Unforgivable, page 1
For my mum who passed on to me her love of romance novels. And for my dad, who is a true romantic.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May…
“I look awful,” Rose said flatly.
The girl in the looking glass was gaunt, her cheeks hollow. She still carried the red, angry marks of her recent illness on her face and body. She was a stranger, and Rose hated looking at her.
“You look fine,” Lottie said briskly, fastening the buttons at the back of Rose’s gown. “And in a few months, you will look lovely. Your hair will grow, and my cook will fatten you up again, cara.”
Rose eyed her tragically shorn hair, all cut off in the midst of raging fever. Lottie’s hairdresser had come yesterday afternoon and had done his best to style her short locks into something resembling a fashionable cap of curls, but she still looked like an early Christian martyr with her sad, shadowed eyes. Like Joan of Arc about to go to the stake.
When the buttons were all done up, Lottie looked up and smiled at Rose in the mirror. That smile roused an odd mixture of emotions in Rose. Fondness, resentment and an aching sort of envy. Carlotta Neroni—Rose’s father’s mistress—was very beautiful. In fact, she was Rose’s polar opposite.
A few months ago, Rose had hated Lottie, even though they’d never met. She’d resented the beautiful soprano who reportedly sang like an angel and looked like one too. The woman who’d drawn her father away from her. And then Rose had fallen ill.
Chicken pox. A childhood ailment she should have recovered from within a week or two. By the time Papa realised how ill she was, she was delirious with blood poisoning and the physicians couldn’t crack the fever. When Papa went to Lottie, it was probably for his own comfort; however, the result had been that Lottie had descended upon the household like a whirlwind. The physicians were told in no uncertain terms to stop bleeding Rose, her bedchamber was cleaned and aired, and the kitchens were commandeered by Lottie’s Italian cook. Under Lottie’s unsentimental ministrations, Rose had, against all the odds, recovered.
That had been weeks and weeks ago, and still Lottie was here, still fussing over Rose like a mother hen. She was looking at Rose now with that warm expression of hers that made her look as though she cared for Rose. Which was absurd, really, given that Rose had given Lottie no reason even to like her.
When she’d woken from her fever to find Lottie in residence, she’d been less than gracious to her. She’d been a querulous invalid too, but Lottie had borne her ill temper with cheerful amusement. Only in the last few weeks, as Rose had grown stronger and emerged from her selfish infirmity, had she realised how much Lottie had done for her. She’d tried, then, feebly, to make up for her poor behaviour, aware that her own father hadn’t had the patience to care for her as this woman had.
“What time is this visit to take place, cara?” Lottie asked now.
“And are you sure you wish to go?” Lottie’s expressive dark eyes clouded with concern. “I am sure your father would understand if you told him it was too soon.”
“I don’t mind,” Rose said. The truth was that Papa was bubbling over with enthusiasm to make this visit, and though he might agree to postpone it today, he’d only keep on and on about going until she agreed. It was easier to do it now. There was no point putting off the inevitable. It wasn’t as though she was going to start looking beautiful any time soon.
Lottie smiled. “It’s true what he says about you, you know.”
“What does who say?”
“Your papa. He says you’re an adventurous little thing when you’re not laid low.”
Rose smiled, even though Lottie was wrong. This was nothing to do with being adventurous. She couldn’t remember what that felt like anymore. This was about getting something unavoidable over with.
When Rose descended the stairs half an hour later, her father was waiting at the bottom, watching her with an indulgent expression he occasionally wore when he looked at her. It was an expression that made her realise he did love her in his way, though most of the time he didn’t much notice her. She pasted on a wavery smile for him.
Lottie had done her best. Rose knew she looked neat and presentable, though she felt like a child. She was just five feet tall and thin as a rake. Her height hadn’t troubled her when she was plumper, but now that she was so thin, she knew she looked very, very young. It was even worse without her clothes. She hated her jutting hipbones and her nonexistent breasts; hated that she could see her ribs. She tried to eat the food that Lottie pressed on her: rich roast meats, creamy potatoes, toothsome puddings swimming in custard. But although her appetite had improved, it was still tiny.
Worse than that, though, worse than anything, was her face. Gaunt and drawn. And those marks. The worst one was the scab on her left eyelid that still hadn’t gone and that made her eye look droopy. She’d tried to cover it with powder, but that had only made it look worse.
When she stared at herself in the mirror, she felt an awful, yawning hollowness in her stomach. She supposed the feeling was horror.
She wished she didn’t have to meet Viscount Waite looking like this. He couldn’t possibly find her the least bit attractive.
“Rosebud,” Papa said as she descended the last step. “You look lovely, my dear.”
His eyes shone with sincerity, and she realised he believed it. He must be blind, but then perhaps all papas were.
“Ready?” he asked. She smiled and nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The whole situation was so bizarre that she was having difficulty believing it was really happening. A week ago, she’d had no thoughts of anything but trying to get better. Now she was to meet, for the first time, the man who might turn out to be her husband.
