The Marriage Bed
It was love at first sight for Lady Viola the night she met the dashing viscount John Hammond. Swept into a whirlwind courtship, it wasn’t until after their vows had been spoken that Viola learned the shattering truth: her beloved John had never loved her, had married her for her fortune…and worse still, saw nothing wrong with that. Heartbroken, she vowed never again to let the deceiving scoundrel into her bed.
John never intended to hurt the headstrong beauty who has become a stranger to him. Now, after years of sham marriage, he is in need of an heir, and John is faced with a luscious, intriguing challenge—seducing his own wife. He must persuade Viola back into their marriage bed, but this time, he may be the one to lose his heart.
When those in society talked about Lord and Lady Hammond, there was one conclusion about the viscount and his wife no one bothered to dispute. They couldn't stand each other.
This dictum was mentioned in drawing room conversations with the same unquestioning certainty given to English rain and Irish trouble. Gossips could only speculate about the reasons which had divided the couple only six months after their wedding, but eight years later, Lady Hammond had not provided her husband with the customary heir, the pair lived thoroughly separate lives, and even the greenest hostess alive knew never to invite them to the same dinner party.
Despite the lack of a direct heir to the viscountcy, the marital estrangement of Lord and Lady Hammond showed no signs of being breached by either party. Until the 15th of March, 1833. That was the day a letter changed everything, at least as far as the viscount was concerned.
The missive came by express, reaching Hammond's London residence about eleven o'clock in the evening. The viscount, however, was not at home. Since it was the midst of the London season, John Hammond, like most men of his social position, was out about town, engaged in the unholy trinity of male excess: drinking, gambling, and skirt-chasing.
His friends, Lord Damon Hewitt and Sir Robert Jamison, were happily assisting him in these endeavors. After several hours at their favorite gaming hell, they arrived at Brooks's just before midnight. Once there, they proceeded to empty their sixth bottle of port as they discussed where to spend the remainder of their night.
"I say, Hammond, at some point during the evening we have to go to Kettering's ball," Sir Robert said. "Just for an hour or two. Lord Damon and I both promised Lady Kettering we would be there, and you know how she is if you don't show. Makes a terrible fuss. We have to make an appearance at least."
"Then I shall be forced to take leave of you before then," John replied and poured himself a glass of port from the decanter on the table. "Viola was invited to Kettering's ball and accepted the invitation. Therefore, I was impelled to decline. You know my wife and I never appear at the same functions."
"No gentleman appears at the same functions as his own wife, Sir Robert," Lord Damon explained to their younger companion. "Besides, it would be wise if Hammond steered clear. Emma Rawlins will be there, and the fur would surely fly."
John almost wanted to laugh at that. His last mistress was not likely to create any emotion in his wife other than more of the same disdain she had displayed toward him for years. A sad end, given the adoring young woman he'd married. But marriages were seldom happy, and he had long ago given up any stupid notions his would be one of the few that beat the odds.
"Mrs. Rawlins is a pretty creature," Sir Robert added. "You might see her and regret putting an end to that amour."
John thought of Emma's possessiveness, the smothering possessiveness no mistress had the right to claim, and which had caused him to terminate their arrangement two months before and pay off her contract. "I doubt it. The end was not amicable." He swirled his glass, and took a swallow of port. "I believe I am done with women for awhile."
"You always say that!" Damon laughed. "It never lasts for long. When it comes to women, you are a Turk, Hammond. You should have a harem."
"One woman at a time is enough, Lord Damon! My last two mistresses have given me reason enough to be soured on romance." His mistress prior to Emma, the opera singer Maria Allen, had gotten him shot in a duel two years earlier by her husband. Allen, after years of neglecting his wife, had suddenly decided her affairs with other men bothered him. The two men had each put a bullet into the shoulder of the other and honor had been satisfied. The reconciliation of the Allens had not been happy. Allen had eventually taken off for America, and Maria was now Lord Dewhurst's mistress.
