Adaline took her usual position, right at the edge of the garden, where the view out to the sea always took her breath away. Sighing deeply, she reached into the bag at her feet, taking out what she needed.
Her mind ticked off the items as she went: sketchbook, with many blank pages, still left within it. Two pencils, each sharpened almost to daggers. One for outlines, and one for shading. Black ink, and brush, in case she wanted to add more depth, but she usually didn’t do that out here. It was only once she was back inside, in the parlour of Birkenhead Lodge, that she settled to that task if she was so inclined.
She opened the sketchbook at a blank page, gazing around for inspiration. Often she sketched the cliffs and the sea, but today they did not lure her for some reason. Perhaps she would sketch the garden instead.
Her eyes skipped around to the rose bushes along the edge of the path. They were beautiful, of course; a cacophony of colour and form, ranging from a deep crimson red to the palest peachy pink, blooming with abandon. And then there were the irises, deep purple, like the imperial purple on the robes of a king, and daffodils, buttery yellow, with a knob of orange right in the centre.
She sighed deeply, pencil poised. There was so much inspiration here, for a landscape artist. On this patch of earth, on the coast of Lancashire, all was beauty for the taking. A wild, desolate beauty, to be sure, once the manicured grounds of Birkenhead Lodge were left, but a beauty nonetheless. A forlorn, grey beauty that matched her soul far more than the streets of Coventry, where she had grown up.
Her pencil hovered over the page, and she bit her lip. She was unsettled this morning. Usually, as soon as she took her habitual seat in the garden to draw, she would feel some small measure of peace at least. She would become absorbed in her task, to the point that sometimes Mrs. Bolt, the housekeeper, would come out to remind her that luncheon was about to be served.
But today, it was proving harder than normal. Her thoughts turned melancholy, and for a moment, she gazed at the garden intently. She didn’t see the spectacular rose bushes or the majestic irises anymore. All was lost, and she frowned, her eyes filling with tears.
She turned around restlessly, gazing back over the sea. It was grey and choppy; she saw white waves breaking far out, as the wind whipped up. The sky above was the same dull metallic grey, scudded with swiftly moving clouds. In the very far distance, she saw the tall sails of a ship as it crashed through the ocean, on its way to Ireland, perhaps, or the Isle of Man.
She blinked back the tears. For one moment, she longed to be on that ship, sailing away. Far, far away from this patch of earth that she had tried so very hard to make her own. How was it possible that she still felt like a visitor within this house, after all this time?
Stop it, Adaline, she told herself sternly. You have made your bed, and now you just have to lie in it. The Lord does not look down kindly on melancholy women who feel sorry for themselves.
Taking a deep, restorative breath, she turned away from the sea, studying the garden again carefully. There was a small statue, tucked away in the garden, almost hidden by the plants. A stone cherub, with outstretched wings and a bow and arrow in hand.
She smiled slightly. It was Cupid, of course, the winged messenger, who shot his arrows into the hearts of men and women, causing them to fall in love.
Her smile faded. Cupid had found her, it was true, but his arrow had not pierced the heart of the one that she wanted. And perhaps he never would.
She bit her lip. She was feeling sorry for herself again. This was her life, and she just had to make the best of it.
Resolutely she picked up her pencil, drawing the outline of the statue. Within minutes she was blessedly absorbed in her task, her head bent over the page, her hand moving like quicksilver as she worked to capture everything that her eyes beheld.
She had no idea how much time had passed when she suddenly became conscious of a shadow, falling across her. She glanced up quickly then stiffened automatically, putting down her pencil with a resigned sigh.
“You startled me, Mr. Montgomery,” she said quickly, closing her sketchbook.
The man smiled. “I am sorry to hear that, my dear Adaline,” he replied, his eyes raking over her in that insolent manner which always made her feel so uncomfortable. “Why do you persist in being so formal with me? We are dear friends now. My name is Reuben, and I insist that you should use it, my dear.”
Her lips tightened. She didn’t want to call him by his Christian name. It implied an intimacy with him that she did not want. And she knew that if she capitulated, he would see it as some kind of small victory in this persistent pursuit of her.
She gazed at him steadily, in pure dislike. A tall, angular man, he had a long, almost aquiline face, with a thin nose and small, hazel coloured eyes. His sandy coloured hair ruffled wildly in the sudden breeze, for all the world looking like a bird that was about to take flight.
The strong breeze whipped her hair suddenly, too, causing the pins that held her bun to loosen and scatter. She felt it falling, whipping around her face so intensely that she was forced to pull it back with her hands.
“Do not do that, my dear,” said the man, in a husky voice. “Your hair looks like black silk, streaming in the wind…”
“Do not say that,” she said sharply, glaring at him. “It is not…appropriate, to say such things to me. You must be aware of that, Mr. Montgomery.”
He grinned, as if he had not even heard her words. With shocked eyes, she watched as he settled down on the seat beside her, pulling it closer.
“Ah, Adaline,” he said, in a light tone. “You must be aware that James has squirrelled himself away in his study, as is his morning habit.” A deliberate pause. “He cannot hear or witness anything that we say or do, which leaves us free to speak and act in any way that we desire.”
She pursed her lips, staring at him with distaste.
