Natalya warmed herself in front of the fireplace. Last night’s events still played over and over in her mind. Gabriel betrayed her. And now she couldn’t trust him.
Clara brought her a hot cup of tea. Natalya took it and thanked her. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked.
“No,” Natalya said softly.
“If I may say Nat, you look as if someone died.”
Natalya closed her eyes, shaking her head. She had cried all night until she was exhausted. “Only my heart,” she said softly.
Clara’s brows drew together as she knelt before Natalya’s feet. “Did something happen to Lord Devall?”
“Humph. The lout is fine. After cajoling me into doing what he wanted, he shouldn’t have a thing to worry about.”
“Did you two argue?” Clara didn’t understand why Natalya looked so sad.
Sighing, she took a sip of her tea. It was very good. What good would it do to discuss her husband’s beguiling ways? Clara didn’t need to know the sordid details of her latest turmoil. She wasn’t even sure what her husband’s betrayal meant for their relationship. She couldn’t just walk away.
Do you really want to walk away?
Honestly, the idea of being without Gabriel pained her, but she was so angry with him!
“Are my clothes in the wardrobe?” Natalya asked changing the subject.
Clara took the hint. “Yes milady. Is there a particular dress you’d like to wear tonight?”
The ball was tonight. She would out Peter as her attacker and Linda’s murderer. Estelle would finally know the truth about her husband. It was going to be quite a night! She felt so nervous and now with Gabriel being untrustworthy she had no idea how things would turn out.
She wanted to wear something bold. Something that made a fierce statement. She had a red satin dress with black lace trimmings. The neckline was low and revealing, very dramatic. Maria had given it to her. It was certain to vex Gabriel.
“Yes,” Natalya answered. “The red one with black lace trimming.”
Clara’s eyebrows raised in surprise. She nodded and rose to her feet. “I’ll have it prepared for tonight.” She turned to leave.
“Wait,” Natalya said stopping her. Clara looked at her.
“Can you send an invitation to Robert Thurman for lunch?” Natalya needed to see him. To explain the truth to him before the ball. He must have thought she was a recreant woman. She had to let him know she never meant to hurt him.
“Yes. Will Lord Devall be attending too?”
“No. This lunch is for Mr. Thurman and me.” Natalya didn’t miss the suspicious look in Clara’s eyes. She just didn’t care. Not after what Gabriel had done.
Nodding, Clara left to tend to her task.
Miserable and angry, Natalya sipped her tea. Clara did an excellent job taking care of her. And she felt bad for being dismissive with her, but Natalya knew Clara’s first loyalties were to Gabriel.
Oh Gabriel, Natalya thought frowning. How could you do this?
He hadn’t come back to the room last night and was gone before she awoke. They had things to discuss, but she wasn’t sure what he could say that would change his betrayal.
“Excuse me Lady Devall,” It was Sarah, one of the servants.
“You have a caller this morning. Estelle Winster.”
Natalya sat her tea down on the nearby table. Then rose quickly to her feet. “Please, send her in.”
Sarah left the room. Moments later Estelle entered, wearing a modest yellow dress. Her hair was done up neatly and her eyes seemed to sparkle. She was glowing!
Natalya ran to her aunt, hugging her. They were never affectionate towards each other, but Estelle did return the embrace. It felt good to be in her aunt’s arms.
“Natalya,” Estelle said looking at her. “You look beautiful.”
“I’ve missed you so much,” Natalya smiled. “Come sit.”
They made their way to the sofa and sat. Natalya couldn’t believe she was really sitting with her aunt! That she was okay!
Then she realized what she had to do. Estelle had to know the truth.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Estelle began. “I’ve been worried. When they found Linda’s body I-I thought the worst happened to you.”
Natalya took her aunts hand. “I’m fine. Gabriel saved me.”
“Yes, he did.” Estelle surveyed the room. Then looked back Natalya. “You really didn’t deserve any of the mess that you’re in.”
Natalya heard the sadness in her voice and something else. Guilt maybe?
