The Willoughby Family Series Book 3
Scandal forced Lady Lily Melrose into an untenable decision: marry the man she wanted but who wanted someone else or leave her home for America. She gambled and stayed. Now, almost four years later, Lily is ready to gamble again—on a future that means leaving her neglectful, absent husband behind. But when a deadly adversary threatens them both, Lily realizes how little she understood about her husband—and her marriage. She’s faced with another impossible choice: leave the man she loved to face certain death or stay and fight to help him deliver on a promise he no longer remembers.
Lily’s husband had not come home for four days. Her trunks had been packed for two. And today, whether her husband showed or not, she and her trunks were leaving.
They stood outside her cold bedchamber, somber as the maidservant next to them. Three leather trunks. A pitiful showing after three years and one hundred thirty-three days of wedded regret.
The grand confrontation she had envisioned was like so many other unrealized moments in her marriage. Birthdays alone. Anniversaries alone. Holidays alone.
The tea and lemon scones she’d forced down had hardened in her stomach, much like her resolve. How long would it take for him to notice he was alone?
Of course, that wasn’t her true question. No, she wondered if Robert would notice she was gone at all.
Lily gave her head—and her heart—a stern shake. Evening had disappeared into night, and there would be no more lollygagging.
She was stalling. Not because she wasn’t sure this time, but because she was. She had to leave, before she became as insignificant to herself as she was to him. She’d made the decision: she was going to America to live with her mother and sister. She’d booked passage.
Though Robert couldn’t care less where she resided, once Lily left this townhouse, she had another man to face. Her ship didn’t leave for a fortnight, so she had to return to her brother’s home.
She’d rather clean the chimney, in pouring down rain, than tell Adam he had been right about her husband.
The sound of the front door banging closed sent her heart straight to her throat. She couldn’t hear his footsteps, couldn’t see him, but suddenly the three-story townhouse seemed charged by her husband’s presence.
Her lady’s maid, Anna, blocked the corridor like a tiny, blonde guard dog ready to bite the heels of an intruder. “Do you still wish to leave right now, milady? Shall I have them come for the trunks?”
“Now?” Anna obviously envisioned the goodbye would take a while. Lily held no such illusion anymore.
Anna gave a mournful nod and hurried down the hallway. Lily turned to give her room one last perusal. Had they forgotten anything? Her solitary bed had been stripped of her linens. Her armoire stood empty. Lily’s presence had been scrubbed clean.
She jumped at his deep voice, noted the thread of surprised annoyance in his tone, and turned to face him. “Good evening.”
Robert stared at the trunks, not at her.
Her lips pressed inward and she couldn’t stop the sadness that welled in her eyes.
This was the last time she would likely see him.
She had no intention of returning to England, and if she did, he wouldn’t be among those to receive her calling card.
She hadn’t seen him since she’d returned from the holidays with her family. Unkempt, dark curls and a hard-edged jaw framed lips that rarely smiled anymore. His disarray spoke of long nights and little sleep and carried that do-not-ask-what-I-was-doing scent.
Lily had spent far too many hours considering what he might be doing. She’d been given plenty of fodder, for the papers never ceased to let up on the comings and goings of her husband.
Come morning, the scandal sheets would have inevitably spelled out his entire evening for her. Perhaps the Rose and Thistle this time?
When his gaze lifted to hers, her breath held.
“Have a pleasant trip.” The indifference in his tone matched the cool glance he offered as he passed, continued on to his room. Lily froze, staring at the space he had occupied for so few seconds.
A spark of anger flickered in her belly, one she had thought long-since dormant after being shoved aside by a weary acceptance for so long. It ignited to full flame until her throat, her face felt hot, flushed.
How dare he?
She had allowed him to make her feel like an intrusion in his life, but not today. Not now.
Lily followed his footsteps to the door she had spent months pretending did not exist. She put her hand on the doorknob, pushed past the quick rise of dull pain that threatened to smother her courage and opened the door.
Robert stood in the middle of the room, his arm raised, frozen. “Yes?” She imagined a pint of ale would receive a warmer welcome.