“You are my husband’s childhood friend,” she said slowly. “I do not understand, Mr. Montgomery, how you feel that just because my husband is not within earshot, that you can speak to me in such a suggestive manner.”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he picked up her hand, which was resting on the top of her sketchbook. Her skin instantly started to crawl, and she pulled it way quickly, still stunned that he could be so forward with her while her husband sat oblivious in the house beyond.
A fierce stab of anger tore through her, which she restrained with difficulty. Mr. Reuben Montgomery was one of James’ closest, dearest friends; they had grown up alongside each other in Liverpool. They had known each other since they were lads. That was the only reason that she did not order him out of her home, now, and had not done so the moment that he had arrived at Birkenhead Lodge.
He had arrived three weeks ago, with his younger sister, asking if they could stay indefinitely on account of the young lady’s health. Miss Isabel Montgomery, only eighteen years of age, had always been a fragile girl, apparently. She was as pale as wax, and coughed constantly, sometimes appearing quite out of breath. Her doctor had advised a long rest by the sea. James had been sympathetic and told them that they might stay as long as they wished.
She liked Isabel, who was sweet and gentle, and good company. But her brother, Reuben, was another kettle of fish entirely. From the moment he had arrived, he constantly sought Adaline, growing bolder with each encounter. He always made sure that James was not around when he harassed her.
She took a deep, calming breath. These people were her guests. She had been brought up to honour guests. Besides, the presence of his old friend pleased her husband greatly. And since she could not do much to please James at all, then the little she could do was tolerate Reuben Montgomery for his sake.
But that did not mean she had to tolerate his advances. Not at all.
“How long do you mean to keep up this charade, Adaline?” he said, in a low, caressing tone, which made her skin crawl again. “How long do you intend to deny your feelings for me, and deny yourself the love and affection that is your right?”
“You are not my husband,” she said stiffly. “And I am not the sort of woman who seeks affection with other gentlemen. I took marriage vows, Mr. Montgomery, which are binding.” She took a deep breath. “Besides all of that, I do not hold the affection for you that you seem to believe. I beg you, once and for all, to not persist in this manner; to respect my wishes, for my sake, and for the sake of James, who is your dear friend.”
He scoffed, his small hazel eyes as hard as nuts. “Adaline, can you even remember the last time that James paid any attention to you at all?”
Her eyes widened, stinging with tears. She felt as if he had reached over and slapped her clean across the face.
He didn’t seem to notice how much he had hurt her, or didn’t care if he had. He blithely carried on in the same matter of fact tone.
“James would not care,” he declared. “He would not even notice, my dear, if you had an indiscretion here and there. You cannot deny it…”
She flinched. It took all of her effort to still sit here and listen to him. To listen to his insolence. But it was the fact that he believed that he was able to talk to her in such a way, without any consequence, which saddened her the most, almost causing her to burst into tears.
“James spends most of his time in his study,” continued Reuben. “Or when he does not, he walks alone along the cliffs. We would not even have to hide it, Adaline, and that is the truth of it. You are well aware that I am right.”
She fought back the tears. She did not know what was worse: hearing this awful man say this to her, or the fact that she was very aware how true the words were. How very much aware she was that James was completely indifferent to her, despite her continual efforts to be a good, loving wife to him.
“Please, Mr. Montgomery,” she said, in a strangled voice. “Please, I implore you to leave me alone. I am very well aware that my husband and I do not have a lover’s connection…not that the state of my marriage is any of your business.” She took a deep breath. “I have promised my heart to him and I will not betray him, even if he never returns my love.”
The words tasted like ashes in her mouth. To even talk about her marriage with this man wounded her deeply. To admit that this man spoke the truth about how James was towards her, and felt about her, was even harder. The only reason she had finally decided to was in the effort to dissuade him, once and for all.
Reuben Montgomery had her pegged as a lonely, neglected wife. He thought that she was vulnerable, and ripe for the plucking. He must realise that even if she was indeed that wife, it made no difference.
She did love James. She loved him fiercely, with her whole heart, and had loved him almost from the moment that she had set eyes upon him. The fact that he did not reciprocate her affection was beside the point. She would never betray him. Even if the man sitting beside her was charming, and handsome, and took her breath away, she still would not do it.
But this man was none of those things. This man-made her skin crawl, with his slimy advances, the deliberate way he spoke to her behind her husband’s back, and his disloyalty to his friend.
What would James think, if he knew about it?
She tightened her lips. Perhaps Reuben Montgomery spoke the truth when he said he simply would not care. And that was perhaps the saddest thing of all, in this sorry state of affairs.
Reuben gazed at her steadily. “We are in the middle of nowhere, Adaline,” he said slowly. “If it is judgement you fear, you need not. We are so isolated here, on this forlorn coast in Lancashire, that gossip is not a concern.” He paused. “And my sister and I shall be here for an indefinite period, do not forget. Isabel’s health is unlikely to improve dramatically, and her doctor did recommend a long stay, after all.”
She shook her head in disbelief. It was simply as if he had not heard one word that she had uttered. The man was so totally on his own course it was as if he was deaf to her. As if her will was almost an obstacle that stood in his way of getting what he wanted.
She had felt his eyes lingering on her from the very start, almost from the minute that he and his sister had arrived at Birkenhead Lodge with their array of luggage. Isabel had been apologetic, saying that she was sorry to inconvenience them, and how grateful she was for their hospitability until she was well enough to return home. Reuben had accompanied his sister as her chaperone and had acted as if it was his right to be here.
