I don’t know about any of you, but I had to laugh a little at the idea of Sir Wallace being involved in anything wicked.
Alas, this was as wicked as he gets. He tricks Edwina, then both of them lower their guard and get into an extremely compromising situation…and then… Well, why sum it up. Here’s the scene!
Outside his room, she stood in silence. Should she knock? She shrugged. She’d be better served not to knock, that way he couldn’t refuse her.
She closed her hand over the knob and threw the door open.
A startled yelp greeted her. Wallace grabbed a pillow from his bed and used it to cover his bared private area. His movements had been jerky and unstable, presumably from being bedridden for so long.
Standing stock-still, she couldn’t command her eyes to leave his naked body if she’d wanted to. His shoulders were broad, as was his hair-covered chest. His stomach was smooth and flat, with a hint of a line of rippled muscles. A line of dark hair divided his abdomen in two then disappeared behind the pillow he held onto. A heated blush stole over her and she jerked her eyes away before they could greedily drink anymore of him in. “I need your help.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” he asked, color rising in his cheeks.
She shook her head. Tomorrow Mother or Caroline would be with her if she came to see him, she couldn’t ask him to read her the letter then. “No.”
His dark gaze penetrated her and he shifted his pillow to better cover himself. “What’s your game?”
“Why are you here?”
Edwina held up the folded missive she’d carried down with her. “I need to know what it says.”
Wallace’s face flushed crimson and he twisted his lips. The hand he used to hold the pillow in front of him flexed, causing the muscles in his arms to grow and the tendons in his neck to show. “Why?”
“Because I need to know,” she whispered. Oh, how she’d longed to know what that missive said. But she didn’t dare ask Caroline to read it to her. Caroline would have, of course, but Edwina wanted Wallace to be the one with her when she finally knew what those words were. Even if Wallace held her in disdain and had nearly died because of her actions, he would be the biggest comfort for her. She was sure of it.
“The contents of that letter are unimportant,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
Stung, Edwina instinctively gripped the parchment tighter. “They’re of great importance to me.”
He lowered his gaze. “I’m afraid the meaning of that letter isn’t quite the same any longer.” His words weren’t quite even.
Edwina’s heart hammered in her chest. “What have I done that has made you treat me so cruelly? I didn’t make you fight in that duel. You chose to do that without hearing my side of things.”
He reached his free hand out. “Just give me the letter and go back to your bed.”
“No.” She brought the letter closer to her chest.
He twisted his lips. “How did you get it anyway?”
She knit her brows. “My mother gave it to me.”
“Well, she shouldn’t have,” he muttered, frowning.
“It does have my name on it,” she said sardonically, then pointed the exterior of the missive toward him. “I may not be able to read anything else, but I do recognize my own name when I see it.” That was true enough. When she was originally given the letter, she didn’t recognize the letters as spelling her name, but after those few afternoons spent with Wallace, she was able to recognize the majority of the letters. A lump clogged her throat. Where was the sweet gentleman who was determined to be patient with her as he taught her to read? Apparently that duel had turned his heart to stone. There was no other reason for why he was acting this way.
“Fine,” he clipped. He reached for the letter again.
She pulled it away. “I don’t know if I want you to read it to me now. Perhaps I misjudged you.” She turned to the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked, his voice so close, she swore he was standing directly behind her.
She peeked her head around to see him. He was directly behind her. “Since you’ve decided to be beastly to me, I’ve decided I shall just ask Caroline to read it to me.”
“No, you won’t,” he growled, reaching around her, trying to take the letter from her firm grasp.
Keeping her head turned so she could see his face, she pressed it flat against her chest. Truly, what did he think was in this letter that would lead him to act this way? “Sir Wallace, I—”
He cut her off with a quick kiss and a shiver ran down her spine. “I’ve asked you not to call me that,” he whispered.
Edwina’s lips tingled from their kiss. “But that was before the duel.”
He didn’t deny or confirm her inane charge or the impact that duel had had on their relationship. Instead, he bent his head forward and pressed his lips to hers again. Soft and gentle, his lips moved over hers. She matched his movements, exerting pressure when he did, and moving her lips to let his mold around hers. His kiss was exquisite. Her body relaxed and she brought her hand up to rest against his smooth cheek.
Abruptly, his lips left hers and he took a step back, his arm—and her note—leaving their former position. Shaking the note, he said, “You may go now.”
Rage and hurt washed over her. She spun around to face him. “What a dirty trick to play, Sir Wallace.”
“I apologize. Now, would you please take your leave?”
“I will not.” She put her left hand on her hip and held her right hand out to him. “My letter, if you please.”
He didn’t make any move to hand it back to her.
She took a step toward him.
He took a giant step closer to the roaring fire.
Panic built up in her chest. He wouldn’t throw it in the fire, would he? It certainly appeared that was his intention.
His left hand was still clutching that pillow in front of himself and his right hand was extending the letter in the direction of the flames.
Emotion clogged her throat. “Don’t!” She half-cried, half-croaked, tears pricking her eyes and terror freezing her in place. “That’s all I have left of my father, please don’t throw it into the flames.”
“Father?” Wallace echoed. He brought the note in front of his face and his eyes widened. “Please forgive me, Edwina. I didn’t realize.”
“Didn’t realize what?” she snapped, plucking the note from his loose grip.
“Whose note that was,” he said, not meeting her eyes.
Edwina ran her fingers over the faded black letters scrolled on the outside of the paper. She’d spent the last four years holding onto this note, and had come tonight to ask Wallace to read it to her, but now she wasn’t certain she could trust him to be sympathetic and compassionate. Her thumb froze midway across the lettering. “And whose note did you think it was?”