Estelle lowered her eyes, patting Natalya’s hand with her free one. “I haven’t done my best by you. I was selfish, only thinking about what I wanted.”
“You did the best you could. I know that.”
“I’ve come to say goodbye Natalya.” Estelle looked up at her. “I can’t stay in London. I can’t stay with Peter.”
Confused, Natalya frowned. “Why? What’s happened?”
Estelle sighed nervously. “I know he was lustful towards you. Which is why I wanted you to marry so badly.”
“Oh.” Natalya sat back, trying to find the right words to respond with.
“He’s been into his spirits more and his behavior has grown more adverse. It’s unbearable.”
“You can stay with Gabriel and I,” Natalya offered.
Estelle shook her head. “No. I can’t. Peter wouldn’t allow it. I’m with child now, amazing as that is, and he’ll never let me go willingly.”
Smiling, Natalya glanced down at her aunt’s belly. “A baby? That’s great news!”
“I have to protect my child. That’s the only thing that matters now.”
She could have protection from Gabriel, Natalya thought. “I know how to help you. Gabriel will protect you the same way he did me.”
Estelle stared at her niece. Years of guilt swelled up inside of her. She had ruined the girl’s childhood for her own selfish gain. And now Natalya was trying to help her. “Why would Gabriel want to protect me from my own husband?”
“Because he knows what Peter did,” Natalya said softly. “He tried to rape me that night I disappeared. Linda came upon us and he killed her, but I got away.”
Estelle stiffened and her features harden. She closed her eyes, disgusted. “I am so sorry Natalya. For everything.”
“None of this is your fault. Let me help you escape this man.”
If she only knew, Estelle thought. She opened her eyes, meeting Natalya’s gaze. She finally realized there was no escaping her fate. At least she could beg Lord Devall to spare the life of her child.
“Alright. I’ll let you help. Where can I go?”
Natalya was relieved that her aunt was willing to let her help. “I’ll have a carriage take you back to Winchester. To my home with Gabriel. Peter will never get to you there.”
Tears filled Estelle’s eyes. “Thank you. I really don’t deserve your kindness.”
“You do. Go home and get a few things. I’ll send a guard with you to make sure you get there safely.”
After Estelle left, Natalya made the arrangements for her aunt. She wrote a letter giving specific orders for Estelle to be well taken care of while expecting her first child.
Natalya was so relieved, getting Estelle away from Peter was the main thing she wanted to do. And now that that was done she could focus on her next task. Robert.
Robert was surprised to receive a letter from Natalya, but also excited. Though he knew he could never have her, his desire to see her was still strong. Clearly her desire to see him was there as well. What would he say to her? What would she say to him? He thought about it the entire ride over to her home for the season.
Even with the winter’s cold about him, he felt warm with anticipation of their reunion.
Once he arrived, he leapt off his horse and hurried up the stairs to the door, knocking soundly. Only then did he wonder if Gabriel was there. That would be awkward to say the least
A servant opened the door and let him in.
“Please see to my horse,” Robert told him. The servant bowed his head in response. Then led him to the room where Natalya sat. Robert didn’t wait for an introduction. He just walked right in.
“Lady Devall, Robert Thurman,” the servant said hastily, before backing out the room.
Natalya was sitting in a chair near the fire place. She looked up at him with those beautiful eyes that he adored so much. Slowly she raised, a nervous look upon her precious face. She was alive! And she looked well considering.
Tentatively she took a step towards him, her fingers knotted around each other. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to say something so he held his tongue and waited. The silence was heavy. It never use to be that way. So much had changed.
“It’s good to see you,” Natalya said softly.
“Aye, and you too.” He knew she had something to say. He wanted to give her time to say it.
Frowning, she asked, “Really? You don’t hate me?”
Robert shook his head. “Why would I hate you?”
Tears, which he he’d never seen before from her, swelled in her eyes. “For marrying another man. For betraying you.”
Robert went to her, stopping only inches from her. “What happened Natalya? Why did you leave?”
