A Lady's First Scandal
Four years ago, Lady Cecelia Campbell fell head over heels in love with Lord Rupert Marlowe, the young Earl of Stanhope. Everybody knew they would marry and live happily ever after.
But then Rupert did the unthinkable. He took up a commission as an officer in the army and left England for a post in the Transvaal. Cecelia was left alone in England, loving, yearning, and worrying about him from a distance.
Now Rupert has returned. He is ready to take up his seat in the House of Lords, to take over the administration of the Stanhope estate from his mother, Lady Katya, and most importantly of all, to finally marry Cecelia.
Cece isn't the same woman Rupert left behind, however. She has grown and flourished and become a woman of strength and opinion. And she's not going to sit back and let Rupert get away with leaving her for so long. Friends to lovers turn into enemies to lovers.
But when Cece takes a stand and declares her independence in a very public way, the scandal her defiance causes blows every expectation for her future happiness with Rupert to smithereens. It also gains her an exclusive invitation to join the elite group of politically-minded women known as the May Flowers. But the May Flowers are a group of shocking, defiant, sometimes wicked women. They are a bundle of scandals waiting to happen.
Can Rupert convince the new, more powerful Cecelia to forgive him for abandoning her, and can he woo her all over again? Will the scandal of their break-up tear them apart forever, or will it make their love stronger...and hotter?
PLEASE BE ADVISED: Steam level - very spicy!
THE MAY FLOWERS series is a continuation of THE SILVER FOXES OF WESTMINSTER series, involving the younger generation. It consists of:
A LADY'S FIRST SCANDAL
IT'S ONLY A SCANDAL IF YOU'RE CAUGHT
THE SCANDAL OF A PERFECT KISS
THE EARL'S SCANDALOUS BARGAIN
WHEN LADY INNOCENCE MET DR. SCANDALOUS
THE ROAD TO SCANDAL IS PAVED WITH WICKED INTENTIONS
SCANDAL MEETS ITS MATCH
'TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE SCANDAL
HOW TO AVOID A SCANDAL (OR NOT)
Release date: June 21, 2019
Publisher: Merry Farmer
Print pages: 312
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A Lady's First Scandal
London – May, 1885
Lady Cecelia Campbell couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so excited. She could barely stand still as she and her family waited at the edge of Regent’s Park for the doors of the barracks to open. Every small movement from the barracks caused her heart to leap into her throat. Her head swam with anticipation. Tears even stung the back of her eyes when she thought about how long she’d waited for this day to come. But at last, it was here. Rupert was home.
“Calm down, my dear,” Lady Katya Campbell, Rupert’s mother and Cece’s father’s wife, said, resting a hand on Cece’s arm. “If you don’t remember to breathe, you’ll swoon.”
“I think she’s going to swoon anyhow,” Natalia Marlowe, Rupert’s younger sister, giggled, stepping closer and holding out her arms as if she would catch Cece mid-faint.
“Swooning is so antiquated,” Bianca Marlowe said in a lofty voice. She couldn't hide her own enthusiasm, though. Rupert was her brother, after all, and she loved him almost as dearly as Cece did.
“I think swooning is lovely,” Natalia said with a romantic sigh. In a more practical voice, she added, “I just wish I had someone to swoon over.”
“You will soon enough,” Katya told her. “Too soon, if you’re like your sister.” She eyed Bianca disapprovingly.
Bianca merely grinned up at the brilliant sunlight. The entire family was well aware of her attachment to a certain Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, a Mr. Jack Craig, who was not only miles below Bianca in social standing, he was also older and far more experienced than was good for her.
Cece’s thoughts about the Bianca and Mr. Craig situation vanished in a heartbeat as the barracks door opened. Her heart sank a moment later when a single man in civilian dress walked out, shutting the door behind him.
“Oh, when are they going to let them out?” Natalia fretted, biting her lip with a frown. The expression emphasized the distinct resemblance she bore to Cece’s father, Lord Malcolm Campbell, who stood with them, frequently glancing at his watch.
“The army has any number of procedures and ceremonies before releasing soldiers from active duty,” he grumbled. “It took all day when they let us go after the Crimean Campaign, and most of us were injured.”
