wanted from his and Therese’s marriage.
More than anything else, viewing the contemporary Cynster marriages against the backdrop of those of the older Cynster generation had brought home to him that, as he and Therese would inevitably grow old, he wanted to grow old like that—in an openly loving relationship.
In a marriage acknowledged as being based on reciprocated love.
Although his change of heart and mind had happened prior to yesterday, he hadn’t made any definite decision about how to correct Therese’s belief. He’d been vacillating for months, and yesterday afternoon, his reckless inner self, having grown increasingly impatient to the point of revolt, had seized the opportunity and taken over his tongue, resulting in his uncharacteristically impulsive pseudo revelation.
Deep inside, he’d known he’d been dragging his heels for no valid reason, and his reckless self had resolved to act for his own good. Over the years, that had happened twice in business dealings, and in both instances, his inner self had been correct; his reticence over acting was a weakness of sorts—when he knew he should do something, but kept putting it off.
He turned his head on the pillow and looked at Therese, letting his gaze linger on her features, currently relaxed in sleep.
He’d said enough to engage her legendary inquisitiveness, then aided by circumstance, had frustrated her every attempt to learn more immediately; because they’d had their children with them, she’d declared that they wouldn’t stay, even overnight, at her childhood home, Walkhurst Manor in Kent, given that the bridal couple had intended to retreat there and the manor wasn’t that large. Along with most of the Cynster couples attending, he, she, and the children had driven back to town, and because of the children, they’d been among the first to leave. They’d broken their journey to dine at Sevenoaks, then continued to London, arriving at Alverton House just before midnight.
Courtesy of the children and the ever-present staff, Therese hadn’t been able to question him regarding what she no doubt considered his inexplicable comments, and after settling the children, she and he had retired to their respective rooms, then later, as he usually did, he’d joined her there, in her bed. In doing so, he’d made very sure that from the moment he’d walked through the door, she’d been sufficiently distracted to be unable to form coherent questions and, later, that she’d been drained of all energy and inclination to do so.
He could hear the soft sough of her breathing, quiet and steady, much as she was. Capable, reliable, steadfast, loyal; she was that and so much more.
From the instant he’d first set eyes on her—across Lady Hendricks’s ballroom—he’d recognized that she had epitomized everything he wanted and needed in a wife, and so it had proved. When he’d first looked into her silver-blue eyes, he’d known beyond question that his life had, in that moment, irrevocably and inescapably changed. He’d loved her—had fallen in love with her—completely and utterly, just as, thank all the saints, she had fallen in love with him.
He blinked into the darkness. Arrogant of him, wasn’t it, to be so certain of that? He’d never encouraged her to say the words, given he’d been so set on not admitting to the same sentiment in return, yet…
While he couldn’t know with absolute certainty what she currently felt for him, his knowledge of the female of the species assured him that the glory they habitually shared in that very bed—an outcome that, despite his extensive prior experience, he’d only ever attained with her—was a manifestation of the emotion that, regardless of his deception and her obliviousness of his truth, lived inside them both.
Now that he’d cracked open the door on his most deeply held secret and invited her to explore, in the same way that he’d initially plotted to keep her—his otherwise highly observant wife—from perceiving his true state, he was going to have to tread warily in crafting their way forward.
The first step in any such plan was, unquestionably, to get up and leave her bed. Now, before she awoke and found him still there. As part of his pretense that, on his part, their marriage was entirely conventional rather than a love-match, he’d never been there, beside her, when she woke. He always left her sleeping, and as far as she knew, he spent the better part of every night in his own bed. As she slept soundly and he always made sure she was boneless and pleasurably enervated prior to her slipping into slumber, she had no idea that he rarely left her side until dawn drew near.
While the sun had yet to rise, dawn wasn’t that far off. He forced himself to adhere to the script he’d written and ease from the bed. Immediately, he regretted the loss of her warmth. Lips setting, he shrugged on his robe and belted it, then quietly left via the connecting door that led to his apartments.
Once in his bedroom, rather than crawl between his cold sheets, he walked to the window, drew back the heavy curtains, and looked across Park Lane to the trees in the park beyond. Leaves still clung to the branches of the old oaks, and a fine mist was slowly thickening, draping the nearly skeletal canopies with insubstantial wisps.