The story was so horrible, she hated to repeat it for the second time this morning, but that’s why she sent for him. To tell him the truth. She lowered her gaze to the floor, trying to decide where to begin. The beginning would be the easiest place. Also the hardest.
Sighing, she twisted her fingers in more knots and looked up at him. “Peter tried to rape me the night of my disappearance. He beat me horribly and would have succeeded had Linda not happened upon us.”
Robert nodded slowly. “He murdered Linda.”
“Da, and I managed to escape from the room only to pass out once I got outside. That’s where Gabriel’s men found me.”
Robert’s mouth twisted. “So he knew from the beginning you were alive?”
“He did. Though I’m not sure he was certain that I would survive. I was unconscious for a long time. When I woke I was in so much pain…” Tears fell from her eyes.
Carefully, Robert brushed them away. “Go on.”
Natalya met his eyes, trusting him. “Gabriel explained that I had been attacked again and that he brought me back to his castle to protect me. I didn’t remember what happened at first. It took some time for that to happen. But when I remembered it was Peter we decided to come back to make him pay for what he did to my family.”
“We discovered he may the one who killed my parents.”
Robert nodded. “I came to the same conclusion. I’ve been investigating him since you disappeared.”
Natalya’s shoulders sunk. “You have?”
“Of course. He was the first person I suspected.”
“Me too. But I thought, he couldn’t be a killer. Then I remembered what he tried to do to me.” Natalya closed her eyes, remembering him on top of her. She shuddered.
“What are you thinking?” Robert asked, caressing her face.
Natalya shook her head. “You don’t need to hear the sordid details of the assault. I’m just grateful that I got away.” She looked at him, ashamed.
Staring at her, Robert had to know. “Why didn’t you seek me? I would have come. I love you.”
The guilt hit her hard. She reached up and caressed his face, wondering what kind of life they could have had together. “Gabriel let me believe you would no longer have me. I thought he was my only option to save myself.”
Anger rose quickly in Robert. “Bastard! I would have never turned you away!” He pulled her into his arms. “Even if the worst had happened, I would have remained loyal to you!”
Natalya held him tight. “Oh Robert, I thought I’d lost you forever!”
Robert kissed her cheek heatedly. Before he knew it he was kissing her mouth. A mouth that he’d kissed so many times before. She kissed him back, sweetly and he knew she still felt something for him.
It had been a long morning for Gabriel, making sure everything was ready for tonight. He didn’t expect Peter to go down without a fight. He anticipated the man had a few tricks left. Dangerous tricks. Cole had found a few of Peter’s cohorts. The men denied any involvement in the attack on Natalya, but there weren’t above telling a few secrets for the right price.
From what Cole gathered, Peter had hired a handful of men to take down Gabriel while he took care of Natalya.
Gabriel wanted nothing more than to take Peter by the collar and run him through the gut with his blade.
James had been with him and Cole at the tavern, discussing how things would go at the ball. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of outing a killer at a party full of unsuspecting people.
“So he’s planning on attacking you at the ball. Perhaps we should just let the constables take him in custody instead.” James looked at Gabriel.
Cole looked from one man to the other.
Gabriel frowned. “Why? He won’t expect to be ousted there. Leaves him vulnerable.”
“It’ll be messy. For Lady Natalya.” James added the latter quickly. “Do you want her to relive her humiliation in a room full of people?”
James did have a point. Unless Gabriel was trying to provoke a situation where he had to kill Peter, it was probably best just to let the constables handle it. And after what happened last night, she might not be in the right mind, emotionally, to handle a confrontation like that.
She was so hurt. She refused to talk to him. How was he going to fix this if she wouldn’t talk to him?
“Whatever you decide Lord Gabriel, I’ll follow,” Cole said in the midst of their silence.
Gabriel looked at James. “You’re right. I need to think about how this will affect Natalya. She’s been through enough.”
“Good decision,” James said relieved. “I know what you want to do, but it wouldn’t be right for her.”
It was good to have a voice of reason in my ear, Gabriel thought. He tended to look at every situation like a battle and this wasn’t a war. It was a criminal that needed to be handled by the authorities.