She hadn’t been out much since her illness, and it felt strange. She lifted the hem of her new gown carefully as she descended the steps from the front door to the street below. She leaned on her father in a way she never used to. He patted the hand that rested on his arm, and the small, thoughtless gesture made her happy and sad all at once. She’d grown up knowing she loved her father more than he loved her. Even today, his smiles and excitement were not really, not wholly, about her. Once married, she would be his responsibility no longer. He would be free.
The carriage was waiting at the bottom of the steps, and Papa handed her in, climbing in behind her and settling himself on the bench opposite. He thumped the ceiling with his cane, and the carriage lurched forward. He fiddled with his gloves, seeming uncharacteristically nervous. So unlike the father she knew. Miles Davenport was the most confident, debonair and charming man in England. But the most charming man in England had a serious look about him now. A serious look that he tried to temper with a smile.
This was another familiar expression. He usually wore it when he was about to leave her for a while. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes—the same grey eyes he had bequeathed to her—were a little anxious.
He leaned forward and took her small hands in his larger ones. “You needn’t have him if you don’t like him, Rosebud.”
Rose looked at their linked hands. Papa ducked his head, looking up to intercept her downcast gaze. “I won’t deny I want to see you settled. And this would be a brilliant match for you. But I won’t force you to marry against your will.”
“I know, Papa,” she replied. But she knew too that her father had his heart set on this match. And besides that, she had to think practically. She was well aware that this wasn’t the sort of chance that was going to come along very often—not for her. Papa’s money came and went like
He was currently enjoying the luckiest streak of his life—for the last two years, they had lived in relative splendour. Recently, he had sat Rose down and informed her he’d had a spectacular evening at the tables. One that had produced a veritable king’s ransom in winnings. And he wanted to invest those winnings in her, in her future. To secure her a husband. A husband, Papa had said with a self-deprecating smile, who would be a steadier and more reliable protector than he.
The dowry he was offering must be substantial indeed if it was sizeable enough to attract Viscount Waite, the eldest son of the Earl of Stanhope.
“There will be no mention of marriage today,” Papa continued in a soothing voice. “It will just be an opportunity for you to meet Waite and decide whether you wish to take the matter further.”
“And for him?”
“I beg your pardon?” Papa looked bewildered.
“And an opportunity for the viscount to meet me and decide if he wishes to proceed,” Rose asked patiently.
“Oh—oh yes, I see what you mean,” Papa mumbled. But he didn’t answer. Could her dowry really be so substantial that the viscount would agree to marry her sight unseen?
All too soon, they arrived at Berkeley Square. The coachman opened the carriage door, and Papa alighted, holding his hand out to help Rose descend. When she reached the ground, she straightened her skirts and set her shoulders back. Her calm appearance did not reflect her inner misery. In truth, she couldn’t see how this meeting could be anything other than a disaster. The viscount was twenty-two and sounded like a typical young buck. He would be horrified when he saw her, so plain and young.
They walked up several steps to the very grand front door of Stanhope House, and Papa rapped on the glossy black door with his cane. It was opened by a butler of short stature and haughty mien who showed them into the drawing room. As he withdrew he advised them, in lofty accents, that the earl would be with them presently.
Scant minutes later, a man who had to be the earl entered the room. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but he had a slight stoop and walked with a limp, leaning heavily on a cane. His expression was grim, etched with pain and anger.
“Davenport,” the man barked in Papa’s general direction, but his eyes were on Rose, and he walked straight over to her. He came to a halt in front of her and stared, eyebrows bristling.
“Good afternoon, Lord Stanhope,” Papa replied with an amiable smile. “May I present my daughter, Rose?”
The earl nodded, but his expression did not alter. He continued to stare, and while he did so, Rose curtsied. When she straightened, she offered him a small smile which died on her lips in the face of his frowning demeanour.
Papa looked much younger than this man. Of course, her father was only thirty-eight, while the earl looked to be somewhere in his fifties with iron-grey hair and deep grooves bracketing his mouth and creasing his brow. He did not look impressed with her, but she could not blame him for that. She knew she did not present a particularly impressive picture. He continued staring at her for long moments, and she had to fight the urge to look away.
To her relief, the earl’s gaze finally lifted, his attention drawn by the doors of the drawing room opening again.
“Ah, there you are.” He grunted at the two young men who entered the room. “Come in here and meet Mr. Davenport and his daughter.” Rose wondered if he always spoke to his sons like that, in that dictatorial voice.
She turned her attention to the young men. Although they were brothers, they couldn’t have been more different. The first man to enter was breath-stoppingly handsome, like one of those classical heroes in paintings. Or a warrior angel. He had hair the colour of sunlight and a face of compelling symmetry. And like an angel, he looked aloof. Indifferent.
“This is Lord James,” the earl said shortly, adding brutally, “the spare.”