He stared out at the chilly sight while the reasons that had driven him to conceal his love scrolled through his mind. His parents and their marriage. And more recently, that of his best friend. At the time of his and Therese’s wedding, his reasons had seemed sound, undeniable, and self-evident, and the decision he’d made incontrovertibly correct.
As a young boy, he believed he’d seen first-hand the injuries that could be inflicted on a man, even one of strong character, who, having fallen in love with a lady of resolutely determined personality, made the mistake of acknowledging that love to its object. To his younger self, his parents’ marriage had served as a stark lesson in what could happen to a gentleman unwise enough to admit that he loved a strong-willed wife of managing disposition. In his eyes, his mother had lorded it over his father, taking his love, regard, and support for granted and frequently riding roughshod over his pride and his standing, belittling and diminishing him before their staff and their children. His father had never protested or reined his mother in, and times without number, Devlin had seen him swallow his pride and accede to her dictates. Devlin had been forced to stand and watch, impotent to do anything to lessen the impact as, in his eyes, his mother’s undermining had only grown worse and more hurtful with the years, albeit only in private. To the world, the previous Earl and Countess of Alverton had been a devoted couple.
Then Devlin’s close friend James, Viscount Hemmings, had married a virago, purely and openly for love. Despite the fact that everyone agreed James and Veronica were madly in love, they never ceased sniping at each other. If Devlin had needed a further lesson in the dangers inherent in a marriage between a gentleman of his ilk and a strong-willed lady being openly anchored in love, the Hemmingses had provided it.
His experience of his parents’ marriage and his observation of the Hemmingses’ union would have made him eschew the institution of marriage altogether, except that then, he’d succeeded to the earldom, and all the ton had expected him to marry and secure the succession. Admittedly, if he’d remained a bachelor until he died, his younger brother, Melrose, seven years his junior, would have stepped into the earl’s shoes, but neither Devlin nor Melrose nor, indeed, anyone else had deemed that a wise course to follow; currently twenty-nine years old, Melrose had shown no sign of settling down or becoming serious about anything at all.
Consequently, when Devlin had first locked eyes with Therese and recognized that she held out the promise of all he would ever want and need in a wife, he’d seized her. Despite her already well-established reputation of being strong-willed to the point of ruthlessness, despite her being in every possible way the epitome of the sort of lady he’d been determined above all others to avoid. Despite her being the very last lady he should have considered offering for, with one look—one fateful look—she’d changed his mind.
But she hadn’t changed his mind about allowing her to know that he loved her.
Prior to yesterday, he’d never let her glimpse even the slightest hint of his true regard.
Staring at the mist now blanketing the park, he grimaced. He’d thought himself so very clever, and indeed, he had been. He’d used her own self-conviction to steer her beliefs, subtly guiding her interpretation of what she saw. She was so confident in her own abilities to observe, understand, and manage, it had never occurred to her that, in him, she’d met her master—or at least, someone equally adept and rather more duplicitous.
Now, he faced unpicking and reforging the web of beliefs he’d encouraged her to create, the framework of understanding on which their marriage was based. And he had to—absolutely had to—manage that task without destabilizing the edifice that now rested upon that foundation. He did not want to damage—not in any way—what they already had, both the ease of interaction that had evolved over the years and the calm, ordered, settled existence that he, she, their children, and their households enjoyed. He was well aware the latter owed much to Therese’s managing disposition; she was adept at organizing so that everyone and everything ran smoothly and efficiently, to the point that the tranquil atmosphere that prevailed within his households was the envy of many of his peers.
In moving forward, impulsively or otherwise, he didn’t want to risk harming the relationship they already had, yet if he’d learned anything from his years of successfully investing in new industries, it was that, sometimes, risks were well worth taking.
His exposure to the marriages of her cousins, his awareness of the benefits that flowed from the acknowledgment of mutual love—the joy, the unfettered happiness and unrestrained sharing, the closeness that was so much more evocative and enthralling—had tempted, then seduced, until he’d finally swallowed his pride, accepted his innermost truth, and admitted that if there was any chance of claiming that sort of marriage for himself and Therese, then he was willing to fight for it, willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal.