He had surveyed the house and the grounds in an almost speculative way, too. Almost insolently. It had angered her, but there wasn’t much that she could do about it, was there? He was James’ dear friend, and it wasn’t as if her husband would listen to any of her concerns about him. Or if he would even care.
She glared at him. His tone was insolent, now, almost threatening her, with his extended stay. Telling her that he was ensconced here, and there was nothing that she could do about it. Reuben knew as well as she did that James was oblivious, and even if he was aware, he simply would not care.
She had no way of stopping this man. No way at all, if he did not respect her wishes and leave her alone.
It was simply intolerable.
Abruptly, she stood up, quickly placing her things back in her bag.
She glared at him again. “While my husband is alive, there will be no other man for me, Mr. Montgomery,” she said, through tight lips. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must go inside. Good day.”
She marched off, without waiting for his reply, her face burning with the shame of it.
I will not cry, she told herself fiercely. I will not let that man make me cry!
He had utterly spoilt her morning. Her brief sense of peace, when she had been sketching, was shattered now. The one thing that she did, which gave her joy and release, and he had ruined it for her.
She went in through the back door, walking through the kitchen. Mrs. Hargreaves, the cook, was hard at work as always, stirring a pot of bubbling soup on the hob. Nellie, the maid who helped her, was busy cutting up onions and leek for the traditional Lancashire stew that she knew was on this evening’s menu.
The elderly cook smiled when she saw her. “And how are you today, Mrs. Townshend? Did you get much drawing in, then?”
Adaline smiled back. She liked Mrs. Hargreaves. She liked all of the servants at Birkenhead Lodge, even though she hadn’t chosen any of them. They had been a part of the house when she had arrived there, but they had been warm and friendly from the very start, welcoming her as their mistress.
Sometimes, she thought they were the only friendly faces she saw.
“A little bit,” she replied. “I find it so restful, and the garden is looking lovely at this time of year…”
Mrs. Hargreaves nodded. “That it is, lassie! Spring is always grand in this part of the country.” She studied her closely. “But why are you looking so pale? I thought the spring air would do you the world of good.”
“Am I?” asked Adaline, biting her lip. “I do not know…”
But suddenly, the cook looked out of the window. Reuben Montgomery was strolling casually across the lawn, whistling.
“He looks like the cat that just ate the cream,” remarked the cook tartly. “Will Mr. Montgomery be at luncheon, or is he leaving the Lodge this afternoon?” She glanced sympathetically at her mistress.
She knows, thought Adaline miserably. She knows that Reuben Montgomery torments me.
She could tell that Mrs. Hargreaves didn’t like the man, and she didn’t like what he was doing to her. But it wasn’t like the cook had any power to change it.
For a brief second, she yearned to confide in the cook. Mrs. Hargreaves was so grandmotherly, with her snow-white hair, soft, wrinkled skin, and kind, sea-green eyes. It would be such a relief to just tell someone how she felt. How much he distressed her, and how hurt she felt when he talked the way he did about her husband.
But, no. She couldn’t talk to her about any of it. And the only person she could talk to wasn’t interested in listening to her.
She took a deep breath. “Yes, Mrs. Hargreaves. I do believe he will be attending luncheon.”
James Townshend pulled down the sleeve of his jacket in a distracted manner. His manservant, Groves, was sweeping specks of imaginary dust off the shoulders, with a small brush, as was his habit.
He sighed deeply. He really didn’t feel like going down to dinner tonight. A strange lethargy had been almost overwhelming him the last few days, and even the thought of chatting with his friend Reuben wasn’t enough to shake it off completely.
“All ready, sir,” said Groves, with one final flick of the brush.
James gazed at himself in the full-length mirror. He saw a tall man, with wide shoulders, and an almost burly physique. His light brown hair was swept back. The sideburns, of the same colour, were neatly trimmed, and his greenish-blue eyes looked greener today. Mother had always told him his eyes were like the sea; that they changed constantly, often depending on what he was wearing.
A man who no longer held the promise of youth but was neither in middle age. Expensively tailored clothes, which in truth were too fine for a dinner at home. But he had been trying to make an effort since Reuben and his sister, Isabel, had come to stay at Birkenhead Lodge, and tonight was no different.
He was already a little late. He knew that they would be seated already, patiently waiting for him, before they started the first course. He closed his eyes for a second, picturing them, one by one, in the same seats that they always sat in.
Reuben would be meticulously attired, too; his friend had always been a little vain in that regard. His friend would be perched uncomfortably in the chair, his long legs straining a little beneath it. He had such a tall, lanky physique. Reuben would have slicked his sandy hair off his face, too.
Next to his friend would be sitting Miss Isabel Montgomery, his sister. Only eighteen years old, he had known Isabel since she was a little girl. She would be dressed plainly and well, as always, perhaps in a white gown, as was her habit. The shade of it would be very close to the tone of her skin. Isabel often reminded him of a wax doll; the pallor of her skin was truly alarming. A small woman, with delicate bones, dull blonde hair, and the palest blue eyes that he had ever beheld, which would often flicker nervously.
He took a deep breath. He was coming to the third person who would be seated. The third person, who was a permanent fixture at that table.
His wife. Adaline.
His chest tightened, at the thought of her. What would she be wearing this evening? Adaline often favoured bold colours, like red and blue and green, and he had to admit, those shades complemented the darkness of her skin. He had often thought that his wife had the complexion of a Spaniard, or an Italian.
