Viscount James West is a very possessive husband, but his wife, Lady Helen, is not averse to that. She loves him and does not mind in the least that he rarely lets her out of his sight, except for two days each month when she goes to visit her father's estate in the next town. James never accompanies her there, as he despises her father and cannot bear to spend time with him.
This latest visit, just after Christmas, is the same as usual, except that this time she fails to return. Frantic with worry and mounting suspicion, James goes in search of her, only to learn that her father has not seen her since the day of their wedding. His world is about to collapse when he learns who his wife has really been visiting for the past five years.
In his fury, his proud and possessive nature is put to the test and he sets out to see the Archbishop of Canterbury to obtain an annulment. His marriage is over; now he must seek a future for himself and his sons.
Grace and her new bridegroom looked so happy on their wedding day. They could barely take their eyes off each other, causing Helen to look back wistfully on her own wedding day. She could never have that day again and she regretted that she did not have what this young couple had. She had never met the man she was to wed, he was a stranger, a fearsome stranger.
Her bridegroom had built himself a reputation for ruthlessness throughout the county and although Helen was content to marry him, as it would mean she would be away from her tyrannical father, she feared him as well. All she knew of him was rumour and hearsay, none of which was appealing, but she would do her best to appease him.
It was a long time after that day before she realised he was the not the man he was reputed to be and he captured her heart very early in the marriage.
Grace wore the pale blue wedding gown that had been Christine’s and it sparkled with little sapphires, her blonde hair cascaded down her back in waves and curls and caught the light from the candlelit church. It was a glorious day, or would have been had Helen’s husband made the effort to mend the rift with his brother. But despite Helen’s pleading, he was too proud to apologise and admit he had been in the wrong.
It was late autumn, but still the sun shone for Grace and her Viscount Jason, still the rain stayed away and the wind kept its counsel.
It was a glorious day, if one could ignore the deliberate way Michael and Christine sat at the other end of the long table from James and Helen, but she doubted any of the guests noticed the pointed way they avoided speaking to each other.
The family had stayed in Essex longer than they normally would this year, as Christine’s baby had come in the early autumn and Michael thought Melford Hall would be a better venue for his sister’s wedding than the London house.
It was cold here, beside the sea, and Helen was glad when the guests had all gone and she could prepare to move to London for the winter. The house was already furnished, so at least they did not have to carry all their belongings with them like many noble households and now she was sorting through her winter clothes, trying to decide which gowns she would need and which could remain here at Melford Manor.
That was when James came into her bedchamber and stood for a moment eyeing the boxes she had out on the bed, ready to receive her winter clothing.
“We will not be going to London for the winter, Helen,” he said. “We will be staying here, at the Manor House.”
Helen straightened up and frowned at him. She should have expected this, but for some odd reason she had not. She thought he would have made friends with Michael by this time.
The argument was caused by Michael’s mistake in thinking his wife had left him for a lover, only to learn she had, in fact, been abducted. But James had had a lot to say about it; he had insulted Christine and refused to admit, even now, that he had been wrong.
Helen was delighted to have her sister-in-law home, as they had always been friends and she never believed for one moment that she had been unfaithful to Michael. But James was making it very difficult for her to show her support. She had never gone against his wishes, had always been the compliant and obedient wife, and she had no wish to go against him now.
Christine had recovered from the birth of her son, who was born four weeks early. It was but six weeks till yuletide and Helen wanted to spend it with Christine, her best friend. Besides, the children loved to play together and her sons had seen nothing of little Lisa since the quarrel.
Their houses were less than a mile apart and occupied the same estate, Michael’s estate, but still the brothers avoided each other. Helen visited when James was out, but it was time to heal the breach for all their sakes.
“It will be very cold here, James,” she replied. “You know how cold it gets, right next to the sea. The London house has smaller rooms and is snuggled between other buildings. Why would you want to stay here?”
“The London house is Michael’s, not mine. He has not seen fit to invite us.”
She almost voiced the thought that this house in which they lived was also Michael’s, but that did not keep James from occupying it on a permanent basis. She bit back the retort.
“Since when did he need to invite us?”
“Helen, you know we have quarrelled. You know we have spoken not a civil word since he ordered me out of the Hall, even after I went to help him with Carstairs. You know I cannot simply assume we will be wintering in London with him.”
“You could apologise. You know you were in the wrong.”
“I have apologised, but he has still made no move toward mending the situation.”
Helen shook her head.
“You have apologised to Michael, yes, but not to Christine and she is the one you insulted.”
James scowled. She was right, of course, but he was still not convinced he had been wrong about his brother’s wife. He was a man who found it difficult to admit his own mistakes. He had apologised to Michael for the harsh things he said, but only because he did not want a bad atmosphere between them. It did not work. Michael would never forgive him until he made his apologies to Christine as well, and he was not sure he was capable of that.