There was a good reason Natalia looked more like Cece’s father than anyone in society was willing to ask about. Cece’s father had married Rupert, Bianca, and Natalia’s mother four years earlier, but they had secretly been lovers for decades. When the truth about Natalia’s paternity had come out, Cece had been shocked, but not particularly surprised. And since the entire muddle of sharing a half-sister with the man she intended to marry made Cece’s and everyone else’s head hurt, they rarely spoke of it.
Because Cece did intend to marry Rupert Marlowe. The understanding had been in place for years, since before Rupert joined the army and ran off to practically the other side of the world without her consent. And part of her was still furious that he’d enlisted without consulting her. The conversation four years ago still rang in her head. She’d been expecting a formal proposal. She’d gotten a typically male speech about duty and country. And a week later, Rupert was gone.
She’d worried about him journeying so far south. She’d fretted over every report coming out of Cape Colony. She’d been in agony when war had broken out in 1881 and she’d heard nothing from Rupert for six months. She’d sent prayers and money and linens for bandages when she’d heard he’d been wounded in action by the Boers, then wept in relief for days when he finally wrote to tell her he would make a full recover. Then she’d been so angry she’d thrown a vase across the room and shattered it when he wrote to say he was staying on in South Africa, even though the war had ended.
But all of that was behind her now. At last, Rupert was home.
Once again, the door to the barracks opened. Once again, Cece’s heart lifted. She clutched her chest in anticipation only to be disappointed yet again. Another civilian stepped out into the street and went about his business.
“It’s positively aggravating, isn’t it?”
Cece started, her back snapping so straight that she was dizzy for a moment as Lady Tavistock spoke beside her. She hadn’t noticed the regal young woman approach, and she certainly never would have imagined someone as admirable and powerful as Lady Tavistock would even speak to her.
“It is, my lady,” Cece said, hoping her voice didn’t squeak.
Lady Tavistock smiled at her with a look of friendship that warmed Cece down to her toes. She wore a fashionable walking dress in a shade of purple that indicated she was at the end of the prescribed mourning period for her husband. Lord Richard Tavistock’s death two years earlier had been the talk of the town. He’d left behind an heir—indeed, the four-year-old Marquess of Tavistock clung to his mother’s skirts as they watched the barracks—but it was well known that Lady Tavistock managed the vast wealth of her late husband’s estate as expertly as any man could. Which was likely why the poor woman was reputed to receive at least three offers of marriage every week.
But more importantly, Lady Tavistock was renowned as the leader of the influential May Flowers, a group of women who not only involved themselves in politics, but were also rumored to control the actions of Parliament from behind the scenes.
“I take it you’re waiting for your beloved?” Lady Tavistock asked.
Cece blinked, astounded that such an important woman would know that about her. “Yes, my lady,” she said. “Lord Rupert Marlowe, the Earl of Stanhope.” She instantly felt embarrassed about throwing Rupert’s title into play, as if she were bragging.
But Lady Tavistock continued to smile as though they were friends. “I’m here waiting for my brother, Freddy,” she said.
Cece drew in a breath as she made the connection in her mind. “Yes, Rupert has written frequently about Viscount Herrington. They’ve become close friends.”
Lady Tavistock hummed in affirmation. “Freddy has mentioned Lord Stanhope several times in his letters.” She let out a breath, facing the barracks. “I’m so glad he’s home. I’ve missed him so. Although he has little to come home to. Our father ruined the estate, and—” She pressed her lips together and shook her head. It wasn’t civil to speak of such things, but everyone was widely aware that the former Viscount Herrington had bankrupted his estate and left his son with nothing more than a title. If not for Lady Tavistock’s brilliant marriage to one of Lord Herrington’s school friends, she would have been in exceptionally dire straits just as her brother was.
Panic welled up in Cece as Lady Tavistock remained silent, her expression sorrowful. She did the only thing she could think to do on short notice by blurting, “I was quite impressed with the speech you gave outside of the Palace of Westminster last week. Irish Home Rule is an issue I feel quite passionately about.”
“Do you?” Bianca asked behind Cece.
