Two Little Lies
Pocket Star Books, December 2005
|Excerpt from the novel Two Little Lies|
Viviana was near a state of nervous agitation by the time she left Arlington Park, though she had schooled herself carefully to hide it. After thanking Lady Alice for her thoughtfulness, Viviana remounted with her groom’s assistance, then reined her horse around to face him.
“Thank you,” she said to the young man. “You may return to the stables now. I mean to ride on a good deal further, and take the air.”
The groom furrowed his brow. “Are you sure, my lady?” he asked. “I was told I was to wait.”
“And so you have,” said Viviana over one shoulder. She had already started toward the bridle path. “But I would feel guilty keeping you longer from you duties.”
With one last look of reluctance, the young man touched his hat brim, and urged his horse on past her. Viviana watched him go, slowly exhaling. For the first time since leaving the stables this morning, she felt as if she could breathe again. Inside, she felt as tight as a clock coil, as if someone had stuck a key into her brain, and wound her almost to the breaking point. She wanted to escape Arlington—and Hill Court, too.
What she needed, she decided, was a thundering ride with the cold air in her face. No one had need of her at Hill Court. The children were at their lessons today. Lord Chesley was meeting his steward. And Papà, well, he was in another world altogether; the world of music, the only place in which he was ever truly happy. Viviana had no wish to disturb him. She remembered too well his misery when, for a year and a half, he had had no work at all, a deprivation which was due to her stubbornness—and to Gianpiero’s cruelty.
But she would not think of Gianpiero now, and add that trouble to those which already weighed on her mind. She trailed slowly after the groom, who had all but vanished into the trees. After a quarter-mile, she reached the path which split to the north. This path, Chesley had warned, was isolated. She would have to ride many miles before reaching a farm or village. Perfect, then. Isolation was just what she longed for.
The path, when she turned onto it, narrowed almost immediately. Here, the branches hung lower, and the tree trunks edged nearer, giving one the impression of being embraced, almost sheltered from the temporal world beyond the forest. Drawing the cold air deep into her lungs, Viviana set her mount, a spirited bay gelding, at a brisk pace and plunged into the shadowy depths. Here, the air was still, the ethereal silence broken by nothing save the muffled beats of the gelding’s hooves, allowing Viviana to clear her head of all but the horse’s graceful movements.
But the forest’s embrace did not last. Some three miles later, her humor much improved, Viviana felt the sun dapple her face and looked up to see the trees thinning. She could see that the path curved slightly, then melted into a narrow farm lane but a few feet ahead. The gelding, tired of trotting sedately through the trees, danced sideways into the wintry sunshine, and tossed his head with an impatient snort.
Narrowing her eyes against sudden brilliance, Viviana looked down an undulating stretch of road which was as close to straight as one was apt to find in this part of England. To either side lay open pasture, dotted by an occasional copse of trees. Far in the distance, the dilapidated roof of an old barn or cow byre peeked over the horizon.
Again, the horse tossed his head. Viviana could see his point. It really was a very empty road. And in the end, the temptation was too much. Viviana checked her grip on the reins, then touched him lightly with her crop.
The gelding sprang like a shot, leaping from a dead-stop to a thundering gallop so fast Viviana lost her breath. Along the gelding’s powerful thigh, her skirts billowed and whipped. Vaguely, she knew it was folly to give such a horse his head, but prudence seemed to have escaped her. The intensity of the horse’s raw physical power felt liberating. The rush of cold air cleared her head and tore at her hair.
Viviana leaned low over his withers, urging him forward. On and on they went, the gelding flying over the rolling hillocks, his powerful legs eating up the distance. Viviana felt the cashmere scarf around her neck loosen, then tear away. Her hat lifted buoyantly, but held fast, caught by its pin. In the wintry air, the tang of horse sweat was sharp, the chimera of escape exhilarating.
But alas, they soon reached the last stretch. The fantasy was over. The old byre was nearing, and beyond it a bend which even Viviana dared not risk. Gently, she reined the gelding back on the downhill grade. He began to slow in obedience, but in that instant, Viviana caught a flash of movement to her left.
It was as if lightning struck. She was jerked violently right, the horse shying wildly, nearly pitching her from the saddle. But Viviana was an experienced rider. She regained her seat neatly, and reined the gelding in, crooning soothingly at him. His sidestepping ended in a cloud of dust and a clatter of stones. The horse stood shuddering beneath her, his head tossing, his nostrils flared wide.
After slicking a hand down his neck, Viviana turned him in the roadbed, and trotted back to see what the devil had set him off. She wished at once that she had not.
