He was simply a boot at first. A scuffed boot propped on her newly upholstered ottoman. Catherine Meredith Carthwick Raybourne, the Marchioness of Forster, paused on her way down the hall. Quiet settled as quiet does on a tame Wednesday afternoon. The butler had not announced any guests, and her brother was not to return to Nottinghamshire for five days yet. The boot gave way to a long leg. Cat leaned forward and peered around the corner of the library door.
And nearly fell over.
She’d never expected to find her missing husband in the library.
Forster sat in a puddle of sunlight beneath the near windows, all dark hair and tanned skin. He’d removed his jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and propped his dusty boot on her Chinese silk.
Her husband was home.
Cat had awaited his return for five years. Five long years of moldering in the country with nary a letter from him. Nary an inquiry or a simple message directed through an impartial third party.
Only once, in all that time, had she queried her errant spouse’s whereabouts. The family solicitor was “not at liberty to share such information.” But he did confirm, “The marquess is of sound health and mind.”
Catherine had received the news with a proud spine and undiminished composure. Inside, she’d been gravely disappointed.
Forster, it seemed, was not stranded on an exotic island with a strange disease. Or trapped by the ice in the cold north. Or eaten by a bear in the Americas. More’s the pity.
Beneath her disappointment, where dark emotions lurked like wriggly things in a deep well, she’d seethed with fury.
He could very well be cohabitating with another woman, starting another family while she awaited him till death did they part.
Now, she did not know what to think. She shook her head, but the apparition did not disappear.
Her husband was in the library.
Time, which was supposed to have stood still, or slowed, or demonstrated any other gentle kindness to make the moment easier to bear, instead raced forward and backward like a dog searching out a scent and not knowing where to begin. Her turbulent heartbeat scrambled along, a pulse behind, unable to catch up.
She took a deep breath. Then another. “So, you are home.”
Sunlight glinted off Forster’s dark hair as he lifted his head from the book in his hands.
He glanced across the room and met her eyes. His face was thinner than she recalled, sculpted into sharp lines and hollows. But his eyes were the same sky blue. Set against his tanned skin, they appeared only more brilliant.
Uncoiling his long limbs, he pressed to standing. He seemed taller, or perhaps that was the thickness of his shoulders. “Lady Forster.”
His voice was deep velvet. Somehow, her husband had become a man. The boy she’d known since childhood had lived an entire chapter of his life without her.
Sorrow, or something like it, knocked at the heavy door of her heart. Cat refused to let it in. She straightened her spine and closed half the space between them.
Faint lines fanned out from his blue eyes. A tiny scar, one she had never seen before, marked his right cheekbone. Another scar, the shape of a small star, sat high on his forehead. She knew that one. She’d put it there herself.
“Good afternoon, Jamie.” His name slipped from her lips. He’d once traced his name on her mouth, claiming when she said “Jamie” it appeared she said, “Kiss me.” Where was that boy who had brought her wildflowers and embraced her in the thick woods?
The man standing before her tilted his head to the side. “Good afternoon, Cat.”
It poured through her, the sound of her name. His deep voice. Poured through her like church bells ringing into the hills, awakening those who would forget their longing, their anger, their terrible regret.
She fingered the riding crop in her hand. “Whatever are you doing in the library?”
He arched a dark brow at her tone. “You sound surprised to see me. One might have expected my return after Sutton’s passing.”
“I wasn’t aware you knew of Sutton’s illness.” One does not expect things of a husband after five years’ absence. “My condolences on the death of your cousin.”
“Thank you.” Still, he did not approach but remained before the rosewood armchair he’d always favored. In a fit of pique, she’d had it reupholstered in pink and green damask with matching tasseled pillows.
The pillows were now on the floor.
Cat noticed it then, the tea tray waiting beside his chair. A plate of crumbs and jam.
He’d called for tea without even informing her he was home.
How dare he. The current of her blood burned beneath her skin, left her nearly breathless. She wished she could recall any of the set-downs she had practiced over the years. Any of the gracious welcomes that were to show her equanimity in the face of his absence. Instead, she blurted the only thing that came to mind. “I was in my dressing room.”
He dropped his gaze, slid it over her in a quick lick of heat that ended with her toes curling in her riding boots. When he met her eyes again, the left side of his mouth quirked in the half smile she remembered so well.
She ignored the quick flip of her heart. “What I mean to say is I have been home all day, should someone have thought to inform me of your return.”
Forster didn’t apologize for his lapse. He didn’t shrug his shoulders or shift his feet. He didn’t do anything.
Infernal man. “Did you not even inquire if I were home?”
“It is not so big an estate. I assumed our paths would cross.” He swept his hand toward her. And here you are.
Her husband was either a hopeless idiot, a selfish arse, or still punishing her. Most likely all three.
“That is it, then? Five years and I get a”—she waved her hand in a motion that mimicked his—“crossing of our paths?”
He had the intelligence to look wary. “What would you like me to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know. How about ‘How are you, Catherine?’ or ‘I’ve been in India and the goats ate all my correspondence.’”
His blue gaze was intent upon her. Once, this expression had made her feel like the center of his world. “It is good to see you, Cat.”