He needed to go home and salvage his relationship with his wife. She needed to understand that he loved her and that’s why he couldn’t lose her.
“Doesn’t appear that we’ll need to go to the ball after all. I’ll go to the magistrate and have them pick up Peter before noon.”
“What about his men and their threat to you?” Cole asked.
“I’ll be careful. More reason for us to stay in tonight.” Gabriel rose to his feet. “If your hear anything else pertinent let me know.”
Gabriel left his men to see the magistrate.
As sweet as his kiss was, Natalya knew it was wrong. She was married to Gabriel now. By law she belonged to him. She wanted to console Robert, knowing that he too was hurt by Gabriel’s deception. But she couldn’t have an affair with him.
She would have told him as much had she not been pulled away from him unceremoniously. It took a moment to realize that it was her husband who yanked them apart. He pounced on Robert and the two men fought fiercely, though clearly it was Gabriel who was getting the upper hand. Thank God his sword was still sheathed!
After she got her wits about her, Natalya moved to intervene by grabbing Gabriel’s arm. “Gabriel stop!” He flung her forward as his arm continued its punching motion. She landed hard on her side. “Ow!”
“I’ll kill you for touching what’s mine,” Gabriel spat venomously with his hands around Robert’s neck.
Robert struggled to free himself to no avail. “You deceived her,” he choked.
“It doesn’t matter. My seed is probably already inside of her.”
A strained cry escaped Natalya’s lips at Gabriel’s callous words. It was that cry that got Gabriel’s attention. For that, at least, she was grateful. “Let him go,” she said through clenched teeth.
Gabriel saw the hurt in her eyes. He wanted to kill Robert and probably would have had she not let out that anguished sound. He separated from Robert, both men breathing heavily.
Robert coughed, holding his neck. “Natalya… Are you okay?”
“You don’t speak to her!” Gabriel roared, glaring at him.
“I’m fine,” Natalya whispered, shocked by this side of Gabriel she’d never seen before.
Gabriel turned his angry gaze to her and she recoiled from it.
“You may have stolen my fiancé,” Robert said, stepping towards Gabriel. “but clearly she still loves me.”
Gabriel grabbed Robert by the collar so quickly, Robert didn’t have a chance to react. Gabriel pinned the man against the wall and removed his dagger from his belt in the same motion, raising it to Robert’s neck. “Make no mistake, if Natalya was not in this room you’d be dead right now. I’ll let you walk out that door, but never darken it again.”
Robert looked at Natalya, worried for her safety.
“Don’t look at her,” Gabriel said pressing the blade against his flesh.
“I’ll be fine,” Natalya assured him. “Just go.”
Gabriel released Robert, stepped back and let him go. Angry, he sheathed his dagger and looked at Natalya who was still lying on the floor. He couldn’t believe she was kissing another man in their home! Did she want him to kill someone?
Natalya was still in shock. She knew he was a battle tested knight, but she’d never seen that side of him! Carefully she sat up. Then slowly rose to her feet. A part of her was frightened of the vexed man that glared at her! Would he beat her? She knew some husbands beat their wives.
With a sore hip she backed away from her husband until she felt the heat of the fireplace behind her. He looked absolutely murderous.
The way she stared at him, Gabriel knew she was terrified. Good. “Explain yourself,” he said forcefully.
Natalya cringed. She felt weak and small. Tears burned her eyes. What right did he have to feel betrayed after what he did to her? Her own anger countered her fear.
“He deserved the truth,” she said boldly. “He deserved to know what you did to separate us.”
Gabriel went to her quickly, grabbing her by her shoulders. “Yes Natalya, I separated you from the man you were to marry. Get passed it! You’re my wife and I will not tolerate an affair!”
Natalya pushed against his chest. He didn’t budge. “Of course, because it doesn’t matter what you did to me. Your seed is probably already in my belly!”
Gabriel let her go.