How much, if anything, he might have to sacrifice wasn’t at all clear, but with his unwise words of yesterday, he’d taken the first irretrievable step toward claiming the sort of marriage that, were it not for his reservations over admitting to love, might have been theirs for the past five years.
Eyes narrowing, he gazed out at the fog that now obscured the park. He hadn’t had to woo Therese; instead, he’d manipulated her into persuading him to the altar. It would be up to him to manage this transition as well, and as he wished to succeed in that delicate endeavor, he was going to need a plan—a carefully thought-out campaign to convince his wife of five years that he loved her as much as she loved him.
* * *
The morning was well advanced when Therese finally opened her eyes. She blinked, then turned onto her back, confirming that, as always, Devlin had left long ago; when she passed her palm over the sheet, it held no lingering warmth.
On a nevertheless sated sigh, with the memories of shared pleasures making her smile, she stretched her arms over her head, then snuggled them back beneath the covers. Staring up at the canopy of lilac silk, she reviewed the events of the previous day. Her smile widened as she remembered Christopher and Ellen’s transparent happiness; she’d been so delighted to see the pair so patently in love.
Then she recalled Devlin’s odd comments. Her smile faded as she re-examined them. She ended frowning.
On the journey back to London, she’d replayed those comments countless times and still had no clue what he’d meant.
She knew her husband; he wasn’t given to making abstruse comments. “So what the devil did he mean?”
In her mind, she recreated those moments when he and she had stood by the side of the Bigfield House ballroom. She’d been fondly observing Christopher and Ellen moving among the crowd. Devlin had been standing beside her—now she thought of it, he’d stuck by her side through most of the day—so he’d been there to hear her sigh happily and commend Christopher on his good sense in recognizing the possibilities for happiness that Ellen represented and acting and marrying her.
Looking back…it seemed that something about either her sigh or her comment had provoked Devlin into saying, “Perhaps your dear Christopher finally opened his eyes and took his cue from me.”
She frowned direfully at the lilac silk. “That still makes absolutely no sense.”
After examining the words yet again, along with his intonation and every other little clue she’d learned over the past five years that could help clarify her husband’s thinking, she still found herself utterly at sea.
“Nonsense.” She wrestled the covers more tightly about her and frowned even harder. Not only was she confused, she was confused over being confused; normally, she encountered no difficulty interpreting Devlin’s utterances.
Even more discombobulating had been his response when she’d challenged him to explain. Instead of laughingly admitting he’d forgotten that it had been she who had dragged him to the altar rather than the other way around, he’d met her gaze and, with an odd light in his greeny-hazel eyes, had smiled in a rather strange way and, quite deliberately, said, “Oops.”
Therese heard that single syllable resonate in her mind and narrowed her eyes to slits. Abruptly, she shook her head, thrust back the covers, and electing to consign her handsome husband’s almost certainly deliberately confusing utterances to the darkest recess of her mind, all but leapt from the bed.
The chill of the late-autumn morning struck through the fine silk of her nightgown, and she grabbed her robe from the chair on which it lay. Shrugging into the woolen robe, she hurried across the carpeted floor to the bellpull and tugged it, summoning Parker, her dresser, with her washing water.
Therese belted the robe and went to the window. Grasping the curtains in both hands, she drew them wide, revealing a view over the rose garden at the side of the house. It was foggy outside. She stared down at what was usually a calming sight and heard in her mind, once again, “Oops.”
Their children frequently used the word, as did Devlin when dealing with them. Invariably, he used it to denote a mistake, often a deliberate or cheeky one.
Therese folded her arms beneath her breasts. “So where in that short exchange did he make a mistake of that nature?”
In suggesting an equivalence between how their marriage and Christopher’s had come about?
Judging by the bare words, that seemed the obvious answer, but no matter how often she replayed the words as Devlin had said them, especially the way he’d said that oops with that certain light in his eyes, she couldn’t convince herself that was what he’d meant.
Every word that had fallen from his lips had been definite and deliberate, and he’d been watching her intently throughout. No, he’d meant something other than the obvious, and she was increasingly certain that his oops hadn’t been any indication that he was backing down or resiling from what he had said.
“Annoying man!” Especially as, the more she replayed that oops in her head, the more it sounded like a leading comment. A teasing lure, an invitation to play some game with him, but she had no idea what game that might be, and she wasn’t at all happy about that.