The angel didn’t so much as flinch, merely bowed over Rose’s hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Davenport,” he murmured. His indifferent gaze absorbed the unpretty picture she presented. Rose wanted to curl up and die under that merciless blue gaze, but somehow she withstood his scrutiny and finally he moved aside.
If Lord James was the spare, that meant the second man was the heir. And he couldn’t have been more different from his beautiful brother. Gilbert Truman, Viscount Waite, was large, half a head taller than his younger brother and considerably broader through the shoulders, though he had the leanness of youth. His thick, almost black hair was cut fashionably short. His face was arresting rather than handsome. Sharp cheekbones gave him a haughty look, and his nose was marred by a slight kink.
Like his brother, Waite looked her over as he murmured his pleasure at making her acquaintance. But unlike Lord James, he did not appear bored and indifferent. In fact, she wondered if she detected something that might be kind in his hazel gaze before he turned away to greet her father.
She accepted Lord James’s invitation to sit, perching on the edge of a delicate-looking chair. She was relieved she would not have to marry someone as perfectly beautiful as he. The contrast between them would be too cruel, a peacock and his dowdy little mate. But were she and Waite any more suited? He was so big, so masculine. He made Rose feel even younger, slighter and more insignificant than usual. Entirely lacking as a woman.
And yet, somewhat to her surprise, over the next half hour, Waite—and Waite alone—set about putting Rose at her ease. While Lord James and the earl sat, stiff and silent, Waite was all amiability. He talked in an easy, light-hearted fashion about this and that, drawing Rose out despite herself.
Although he looked forbidding, he had a pleasant manner and a surprisingly infectious smile. Like the rest of him, there was something not quite perfect about his smile. It was an off-centre thing, with a quirk to the left that made him appear to always be laughing at himself. It was…charming.
Rose found herself helplessly warming to him. After a while, she forgot about the marks on her face—even that scab on her eyelid—and stopped dipping her chin to hide beneath the brim of her bonnet. She wouldn’t have believed it possible in the carriage on the way over, but she even found herself returning Waite’s oddly charming smile with a shy half smile of her own. And it was impossible not to giggle at some of the sillier stories he told her.
How pleasant, he is, she thought. How thoughtful, to take such trouble to put me at ease.
“Have you seen the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, Miss Davenport?” he asked after a while.
“I’m afraid not,” Rose replied. “Although I will endeavour to visit it in the next few weeks.”
“Do you enjoy painting? Many young ladies do, I believe.”
She laughed at that, a derisive little snort that she’d been scolded for by half a dozen teachers and governesses. It merely made Waite lift his eyebrows in amusement; nevertheless, she blushed.
“I am not artistic, my lord,” she explained. “I was the drawing master’s very worst pupil at the ladies’ seminary I attended. I am so very glad I don’t have to attend any more of his lessons.”
“You no longer attend this seminary?”
“No. I have been rather unwell, and Papa says that—” She paused. She had been about to say that Papa said she need not go back since she would likely be getting married soon. But it would be awkward, embarrassing, to refer to marriage at this first meeting. And after all, Papa had said marriage would not be mentioned today. “Papa says that now that I am better, I need not go back,” she finished instead.
“And that pleases you?” the viscount prompted, smiling his quirking smile.
“Yes indeed,” she agreed. “Now I can spend as much time as I wish doing
“Such as drawing?”
“Yes, and”—she wrinkled her nose—“poetry.”
“You are not fond of poetry? I thought all young ladies adored poetry. Poets are such romantic creatures, are they not?”
“I am afraid I must be a philistine,” she replied. “As soon as I hear a rhyming couplet, my eyelids begin to droop.”
Waite laughed. It was a warm laugh of genuine amusement, and at the sound of it, Rose felt her heart flip-flop in her chest. Such an odd feeling! She wanted to grin like an idiot. And stare. She wanted to stare and stare until she could remember every inch of him.
“Then we are both philistines, Miss Davenport,” he replied.
We are both philistines.
It gave her a stupidly warm feeling, that comment.
“Well, all the most fashionable people are, you know,” she said, adopting a serious expression.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to call them back. He wouldn’t appreciate her odd sense of humour; wouldn’t appreciate being bracketed with her in that way, as she laughed slyly at herself. Across from her, she saw Lord James frown, puzzled, and her heart sank. But then Waite laughed, a warm, rich chuckle, and suddenly everything was all right. Her own lips twitched, and when she braved a glance at him, she saw that his eyes gleamed with humour and warmth. Their gazes met in a moment of shared amusement. A moment that no one else in the room seemed to be in on.
A few minutes later, Papa rose from his chair to signal it was time to go. In defiance of all her expectations, Rose found she was reluctant to leave, but she obediently stood and walked to Papa’s side. While Papa made their farewells, she glanced at Waite, and he smiled at her again, those bronze eyes of his dancing with good humour. She smiled back shyly, blushing slightly, her heart skittering with excitement and happiness.
Despite her fears, Viscount Waite had turned out to be everything she would have wished for in a husband. And amazingly, he seemed to like her too.
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