Emma Rawlins, however, did not seem inclined to finding herself a new protector. She had been writing to John at weekly intervals from the cottage he had given her in Sussex, letters chiding him, scolding him, and begging him to come back to her. His replies of polite refusal had not satisfied her, however, and she had followed him to London, but he had no intention of seeing her.
In fact, since breaking from Emma, he found himself rather at loose ends. He was not inclined toward a new mistress, and his reason was difficult to define. A man's relationship with his mistress, to John's way of thinking, ought to be simple, straightforward, and purely physical. It so seldom turned out that way, and perhaps that was the reason for his reluctance. He had no desire to become involved in another imbroglio, for he hated emotional scenes. Always had.
He did not express these feelings to his friends, however, and his friends, being gentlemen, did not inquire. If they had, he would have sidestepped their questions with a witty remark or a change of subject.
"No, my friends," he said, shaking his head. "Women are charming, intriguing, creatures, but they are also expensive in many different ways. I intend to go without a mistress this year."
"The entire year?" Lord Damon made a sound of disbelief. "And it is only March. This has to be another one of your jokes. You love the ladies too much to do without a mistress for the entire year."
John leaned back in his chair and lifted his glass. "Just because a man doesn't have a mistress, it doesn't mean he isn't loving the ladies."
His companions got a good laugh out of that comment and deemed it worthy of his toast. The three charged their glasses, then decided anything less than several toasts to the loving of ladies was a disservice to the fair sex. Within five minutes, the bottle was empty.
"Look you, Hammond," Lord Damon's voice, suddenly serious, quieted their merriment. "Isn't that footman at the door one of yours?"
John looked up, following his friend's glance toward the door. Sure enough, framed in the doorway and scanning the crowded room with an anxious expression was one of his own servants. Catching sight of him, the lad hurried forward and held out a letter. "Come from the north, my lord. It being an express, Mr. Pershing sent me out at once to find you."
Correspondence sent by express almost always conveyed bad news, and John thought at once of Hammond Park, his Northumberland estate. But when he glanced at his own name and direction written on the outside of the folded sheet of paper, he was startled to discover that the handwriting was not that of his steward. It was from Constance, his cousin's wife, and that meant whatever bad news was contained in the letter was a family matter. His apprehension deepened. He broke the seal and unfolded the single sheet.
It contained only four lines, the ink smudged with tears. The news was even more disastrous than he could have imagined, yet as he stared at the words, reading them again and again, he was unable to quite grasp their meaning. He felt numb, dazed, unable to accept what he read. It simply could not be.
Percy. Oh, God. Percy.
Pain sliced through the numbness. He tried to focus on what this news meant, what he had to do, but all he could think about was that he had let an entire year slip away without seeing his cousin and best friend, and now it was too late.
"Hammond?" Lord Damon's concerned voice broke into his reverie, and John came to his senses. He folded the letter and put it in his pocket. Fighting to keep his countenance neutral, he looked at the footman waiting anxiously by his elbow. "Have my carriage brought round at once."
"Yes, my lord."
The footman departed, and his friends continued to study him with concern. Neither asked him what the problem was, but the question hung in the air. John did not enlighten them. He picked up his glass and downed the last of his port, fighting hard to regain the numbness of a moment before.
Later, he told himself, shoving pain aside. He would grieve later. Just now, he had to think of the effect this news would have on his estates. The estates had to come first. They always came first. He shoved back his chair and rose. "Gentlemen, I fear I must leave you. Urgent business calls me away. Forgive me."
Without waiting for either man to reply, John bowed, turned away from the table, and left the room. By the time he reached the street, his carriage was waiting, and he instructed his driver to journey first to his town house in Bloomsbury Square.
Half an hour later, his valet, Stephens, was packing his things for the journey to Shropshire, and John was on his way to Kettering's ball. Viola had to be told of this news.
The encounter was likely to be a difficult one. His wife had always been a woman of deep passions, and her strongest passion was her loathing for him, a feeling she made abundantly clear at every infrequent encounter they had, her demeanor toward him as frigid as the depths of the sea. Her life would be affected by this in a way she was sure to abhor.