A tap fell on the door, and Parker came in, followed by the tweeny hefting a porcelain jug of hot water.
By the time Parker looked Therese’s way, she’d wiped the frown from her face. She nodded equably to the dresser. “I’ve an at-home this morning and two this afternoon. My rose-silk day gown might be best.”
Banishing her husband’s annoying oops from her mind, she focused on getting ready to face her day.
* * *
Therese walked into the breakfast parlor and wasn’t surprised to find it empty.
Portland, the butler, held her usual chair for her. As she sat, he murmured, “His lordship breakfasted earlier, ma’am, and has gone riding in the park.”
Having expected as much, she picked up her napkin and flicked it out. “Thank you, Portland.” She glanced at the well-stocked sideboard. “Just tea and toast, please.” She weakened and added, “And perhaps some of Cook’s strawberry jam.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
While Portland whisked away to fetch her tea, she found herself gazing at Devlin’s empty chair. She wished now that she’d held firm to her intention of the previous night and questioned him the instant he’d entered her room. Unfortunately, when that moment had come, it hadn’t seemed an appropriate one in which to commence a wifely interrogation. Aside from all else, she still found Devlin, nude, immensely distracting, so even if she’d managed to get a question out, she would likely not have remembered his answer.
Portland returned with the teapot, a rack of warm toast, a dish of creamy butter, and another holding rich strawberry jam. She smiled and thanked him, poured herself a cup of tea, then set about slathering a slice of toast with butter and jam.
Lifting the slice to her lips, she crunched, chewed, and staring unseeing across the table, reminded herself of the reality of her marriage.
Although from their first meeting she’d recognized that Devlin was attracted to her, she’d never deceived herself by imagining he loved her. Nor had she assumed that he would somehow, over time, come to love her; she’d viewed that as unlikely, and nothing over the past five years had changed her mind.
She’d approached finding a husband—the right husband for her—in her customary, organized, methodical fashion. She’d accepted that being a Cynster, it was possible, even likely, that she would be struck by what her brothers and male cousins labeled “the Cynster curse,” an apparently inescapable compulsion that ensured that every Cynster married for love. Consequently, from her first forays into society, she had evaluated every likely gentleman who crossed her path, expecting that, eventually, she would find the right man and fall in love.
While the Cynster curse was assumed to result in a mutual love-match, and she knew it most often had, as far as she could see, there was nothing in the words “a Cynster always marries for love” that stated that said love was guaranteed to be returned. She’d gone into her own search with an open mind, but by the time, at age twenty-one, she’d embarked on her third Season, she’d learned a great deal about herself and about how the gentlemen of the ton viewed her. She’d overheard enough comments, and over the years, those comments had only grown more definite and accepted; she was too prickly, too strong-willed, too much her own person, and most damaging of all, too managing. She’d been considered “too” in far too many ways to be viewed by tonnish gentlemen as a desirable parti; she’d never been destined to be a comfortable wife.
But then she’d met Devlin and had been smitten by a force so powerful that not for one minute had she doubted what it was. She’d fallen in love in a minute—in a blink, truth be told—and that had been that. And while she’d never fooled herself that he’d loved her—certainly not in the same compulsive, ungovernable way that she’d loved him—in every other respect, he’d been more than eligible, and from that first meeting, she’d set about convincing him that she was the perfect wife for him.
He’d required months of persuading, of her hunting and hounding him and, eventually, badgering him, but eventually, he’d agreed to wed her, and ever since, they had—as she’d predicted—rubbed along very well. He might not love her, but he was fond of her and invariably treated her with a gentle, sometimes faintly amused, but always steadfast affection that she found soothing and comforting. Over time, to her, he’d come to represent a safe harbor against all of life’s storms.
That was how their marriage had come about, so why had Devlin suggested that Christopher’s motivation in marrying Ellen had mirrored Devlin’s in marrying Therese?
She frowned and crunched the last of her toast. “That makes no sense.” She blinked. “Unless…”
Unless in comparing Christopher to himself, Devlin had been referring to some other attribute of marriage.
“Of course.” In her mind, Therese once again replayed the scene at the wedding breakfast, heard again Devlin’s words, and finally felt the irritation of not knowing what he’d meant dissipate. “That’s it!” Satisfied, she picked up her teacup, sat back, and sipped.