An almost olive complexion, with rich brown eyes, the colour of molasses. Her raven black hair would be swept back into an elegant chignon, on the nape of her swan-like neck. Sitting down, he would never know – if he didn’t already – how tall and curvaceous his wife was; her ample bosom, small waist, and wide, womanly hips were obscured beneath her flowing gowns.
No, Adaline did not dress to attract attention in that way. He knew many women who would have taken advantage of that bosom, making sure the bodice was low for ample effect. But Adaline was naturally modest in that way. He could imagine those olive cheeks turning rosy with embarrassment, if any man’s gaze lingered too long in that area.
He smiled sadly to himself. Adaline was a beautiful woman – any fool could see that. A very beautiful woman, with her exotic Spaniard colouring, and silky black hair. An alluring woman, too, with her curves. And yet…every time he gazed at her, it was like he was looking at a painting, rather than a flesh and blood woman.
“Sir,” said Groves, coughing slightly. “Dinner will be served soon.”
He took a deep breath, and the vision of Adaline, gazing at him sadly, suddenly disappeared, as if in a puff of smoke.
He didn’t want to think of those sad brown eyes, rather like a puppy’s. He didn’t want to think about them at all.
“Of course, Groves,” he said. “I am just on my way.”
He opened the door to the dining room. Everyone was seated, exactly as he had envisioned them. Their eyes swivelled to face him.
“Good evening,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I apologise for my tardiness…”
“What were you doing up there, old chap?” grinned Reuben, picking up his wine glass. “I thought you may have fallen asleep in the bathtub.”
James grinned sheepishly, quickly taking his place. He unfolded his napkin, placing it across his lap, before turning to the two ladies.
“Ladies,” he said, taking a deep breath. “You both look lovely this evening, as always.”
Isabel smiled shyly, almost blushing. He knew he made her feel uncomfortable with his compliments, even if they were generic in the extreme.
Adaline, on the other hand, did not blush. Nor did she smile. She simply gazed at him, her large brown eyes limpid. Then her eyes dropped, staring down at her place setting, picking up the knife and fork restlessly.
He felt a tiny stab of dismay. Why did she always make him feel guilty in some way? As if everything that he said to her just wasn’t good enough.
He had complimented her, hadn’t he? Yes, it had been a sweeping one, that he would have said to any lady at the table. But it was enough, wasn’t it? He had done his husbandly duty.
The door opened, and the first course arrived. Dinah, one of the maids, carried a large silver container, containing soup. Everyone was silent as she poured the steaming soup into their individual bowls.
Reuben picked up his spoon, staring into his bowl. “This is an interesting colour,” he said, a little doubtfully. “What type of soup is this?”
Adaline smiled slightly. “It is leek and barley, Mr. Montgomery. A speciality soup of this area. I was unfamiliar with it when I first came here, too.”
“It is rather green,” said Reuben, wrinkling his nose. “I usually do not like anything with too much green in it.”
“You have been ever thus, brother,” said Isabel. Her voice was like that of a baby bird: high pitched, squeaky, and a little tremulous, thought James. “I well remember how you used to throw a tantrum when we were young, if you were forced to eat your greens. I remember it would often frustrate Mama…”
“I do not think that I was that bad,” said Reuben, frowning at his sister. “You do exaggerate, Isabel.”
“I think that we should start,” said James, smiling. “The soup shall get cold, and it is best eaten hot. I think you will like it, Reuben, if you give it a chance.”
“If you say so,” said Reuben, doubtfully.
“Oh, yes,” said Adaline. “Mrs. Hargreaves is a wonderful cook, and this soup is one of her masterpieces.” She paused. “For the main, she has made her famous Lancashire stew, which is delicious. I guarantee that everyone will want second helpings…”
James smiled at his wife. “Her Lancashire stew is superb, is it not?”
Adaline’s smile widened. “It is the best stew that I have ever tasted,” she said. “Simply astonishing! Poor Mrs. Gillam, our cook at my family home, does not hold a candle to our Mrs. Hargreaves, I am afraid. Watery casseroles and limp vegetables were the order of the day at Harcourt House.”
James laughed, leaning forward in his seat, gazing at his wife. She really was the most charming woman, and when she was animated, as she was now, it was as if her whole face lit up. Her velvet brown eyes sparkled vivaciously, and her cheeks were rosy.
He studied her in the candlelight. The swell of her bosom, rising from her bodice. That elegant, long neck. Her jet black hair, coiled at the nape of her neck. He knew that when it was undone, it hung to the bottom of her back, as straight as a curtain. Beautiful…
Abruptly, he stopped laughing. He leant back in his seat, frowning slightly, picking up his spoon. For one second, he glanced back up her. Her smile had frozen on her face just a little, and she was gazing at him in slight confusion, as if she didn’t quite understand what was happening.
She picked up her soup spoon, dipping it into the hot liquid, bending over the bowl. She did not look up.
He felt a sharp stab of guilt. He knew that she was hurt. He knew that she didn’t understand why he had pulled back from her at the moment of connection. He even knew that she was wondering why it always happened; why the second that he engaged with her, on any level, he cut it off, cut it short, pulled back. As if he was drawn to an open flame, then realised how scorching hot it actually was.
He kept spooning the soup into his mouth, in an automatic motion, barely tasting it. It was a shame, because he hadn’t lied. It was a wonderful soup.