His arrival at Kettering's ball would no doubt cause a stir, for he and Viola did not even bother to pretend their marriage had meaning. It was an empty union and had been for over eight years. That was all about to change, John vowed as he paused in the doorway of Lord Kettering's ballroom.
Despite the crowd that filled the glittering room and the fact that his wife was a small woman, John caught sight of her easily. She had on a ball gown of deep pink silk, but had she not been wearing her favorite color, he would still have spied her almost at once. Even after so many years of separate beds and separate lives, John could always find Viola in any crowd.
It was her hair, of course. It gleamed in the candlelight of the chandeliers overhead, and as always, its brilliant, golden color made him think of sunlight.
She was turned away from him, and he could not see her face, but that did not matter. He knew every inch of it–the heart shape, the wide hazel eyes and thick brown lashes, the pretty mouth with that tiny mole at the corner, the dimple in her right cheek when she smiled. He didn't know why he should remember that, since it had been many, many years since she had last smiled at him, but he did remember it. Viola had a smile that could make the heavens open. She also had a frown of such scorn, it could send a man straight to hell. John had been to both destinations more than once.
All the guests were engaged in the dancing or the observation of it, and it took a bit of time for his arrival to be noticed. When it was, the quadrille turned into something of a mess, for the dancers became too occupied with staring at him to pay attention to the intricate steps, and after a few moments, the musicians gave up playing. Conversation faded to an awkward silence, then murmurs of shocked speculation began to circulate the room. All inevitable reactions, John supposed, for it had been years since Lord and Lady Hammond had appeared at the same social event.
He watched as his wife turned in his direction, and he caught his breath, stunned as always by the sheer beauty of her face and the perfection of her figure. Though it had been nearly a year since he had last laid eyes on her, she looked exactly as he remembered.
He watched the delicate color in her cheeks fade to a chalky white at the sight of him, and though schooled in social graces all her life, she was appalled by his arrival and unable to conceal it.
When he started in her direction, however, she had no choice but to recover her poise and play her part as his viscountess in front of all these people. When he paused in front of her, she greeted him with the scrupulous, icy politeness characteristic of their infrequent meetings over the years.
"Hammond," she said with a curtsy.
He bowed in return. "Lady Hammond," he answered, taking the gloved hand she held out. He touched his lips to her knuckles through the fabric, then released her hand and turned so that she might take his arm.
She hesitated, but after a moment, she placed her hand on his arm. It was the barest touch, but enough. In view of society, she had to play the compliant wife, and both of them knew it, but in private, Viola was seldom compliant. One of the privileges of being a duke's sister.
Her brother stood nearby, and John could feel the hostile gaze of the Duke of Tremore on him like the blasting heat of a coal furnace, but when he greeted the other man, his brother-in-law's demeanor was as cold as Viola's had been. No wonder. Tremore viewed his baby sister as an angel. John was in a position to know better. Viola might look as if she should have a halo over her head, but her nature was a very human one indeed.
Tremore, in John's opinion, had been most fortunate in his own choice of wife. Though not the most beautiful of women, the duchess was one of the most placid, tactful ladies of his acquaintance, and her demeanor was far less hostile than her husband's had been. "Hammond," she said, holding out her hand.
"Duchess." He bowed over her gloved fingers. "You look well," he added as he straightened. "I was gratified to hear your son came into this world healthy and strong."
"Yes, and that was nearly ten months ago," Tremore answered for her through clenched teeth, underlining the fact that since the child's birth, John had never once come to see his nephew. He had not even gone to the christening.
John, being a man possessed of both his common sense and his sanity, never put himself through visits with his brother-in-law if he could help it. "A strong, healthy child is a blessing for any man," he said. "And a son ensures that your estates are secure. Duke, you are a most fortunate man."
John's own lack of an heir was a point not lost on Tremore, who looked away. John felt Viola's hand tighten on his arm, and he allowed her to pull him away from the duke and duchess.