She squared her shoulders and moved inside anyway. “We need to have a discussion.”
A flash of panic widened his eyes before it disappeared behind an inscrutable face. He lowered his arm. “Could this wait until tomorrow? I have an appointment.”
“Now?” she couldn’t help but ask. It was dark outside. “You haven’t been home since I returned.”
“I might be home for a spell tomorrow.” His dismissal clear, he disappeared into his dressing room.
“I won’t be here.”
She crossed her arms over her stomach, which had begun to ache.
The seconds stretched until he reappeared, a fresh shirt hanging loosely from his fingers. “Some other time then. If you’ll excuse me, I must bathe.”
He turned away, and his attitude helped her find her courage.
“I am going to America.”
There. It was done.
But the pressure didn’t release from her chest. She didn’t feel lighter or relieved or happier. Instead, the pain and sadness she’d fought back for so long pushed through the walls she’d carefully constructed. Why now? When she wanted only to feel the anger?
“What does that mean precisely?” His words were careful. The neglected chill in the air sent shivers down her arms, but he hadn’t turned to face her. The shirt barely clung to the hand he’d dropped to his side. Tension rolled from the hard set of his shoulders to his fighter’s stance.
“I am moving. To America. I’ll return to my brother’s this evening, and I am chartered on a ship that leaves in a fortnight.” Of course said brother wasn’t aware of any of this yet.
One hurdle at a time.
Robert turned to her, his face a measured look of blankness. One had to work hard at perfecting such a complete lack of emotion. Lord knew he’d had ample practice.
They had been so enamored of each other once. Those first glorious months of marriage, when they hadn’t been able to get enough of each other.
Until—No. Lily shook her head. She could dot a pin on the moment where it had started to go wrong, but dredging up that pain again wouldn’t change where they were now.
Still, even after the last few years, there was a vestige of—not hope, really, for she didn’t hope he would love her. Maybe it was a glimmer of what could have been that she clung to. She certainly wasn’t clinging to what was.
“Is your family in Town for the season already then?” he asked politely.
“I left you a note of my direction when I stayed with them over the holidays.”
Lily looked away from his impenetrable brick wall of a face, searched the room for a stack of papers and finding one on a side table, she moved into his room, aware it was a bold step she’d rarely taken.
At least, not while he was home.
“What—what are you about?”
She found the stack on his table and picked it up.
“Those are personal,” came his argument.
She flipped through them, noting the scrawl of handwriting on each until she came to—
The papers were yanked out of her hands and Robert’s presence loomed behind her. Far enough away that his arm was held tense, but close enough that the heat emanated from his body. He pulled the letters to him and stepped away.
“Those are mine. You have no right to riffle through my things.”
She pointed at the letters, the top letter containing one simple word—Robert—in her handwriting. “That is the letter I left for you. In your stack of how many unread? Did you even know I’d left?”
Funny how as soon as she had a foot out the door, she found the boldness to say and do things she never would have dared.
“You go to your family’s seat every year,” he said bluntly. “It didn’t require a letter to explain the obvious.”
Yes, she had. Every year for three years. Without her husband.
“Had I not seen you this moment, would you even be aware my things have been removed from this house?” Why did she even ask? “Of course you wouldn’t.”
He swallowed, looking like he’d ingested curdled milk. “I hold you in the greatest esteem—”
“Oh bother your esteem.” She was shocked at the levels of anger rising inside of her, at the things she wanted to shout, to hurl at him. She wanted to blame him for it all.
But the truth was, she wasn’t the woman he wanted.
She never had been.
Lily had known it when she married him. But in that first year of marriage, she’d thought they’d found a way to build something wonderful. How wrong she had been. The evidence of how quickly it had fallen apart was proof of her mistake.
“Is your intent to go through divorce proceedings then?”
“Do you imagine the courts will see your lack of interest in me as any form of aggravating offense? If neglect alone was grounds for divorce, they might number in the thousands.” She shook her head. “Do you hate me so much then?” She couldn’t hide the resignation in her tone. Years of regret were hard to swallow.