A jolt of embarrassment hit Cece. She hadn’t realized Bianca was listening. There was no telling what the wild young woman might do.
“Yes,” Cece said, reluctantly shifting her stance to include Bianca in the conversation. That meant including Natalia and Lady Katya as well by default. “Gladstone is perfectly right when he says that it is long past time to create an Irish Parliament and give them a measure of control over their own destinies.”
Lady Tavistock’s smile returned tenfold. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “Though the opinion is not a popular one at the moment.”
“A fact I find confusing and ridiculous,” Cece went on. “Particularly considering British administration of Ireland has resulted in ruination for so many of its population.”
“Don’t say that so loudly,” Natalia gasped, glancing around them as though the disapproval of a nation was about to rain down on them.
“Why not, if it’s true?” Lady Tavistock said. “We women have been told to be silent in matters of politics and importance for far too long. It’s well past time we make our voice heard.”
Lady Katya laughed. “I couldn’t agree more. You young ones are lucky that you’re able to speak as much as you can. In my day, things were very different.”
“Times are changing,” Lady Tavistock said with a shrug. “It’s imperative that we change with them.”
“I agree,” Cece said. “And if we don’t take charge of the change ourselves, it may never happen.”
Lady Tavistock smiled approvingly at her.
Bianca, on the other hand, laughed. “I never expected to hear such radical views from you, Cece,” she said.
“Oh?” Lady Tavistock asked. “And why not?”
Cece felt her cheeks go pink, especially when Bianca grinned and said, “Cece is as traditional as they come. She plans to devote her life to domestic duties as my brother’s wife. She never expresses her opinions about things, even though we all know she has them.”
“That’s not true,” Cece said in a quiet voice, staring hard at Bianca and hoping her outspoken friend would know when to be silent.
Of course, where Bianca was concerned, silence was too much to ask. “You should hear the way she scolds me for being too bold,” she told Lady Tavistock with a conspiratorial look. “Cece is forever correcting my deportment and my opinions. She constantly tells me I should take care to be more deferential to gentlemen and to wait until I am spoken to before speaking.”
“That’s because you are a ridiculous flirt,” Natalia said, both defending Cece and mortifying her at the same time. “You’re going to ruin your reputation if you continue to pretend you’re a man in social situations.”
“I most certainly do not pretend I’m a man,” Bianca said, one eyebrow arched.
Cece’s face burned hotter. Bianca behaved more like a celebrated, renaissance, Venetian courtesan than anything else, expressing her opinions openly and flirting scandalously. As far as she was concerned, Cece had every reason to constantly correct her friend.
Fortunately, rather than being scandalized, Lady Tavistock laughed. “I always approve of women who speak their mind,” she said. She hugged her son tighter to her side and said, “And I am teaching Ricky to appreciate them as well. You like Lady Bianca, don’t you?”
The young Marquess of Tavistock nodded, blushing and giggling as Bianca wiggled her fingers at him in a wave, then hid his face in his mother’s skirts.
Cece was on the verge of saying more when the door to the barracks opened yet again. Only this time, instead of a single man slipping out in civilian dress, the entire, wide door was thrown open and a veritable sea of men in red coats poured out.
She gasped, forgetting the embarrassment Bianca had caused her, forgetting Lady Tavistock’s kind notice, forgetting everything but the fact that Rupert was home and would be in her arms at any moment. Her heart raced so hard she could hear her pulse in her ears as she stood on her tip-toes, searching desperately for Rupert among the men leaving the barracks.
At last, she spotted him, and tears sprang to her eyes. He looked older, slightly more careworn, but fitter and even more handsome than the last time she’d seen him. The red of his uniform coat suited him splendidly. He’d grown a moustache that conformed to the latest style—which she wasn’t sure she liked—and his cheeks were rosy and full of health. And when he glanced across the street and found her in the crowd, his whole countenance lit up.
But instead of rushing to her, arms open, he turned back, saying something to one of the men behind him. That man stepped up to Rupert’s side as they crossed the street. When Rupert pointed at Cece, the other man waved.
“Look, Ricky,” Lady Tavistock said, lifting her son into her arms in a rare show of maternal affection for someone as highly-ranked. “There’s your Uncle Freddy.”