His eyes flickered towards her again. Adaline was beautiful, and she was infinitely desirable as well. Those dark gypsy eyes, that coiled black hair, that womanly figure. Not only that, but she was a good wife to him. She was loyal, generous, and gentle by nature.
He blinked twice. Suddenly, she started to dissolve in his vision.
Another woman was rearing into his mind. His lips tightened, and his heart started to instinctively beat faster. He didn’t want to think about her. He didn’t want her to appear to him now. Desperately, he tried to fight it away, but she had arrived as she always did.
Adaline’s dark hair and eyes, her curvaceous figure, all started to recede in his mind. Instead, he was seeing a woman who was startlingly different.
She was vivid, in his mind, now. Her petite frame, with fine bones. Her flaxen hair, falling in thick ringlets, framing her heart-shaped face. Her large blue eyes, bluer than the sky on a summer’s day.
Another woman. So very different from the one that he called wife.
It was the first time that he had ever laid eyes on her.
He had been a younger man, of course. Brimming with youthful vigour and bluster. A regular day at the Athenaeum, an exclusive gentlemen’s club, in his hometown of Liverpool. His father had first joined, back when it had opened its doors in 1797. And he had gradually brought his two sons into the fold.
It was a grand building, in the heart of Liverpool. In this space, gentlemen could discuss the issues of the day over cigars and brandy, looking out at the wide streets below. The talk was often of politics, or the vagaries of transport to the docks, for Liverpool was a port with the River Mersey its beating heart. Business thrived on the docks, bringing cargo to and from the new world.
That afternoon, he had been seated in his usual spot near the window. It was a late autumn afternoon. He remembered it clearly; how the red leaves had been scattered on the streets, how crisp the air had been. It was as if it had solidified in his memory, taking on a special light because of her.
He had watched Reuben arrive, taking off his coat and hat, handing them absently to the doorman. His friend had taken the stairs two at a time, almost jumping them. The next minute, he was sitting opposite him, ordering his brandy.
“Good day, old chap?” he had asked.
Reuben settled into the plush upholstered armchair. “A busy one, I must say.” He frowned. “Father is rather rattled. His ship was supposed to be here, arriving from Africa two days ago, but there is no sign of it.”
James had nodded. “I would not worry yet. It may have been delayed, for a number of reasons. It does not necessarily mean that it has encountered a storm, or pirates.”
Reuben’s nostrils had flared. “There are over two hundred slaves on that boat, James. A lot of potential income. It is supposed to dock here for a few days before sailing onto the new world.”
James shuddered slightly in distaste. He had his own private views on the slave trade, but he knew they were not popular in this club. Most of the very rich gentlemen had made their wealth in the slave trade, after all; Liverpool was a hub for it.
But he also knew that there was a small but vocal group who were opposed to it. They were called abolitionists, and privately he agreed with them. They advocated that it was morally unsound to trade in human lives, and to profit from the enslavement and misery of fellow men.
He knew that Reuben despised the abolitionists, calling them crackpots. But then, Reuben had to, didn’t he? His own family’s wealth was built on the slave trade. Mr. Silas Montgomery, his father, owned three large ships that constantly sailed to Africa and the Caribbean, collecting their haul before sailing on to the Americas.
That was one thing that he could be proud of – his own family’s wealth was in the manufacture of cotton. His grandfather and father had never got their hands dirty in the slave trade.
“Where is the ship bound?”
“Carolina,” replied Reuben, frowning. “And we lose money every day that the ship is delayed. I tell you, Father is having an apoplexy about it. Mother tells him he must calm down, or he will surely keel over.”
James smiled slightly. “And how is young Isabel?”
Reuben frowned absently. “She is the same as she always is, I suppose. She coughs constantly and recently had a month’s spell in bed. Mother despairs, but my sister has always been delicate, right from the moment she was born…”
James glanced out of the high window. Suddenly, his gaze was arrested by a young lady, walking along the street with an older companion.
His heart almost stopped beating.
She was simply the most divine thing that he had ever set eyes upon.
Transfixed, his eyes followed her as she strolled along the street, sometimes stopping to look in shop windows. She turned her head to talk to her companion, and then she laughed, showing her even, white teeth.
He studied her, spellbound. She was small in stature, and fine-boned. She had bright flaxen hair, so golden that it was almost white. Beneath her green bonnet, he saw that her face was framed by cascading ringlets.
Suddenly, as if she sensed his gaze, she looked up. Her eyes met his, for the longest moment.
Those eyes. They were the bluest eyes, that he had ever seen. They were the colour of cornflowers in a summer’s field, or the sea on a bright day.
He gasped inwardly, feeling those eyes hit him hard, almost winding him. That intense blue gaze was like a cord, stretching from that street to where he sat in that room.
She didn’t turn away bashfully. She didn’t lower her eyes in confusion, as many young ladies would. No, this beautiful creature straightened her shoulders and smiled at him.
And it was at that moment that he knew he was hopelessly, violently in love.
“James?” Reuben’s voice seemed to reach him, from far away. “What the deuce are you staring at, old boy?”
He couldn’t answer. He felt like his voice had disappeared entirely, somehow snatched away, completely gone.
“Oh,” said Reuben, following his gaze. “I see. She is rather lovely…”
The young lady was still gazing at him. But the next moment her companion pulled at her arm, and reluctantly, she started walking away. But she kept glancing back, the smile still playing around her lips.