“I don’t hate you,” he replied before turning to button his shirt.
“But you wish a divorce.”
“You wish to be happy. You won’t find that with me, and I thought it kinder to not stand in your way.”
How was one supposed to respond to such a blunt, harsh statement? She was surprised it didn’t sting more, but for years, protective vines had wrapped themselves around her heart, squeezing with a vengeance strong enough to hold the pain of her failure deep inside.
“If we divorce, you will live free in America. You could remarry. No one would be the wiser.”
Obtaining a divorce was a mountainous endeavor—a long, expensive process that was ruinous to all. For a woman to petition for divorce, she had to prove adultery and cruelty. Robert’s complete lack of interest in her was painful, but she couldn’t claim abuse.
But it was clear—he’d thought about it.
Once that idea took root, she couldn’t help the hateful thought that slithered across it.
“Is this because of Cordelia?”
“What? No.” He looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
The vines tightened, sending a sharp pain through her chest. Her eyes filled without warning and she bit down hard on her lip to distract her mind from letting the tears fall.
She refused to cry in front of him. If she did, well, then, this awful day would be complete.
“You know her husband Halton passed on, don’t you? That she’s free.”
At that, he snapped his gaze to hers. “Halton died?”
“Yes, he died. No, I do not wish a divorce. And no, I do not plan to remain in this house. This is the last place I wish to be.”
She turned, ready—no, desperate to flee this place. She refused to continue wanting a man who wanted someone else.
She paused in the doorway, her body coiled with tension to guard against whatever else he wished to throw upon her. Lily took a short breath, all she could manage, but she couldn’t turn around.
“If you would, send word when you leave.”
His flat words were a final kick, when she already felt as though she’d been laid flat on the ground. Without another word, she continued into the hallway and down the stairs.
Of course he would use her given name only as she walked out the door.
The carriage ride to her brother’s home should have been only a handful of minutes, as the townhouse Lily shared with Robert had been just on the edge of Mayfair, but close to Adam’s home on Acorn street.
But due to the rain, they traveled down Piccadilly at a pace she could have overtaken if walking in bare feet. Lily stared at the drizzle that slid down the window. The gloom matched her mood.
Why was it one could always come up with the perfect things to say only before or after the moment, but never during? It was blessedly annoying.
She’d had a plan. A glorious plan that would have upended her husband’s world and allowed her to exit the stage of her marriage in a grand gesture of utter contempt.
She spent hours imagining that confrontation, dreaming up the right words to say, the proper emotions. She closed her eyes, shook her head in disgust. She’d forgotten every second of preparation.
“Milady, are you ready?” Anna asked. She’d been silent through the entire trip.
“I don’t know.” Lily sank back against the cushioned bench as the carriage came to a stop where her brother’s home awaited her. Once she stepped inside that house it would be real. Her family would know, their servants would know and the London papers would know, since they always seemed to be a step ahead of her family.
In fact, she was surprised a reporter wasn’t waiting at the gates to question her as she stepped out of the carriage.
She shouldn’t care what others thought of her, but she did. So much more than she ever admitted.
In America, she could be anyone she wanted, anything she desired. No one would know or care about her failed marriage.
She could even—had she even an ounce of boldness in her bones—take a lover.
A gurgle of laughter erupted, and Lily couldn’t help but laugh at herself. Her? A lover?
A man would have to pick her out from the wall hangings first.
“All right. Let’s go.”
Anna grasped the doorknob handle and let herself out.
The door was open and Lily took a deep breath, flexing her shaky hands. It was time. She couldn’t live in the carriage.
The rain attacked her the moment the door opened and Charles, the footman, scurried to shield them with a cape. They hurried to the front door where Lily didn’t wait on ceremony but pushed her way in.
Higgins, her brother’s butler, stood waiting, his thin frame held with perfect posture. “My lady,” he said, moving forward to take the cloak from Charles.
“How did you know I was—” Lily stopped. It never did any good to question Higgins. The man had a frightening ability to know the goings-on of the household, no matter what room it happened in.