“Good to see me?” Her throat burned with the urge to yell at him. She tried to take a calming breath. Composure. Graciousness. Indifference. Those were the qualities she needed to strive for.
“Perhaps we should continue this conversation later,” he said.
Jamie scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Though this homecoming is truly heartwarming, I am exhausted from my journey.”
“You’ve had five years to avoid arguing with me, Forster.”
“Then what’s an afternoon more?”
“What’s an afternoon more?” she repeated. Loudly.
“I do not mean to interrupt your day.” He crossed his arms over his chest. Yes, he was definitely thicker there, in his shoulders.
“What do you know of my day? You’ve not even inquired into my affairs.”
“Yes, a husband should know all about his wife’s affairs, should he not?” Ice cold. The man still wanted his revenge, then.
“You know very well I did not have an affair.”
“Funny, then, how I was deemed a cuckold only a fortnight after my wedding.”
“I…you…” Cat snapped her mouth shut. Finally, the argument she’d been waiting years to have, and she could think of no sharp retort.
Jamie stared at his wife. Anger glinted off her like sparks beneath a hammer.
She was glorious.
It took everything he had within him not to breach the space between them. He wanted her in his arms. He wanted to touch her, taste her. Goddamn smell her. She, the woman who had betrayed him worse than any other.
He was a bloody fool.
A fool who was in no mood for an argument. The last he had seen Cat, they’d had a row to end all rows. Between them, they had smashed two matching Rouen vases, torn down a curtain from the window, and disemboweled a throw pillow.
His pride had fared no better.
“It is lovely to have you home, my lord.” Cat crossed her arms, mimicking his posture. The tasseled riding crop in her hand stuck out at a funny angle. Only Cat would have a silk crop specially designed to match her riding habit. “The villagers will be delighted that the lord of the manor has finally returned to Forster Abbey.”
She sounded anything but delighted.
“I am happy to be home.” Dread heavy in his belly, he widened his stance. His favorite chair waited behind him, now covered in some appalling fabric. But it didn’t seem he’d be sitting down any time soon. He’d been at sea often enough to recognize the signs. This storm was gathering strength, not abating.
Foolishly, he’d thought a surprise reunion might work in his favor. A warning of his return would afford his wife time to amass her anger against him. Apparently she didn’t require time or warning to gather her fury. Her blond curls trembled with emotion beneath her riding hat.
She smiled at him. Or, more correctly, bared her teeth. “I trust you will discover we bore your absence well. Splendidly, in fact.”
“I do hope you found what you were looking for during your travels. But perhaps I shall decline to recognize you? Perhaps I shall call for a contest. Whoever shall string the king’s bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-handles may win me.”
“If it pleases you, Penelope.” He smiled back. Always quick with the retort, his Cat. “But might I remind you I was gone five years, not the twenty Odysseus was away.”
She dropped her arms to her sides. Her blue riding habit matched her eyes. The jacket was tight with double buttons beneath her breasts. He knew those breasts. Knew the weight and shape of them in his palms. Knew how she most liked to be—
She smacked her crop against her boot. Jamie looked up.
“I am your wife, Forster, whether you wish it or not. I have maintained your household, brought kindness to your tenants, and otherwise been faithful to my vows. All the while I’ve had no notion where you were.”
“You act as if I owe you an explanation.”
“I made a mistake. I apologized for it. Five years ago.” She ground out the last.
“Perhaps I was five years wounded.”
“Perhaps you were five years stubborn.”
“Perhaps my pride needed time.”
“Perhaps you are a hardheaded man.” Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright. She was awake in this world and alive within it. He had always liked that about her.
Right now, he was half tempted to carry her upstairs and show her how hardheaded he was. Perhaps they could wrestle this quarrel to its natural conclusion.
He forced himself to take a step back. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Lady Forster?” Better she not know the inescapable effect she had on him. The control she had always held over him.
She smashed her lips into a hard line, obviously holding back whatever retort she wanted to make. Her whip whack-whack-whacked against her boot. Then, with a toss of her head, she looked out the window.
But he’d seen it, in the quiver of her chin and the slant of her eye. Seen what he’d not wanted to see.
“Cat, I…” He what? He had no notion what to say. Certainly he did not owe her an explanation. She was the one who had been found in a compromising position with a known libertine only two weeks after their wedding. He was the one made to look a fool.
“Why are you returned, Forster?” She directed her query to the afternoon sunlight slanting through the window.
How to answer her question? On every piece of land he’d visited, no matter how breathtakingly beautiful, he’d missed the rolling hills and familiar hearths of his childhood home. But the truth, the more immediate cause, pressed at his tongue.
It was difficult, the real cause for his return, and Cat might not like it, but he would honor her with it. There would be no more games between his wife and him, no more half-truths or misunderstandings. “Sutton passed.”
“Yes.” She swung her cautious gaze back to him.
“I no longer have an heir.”
“I am sure there is someone.”
“Not in direct line.” Only some fourth or fifth cousin he’d never heard of. It had been a damnable curse, the lack of males in his family.
“I see.” She held herself very, very still. Perhaps she did see. Perhaps he should simply leave well enough alone.
But he wanted to be crystal clear. “I need an heir, Catherine.”