Devlin had been referring to the undeniable benefits of a ton marriage—having a hostess, someone to run his households, a mother for his children, and so on—all the reasons that had contributed to him marrying her. As a married gentleman who hadn’t been motivated by love, of course he’d focused on those other incentives.
With her gaze fixed on his empty chair across the table, she sipped again, then nodded sagely. “That explains his oops.” He hadn’t been referring to a mistake he’d made but the mistake she’d made in thinking his comment referred to love.
She ran his comments through her mind one last time, studying them through the prism of her new insight, and nodded decisively. “That fits.”
Feeling as if she’d finally fought free of a constricting web, she set down the teacup and turned her mind to her day.
In reviewing her schedule, she had to admit that in terms of the material and concomitant benefits of marriage, by any yardstick, as Devlin’s wife, she had no grounds for complaint—and he’d never suggested he was in any way dissatisfied, either. Overall, in all ways, her life was proceeding exactly as she’d fashioned it, with the reins firmly in her grasp.
Except, of course, for Devlin himself. Somehow, he always contrived to remain just beyond her managing reach. She knew it and knew he did, too. Sometimes, she surprised a look on his face that made her think he viewed her efforts to manage him—for of course, she still tried—with fond amusement, as if her seeking to direct him made him strangely content even while he thwarted every attempt except for those with which he agreed, to which he readily acquiesced.
She huffed and sat up. One thing she’d learned over the past five years was that her handsome husband was a law unto himself. She’d concluded that she simply didn’t understand him well enough to properly manage him, yet he always treated her, their children, the staff, and all their people well, and regarding his overall behavior, she had no wish to change anything.
She frowned and pushed back her chair. She just wished he hadn’t spoken so cryptically. She’d wasted a great deal of time and energy puzzling over a comment that, now she understood it, would normally have caused her not a moment of bother.
At least all that was behind her. As Portland drew back her chair, she rose, smiled her thanks, and headed for the morning room to deal with the first duties of her day.
* * *
As she often did, Therese joined the children in the nursery while they ate their luncheon. She didn’t manage it every day, but the children looked forward to her being there so they could share the excitements of their morning’s activities while, under Nanny Sprockett’s instruction, they attempted to feed themselves with something approaching acceptable table manners.
Balancing little Horatia—named for her great-grandmother and known as Horry by all—on her knee, Therese gently guided the eighteen-month-old poppet’s hand as she stubbornly fought to master a fork.
“My hoop went fastest!” Spencer, a robust four-year-old, declared, puffing out his chest.
Rupert, Spencer’s junior by a year, smiled at his brother and amiably added, “Mine was right behind.”
Therese smiled at her sons. Along with their nursemaids, the trio had returned from an outing in the park only minutes before, and their chubby cheeks were still rosy from the cold, and their hair was tousled and windswept. Both boys had inherited their father’s coloring—hazel eyes and dark-brown hair—while Therese had been informed by her mother and aunts that Horry was an exact copy of Therese at that age, with still-baby-fluffy golden-blond curls, porcelain cheeks, and large pale-blue eyes.
While encouraging the trio to eat, Therese listened to their prattle and endeavored to keep her attention fixed on them and not allow her mind to slide sideways and continue to poke and pick at her conclusions regarding Devlin’s irritating comment. It was driving her demented. She’d solved the puzzle, so why wouldn’t her mind simply let the exasperating incident go?
Suddenly, the boys looked across at the open door, and their faces lit with eagerness. Therese knew what caused that look; she turned her head and watched as Devlin, smiling at them all, strolled into the room.
It truly was unfair; even after five years of marriage, he still effortlessly compelled her awareness. Her gaze skated avidly over his face—the aristocratic planes and distractingly mobile lips—and down over his tall, lean frame, dwelling on the ineffable elegance of his coat, waistcoat, and trousers and drinking in the predatory grace that was an intrinsic part of him.
He crossed to where she, the children, and Nanny Sprockett sat about the low table. He directed a vague nod at the hovering nursemaids, then ruffled both boys’ hair before crouching beside them.