Lord Wynwood stood at the corner of the dilapidated building, reclining lazily against it, one boot propped back on the stone foundation. He was dressed for the country, in snug, buff-colored breeches, a coat of dark brown, and riding boots just a shade darker. She could still make out the weal across his cheek, though it looked like little more than a scratch now. Behind the barn, a big black horse tugged halfheartedly at the colorless grass.
Wynood held a yellow apple in one hand, half of it eaten. He appeared to be still chewing as his dark gaze shrewdly appraised her. Finally, he swallowed. “Well, Viviana,” he said dryly. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Viviana’s heart was still pounding. “Why, how dare you!” she cried. “You—you did that deliberately!”
He tossed what was left of the apple to the black horse, and pushed away from the barn. “Did what deliberately?” he asked, approaching. “Made you go haring off like some bedlamite down a narrow country road? No, you imbue me with powers I do not possess, my dear.”
Viviana slid off her sidesaddle, and caught her reins in one hand. “Good God, Quinten, this is not funny,” she answered. “You spooked my horse! I could have been killed. Is that what you wish? Is that what would it would take to make you happy?”
He shot her a chiding look. “Viviana, you flushed a covey of grouse,” he returned. “Don’t ride so damned fast when you don’t know the terrain.”
Viviana felt her face heat.
“What, you didn’t see it?” he asked incredulously. “You don’t believe me?”
“I do not know,” she admitted. “What . . . what is that, a flush of grouse?”
He eyed her riding crop warily. “You frightened some birds in the weeds beyond the cottage,” he answered. “They burst into the air. Your horse saw them, Viviana, even if you did not.”
He was telling the truth, she realized. Her attention had been focused on the blind curve ahead, and on getting her horse to slow. But she had seen something—a very indistinct something—from one corner of her eye as she passed.
Quin stepped closer, and lifted his hand.
Instinctively, she drew back. “Non mi tocchi!”
The gelding took offense, nearly jerking the reins from her hand as he tossed his head and wheeled his hindquarters restlessly about.
“Put away the crop, Viviana,” said Quin, reaching again, more slowly. “I’ve learnt my lesson. What is this? A new Continental fashion?”
She was a tall woman, but Quin was far taller. She felt him tug on her hatpin, and lift the hat from her head. She felt surprisingly lighter, and turned in some embarrassment to see that her lost scarf dangled like a banner from her hatpin.
“You looked a sight, Vivie, with this flying out behind you.” Quin did not look up at her as he deftly disentangled the mess, but she could see the faint, familiar grin curving his mouth as he struggled. She could smell him, too; warm wool, perhaps a hint of whiskey, and the clean tang of soap—bergamot, she was sure. It was her favorite scent in all the world, and she was a little shaken to realize he still wore it.
“There,” he said just as her knees began to weaken. “The pin is freed. You may put your muffler and hat back on.”
But when he lifted his gaze, he faltered. “Your hair,” he said. “It is . . . it is coming down.”
“Non importo,” she answered, snatching her hat and slapping it back on. “I fix it later. Grazie, Lord Wynwood. I must be away.”
He caught her gently by the shoulder. “Viviana, I—” He stopped, and shook his head. “Contessa Bergonzi, I owe you an apology. Uncle Ches told me everything—why you are here, I mean. That it was all his doing. I was . . . I am just . . . well, I apologize.”
She surveyed him coldly. “Si, my lord, as well you should,” she returned. “And me, I should not have been in your study. That was my mistake.”
He dropped his hand, and smiled sourly. “I left you little choice.”
Viviana did not drop her gaze. “You are ten times a fool, my lord, if you believe that.”
He glanced at her oddly. “So my threat meant nothing to you?” he murmured. “Then why, pray, were you there?”
Still holding the gelding’s reins, Viviana stepped back a pace, then lifted one shoulder. “Perverse curiosity, perhaps.”
He held her gaze steadily, as if waiting to see if she would falter. Instead, she looked boldly back at him, and pretended she did not see the pain in his eyes. Yes, let him mourn for a lifetime the loss of his pretty fiancée. Viviana did not give a damn. She had not lived ten years of emptiness without learning how to harden her heart.
“You know that Esmée has jilted me?” he said. “Yes, I daresay my sister will have told you everything.”
Viviana had led the gelding to an old gatepost, now half-rotted away. “It is none of my concern, Wynwood,” she said. “I am not responsible for it. But I am sure your mother can yet find you a blue-bloodied, flaxen-haired English miss.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. “Miss Hamilton is Scottish, and her hair is decidedly brown.”
“The bride of your dreams.” Viviana gave a muted smile. “Do you not remember? You once told me what she would be like.”