James held that a woman’s morals should be without blemish and was quick to condemn when Michael believed his wife had been unfaithful to him. To be honest, he had never been all that fond of Michael’s wife. He thought her far too outspoken; she never shied away from voicing her opinions, even if they did disagree with those of her husband, and James found that unsettling. Helen was fond of her and he was always afraid that Christine might influence his own wife.
“I am still not convinced of her innocence,” he muttered.
“Then you are a fool!” Helen said, her voice rising. “Anybody can see she loves Michael. The fact that she is prepared to forgive him for abandoning her to that madman should tell you that much.”
James took a step back. It seemed he was right; Christine was proving to be a bad influence on Helen, despite him telling his wife to stay away from her. It occurred to him then that perhaps she had not obeyed that particular command.
He had absolutely no idea that Helen obeyed him only when it suited her.
“Helen! Please do not shout at me.”
The astonishment in James’ voice made her smile. Never, since the day they had met, had she been anything other than the devoted wife, but these last few weeks since Michael got his own wife back, she had been less than patient with him.
He looked so dumbfounded, her heart melted. She moved closer to him and stepped into his arms, put her own around his waist and reached up to kiss his lips.
“Michael is likely just as unhappy about the situation as you are,” she told him. “Talk to him, please, but be prepared to put your doubts aside. Christine is my friend, and I want to spend my winter with her. What about Christmas? How will we celebrate the Lord’s birth if you two are not speaking and where will that leave poor John? Stuck in the middle?”
“But if we stay here, you can visit your father more than once a month and you will not have to stay the night.”
She caught her breath.
“I am not sure I want to visit him more than once a month, James.”
“I have been thinking about that.”
“I have neglected you over the past years, staying home while you visited him just because I do not like him or agree with his politics and his wild notions on religion. I think I should accompany you in the future.”
Helen eyes opened wider and she stiffened as she shook her head. She could see it did not go unnoticed.
“What about the boys?” She said. “I do not want my father filling their young minds with his venom. He would be happy if Mary Tudor still reigned, if she had dragged us all back to the papist church.”
He frowned suspiciously. Although Helen never took their sons with her on her visits to their grandfather, she surely did not suppose their father cared for them while she was away. That was what they had nurses for.
Still, her words produced a new thought.
“Christine will look after them,” he said. “If I make up with her.”
He leaned down from his great height and kissed her gently, an affectionate gesture she was unaccustomed to seeing from him, although it was not unwelcome.
Was this to be the price of his healing the breach, of his admitting to Christine he had been wrong? That she would have to give up her one monthly escape, the one or two days when she could spend a few hours away from James’ watchful gaze?
And how would she stop him? He could not be allowed to accompany her; that was out of the question. He could not be allowed to find out where she really went on her visits to her father’s estate.
“No, James,” she said at last. “I mean, yes, you should make up with her, you should tell her you were wrong, if only for Michael’s sake. But you have no need to go with me to visit my father. I know you despise him and he feels the same about you. I dislike him myself, but he is my responsibility, not yours.”
“That is my point, my darling. Your responsibilities are mine; I have been selfish in not recognising that before.”
“James, I would rather you were selfish than to behave like Michael and make such a mess of everything.”
His eyes met hers for a moment, then he smiled.
“Really? I thought you rather admired him.”
“Admired him? How should I admire a man who could not see that his wife loved him? How should I admire someone who did not kill the man he believed to be her lover? You would not have done that, would you?”
“I hope not. But he acted out of love for her; I am not sure I love you enough for that. I mean, I do but I know I would never let you go. My love is far too selfish.”
Helen was astonished. James had never spoken of love before; he seemed to think it unmanly.
“You do not love me enough?” She replied. “Does that mean you love me a little?”
He looked at her sharply, then saw her playful grin and returned it with a rare grin of his own.
“I do love you, Helen,” he said. “I am sorry I have never told you that before, but all this business with Michael and Christine has made me realise I should show you the affection I feel. I hope I have always shown you respect at least.”
“You have and I love you for it. But you are not Michael and I do not want you to be. I love you, James, not him. Now, will you go and see Christine, talk to her, so we can all move back to London for the winter?”
James dressed in his thickest doublet, put on his fur hat and flung his fur lined cloak about his shoulders. Helen was right; it was cold here in the winter and it would be even colder before too long. He did not relish staying here for the colder months and it would be a miserable yuletide without his family around him. John would certainly want to go with Michael and Helen would not be happy. For that matter, the children would miss out as well. They loved all the excitement, the special treats and the music.
Privately, he knew he could never make Helen unhappy. He did lose his temper more easily than his brother though, and it was that temper which made him threaten violence he would never carry out or condone.
Michael had believed his wife to be in love with another man and he had let her go to him, because he thought it would make her happy. He was wrong, as it happens, but James would never have done that in the first place. He loved Helen, but she was his and she would remain his.