The boy waved back as Cece’s heart fluttered uncertainly in her chest. Rupert still wasn’t running to her. Instead, he turned to a red-haired gentleman on his other side and said something. The two of them laughed.
When the group of three finally made it across the street to where the families of the returning soldiers were waiting in the park, Cece was beside herself with uncertainty instead of joy.
“Hello, Mother,” Rupert said, heading straight to Lady Katya and catching her in an enormous hug. “You look as beautiful as ever.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Lady Katya laughed, hugging him back.
When Rupert broke away from her, he turned to scoop Bianca and Natalia into his arms at the same time. “Look at the two of you. What happened to the naughty children I left behind?”
“We’re naughty women now,” Bianca said in a saucy voice.
To her other side, Lord Herrington had stepped up to give his sister and nephew a strong, affectionate hug. “You’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you, Henny,” he said in a voice filled with emotion.
“And I you,” Lady Tavistock replied, blinking back tears.
Cece could see more unspoken depth to their greeting than she needed to be part of, so she turned away. She clasped her hands in front of her to keep from flinging herself into Rupert’s arms when he broke away from his sisters. At any moment, he would open his arms wide and greet her the way she’d dreamed of for four, long years.
Instead, he stepped back to the red-haired man’s side and said, “Well, O’Shea? What do you think of this splendid family of mine?”
Cece’s jaw dropped and her heart sank. It was unclear to her whether Rupert included her in his family at all.
“They’re splendid,” O’Shea said. Cece blinked. He had to be Lord Fergus O’Shea, the Irishman Rupert had written about so often, the one who had saved his life in the Transvaal.
At last, Rupert turned to face her, glowing with affection. “And this, my friend, is the most glorious flower in all of England.” His voice softened and deepened as he beamed at Cece. “This is the one and only Lady Cecelia Campbell.”
Cece’s smile returned, and her heart overflowed with affection. At last, Rupert stepped forward and swept her into his arms. Cece was helpless to do anything but hug him back with everything she had as she burst into tears.
“I’ve missed you so,” she sobbed against his neck. He smelled of a different kind of soap than he’d used before departing for the army, but the essence of him was still there and as familiar to her as her own skin.
Rupert squeezed her tight, resting his head against hers. “I would kiss you like you’ve never been kissed before if there weren’t so many people watching,” he whispered against her ear.
“I don’t care,” Cece said, shaking with relief to have him home.
But instead of taking her up on her implied offer, he let go of her and stepped back. A moment after that, he turned to Lord Herrington.
“Lord, it’s good to be home, isn’t it?” he asked with a laugh.
“I’ll say,” Lord Herrington agreed. He stood taller and glanced around. “Is this our entire welcoming committee?”
“Who were you expecting to see?” Lord O’Shea asked in his Irish accent. “The queen herself?”
Rupert laughed and slapped Lord Herrington playfully on the back. “He’s probably looking for a wealthy widow to bolster his fortunes, now that he’s no longer on the army payroll.”
“He already has a wealthy widow to support him,” Lady Tavistock said, ostensibly teasing, but with seriousness in her eyes.
“No man wants to be supported by his sister,” Rupert said, nudging Lord Herrington’s arm.
“As much as he loves her,” Lord Herrington added, moving back to Lady Tavistock’s side and kissing her cheek.
Cece’s smile faltered. It was ridiculous for her to think that Rupert would have eyes only for her upon his return, but she hadn’t expected him to fall instantly into joking with his friends. Not when they’d been apart for so long. Not when she’d agonized day and night while waiting for his return.
Her heart pinched with indignation when Rupert clapped his hands together and asked Lady Katya, “Shall we all head home now? I’m famished, and I just know that Mrs. Phillpotts has something delicious waiting for me.”
“Mrs. Phillpotts retired two years ago,” Lady Katya said. “But Mrs. Morris has been cooking for days.” She gestured to a pair of carriages waiting at the far end of the street then took Lord Malcolm’s arm to start toward them.
“I hope there’s room for Fergus and Freddy,” Rupert started after her.
Cece’s stomach tightened. He hadn’t offered her his arm.