He grinned at Horry, who was bouncing up and down in Therese’s lap, chanting, “Da, da, da” and manically waving her chubby, sticky hands. Devlin reached out and, adroitly avoiding her grabby fingers, ran the back of one finger down his daughter’s soft cheek, setting the little girl gurgling with happiness, then he turned to his sons and asked what adventures they’d had that morning.
Therese seized the moment to encourage Horry to finish her chicken and chase down the last of her peas.
After listening to his sons’ report, Devlin glanced at Therese, then said to the boys, “Eat up now, because I’ve been sent to steal your mama away for her own luncheon, and you know she’ll be happier if you can show her clean plates before she leaves.”
Both boys shot Therese a grin and obligingly fell to, quickly polishing off their main courses before moving on to devour their puddings.
Therese concentrated on helping Horry spoon the gooey blancmange into her small mouth while wondering if Devlin’s words meant that he would be joining her for luncheon. She assumed so. He didn’t often eat luncheon at home but, apparently, intended to do so today.
She considered using the opportunity to confirm her conclusions regarding his exasperating comment and what had occasioned his oops, but perversely, given her continuing obsession with those comments, something in her shied from addressing his meaning directly with him—as if questioning him on that subject might make him think that she was wondering anew about the basis of their marriage. About whether that had changed.
But she knew it hadn’t, and she didn’t need to hear him say so.
Thrusting all such thoughts deep, she beamed at Horry, who was delighted to have uncovered the bottom of her pudding bowl and was hitting it enthusiastically with her spoon. Therese cooed and deftly removed the spoon and dropped it into the bowl, then she pressed a kiss to Horry’s curls and, catching the eye of one of the nursemaids, hefted Horry up and handed the little girl, now happily squealing, into the nursemaid’s care.
While chatting with his sons, Devlin had been watching Therese closely. He’d seen the shifting hues crossing the silvery blue of her eyes; like shadows passing over a reflective surface, they indicated that, despite her occupation, she was thinking of other things.
He hoped she was thinking of his comment of yesterday and, most especially, his oops.
Across their sons’ heads, he met her eyes and smiled, then he rose, patted heads all around, and offered her his hand.
She placed her fingers in his, and he reminded himself not to seize too firmly. He closed his hand and, in ordinary, gentlemanly fashion, drew her to her feet. Once upright, she retrieved her hand, and he was forced to release it. After shaking her skirts straight, she farewelled the boys, blew a kiss to Horry, then preceded him to the open door.
He followed her into the corridor, and they strolled side by side toward the main stairs. “Portland assured me that the soup would remain warm, but I gather he and the staff are waiting.”
“I hadn’t realized it was so late. I’d forgotten that, given the season, I’d moved the time for luncheon forward.”
He glanced at her and waited. When she gave no sign of seizing the moment to launch into an inquisition, he cast about for some innocuous topic. “What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
They reached the stairs and started down.
Head high, she replied, “This afternoon, I have two at-homes that I must show my face at, and after that, if the weather holds, I’ll probably spend a short time in the park.”
“And this evening?”
“Thankfully, the balls are tapering off, but Lady Walton is hosting a soirée that she’ll expect me to attend.”
He guessed, “She’s a friend of your mother’s?”
“More a close acquaintance. But Mama mentioned the soirée and, as she’s at Somersham, suggested I should go and wave the flag, as it were.”
“I see.” He recalled meeting Lord Walton at a railway investors’ meeting.
They reached the front hall, stepped off the stairs, and turned toward the family dining parlor—a far smaller, more intimate room than the house’s main dining room, which could easily seat fifty.
Devlin saw Therese to her chair at the nearer end of the six-person table, then moved to claim the carver at its head. As soon as he sat, Portland, who had been hovering, swooped in with the soup tureen.
When, assured that one serving would be sufficient for each of them, Portland departed to carry the tureen back to the kitchen, leaving them with only Dennis, the footman, as witness, Devlin glanced down the table and waited for Therese to marshal her thoughts and commence her interrogation. He was perfectly aware that, when it came to anything to do with him, her curiosity was unbounded.
She was silent for so long, he started to wonder if something else was wrong, but then she looked up and met his eyes. “I’ve been meaning to ask…”
At last! He widened his eyes in invitation.
“Whether you’ve concluded your business dealings with the firms at the exhibition.” She set down her soupspoon, laced her fingers, and looked at him inquiringly. “It’s supposed to end soon, isn’t it?”