Her father had wanted the match with James for curious reasons, reasons he had never really understood, but he had grown to care for her very easily and he would kill any man who tried to take her from him.
Now he rode towards Melford Hall, the huge new mansion his brother had built when he became Earl of Melford, and he knew his mission would be one of the hardest he had ever performed.
He said some terrible things, both about Christine and to her face. He thought she had betrayed his brother, thought her a whore and now it seems they were all wrong. He was hoping the situation would simply blow itself out and things would return to normal, and it might well do so given time. But there was no time and if it meant having the family back together as it always was, then he would have to smother his pride and admit to his brother’s wife that he had been wrong.
Michael must have been watching his approach from the window, because the door opened just as James drew rein and his brother stood waiting, his arms folded. He looked ready for a further quarrel and James could hardly blame him for that.
He dismounted as the stable boy came running to take the reins and lead his horse away for a rub down.
“Michael,” he said. “I am glad to find you have not yet left for London.”
“James. If you have come to hurl further insults at my wife, be aware your offensive remarks will not be tolerated.”
James moved toward the house and stopped in front of his brother.
“I have come to apologise to Christine, to tell her I was wrong and beg her forgiveness.”
Michael frowned suspiciously.
“You need not look at me like that,” he went on. “It is stupid for us to be estranged like this, Michael. It is unfair to Helen, who misses Christine, and it is unfair to the children.”
“Was this Helen’s idea?”
“Certainly not.” James would never admit that he had come here at his wife’s bidding, but he did not suppose he was fooling anyone, definitely not Michael. “I was wrong; I said some despicable things and I regret them. I want us to be friends again. Can I please see Christine?”
Michael nodded, just once, then reached out and gathered his brother into his arms.
In the small sitting room, Christine sat beside the fire, her breast exposed to the suckling babe. She glanced up when the two men entered, surprised that Michael had allowed his brother entry. Perhaps they had made friends; she certainly hoped so.
“Christine,” James began but he stopped halfway across the room.
He did not feel comfortable in getting too close while she fed the baby. It was a sight he was unused to seeing, as he had used the services of wet nurses for his own two babies. He was not sure he approved of a countess feeding her own child like this, and now as he tried to avert his gaze, he wondered if Helen had wanted to do this. Was this something else he had kept from her without a thought for her own wishes?
He had not even asked her, had he? As soon as she told him she was with child, he had begun the search for a suitable wet nurse. He had simply assumed it was what happened. But no, she would have told him if she wanted to feed her sons herself. He was sure she would.
“James,” Christine replied. “It is good to see you here.”
“Really?” He breathed a sigh of relief and sat in the chair on the opposite side of the great hearth. “I am so pleased to hear you say so. I said some harsh words to you, and I hope you will accept my apology.”
She smiled, nodded in that gracious manner which had captured his brother’s heart.
“Of course,” she said. “I am delighted to hear you say it. Michael has been quite distressed by the rift between you.”
He glanced up at Michael, where he stood beside his wife’s chair.
“He has?” He said. “I too have felt the distance between us uncomfortable. Will you forgive me?”
“You spoke only on Michael’s behalf. I know that, so does he. Let us forget it now.”
James’ gaze was drawn to the suckling babe and he stood up, feeling embarrassed.
“Should you not be doing that in the nursery?” He asked.
“It is too cold,” she replied.
Mention of it being cold was a good enough reason to change the subject.
“That is what I wanted to talk to you about,” James remarked. “Will Helen and I still be welcome to join you in London?”
Michael showed him one of his warm smiles.
“You would be, of course, but we will not be going to London, James. We will be staying here, certainly until after twelfth night.”
“There is plague in London. I will not risk my family.”
James shivered. That was what they were calling it now, the filthy pestilence which had killed so many people two hundred years ago. It had never completely left England; the occasional outbreak still showed itself periodically and it was a deadly disease.
“Yes. It is said the outbreak is small and centred around the city area, but I do not want to take any chances. Little Michael is still not strong.”
Little Michael. James had objected to the babe having that name; that was something else he regretted, that he had doubted the child was of his brother’s making. But, damn it! If Michael was not such a placid and complacent soul, he would never have felt compelled to act on his behalf.
James was relieved when Christine tucked her breast back into her bodice and held the two halves together. He got to his feet to lean forward and kiss her forehead.
“Helen will be pleased. She will not have to stay the night with her father if we stay here as it is not so far to travel.”
“Perhaps she would like to spend the night,” Christine said. “Have you considered that?”
No, he had not considered that. Neither had he considered that Michael’s wife would be telling him how his own wife felt. This woman had always had the power to make him angry; little wonder he had been so outspoken about what he believed to be her betrayal.
“I am sure she does not,” he answered. “She would tell me if that were the case.”
“Come,” Michael interrupted. “Let us leave Christine in peace and go to my office. I need to speak to you about John. He has got it into his head to leave Melford and seek his fortune in the capital.”