“I’m off to Tavistock House with my sister,” Lord Herrington announced. “But I’ll drop by for a visit in the morning.”
He and Lady Tavistock nodded their goodbyes. Lady Tavistock sent a particularly sympathetic look to Cece.
The rest of them, including Lord O’Shea, marched on toward their waiting carriages. As if as an afterthought, Rupert finally held back and offered Cece his arm. But instead of whispering sweet words to her as she’d dreamed he would once he was home, he called ahead to Lady Katya, saying, “Are we all at Campbell House or Marlowe House at the moment?”
“Marlowe House,” Natalia answered for him, rushing to take Rupert’s other arm. “It’s bigger.”
Cece was seized by the sudden, irrational urge to throttle Natalia for laying claim to Rupert. Guilt eclipsed her anger, though. Natalia had missed her brother as much as she had. Still, the whole thing hadn’t been the homecoming she’d dreamed of.
“Then there’s room for Fergus,” Rupert said as they walked. “O’Shea needs a place to stay.”
“There’s plenty of room,” Lady Katya called back.
“Just as long as you don’t forget where your loyalties lie,” Lord Malcolm added. He narrowed his eyes at Rupert, then turned a protective look on Cece.
Cece wasn’t sure whether she was touched and grateful that her father was apparently as aware of Rupert’s less than enthusiastic greeting toward her or embarrassed that he was singling Rupert out for it in public. Either way, she wasn’t certain Rupert even noticed.
“The advantage of having a complicated family situation is that it gives one a variety of homes to choose from,” he told Lord O’Shea as they reached the carriages. He handed Cece into one while continuing to talk to his friend. “They’re only two blocks away, though, so it’s jolly convenient.”
“Are you getting in?” Bianca asked once she, Natalia, and Cece were seated.
Rupert peeked into the carriage, then said, “No, there’s not enough room. Fergus and I will find our own way home. We’ll see you there.”
Without ceremony, he shut the carriage door.
Cece wilted with disappointment. It was as though she’d waited for the delivery of a treasure for years, only to find that it was fool’s gold.
It was bliss to be home. After the roughness of four years of army life, Rupert reveled in every pleasant scent that filled his family’s London townhome, every soft cushion that caressed his backside as he lounged for the first time in what felt like forever, every crumb of shortbread his mother’s new cook had prepared for him, every drop of sweetened tea, every ribald laugh and snort from his impish sisters, every ray of sunlight peeking through the curtains—in short, everything.
“This tops military rations any day,” he said to Fergus as he bit into the last of the lemon tarts. The burst of citrus pinched his face with deliciousness, a luxury he’d forgotten how much he loved.
“It certainly does,” Fergus answered with a sigh of contentment as he rested back in his seat. “I don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Oh, but supper is only an hour away,” Natalia said. She sat on the sofa beside him, perched on the edge, glancing between him and Fergus with bright eyes. “Tell us again about the battle where you were shot.”
“Natalia,” their mother scolded. “He’s already told the story once and he wrote to you about it years ago. I’m sure he doesn’t want to relive it now.”
“On the contrary,” Rupert said. He finished the lemon tart, swallowed with a groan of satisfaction, then leaned forward as though on the stage. “It was shortly after I arrived in the Transvaal. The Boers had been mercilessly ambushing British supplies for weeks. Mail convoys were particularly vulnerable. So General Colley decided to escort a particularly sensitive mail convoy personally, so as to keep our supply lines open. I was one of the men chosen to accompany him.”
“And you nearly died,” Natalia gasped, clutching his arm.
“I nearly did,” Rupert answered gravely. The events of that day felt like they were a lifetime ago, like they’d happened to someone else, and yet, the horror of the whole thing remained with him. “We were ambushed, like so many other convoys. The Boers, damn them, were excellent marksmen. Half our complement was killed. I was shot in the leg myself. I was only spared death because Fergus here threw me out of the way of another shot and dragged me to safety. He took a bullet in his arm for his efforts.”
“And I’d do it again if called to,” Fergus said, saluting Rupert with his teacup.
“We limped back to safety, and I spent the better part of the rest of the conflict convalescing,” Rupert went on. “But our position in South Africa has always been under threat, from the Boers and the natives.”