“I must meet her,” he breathed, his eyes transfixed. “I must find out who she is, or surely die.”
James blinked rapidly. He was slowly coming back to the present moment. The dining table, and the hot soup. Reuben, grimacing slightly as he reluctantly slurped his soup. Isabel quietly eating, in a mechanical way. And Adaline, thoughtfully spooning the liquid into her mouth, a small furrow in her brow.
He looked at his wife. Yes, she was a beautiful, charming woman. It wasn’t her fault, at all, that he could not love her. That his heart was dead and buried, and could never be resurrected again.
He wished that he could leave the past behind. He wished that he could be the husband that she deserved. She had bent over backwards to make him happy since they had been married, but it had always been a useless enterprise.
Perhaps, if she had looked like her…but Adaline was so very different. Dark, where his love had been fair. Tall and rounded, where his love had been small and fine. Adaline was a voluptuous, exotic gypsy beauty, where his love had been an ethereal, flaxen-haired fairy sprite.
They were as different from each other as night was from day.
He took a deep breath. He wished he could give himself to her. But the simple fact was that Adaline was so very different that it made it impossible.
If he gave himself to her, it would make his agony a hundred times worse. He just knew it.
The soup was finished. Dinah returned with the stew, which was steaming in a large pot. Mrs. Hargreaves had decided to simmer some Yorkshire puddings on top of the casserole; thick doughy balls that broke apart instantly, soaking up the gravy in the stew.
It was a dish that the cook had made a thousand times before, and this evening it was as hearty and delicious as ever. But somehow, the chunks of mutton stuck in his throat.
She was still here, in this room, hovering in the air like an apparition. His lost love.
Sighing, he put down his knife and fork. He must stop thinking of her. Determinedly he turned to Isabel, who was picking at her food in a distracted manner.
He smiled. He had known Isabel Montgomery since she was just four years of age, and always been fond of her. A sickly girl, she had grown into a delicate woman. Every time that he saw her she seemed more fragile, as if she had one foot in the other world as well as this one.
He knew that Mrs. Montgomery, her mother, despaired for her. The matron had sent her daughter to so many quacks over the years that he had lost count of them. Isabel had been subjected to continual bloodletting, and more bizarre treatments than he remembered. But none of them had made any difference to her health.
He didn’t think there was even a name for what she suffered from. Her parents had thought it consumption for the longest time, but the doctors insisted it wasn’t. Her cough was continual, and it worsened at night. Sometimes he could hear her in her room, pacing the floor, trying desperately to catch her breath.
“How are you feeling, dear Isabel?” he asked. “Has your health improved at all since you have been breathing the sea air at Birkenhead?”
Isabel smiled wanly. “I rather think that it has, James. At least, I feel so much better in my spirits.” She hesitated. “The city streets of Liverpool depress me, I find. It is so cold and dark there. At least here there is always the sky, and the sea, to lift me when I do feel a little overwhelmed with everything.”
James nodded. “And have you been taking long walks along the beach?”
Isabel coughed into her hand. “I go as far as I dare to. But sometimes, I lack courage when I am alone, and my thoughts veer in dark directions.” She paused. “I keep thinking that I might collapse, and then what would happen to me?”
James nodded again. “I understand your fear, but you must let it go, my dear. Everyone at Birkenhead Lodge is aware of your condition, and if you were longer than expected, then the alert would be raised immediately. We would find you and bring you back.”
Adaline leaned forward in her chair, gazing at Isabel with warm eyes. “If you like I can accompany you on your walks, Isabel. It might make you feel a little more confident.”
Isabel smiled. “You would do that for me, Mrs. Townshend? I do not wish to impose. I know that you have your own routine, and I do not wish to interrupt it…”
“Nonsense,” said Adaline, in a firm voice. “You would not be imposing on me in the slightest. I would be honoured to accompany you, and besides, I love walking along the beach!”
Isabel bit her lip, but she looked pleased. “Well, if you are sure…”
“Of course I am sure.” Adaline smiled. “Shall we make arrangements for tomorrow? And by the way, you really must call me Adaline. Mrs. Townshend sounds so stuffy! I declare that I do not even recognise who that person is!”
Isabel blushed. “Very well then, if it makes you happy…Adaline.” She coughed into her hand for a moment. “Thank you so very much. It would be lovely to have you come along with me. Do you like to collect seashells?”
Adaline laughed. “Indeed I do! Tell me, do you hold them to your ear?”
“No,” said Isabel, looking intrigued. “Why should I do such a thing?”
“You can hear the ocean, of course,” said Adaline, her smile wide. “A most delightful sound, and one that I never tire of hearing.”
James gazed at his wife. Gratitude warmed his heart. She was so very kind and doing her best to make Isabel feel at home here.
He knew that he had been asking a lot of her, when he had told her that his good friend and his ailing sister would be staying at Birkenhead Lodge indefinitely. She did not know them well, at all. Reuben and Isabel had been introduced to her on their wedding day, but they had never visited. And now, they were ensconced in her home.
Birkenhead was a very large house, and many people could rattle around inside it and choose not to meet, if they so desired. The grounds were also extensive, and then there was the expanse of cliffs and coast. Adaline could still maintain her own routines, with minimal interruption.
But it was still an imposition – her privacy was being breached, in having them stay so long. She had never complained to him about it, nor had she raised any objections, but he had still felt slightly guilty.