He blinked, then acknowledged that the so-called Great Exhibition currently filling Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, presently sited within Hyde Park, was due to shut its doors in ten days’ time.
“I heard they intend to dismantle the palace and move it. Is that true?”
He nodded. “To Sydenham. Paxton designed the structure so it could easily be taken apart and reassembled.” And why was he discussing engineering with his wife, who ought to have been curious about something quite different?
Her expression in no way suggested she was overwhelmed by personal curiosity. “I daresay there’ll be a great deal of activity in the park over the following days.” She tipped her head as if considering the prospect, then looked up as Portland returned bearing a platter of sliced roast beef. “I must remember to mention the dismantling of the palace to Nanny. I’m sure the boys would like to see it.”
Portland smiled benevolently and offered Devlin the platter.
Devlin helped himself to the meat and to the vegetables Dennis duly offered. Then he followed Therese’s lead and addressed the food on his plate, but he was having trouble swallowing the notion that his avidly inquisitive wife was entirely uninterested in pursuing his deliberately provocative comments of the previous day.
While they ate, via a series of adroit questions, she steered the conversation down various avenues connected with the exhibition. He held up his end of the exchange, but as it went on, he felt increasingly off balance.
He hadn’t expected her to take this tack. He knew beyond question that she wouldn’t have forgotten what he’d said; he hadn’t imagined he might have to prompt her to address it.
The meal ended without him detecting the slightest sign that she was battling to suppress an urge to question him. She rose, and he joined her, and they strolled toward the front hall.
She smiled serenely as if she had not a care in the world. “I’d better head off on my afternoon calls.”
Devlin halted. Realizing he’d stopped, she halted and looked at him, her brows rising in transparently mild query.
He managed not to clench his jaw. “I realize that yesterday, at the wedding breakfast, I replied to a question of yours in a rather elliptical manner.”
Her chin rose a fraction; in the dimmer light of the corridor, he couldn’t read her eyes. “Ah—your oops?”
He nodded, and his uneasiness grew as a tight, rather sharp smile curved her lips.
“You thought I’d be bothered by it, enough to be insatiably curious?” She still sounded unperturbed, almost faintly amused.
He suddenly felt on uncertain ground and didn’t appreciate the sensation. After a moment, he admitted, “Curious, at least.”
Her expression dissolved into a more relaxed smile, one he wasn’t sure he believed. Reaching out, she patted his arm reassuringly. “I don’t need to wonder and speculate, especially not about our marriage.” She met his eyes, and hers held what appeared to be genuine assurance. “I know exactly what you meant.”
He eyed her with increasing trepidation. “You do?”
She nodded. “Clearly, you thought that in marrying Ellen, Christopher had been driven by the same reasons that motivated you to marry me, namely to secure the generally acknowledged benefits of the married state.” Her lashes veiled her eyes, and she arched her brows. “As we both know how our marriage came about, obviously, my subsequent questions—my assumption—was the oops, the mistake to which you referred. I’d misread what you were alluding to as the motivating force that drove Christopher to marriage.”
His mind racing, Devlin searched for some way of salvaging his first step.
Therese’s smile returned, and she leaned closer to confide, “Don’t worry. You didn’t flummox me—I worked it out.” She patted his arm again, then turned away. “And now I must be off, or I’ll be late to Lady Kettering’s at-home.”
In a state of utter disbelief, Devlin stood in the corridor and watched as, with a swish of her silk skirts, his exasperating wife swanned off.
* * *
Devlin stalked into his study and carefully shut the door. After a moment, he walked to the large leather chair behind the desk and dropped into it.
Faintly stunned, he reviewed what had just occurred. “Damn!” He was looking at the complete and utter failure of what he’d fondly imagined would be an easy, if impulsively instigated, first step in guiding Therese along the path to realizing that he loved her.
Although her interpretation of his words hadn’t occurred to him, he could see how she’d come to her conclusion. Unfortunately, that she’d sought and found a different explanation rather than even suspect his truth didn’t bode well for her readily following any subtle hints he might make.
He’d made a mistake, true enough. He’d thought he would be able to use the same approach he’d employed five years ago and, by giving her a tantalizingly oblique clue and engaging her curiosity, lead her to ferret out the truth. He knew he was correct in thinking she would believe in his love if she uncovered it herself, but clearly, that approach was doomed.