He glanced to Cece to see what she thought of his dashing tales of adventure and daring. He expected to find her on the edge of her seat, like Natalia, stars in her eyes. But instead, her posture was slightly slumped, and instead of watching him like a lover should, she stared morosely at her still-full teacup. Her mouth was pulled tight and there was a certain hardness to her jaw.
He couldn’t imagine what was wrong with her. Was she ill? He did the only thing he could think of to bolster her.
“I was lucky to recover from those wounds as quickly as I did,” he said, watching her as he spoke. “I was doubly lucky to meet Freddy, that is, Lord Herrington, in the field hospital. You’re friends with his sister, Cecelia, are you not?”
Cece glanced up somewhat belatedly. She blinked, her mouth remaining tight, then said, “I admire Lady Tavistock and the political work she does immensely, but no, I do not think she counts me as one of her friends.”
“But you were standing side-by-side this afternoon,” Rupert argued.
Lines formed between Cece’s eyebrows and her jaw tensed further. “Physical proximity does not define the closeness of a relationship. You of all people should know that.” She punctuated her remark by sipping her tea. Her lips twitched into a grimace, and a moment later she set her teacup aside, then muttered, “Although perhaps it does.”
Rupert frowned, at a complete loss. Clearly, she meant something by her words, but he couldn’t see what it was for the life of him.
Once again, he fell back on what he knew. “Africa was a baptism by fire, certainly. We were all lucky that the conflict was short-lived. The bulk of our duties after the peace was signed were mostly guarding British interests and subduing the local population.” He paused, studying Cece’s expression to see if his words were allaying the fears he assumed she had, then said, “So really, there was no need for you to worry.”
Instead of relaxing in relief, Cece’s posture stiffened, and if he didn’t know better, the look she shot him was one of indignation. But she kept her mouth firmly shut.
“There was that one time we caught that German chap trying to make off with supplies,” Fergus said with a smirk.
“And he wasn’t even a Boer,” Rupert laughed, gladder than he could express that his friend had saved him from the unfathomable censure of the one person who should have been most overjoyed by his return. “None of us expected the bloke to have that revolver with him,” he went on, launching into the story of the German scavenger who had tried to use them all for shooting practice just so he could make off with a sack of bread and cheese.
Unfortunately for him, Cece’s inexplicable attitude didn’t improve, even when he and Fergus switched into stories of the mischief they’d all gotten into during their free time. He was particularly careful to emphasize that he hadn’t engaged in any inappropriate behavior where women were concerned, even though the majority of his fellow officers had indulged whenever a bit of skirt presented itself, English, Boer, or native. He’d remained loyal and true to Cece through it all, writing to her whenever temptation reared its ugly head and dreaming only of her.
Which was why her coldness now was a complete mystery to him.
It was a relief when Mr. Stewart announced that supper was ready. Rupert leapt to his feet, anxious to get away from the awkwardness that had descended over the room.
But when he began to approach Cece to escort her into the dining room, she stepped out of his way, marching toward her father—who had wandered into the parlor along with Mr. Stewart—and taking his arm without so much as a second glance for Rupert. Dread pooled in his stomach.
It didn’t lessen at all when his mother swept up to his side and took his arm without him offering. Especially when she led him into the hall in the opposite direction from the dining room.
Rupert decided to nip the whole problem in the bud by asking his mother, “What the devil is going on with Cece? Is she ill?”
His stomach sank further when his mother raised one of her severe eyebrows at him. “My dear boy,” she began in her most foreboding tone, “I did not raise you to be an ass, so kindly stop being one.”
Rupert gaped, an indignant sound bursting from him. “I’m not being an ass, Mother. Cece has turned into a cold fish. One would think that after four years apart she’d be clinging to my side and sighing with joy.”
His mother’s disapproving eyebrow arched higher. Then she shook her head. Rupert knew he was deep in the soup. “That dear girl has waited four years for you,” she said in a tone that made it clear whose side she was on. “She remained loyal to you. She declined invitations that she should have accepted because a letter arrived from you. She refused to dance when asked for years because she didn’t want so much as a whisper of a rumor to reach your ears. She studied military dispatches and any news of South Africa religiously so that she would be aware of what you were facing.”