"Why are you here?" she demanded in an angry whisper as they walked arm in arm along one side of the room.
"For a reason that cannot be explained in whispers at a crowded ball. Smile, Viola, or if you cannot manage it, at least be polite. Everyone is staring at us."
"If it bothers you to be stared at, you could just leave," she suggested. "I am sure there are many places in London that would be far more amusing for you. Besides, showing up at Kettering's ball after declining the invitation is the height of bad taste."
They passed a pretty redhead in pale green silk, who gazed at him with imploring eyes as he passed by, and though John pretended he had not seen her, Viola immediately assumed the worst.
"So Emma Rawlins is your reason for being here? The gossips have been speculating for weeks that you ended it with her, but they were obviously wrong. God," she choked, "how you must enjoy humiliating me."
"I live for it," he answered at once, her contempt having its usual affect on him–impelling him to employ his most sarcastic wit. "I pull the wings off of flies, too. Though, I confess, torturing helpless kittens is my favorite. Truly good sport, that."
She let out her breath in an angry huff and started to pull away from his side, but he would not let her. He crossed his arm over his chest, using his free hand to grip hers, and hold her to his side. He was keeping tight rein on his own emotions, trying not to think about the letter in his pocket, trying to keep his pain at bay. A quarrel with Viola would send him over the edge.
"Stop trying to pick a fight with me and listen," he murmured. "I have business in the north and need to leave at first light, business I must discuss with you ere I go. I have to speak with you in private."
"Have a private meeting with you? Not a chance of it."
She stared to pull away again, and he tightened his grip. "It is important, Viola. Very important, and it involves you."
She turned her head and studied him for a moment, then she gave a reluctant nod. "Very well, but you will have to wait. I am engaged for the next dance. Let go of me."
She pulled against his hold again, and this time, he released her. Bowing, he watched her walk away. The rigid set of her shoulders made him appreciate yet again the depth of her animosity for him. John thought of the letter in his pocket and what it meant, and he hoped she did not loathe him beyond all amendment. If she did, his life had just become a living hell.
Why had he come? The question kept running through Viola's mind as she moved through the steps of the dance. She felt off-balance, baffled, uneasy. It had been years since John had felt the need to discuss anything with her. What was there for them to talk about now? And why tonight?
As she danced with her partner, she kept glancing around the ballroom, her gaze seeking him out amid the crowd, unable to quite believe he was really here, yet his presence was not her imagination. He'd said it was important news had brought him here, but as usual, she could discern nothing by his face or demeanor. He stood amid a group of people, he talked and smiled and looked as if he hadn't a care in the world, though Viola knew from long and bitter experience that if that were so, he would be anywhere but here. And there had been something tense and hard in his voice that was uncharacteristic of his usual careless air.
She turned her attention away from her husband and tried to concentrate on simply getting through the steps of the dance. She should know by now that any attempts to understand John or his actions were useless. A hint of the old pain twisted in her heart, and that surprised her, for she thought she had vanquished that long ago.
She fought to regain the icy composure that had served her for so long, the protective shell that had shielded her from the pain of his lies and his women, but her uneasiness grew with each passing moment until it became an almost unbearable tension. She could hear the buzzing hum of speculations about his presence all around her and feel the astute gazes of London's greatest gossips glancing back and forth among herself, her husband, and Emma Rawlins. By the time the quadrille ended twenty minutes later, she was a mass of jangled nerves.
She had barely returned to her place beside Anthony and his wife, Daphne, before her husband was there to take her arm again. Amid the astonished stares and whispers, Viola and John left the ballroom together.
He took her into Kettering's library and closed the doors behind them. Thankfully, he did not keep her in suspense any longer. The moment the doors were closed, he turned toward her and came to the point. "Percy is dead. So is his son."
Viola sucked in a deep breath of shock. "How? What happened?"
"Scarlet fever. They are having a virulent outbreak of it in Shropshire. I received an express just this evening."