Doomed by his success in convincing her that he didn’t love her.
In his mind’s eye, he replayed the recent scene. Something about it had made him uneasy. Several minutes passed before he identified what that was—her tone and the way she hadn’t quite met his eyes while she’d explained what he’d meant by his unwise, impulsive words.
Brittle was the description that leapt to mind. That, along with a certain vulnerability.
He shifted in the chair. He didn’t like to think he might have hurt her in any way yet… He forced himself to look again, to relive the moment and look deeply and searchingly, then softly swore.
He closed his eyes. He’d acted impulsively and hadn’t thought his actions through. By essentially forcing her to examine the reasons she believed were behind their marriage, he’d forced her to face and acknowledge what she thought was the truth, namely that he didn’t love her.
Vulnerable. He’d made her feel vulnerable; that was what had been behind the brittleness he’d sensed.
He knew all about the vulnerability caused by love, by owning to love; at base, such love-induced vulnerability was the reason he had for so long refused to admit that he loved her.
Ironic, perhaps, but where did that leave them? Leave him?
“Obviously,” he muttered, “I’m going to have to be much more careful and exercise more caution over triggering any adverse feelings.” That was going to require a greater degree of finesse and attention to detail than he’d hitherto employed.
After he’d spent several minutes castigating himself over his clumsiness in provoking that unintended reaction, it occurred to him that her still feeling vulnerable over her belief that he didn’t love her was, in fact, reassuring. “At least she still loves me.” If she didn’t, she wouldn’t feel that way.
One positive outcome from my first disastrous attempt to rescript our relationship.
He considered anew. Although the fragility he’d sensed beneath her customary steely armor haunted him, given it arose out of her love for him, it wasn’t, of itself, something he wanted to change. It wasn’t a symptom he wished to eradicate, not that he could.
What he did wish to erase was the cause, namely, her entrenched belief that he didn’t love her in return. Once he’d achieved that, her current wariness and uncertainty over openly showing her love for him would vanish, along, he hoped, with that dreadful vulnerability.
He’d already constructed a mental picture of what success would look like—Therese gloriously confident in her love for him and openly showing it, bolstered and supported by the absolute and unassailable knowledge that her love was fully and completely reciprocated, that he loved her as she loved him.
Essentially, him and her in a Cynster-style marriage.
That was the goal he was determined to achieve, to claim for them both.
He looked inward and found nothing but rock-solid determination and unflinching resolve.
He drew in a breath and shifted to a more comfortable position. “So, how?”
In theory, he could sit her down and explain the truth of his feelings for her. In essence, that was what his ill-fated oops had been about—getting her to question him and drag the truth from him.
That, she would have believed. Him simply telling her…wouldn’t work. He’d done too good a job of convincing her that she knew his mind and, more importantly, his heart regarding her. Overwriting a belief he’d spent more than five years instilling and underscoring couldn’t be done with mere words.
If he tried to simply tell her his truth…not only did he doubt she would believe him, but worse, such an attempt would almost certainly lead her to distrust him. She would unquestionably wonder what he was up to, and he shuddered to think what she might conclude.
While he might have deceived her by omission, by all the things he hadn’t said, he’d never directly lied to her, and he would infinitely prefer to keep it that way.
His fingers found a pencil, and he idly tapped the end on his blotter. “So if words aren’t a viable way forward…”
Eyes narrowing, he thought and imagined, weighing the possibilities. Given it had been he who had shaped their marriage into its current form, if he wanted that form to change, then plainly, it fell to him to do whatever was needed. “Whatever I need to do to open her eyes to the truth that I love her and always have.”
Hearing the words helped him focus. He could, he decided, leave the somewhat damning revelation of when he’d fallen in love with her until later. The essential first step to achieving his desired goal was to convince his wife of the past five years that he loved her now. Today.
Given her character and his, the only approach that might work, that held any real hope of convincing her that her view of his feelings toward her was wrong, was to show her—to demonstrate the reality. She was highly observant and needle-witted; she would believe what she could unequivocally see.
He considered the prospect for several long minutes, then, resolved, tapped the pencil one last time and let it fall. “Actions always speak louder and truer than words.”
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