Excerpt: Courting His Countess

: Historical Romance

Courting His Countess by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

December, late 1500’s, Lockhart Castle, Surrey

The last time Rose, Countess of Avondale, had seen her husband she’d spat in his face.That was six years ago. She’d been sixteen and it had been their wedding night.

Now he was back.

The tall, imposing figure of Thomas, Earl of Avondale, strode into the winter parlor and Rose’s breath caught in her chest. She wished she’d prepared herself better for their reunion, but there’d been little time and nothing could have prepared her for the sight of him anyway. He’d always been handsome and six years had done nothing to change that. If anything, time had been good to him. It had honed his cheekbones, thickened him across the chest and given him a self-assuredness that had not been there before, not even on that night. Especially that night.

He paused in the doorway, his dark brown eyes widening when they settled upon her. Heat flared in their depths and if she wasn’t mistaken, the hint of desire. He bowed low, dislodging the snow dusting his shoulders. “My lady.”

“My lord.” Rose curtseyed.

“You’ve changed. Remarkably.” The wonder in his voice made her look up. She was surprised to see that he was already in front of her, smiling, his hand outstretched. “Indeed, you have grown into a beauty.”

She ignored his hand and his fingers curled up like dried leaves. Heavy eyelids shuttered over his eyes, making it impossible to determine what he thought of her snub. Not that she cared what her husband thought. Once perhaps, but not now.

“Thank you for your flattering words,” she said. “They are somewhat kinder than the last ones you said in my presence.”

I have to get away from you. Those seven words were forever scored into her memory like a scar.

He sucked in air between his teeth. “I see you are still mad at me.”

“And I see that you are making the rushes damp.”

He sighed. “Rose, do we have to do this?” Lightning quick, he took her hand and pressed it to his lips. Tingles washed over her skin like warm water and played havoc with her nerves. Nothing had changed in that regard. The slightest touch was still enough to make her desire him.

She jerked her hand away and put it behind her. Desire was fickle and so were her husband’s affections. She’d best remember that if she were to get through this meeting, and beyond.

“I had hoped to return home to a warmer welcome,” he said.

“The fire is burning, my lord. That is the warmest welcome I can offer.”

One corner of his mouth lifted but it could hardly be called a smile. “I should have known from your curt and infrequent letters that my homecoming would be somewhat frosty.”

Then why come home at all? But she knew the answer to that. He needed an heir.

“Did you read any of my letters at all?” he asked.

“No.”

“None?”

“No.”

“But what if they conveyed something important?”

“There is nothing of importance that you could say and I’d want to hear.”

A beat passed. Two. “I see,” he said.

He’d indeed sent letters. Many of them. They’d come weekly at first, then monthly in the last two years. She’d burned every single one of them without breaking the seal.

A thick, awkward silence crowded the room, as smothering as a blanket. Rose waited as Thomas looked about him, taking in the giant tapestry—the only one hanging in the house—and the faded gilt-painted leather on another. He would find it unchanged from when he was last there, and indeed from his boyhood. The winter parlor was in the oldest part of Lockhart Castle, built over two hundred years ago according to her late father-in-law. Its proportions were modest compared to the grander parlor overlooking the knot garden, but it was the coziest room in the castle with its massive fireplace and she preferred it in wintertime. The furniture was modest too since there was no need to accommodate guests there. Two chairs, a small table and Rose’s embroidery frame huddled near the fire but not too close—its warmth was generous and the room was never cold, even in such a harsh winter as this one.

“I trust you’ll find everything to your liking,” she said. “Nothing has changed in your absence.”

His gaze ceased its wandering and slipped to her face. Heat prickled up her spine, despite her determination to keep cool in his presence.

“Some things have changed,” he said.

“Do you mean me?” She snorted. “You should try harder if you wish to flatter me.”

This time his lips definitely curved into a smile. He bowed. “That wasn’t flattery. It was the truth. You do look different. But you’re not the only change here at Lockhart.”

“Yes, of course, your father is gone. He died with your name on his lips.” Tears welled unbidden as they always did when she thought of the old earl. He’d fallen ill a few months after her marriage to Thomas and been bedridden for the rest of his life, finally dying from consumption only three months ago. She suspected it was this event that had prompted her husband to request an end to his duties abroad. The queen had graciously given her consent.

Thomas cleared his throat again. He had his back to her, his face turned toward the thick ceiling beams overhead, black from years of smoke and soot. It seemed he didn’t want to discuss his father. Rose never did understand why he hated him so. The old earl had been an amiable man and good company, treating her as a father would a daughter. No—better than a father, or at least better than her father.

“This room…” Thomas said. “I expected it to be…”

“Yes?”

“Less stark.”

“It is exactly the same, my lord.”

“Yes,” he said gravely. “I can see that.”

“I am sorry,” she said, unable to hide her sarcasm. “Next time you’re away I’ll spend your money on decorations that you will not see for another six years.”

Many wives would have redecorated to their heart’s content to occupy themselves during their husband’s long absence, but Rose never wanted to. She would not spend a penny of his money on herself or her own comfort. She wanted nothing from him.

“I’m not going away again,” he said.

Her stomach rolled. “Wh…what?”

He grinned. “Do you need to sit down, my dear? That delicate pale skin of yours has turned even whiter.”

“You’re staying?” No, no, no! He couldn’t stay. He mustn’t. For six years she’d built herself a life at Lockhart, a life that didn’t involve a husband. She’d managed tenants and her late father-in-law, she’d kept herself far away from court as often as possible, away from the sniggers and taunts. Now Thomas was going to take it away from her and turn her into a wife with no purpose except to breed. A wife he didn’t like let alone respect. Wasn’t it bad enough that she had to let him put his seed in her? Did he have to remind her every day of the humiliation she’d endured for six years? Because his presence would remind her, mock her. “You can’t stay,” she said weakly.