Rupert’s heart swelled at the revelations. It also pinched with helpless confusion. “That’s all wonderful,” he said. “So why is she so clearly displeased with me?”
“Because you’re ignoring her, you dolt.” His mother smacked his arm hard enough for Rupert to wince. “Because you’re spewing on about war stories and telling her she wasted her time worrying.”
“I didn’t say—”
“Because you’re giving more of your attention to Lord Fergus O’Shea than you are to her,” his mother went on.
“Fergus is my guest,” Rupert argued. “I have a duty to make him feel at home, especially after what he’s been through.” He leaned closer to his mother and said, “His own family barely speaks to him. His father sent him a curt letter when his mother died and nothing else. And the man saved my life. Besides, the bond of brothers in arms is almost stronger than that of brothers by blood. I’m not sure if you’d understand.”
“Is he more important than the woman you profess to love?” his mother asked.
Rupert opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He dropped his shoulders and shook his head. “I didn’t want to say this because you’re my mother, but I was hoping that my true reunion with Cece could happen in private, where we won’t be disturbed or questioned.” He fixed her with a significant look that he never would have dared use except under extreme circumstances.
To his surprise, his mother laughed. “If you think you’ll be spreading honey on your toast any time soon, then you know even less about women than I thought you did.”
She tugged him on, proceeding to the dining room at last.
“Believe me, Mother. I know about women,” he said. “Your friends saw to that years ago.”
His mother only laughed harder.
Dinner ended up being a far more frustrating affair than Rupert ever would have imagined for his first, grand meal at home. The conversation that danced around the table was lively and interesting, but led mostly by his sisters—who had grown far too bold for comfort in his absence. Lord Malcolm chatted mostly with Fergus about the situation in Ireland, although Fergus wasn’t as up to date as Malcolm was, having been away from his homeland for so long. Rupert tried his best to engage Cece in conversation, but she had taken up a place at her father’s right hand, which was across the table and two places down from him.
He wasn’t truly able to get a word in edgewise with her until after supper, after the ladies had retired to their sitting room and the gentlemen for cigars and brandy, and when most of them were on the verge of giving up and going to bed for the night. It was only then that he was able to catch Cece’s hand as she attempted to exit the parlor and to lead her down the hall to his mother’s library. He considered it a good sign that she came with him willingly and that he didn’t have to scoop her over his shoulder and carry her down the hall.
“Cece,” he said, filling the single word with every emotion that had been locked inside of him for the past four years. “Thank God we’re alone at last.”
He drew Cece into his arms and slanted his head to kiss her. She let out a sigh and sagged against him, parting her lips and letting him drink her in. It was so good to kiss her again, the way he’d dreamed of for so long, that he closed his eyes and threw his whole heart into it. She tasted as sweet as nectar, and her body felt like heaven against his. She’d filled out in the most delectable way in four years’ time, and it took a monumental effort of will not to caress her curves.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you like that for so long,” he breathed at last, resting his forehead against hers. “How I’ve missed you.”
“And I missed you,” she said in a small voice, glancing longingly into his eyes. “So very much. You cannot imagine.”
“I can,” he said. “I can imagine the way you’ve held yourself back from social engagements, the way you must have sat by the window, pining and waiting for a letter from me, the way you must have dreamed of the blessed day when you will become my wife.”
To his vast surprised, she jerked out of his arms, staring fire at him. “Is that what you imagined?” she asked, her voice sharp with pique.
Rupert blinked. He could practically hear the zip of sniper bullets. His stomach certainly dropped the way it had in the ambush. “Isn’t that what it was like for you?” he asked uncertainly. It was what his own mother had told him, after all.
Cece planted her hands on her hips. “Do you think that I simply sat by, waiting for your return so that I could do nothing more than be your countess and bear your heirs?”
He blinked again, feeling heat rise up his neck even as his heart pounded against his ribs in fear. Yes, fear. He’d never seen Cece so upset before, and at a time when she should be over the moon. “Yes?” he answered hesitantly. “Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? Isn’t that what we used to talk about before I enlisted?”