Hearing her extend a genuine hand of friendship to the young lady was reassuring and allayed his guilt. He exhaled slowly. Perhaps it would be good for Adaline to have a lady companion. It was very isolated on this stretch of Lancashire coastline, and she was bound to get lonely sometimes, wasn’t she?
He quickly quashed his guilt at the thought. If his wife was lonely, he had no one to blame but himself.
He listened to them prattle on about things they had found along the shoreline, smiling to himself. He could tell that Adaline liked Isabel. Her brown eyes were shining as she gazed at the younger woman, and her voice was filled with warmth.
Suddenly, he was conscious that he wasn’t the only one observing her. Reuben was leaning forward in his chair, gazing at her intently. He recognised that look. His friend’s eyes were brimming with lust.
For a moment, he was stunned. He simply hadn’t noticed it before; perhaps his friend had disguised his feelings before now, when they had all sat together. He hadn’t spent much time with the two of them alone, either.
Carefully, he probed his feelings about it. Adaline was a beautiful, desirable woman – of course she would have male admirers. But they had were so isolated here, and rarely entertained. He simply had not been aware of her effect on other men.
And Reuben was just Reuben. He had always been hot blooded, with an eye for the ladies. Back in Liverpool, when they were younger, he had flirted with many, and done a great deal more with quite a few. If he was being honest, his friend was a womaniser. It was almost par for the course that Reuben would lust after an attractive woman, wherever he was.
Suddenly, another memory assailed him. Back in Liverpool, when they had been younger men, and foolish in the bargain. A memory which sometimes made him uneasy still…
It was discreetly called the white house, on top of the hill. But every gentleman in Liverpool knew that it was really called Mrs. Johnston’s establishment. A place where gentlemen could retire to, late at night, after the Athenaeum and the theatres closed if they did not feel inclined to go home.
He had heard of it, of course. Mrs. Johnston’s was talked about in furtive whispers when he had attended his exclusive boys’ grammar school. He knew that a lot of his fellow pupils’ fathers frequented the place, and a lot of the boys were eager to go there, too, when they were finally old enough to do so. But the establishment had never intrigued him.
But one night, when the Athenaeum was about to close its doors and they were pleasantly tipsy on fine brandy, Reuben had turned to him, smiling.
“I have a surprise,” his friend had whispered, almost giggling. “Send your carriage home and come with me. I am about to lead you on a magical mystery tour, through the dens of Liverpool, my friend.”
James had almost fallen over laughing. “We are not in Shanghai, old chap! What dens do you speak of? I was unaware that opium was popular in good old Liverpool…”
“Not opium,” said Reuben, his smile a little wobbly. “It is something else, something much more interesting. Come on, now, there is no time to delay.”
Intrigued, and more than a little inebriated he had gone with his friend, sending his own carriage home. Within minutes they had pulled up outside a large white house, tucked in from the street, with a high, white, wrought-iron fence.
He had been shocked when they had stepped inside. From the street, the house had seemed almost ordinary; any regular, well-to-do family could be contained within its walls. But on the inside, it was a different matter entirely.
The large parlour was decorated in an exotic way, reminiscent of a French boudoir. Glossy red wallpaper lined the walls, embossed with golden flowers. Thick velvet curtains, in the same shade of crimson, were tightly drawn. A selection of settees was scattered around the room. A large crystal chandelier hung dramatically low, casting dull light on the room.
But what was the most shocking thing was the occupants. Several women, in various stages of undress, with heavily painted faces: white powder, circles of rouge on their cheeks, and gashes of vermillion on their lips. Their hair was wild, in dishevelled buns, or falling freely to their waists. They were lounging on the settees, almost draped across them, as relaxed and sinewy as cats.
“Reuben,” he had hissed, his eyes widening. “Have you taken me to a…brothel?”
Reuben grinned. “It is about time that we are initiated into the joys of the flesh, would you not agree, old chap?” His grin widened. “They are the best of the best. This is Mrs. Johnston’s, after all, and it is only for gentlemen who can afford it…”
James had reeled back. “Steady on, old fellow. I do not think I wish to be initiated, as you put it, in such a way.” He hesitated. “What about waiting until you are with a woman you are deeply attracted to and respect?”
Reuben scoffed. “Any woman who demands respect does not wish to do this, my friend. All of the beautiful ladies in our acquaintance will not even deign to kiss a fellow! No, this is the only way, James.” He paused, his eyes shining. “Live a little, my friend.”
They had only been nineteen years of age at the time. And he had not yet met the woman who was destined to be the love of his life. But still, he resisted. It just seemed so…cold-blooded. He knew that the women here would be pretending a passion that they did not truly feel, and the thought of making love in such a way was anathema to him.
“Good luck, my friend,” said James, turning to the door. “I shall leave you to it. My bed, I am afraid, is calling me…”
“What?” Reuben looked shocked. “You are leaving?” He paused. “I never took you for such a pansy, Townshend. Do you not have a pair of balls swinging between your legs?”
James had reeled back, just a little. Reuben’s tone was scathing, and his eyes were small pinpricks of dislike. He knew that his friend was a little worse for wear from liquor, but still, at that moment he could have sworn that his friend almost despised him.
“I will not answer that,” he said slowly. “I think you shall regret this in the morning, old chap. Farewell.”
Without another word, he turned, opening the door.