“I am. I’ll have to spend some time at court but I plan on making Lockhart my home. Of course I’ll take you with me when I go. The queen has told me in her private letters that your absence from court grieves her. We should change that.”

Dear God, it got worse and worse. “You will have to make my excuses to Her Majesty. Court is…not for me.” Not while Lady Mossdale was there. “You’ll prefer to go without me anyway, I’m sure.”

“Why would you think that?”

A cutting quip died on her lips. He seemed to be in earnest. Did he not know that his mistress liked to remind Rose of his infidelity? Thomas may have been out of the country for six years but he had written to Lady Mossdale as often as he’d written to his wife. She had made great pains to tell Rose so on the few occasions they met at court. It had been a stark message that Thomas’s affections were engaged elsewhere. Not that Rose needed another message—she got the first one loud and clear.

“Never mind,” she said with a wave of her hand.

His gaze lowered and traveled over her clothes. She had dressed up for his return, donning her favorite gown, a forest green bodice and skirt edged with a black hem and cuffs. Yet she was all too aware that it was out of date and somewhat faded.

He frowned. “I sent you money. Lots of money. You have not spent it on the furnishings or new clothes, so what have you spent it on?”

Her heart thudded once then stilled. Did he suspect her of wasting it, or worse, stealing it? “I can account for every last penny. You’ll find ledgers in my—your—study. Everything has been recorded, my lord, and I trust you will find nothing amiss.”

He frowned again. “I did not mean to imply—” He cut himself off when Moon, the house steward, shuffled in carrying a tray with two goblets. Thomas took them and handed one to Rose. The spicy smell of mulled wine filled her nostrils.

“Welcome home, my lord,” Moon said, bowing.

“Thank you. It’s good to see you again.” Thomas’s gaze met Rose’s but it was fleeting and unreadable.

“Your apartments are prepared, my lord,” Moon said. “Water is being carried up for you to bathe. I apologize for not having your rooms ready earlier.”

“The maids have been working all day for your lordship,” Rose said before Thomas could speak. “The weather has been particularly poor and your message only arrived late yesterday.” Moon shot her a grateful smile. The poor man looked tired and every bit his forty-eight years. He too had been on his feet all day. “I hope you’ll find your apartments to your liking,” she said.

“My apartments?” Thomas asked.

Had he forgotten where the master’s rooms were? Perhaps he received a blow to the head in Ireland. “They are in the east range, second floor.”

“I know where they are.” He laughed and Rose’s stomach flipped. He was too dazzling when he smiled like that, like sunshine after a month of dreary days. His handsome face became extraordinary. It was easy to see why so many ladies had wanted him. Rose was grateful for such handsomeness, however. It somehow made it easier to hate him.

“I expected to be housed in my old rooms again, at least until I settled in. The masters’ apartments always belonged to my father.”

“Will there be anything else?” Moon asked Rose. He quickly switched his gaze to Thomas and added, “my lord”, but his error had not gone unnoticed. His master’s brows almost shot off the top of his forehead.

“No. Thank you,” Thomas said.

“Moon, please have Cook prepare the beef for the servants’ dinner tomorrow in honor of their master’s return. We’ll all dine in the great hall together.”

If Thomas was annoyed that his wife was giving orders, he didn’t say so. Indeed, he looked a little amused. Annoyance would have been better. At least that meant he took her seriously.

Moon bowed and left the winter parlor, leaving Rose alone with her husband. The snowflakes that had ridden in with him had melted, leaving his hair damp. It fell to his shoulders in bedraggled waves. He stared into the crackling fire, his fingers white around the goblet’s stem. It gave her a chance to study his profile. It was so much stronger than the last time she’d seen him. The jaw was harder, the cheekbones sharper and shadowy smudges underscored his eyes, yet his lips were as full as she remembered them. Very kissable she’d once thought them, back when she adored her handsome and charming neighbor, before they wed.

“Rose?” His voice startled her. It resonated around the parlor and her name hung in the air like a dense snow cloud.

“Yes?” she whispered.

“May I call you Rose?”

“You are my husband. You may call me whatever you want.”

Those lips pressed into a flat line. “Then Rose it will be, and you will call me Thomas.”

“As you wish.”

He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Forgive me, Rose, but I’m weary. I’m not very good company tonight.”

She knew from Moon that Thomas had traveled in treacherous seas from Ireland then up the Thames by barge to Lockhart Castle. It had been an arduous journey. Most people would have waited until spring.

“Why did you hurry home?” she asked.

“To see you, of course.”

He said it with such sincerity she would have believed him if there had ever been any affection between them. Instead, his manner taunted her, picking at old wounds with the intent of opening them. Wounds she refused to let him see again.

“Rose,” he said as she turned away.

“Yes?”

His frown returned. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll speak more tomorrow, when the emotion of this first meeting has subsided.”

She doubted the emotion of seeing him could ever subside. That had always been her problem where Thomas was concerned. With everyone else she was sensible and in control. With Thomas, she was contrary. It was almost impossible to maintain self-control when the twin passions of desire and hatred jostled for supremacy within her.

Almost, but not quite.

She was no longer a child and she’d learned much in the last six years. She would need to draw on all of her self-control to get rid of her husband after she’d performed the necessary wifely duties. She would not let him stay and take away the pride she’d struggled so hard to claw back.

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