“I wasn’t expecting you.” He seemed concerned at that fact.
“My brother didn’t know I would be here. Are they here?” Now that she was, Lily’s hands had begun to shake. Which was silly. She had nothing to be afraid of.
“I shall inform Lord Merewood at once.”
“Higgins,” Lily called out before he disappeared behind a door.
The last thing she wanted was an interview with her brother, who would turn it into a well-intended interrogation followed by an immediate desire to clock Robert over the head. Hitting his brothers-in-law was not a foreign idea to Adam.
“I will go upstairs, milady,” Anna said. “See that you’re settled.”
Lily nodded and turned to the butler, who had stopped before her. “It’s late, Higgins. I wish to go bed. Adam can have his conversation tomorrow.”
Higgins’ eyebrow twitched, and Lily knew he was put out by her statement. He had his marching orders, and he was a man who carried out his tasks.
She sighed. “Very well. Lead me to him.”
The feminine voice made Lily turn and once she did, she offered a sincere smile. “Aria.”
“What are you doing here?” Her brother’s wife, Aria, the Countess of Merewood, strode toward her with an urgency matched by the frozen, overly bright smile on her sun-kissed, striking features. Aria was like a ray of sunshine let into a room that had been dark for ages—unexpected and so captivating, one couldn’t look away.
Wisps of her dark curls waved in the breeze Aria made with speedy steps. “We weren’t expecting you.”
“So I was told,” Lily said with a smile. “It is all right, isn’t it? I…Well, I suppose I should tell you.”
Aria waved a hand. “Fine, fine, whatever it is. Let’s go upstairs. I see luggage; you intend to stay. Let’s get you right to your room, shall we?”
Aria placed a hand on Lily’s back and near shoved her forward. Lily stumbled and caught pace, then glanced over her shoulder. “Are you certain this is all right? You seem quite—”
“Don’t be silly. This is your home, always.” She gave a not-so-gentle push again. “But you must be ready to retire.”
Lily stopped. “What is going on?”
“How about a nice, long relaxing bath? Maybe—”
“Aria.” Lily put a hand out to stop her sister-in-law from herding her up the stairs. “A bath sounds glorious, but what is it you are trying to avoid?”
Resignation set in the scrunch of Aria’s face. “I had planned to send a note around tomorrow. I didn’t know you would be here, at the house. But you are and therefore—”
“Stop prevaricating. There isn’t much that could worsen this day for me, so you might as well share.”
“You say that now, but—”
“Is it Mother?” Lily interrupted. “Or Georgie? Has something happened to them?” Their mother, Hypatia, and Lily’s youngest sister, Georgiana, had moved to America with Hypatia’s husband Franklin after Lily’s marriage.
Now Lily would build her own future there.
“No, all is well. We have heard nothing else.”
“Then what is it?”
“I imagine,” came another voice, a female’s voice with a sharper edge, “it is my arrival our sister finds so disconcerting.”
Lily froze. Her hands fisted at her side, while she struggled to capture the breath that had fled her lungs. Her gaze met Aria’s, who offered quiet courage.
It wasn’t as though Lily had never expected to see her again. She just hadn’t expected it would be today, of all days.
Lily took small steps to slowly turn and face the one person she least wanted to see.
“Jeannie Ruesch is a new author to me, but I am ever so happy to have found her!! This is the third book I’ve read in the Willoughby Family Series, and it was nearly as good as the fist. The first (There’s Something about Her) was Outstanding! This is a story of the next to youngest of four sisters who has had to grow up in the shadows of her two older (and in her opinion, more beautiful) sisters. As we know, not all things thrive in the shadows of the sun. Lily is married to the third son of a Marquis, and is also somewhat neglected and never feels wanted or worthy of love. So, basically you have two insecure people in a marriage who don’t know how to show the other their or their spouses worth. But, trying to learning that lesson is what makes this such a genuinely romantic book without being in any way a cookie cutter romance! Look forward to Many more novels by this author!”