“You don’t know anything about my dreams, my dear, and you never did,” he said. But there was little anger in his tone.
Viviana stepped gingerly onto what was left of the post, and mounted unaided. Lord Wynwood did not offer to help. Instead, he looked up at her a little bleakly. She wished he would not do that. She wished he would come out and fight the fair fight over whatever it was that so angered him. She could see it; not just the bleakness, but the rage, too. How easily one recognized one’s own shortcomings in another. And, oh, how she wished to scream at him! How she longed for the merest excuse. But he said nothing.
Viviana spurred the gelding halfway around. “Buona sera, Lord Wynwood,” she answered. “I must be off.”
She turned back. “Si?”
“You took luncheon with my mother today, did you not? I hope . . . I hope that she was kind to you?”
“She was polite,” said Viviana. “Exceedingly polite.”
“Ah, I think I see.” His face softened slightly. “Viviana, how long do you mean to be here?”
She bristled. “Until Chesley no longer needs my father. Why?”
He shrugged, and dragged a hand through his hair, a young man’s gesture. Her heart lurched. Ah, she remembered it well.
“It behooves us, Viviana, to get along,” he finally said.
“You have been talking to your sister,” she remarked. “Fine, then. We will get along—if we see one another, which is not likely, is it?”
He did not answer. Instead, he offered up his hand. “Then let there be peace between us, Viviana,” he said. “We are too old now to make fools of ourselves.”
Viviana leaned down, and shook it. His hand felt warm and strong, even through her glove. “Pax, Wynwood.”
Their hands slid apart. The touch was broken. Viviana straightened in her saddle, and started to nudge her mount around. Suddenly, she noticed for the first time that the stone building was actually a small house—a cottage, he had called it. The gardens were overgrown, but the place must have looked charming at one time. The house had a cow shed attached to one side, and it was this which was collapsing.
But Quin was still looking at her, as if he had something more to say. “Viviana, you look . . . different.”
“It has been almost ten years, Quinten,” she said quietly. “Time alters us.”
“No, not like that,” he said. “Your nose, it—it isn’t quite the same. Is it?”
Instinctively, she touched the slight hump with her gloved forefinger. “This, you are asking?” she answered. “No, I fell down the steps. I broke it.”
Again, she shrugged. “Two years past, perhaps,” she said vaguely. “Frightfully awkward of me, was it not? But now my face has—what does your uncle call it?—yes, gravitas. You English value that, I find. But as to me, well, I would much rather have my nose back.”
And then she touched the brim of her hat with her crop, spun her mount around, and cantered back up the country lane.
Quin watched her go until she had vanished in the distance; watched until even her dust had disappeared. Then he returned to the little cottage, and shoved the door open with one shoulder. Inside, he sloshed a little water into the kitchen basin, and meticulously washed the apple juice from his hands. A pity he could not wash away the memories of Viviana so easily.
Bracing his arms wide on the sink base, he looked through the small window at the dull green pasture beyond. Viviana seemed wholly unaffected by him, almost as if their months together had never been. For well over a year he had courted her and pursued her and made love to her, never entirely sure that she was his. Now he was certain. No matter how desperately he had wished to possess her, he had never even come close.
He wished to God he’d been just a little older, just a little more experienced when he’d met her. He wished, too, that she had not been so much older than he. Oh, perhaps it was nothing now; a few years, no more. But then, it had seemed insurmountable. It had felt to Quin as if Viviana already knew the secrets of life. As if she were watching him with veiled amusement as he struggled to come to terms with his manhood.
Conte Gianpiero Bergonzi, it seemed, had been fully confident of his manhood. And he had wanted Viviana, too; had wanted her badly enough to make an honest woman of her. Perhaps Bergonzi had simply had the backbone to do what Quin should have done. Perhaps Quin should have married her. Perhaps Viviana would have come to love him in time. And perhaps he could have been the father of her children.
She had three children. Not just the pretty little girl he’d seen at Astley’s but another daughter, and a son, too. It boggled the mind when he considered it. Her body was so little changed. Oh, she was more voluptuous. And yes, there were a few tiny lines about her eyes, and when she frowned, about her mouth. But she had three children. And another man had given them to her.
Another man had done what he had not the guts to do. Another man had enjoyed the beauty and the pleasure of living with Viviana every day, for the whole of his life. Because Quin had given up the chance. That was the awful truth.
The aching sense of loss nearly swallowed him up then. The yawning emptiness of the last decade reached out for him. And this time, there weren’t enough whores in all of Christendom, or enough virgins in all of Scotland, to push away the truth. His arms still braced wide on the sink, Quin squeezed his eyes shut, and willed himself not to cry.