He nodded his head once in the direction of his coat.
She forced a smile. Of course. He was still carrying around that blasted letter he’d written for Lady Chatterfield. In the days he was still unconscious and she was helping to take care of him following his duel, she’d been tempted to burn it herself. But why did he want to burn it? He’d already shown it to her once. Why was he so embarrassed about it now?
She shook her head. No matter. “Wallace, I don’t know all the details of your relationship with Lady Chatterfield, but I’d never betray your trust in me by stealing your correspondence or asking someone else to read it to me. Your feelings for her are none of my concern.” She swallowed the emotion that was quickly building a choking-thickness in her throat. Then she frowned. His note to Lady Chatterfield didn’t have her name on the outside. Had he thought the note was from another suitor and was just trying to pretend it was the one he’d written? She nearly laughed at the absurdity. Now would be an excellent time to clear up his misunderstanding about Major Minor.
“Wallace, can we talk about Major Minor for a moment?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. I am sure that your family will approve of the match should he ask for your hand.”
Edwina’s heart sank. His words had made it quite clear he had no romantic interest in her. There was no reason to waste time explaining anything if he didn’t care for her. She’d just let him think what he would. At least he thought her charming enough to have a suitor. She shoved aside her melancholy thoughts. “Now that you know the letter is not from the gentleman you thought it was from, will you please read it to me?”
“Of course.” He cleared his throat. “Would you mind excusing yourself for a moment while I cover up, please?”
She frowned. “You might lock me out.”
He chuckled. “Always skeptical, aren’t you? And rightfully so. All right, since you won’t leave like a proper young lady should, why don’t you just turn around?”
She obeyed. “You know, this wouldn’t be a problem if you’d remained dressed.”
“Or if you’d stayed in your own room,” he parried.
Edwina’s heart leapt. That was the fun, familiar tone she remembered so well. “Are you dressed?”
“No, but I’m in bed,” he said.
She turned around and walked over to where he was lying beneath the covers and was holding his hand out, ready to accept her letter.
Reluctantly, she gave it to him then climbed onto the bed.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, stopping her with his hands.
She froze. “I want to see it, too.”
“Then bring the chair over. There’s no reason for you to make yourself comfortable in my bed.”
Her cheeks heated. “There’s no need to be so condescending. I just wanted to see the words as you read them.”
He groaned and released her. “All right. But you’re not getting under the covers.” He patted the top of the coverlet. “Just sit right here and don’t move around a lot.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with a salute before climbing up onto his soft bed.
Beside her, he carefully unfolded the note then smoothed the wrinkles he’d created when he’d taken it from her earlier. She nestled in closer to his warm body. He scowled at her. “Did you know that you are the most improper young lady I’ve ever met?”
“And all this time I thought I was the oddest young lady you’d ever met,” she teased.
“Indeed.” He shifted. “Are you ready?”
She gave her head a slight nod, too overcome with emotion to speak.
“‘Dear Edwina, As you know, I don’t make apologies, and as the final hours of my life draw to a close, I feel no conviction to break from my pattern card. But I do ask that you not be angry with Alex or your mother for not sending for you sooner. It was at my request that you stay at school. Of course I told them my reasons were to protect you, but really it was to protect me. See, after having three witlings for sons, I was finally blessed with the greatest gift a father could receive: you. While I share my academic interests with Alex, and love to travel like Elijah and Henry, it is you who understands me best.
“‘Don’t let your life slip through your hands, gel. You have much to offer, and despite the trials you might face along the way, I know in my heart things will work out for you better than either of us could dream. Be strong, my gel. Life hasn’t dealt you an easy hand, but it is a winning hand. Just be patient.
“‘All my love, Papa.’”
Hot tears spilled from the corners of Edwina’s eyes and her heart squeezed painfully. She missed him so much. More tears fell. They were like steady currents now. Wallace’s strong arms wrapped around her and brought her to rest against his chest.
“Shh,” he crooned. His right hand caressed her back and he used his left thumb to dry the tears on her right cheek. He bent his head and pressed a kiss on the top of her head.
Quiet sobs wracked her body and she buried her face into the dark mat of crisp hair that covered his chest.
Wallace gently rocked her back and forth. “It’s all right to cry, Edwina.”
“I know,” she choked out against his body. Unfortunately, she didn’t know if she wanted to cry more because of her father’s passing or because the man she loved but couldn’t have was holding her and being so gentle with her.
Minutes or maybe hours slipped by as silence engulfed the two of them. Wallace’s steady heartbeat and rhythmic breathing calmed her as much as his touch. Every so often, she’d feel his soft lips brush across the top of her hairline or his fingers tighten their hold on her just a fraction before letting up. She took a deep breath. Wallace’s embrace was the safest haven imaginable. In his arms, she felt secure—like nothing bad could ever happen to her. But of course that wasn’t to be her fate. She steeled her spine and pushed away. There was no use in becoming more attached to him than she already was.
“I should probably go back up to my room,” she announced; then froze. Was it possible that the low glow filling the room was created by sun rising and shining through the window and not from the fireplace?
Wallace’s arms didn’t release her right away. Nor did his lips leave where they were pressed against her temple.
“Wallace,” she whispered.
“I’d better go before my maid finds I’m not in my room.”
Wordlessly, he brushed one more chaste kiss across her temple then relaxed his hold.
Edwina scooted toward the edge of the bed and put her feet on the floor, stopping instantly when a heavy hand knocked on the door, followed by Alex’s voice. “Sir Wallace, I need to speak to you.”