“Before you enlisted,” she huffed in a tone that was almost mocking. “An action, might I remind you, that you took without my consent, without consulting me.”
“I had to serve my country,” he explained. “It was my duty.”
“And what about your duty to the woman you love?”
Her question caught him completely off-guard. His mouth flapped as he scrambled to think of an answer. “Perhaps you don’t understand,” he said. “As Earl of Stanhope, it is my duty to uphold the laws and interests of the empire. How can I be expected to do that if I haven’t served? We both know that I am unusually young for so much responsibility.”
“And that excuses you from showing the woman you profess to want to marry an adequate amount of respect?” Her voice reached a high squeak that made him wince. “I’ve missed you, Rupert,” she went on with passion, taking a step closer to him. “I’ve dreamed of this day, of our reunion, for four long years. And you repay me by giving your friend, a man who has been right there with you every day for almost your entire absence, more attention than you give to me?”
At last, Rupert thought he understood the nature of the problem. His mother had been right about the cause of Cece’s upset. He smiled, relaxing his stance and resting his hand on Cece’s cheek. “I understand, sweetheart. It’s only natural for a woman to want to spend time with the man she loves. But Fergus is my guest. He’s like a brother to me, the brother I never had. I have a responsibility toward him. Certainly, you must see that. Once you’ve had a good night’s sleep, you’ll see that I’m doing the right thing by making him feel at home. After all, the two of us will have our whole lives together.”
He leaned in to kiss her, but she pulled back so fast he lost his balance.
“I thought you were a decent man,” she said, her chest heaving with emotion. “I thought you were sensitive and romantic, but you’re just as much of a cad as the blackguards in Parliament who kicked and screamed and fought against the act my father fought so hard to pass ensuring the rights of married women.”
“I supported that act with my whole heart,” Rupert insisted, anger rising over his confusion. “I would have voted for it if I’d been in the country at the time.”
“Precisely,” Cece snapped. “If you were so keen to serve your country, you should have stayed at home and taken up your seat in the House of Lords rather than abandoning everyone who cares about you and everything that needed your attention to nearly get yourself killed playing soldier.”
Rupert was so alarmed by her outburst that he blurted, “Calm down,” before thinking better of it.
“I will calm down when I’m ready to,” she fired back. “I will calm down when you understand how wretchedly you’ve treated me.”
“I love you,” he nearly shouted in indignation. “I’ve never loved anyone else. I’ve never so much as kissed anyone since we met and fell in love.”
“Are we in love?” she asked, her chin tilted up, crossing her arms.
“Of course, we are,” he growled. He blew out a breath and shook his head, rubbing a hand over his face. “Why don’t you go to bed now,” he went on. “It’s been an eventful day for both of us, and I dare say we’re both exhausted. Everything will look better in the morning.”
“Will it?” Her brow arched in frightening imitation of his mother when she had her nose out of joint.
“I’m certain it will, dearest,” he said, trying his best to placate her.
He stepped closer to her, opening his arms to hug her. She dodged out of the way, her arms still crossed, marching toward the door.
As she reached the doorway, she turned back to him with the superiority of an empress and said, “I hate that moustache, you know. It doesn’t suit you.” She then swept out of the room as though she’d won the argument.
Rupert would have run after her to make things right. Maybe. More likely, he would have stood where he was and shouted every one of the colorful obscenities he’d learned in the army. He didn’t have a chance to do either. Before he could move from his spot, Lord Malcolm stepped into the doorway Cece had just stormed through. His brow was knit in a scowl that made lesser men piss their trousers. Rupert’s insides turned to jelly at the fury in his would-be father-in-law’s eyes.
“She’s right, you know,” Lord Malcolm said in a voice that reminded Rupert not only that Lord Malcolm had served in the army and seen action himself, but that he’d killed men when called on to do so. “That moustache makes you look like a cunt.”
Without another word, Lord Malcolm walked on, leaving Rupert with the feeling he’d been thoroughly dismissed. He sagged, breathing out the frustration his conversation with Cece had left him with. And he’d thought the war had ended three years ago. Something told him it had only just begun.
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