She shook her head, trying to assimilate this bit of news. Percival Hammond, her husband's cousin and best friend, was dead. Without thinking, she reached out and put a hand on his arm. "I am so sorry," she said, and meant it. "I know he was like a brother to you."
John shook off her touch as if it burned and walked past her. She turned to stare at his back, wondering why she had bothered to express her sympathy. She should have known he would never welcome it.
"I have to go to Whitchurch for the funeral," he said over his shoulder.
"Of course. Do you–" She paused, dismay filling her at the question she could not quite bring herself to ask. Surely he did not expect her to accompany him. She forced herself to speak. "Are you here to ask me to go with you?"
He turned around to look at her. "God, no!" he replied with such vehemence that she winced, though she had not expected any other answer. He saw her expression and exhaled a sharp sigh. "I did not mean that the way it sounded."
"Did you not?"
"No, damn it. I was actually thinking of your welfare. You've never had scarlet fever. If you accompanied me, you could catch it."
"Oh," she said, feeling awkward all of a sudden. "I thought–"
"I know what you thought," he cut her off. He rubbed four fingers across his forehead, looking suddenly tired. "It doesn't matter, so for once let's not quarrel," he said, and let his hand fall to his side. "I don't expect you to go."
Viola could not help feeling relieved, but she was still uneasy, knowing there was more to come. If his purpose had been to tell her of his cousin's death, he could have dashed off a note to her before departing for Shropshire, especially since she hardly knew Percival Hammond. She studied her husband for a moment, waiting, but he remained silent, staring past her into space.
"Is that the reason you came tonight?" she prompted. "To tell me this news in person?"
He returned his gaze to hers. "His son is dead, too, Viola. This changes everything. You must realize that."
Those words and their impact hit her with all the force of a blow. Her composure faltered, and she stared at him, feeling suddenly sick and unable to hide it. "Why should this change anything?" she asked, hearing a note of shrillness enter her own voice. "You have another male cousin. Bertram is a Hammond, and he will be the one to inherit the title and estates instead of Percy."
"Bertie? That useless twit can't even tie his own cravat," he said, making short shrift of her words, justifying the apprehension that was turning her insides to knots. "Because of our estrangement, I was resigned to leaving my estates in Percy's care, for I know he would have managed them as meticulously as I do, and his son would have done the same. Bertie is a different matter altogether. He is a ne'er-do-well and a spendthrift, as worthless as my own father was, and it will be a cold day in hell before he ever gets his greedy hands on Hammond Park or Enderby or any of my other estates."
"Can this discussion not wait until you return?" she asked, desperate to divert the conversation until she had time to think. "Your cousin is dead. Can you not even grieve for him? Do we have to discuss legal matters of inheritance right now?"
His face was suddenly implacable, a rare countenance for a man whose charming, devil-may-care demeanor was well known. It was a look she recognized, one she had seen several times during the first six months of their marriage, one she had never been able to get around. "My first duty is to my estates," he said, refusing to be diverted. "Bertie would be their ruin, frittering away every sovereign in my coffers and undoing nine years of my hard work. I will not let it happen, Viola."
"What do you mean?" she asked, but she knew. Dread seeped into her bones like the chill of winter as she looked into her husband's brown eyes, watching them take on the hardness of amber.
"When I return from Shropshire, the separation between us will end. You will be my wife not only in the legal sense of the word, but the literal and moral sense as well."
"Moral sense?" Fury and desperation choked her, and it took several seconds before she could speak again. "You telling me about moral sense. Is that supposed to be amusing?"
"I know wit is one of my talents," he drawled, "but I simply cannot manage it today. These circumstances warrant a discussion of duty, and alas, that is never amusing."
"What does your duty have to do with me?" she asked, but she knew. Oh, God, she knew.
"I am speaking of your duty as my wife and as my viscountess."
There was a buzzing in her brain, and she felt as if she might faint for the first time in her life.
"Yes," he said, seeming to read her mind as if she were an open book. "I realize how unpalatable my touch is to you, but I need a son, Viola. And I intend to have one."