“Your loss, Townshend,” said Reuben, his face hard. “I propose to sample all of the delights on offer here tonight.” He sneered. “I did not take you for a wimp when it came to the fairer sex. Who is the bigger man now?”
James stopped. This was a side of Reuben that he had only glimpsed briefly. A side where his friend sometimes sounded almost contemptuous of him. He had brushed it off in the past. But his challenge now hung between them in the air.
“I am not trying to prove who the bigger man is, Reuben,” he said slowly. “I did not realise that you think we are in competition.” He paused. “Besides, bedding a woman who is a sure thing is no sign that you are a lothario, old chap. Food for thought, hey?”
Reuben’s face darkened. But the next minute, an older woman with a garishly painted face and unnaturally dark hair was upon them, pulling his friend into the room.
James took the opportunity to slip out of the door, snatching his coat and hat from the hallstand on his way out.
Reuben had boasted, of course, about that night, many times. And ever since, he had pursued women relentlessly, with an almost manic intensity. But his passions were brief, and short-lived. He was always moving on to the next one, with a pace that made James’ head spin.
Reuben had never understood how deeply attached he was to the woman he loved. He had almost been disdainful, saying that he was turning into an old man, and that he must sow his wild oats while he was still young enough to do it.
“You must move on, old chap,” he had insisted. “There are finer fish in the ocean than have ever been caught. And I intend to sample all of them.”
James shook his head, trying to dispel the image of the brothel.
His face burnt, just a little. He had not intended to go there, and left quickly once he realised what it was, but still a faint shame lingered.
He grimaced. He had forgotten how contemptuous Reuben had been towards him that night. The next time he had seen his friend, he had been back to his usual, jocular self, and he had put it down to too much liquor and bravado.
Reuben was still gazing hungrily at Adaline, his eyes lingering on her bosom. But the next moment his wife turned around, and Reuben seemed to collect himself. He picked up his wine glass, drinking deeply.
Should he be concerned?
But as soon as the thought entered his head, he dismissed it. Reuben was a player, but he knew his boundaries. His friend might find Adaline attractive, to be sure, but he would never do anything to compromise her. He was sure of it.
He picked up his own wineglass, taking a deep gulp, as he thought about it. He knew his friend very well indeed. Reuben had the attention span of an insect when it came to women, anyway. It was only because there were so few of them here that he was focusing on Adaline, and he would move on quickly. His friend was merely appreciative, that was all.
He put down his glass, gazing at his wife.
He did not know Adaline very well, at all. She was still a stranger to him, in so many ways. But she was his wife, and he knew enough about her to know that she was the type of woman who took her marriage vows very seriously. She also had a strong moral code. She would never entertain or encourage the attention of his friend. He had nothing to worry about on that score.
As if she sensed he was thinking about her, she turned to him, smiling tentatively.
“Is the meal to your satisfaction, James?” she asked. “Do you think the wine matches the meal? It was the only one in the cellar that I thought would suffice, with lamb…”
“The meal is superb, as always,” he said slowly. “Mrs. Hargreaves has outdone herself. And you have matched the wine beautifully, my dear.”
Her face softened before his eyes at the praise. No; it was almost as if it melted, her large brown eyes turning into pools of liquid.
She picked up her wine glass, taking a sip. He saw that her hand trembled slightly. Then a wide, luminous smile broke over her face.
“Here, here,” said Reuben. “A fine wine, and a fine meal, Adaline!”
Isabel concurred, in her soft voice.
Adaline blushed at all the praise. But he saw that she was giving him quick glances from underneath her long, black eyelashes.
No, his wife would never betray him. And the real reason that she wouldn’t contemplate it wasn’t her strong moral code, nor the vows she had spoken to him in the church that day.
The real reason was that she had romantic feelings for him.
He had suspected it almost from the moment he had slipped the ring onto her finger. And her actions and words, ever since, had convinced him that his intuition was not wrong.
He sighed deeply. Most men would give their eye teeth to have such a beautiful, charming woman enslaved to them.
His heart lurched. Fervently, he wished he was like most other men. He wished, with all his might, that he could open his heart and let her in. He had tried, many times. But just when he thought he could overcome the barrier enshrouding his heart, something always stopped him. So he had given up even trying.
Her face was open to him now, eager for him to continue speaking to her as a man normally speaks to his wife.
His heart lurched again and he turned away, towards Isabel.
“I hope that you will not encounter a storm tomorrow on your beach walk,” he said slowly. “They are common at this time of year…”
Resolutely, he did not look at his wife for the rest of the evening.
“Tamed by a Passionate Lady” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Adaline Townshend is everything that a man could possibly want: loyal, loving and alluring. But she’s desolate, because she can’t have the one thing that she has always desired…the passion of her husband. Even though she is determined to seduce the man who fills her with impossible yearning, she hardly exists in his world. Nothing she does to tempt her husband and make him fall for her seems to matter. Is there anything she can do to make him lose his mind?
James Townshend hides a painful secret that has kept him from discovering the pleasure of his lover’s touch. He wishes desire flickered inside him but he knows it can never happen. When it comes to love and secrets of the past, there’s only so much one man can get away with…Will he finally be able to set his heart free and give Adaline the love she deserves?
A wife, who craves the love of her husband. A husband, lost in his dream world. And a friend, who will change everything between them, forever…When the shadows of the past threaten their future, will James and Adaline find their way to love and finally surrender to desire?
“Tamed by a Passionate Lady” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.