Shaking her head, Natalya wiped the tears from her eyes only to have them replaced by more. “It was always about what you wanted. It had nothing to do with me!”
“That does not excuse what I walked in on. Lady Devall in the arms of her ex-betrothed. If I see him with you again I’ll kill him.” Gabriel felt his fist tighten as he thought about Natalya in Robert’s arms.
“You’ll leave him alone,” Natalya spat viciously. She didn’t know where she was getting the courage to speak to him this way.
Narrowing his eye, Gabriel looked at his wife curiously. Why was she so protective of Robert? Did she in fact still love him? The idea hit him hard.
“Did you consummate your affair Natalya?” He stepped closer to her.
That courage she had just moments ago ebbed away. What was he going to do to her? “No,” she whispered, shaking inside. “It was just a kiss.”
“A kiss you enjoyed?” Gabriel asked in a low voice. He took her by the arms and stared down at her. She was shaking.
Closing her eyes, Natalya averted her face. “You said you would never hurt me.” Her voice was barely audible.
Moaning, Gabriel pulled her into his embrace. He wasn’t going to hurt her. He loved her too much to do that. He kissed the top of her head, then down the side of her face. He felt her hands on his waist. “And I won’t.”
Natalya sighed as his mouth moved down her neck and back up her chin. His touch was intoxicating! He was angry, but he wasn’t abusive. She had to remember that.
Carefully he lowered her flat on the rug near the fireplace, kissing her until she was flushed all over. He planted kisses on her breast, pulled the bodice low so he could taste more of her flesh. She didn’t resist. She arched against him while his other hand moved up her skirts to remove her under garments.
With her breast exposed, skirt up over her hips, he sunk deep inside of her. All he wanted to think about was her in his arms. How complete she made him feel. He loved her. She said she loved him just last night. Did she love Robert more?
The thought pained him. He took one nipple in his mouth, trying to rekindle the passion they had for each other. She held on to him as he brought her to an emotional release.
He wasn’t far behind her. He shuddered, moaned until the last of his essence had expelled from him. He lay upon her, content with what had transpired between them.
There was a moment of silence between them. One that hung heavy for Gabriel. He wasn’t sure he accomplished what he set out to do. She wouldn’t look at him. What was going through her mind?
He kissed her neck lightly. “Say something.”
“I’m certain your seed is definitely planted inside of me now milord,” she said with a quivering voice. “I relented to you. You won.”
The hope he had left him. He didn’t want her to feel obligation! Damn it, what did he have to do to get her back?
Maybe start with an apology, he thought closing his eyes. She thinks you only want to own her.
Why did he have to react so violently in front of her? She’d never seen that side of him before. She must have thought he was a brute. And then he took her on the floor in a rushed manner.
“I wasn’t trying to win anything. I wanted to show you how I felt.”
“Well you possessed me. Your ownership is clear.”
She wouldn’t give him a chance to apologize. She was still angry. He held himself up on his forearm. “Do you really think I want ownership of you?”
Natalya refused to look at him. “Is that not what you told Robert? That I was yours? I know my position now.”
Robert. Gabriel didn’t want to discuss Robert. He was still angry about that. “I don’t care what I told him. We grew to love each other before we came back here.”
That was true. Natalya did love him, which is why his betrayal hurt so badly. “That doesn’t matter anymore. It was based on half truths. I don’t trust you. She wouldn’t give him her heart to break again. “I trust Robert. He never lied to me or hurt me the way you have.”
Gabriel stiffened. Was she really going to compare him to the man that couldn’t even protect her? He frowned, the anger came back quick. She kissed another man in his home and then dared to compare them?
“Your precious Robert couldn’t even protect you. While he was inebriated, your uncle was able to attack you.”
“Shut-up,” she said horrified.
“And then my men had to rescue you while he slept in a pile with his friends on the ballroom floor.”
“Stop it!” The tears came.
“And you still trust him? Why? You should be happy I deceived you out of marrying that fool!”
Natalya screamed. “I hate you Gabriel! I’ll never forgive you for this!”
He regretted his words immediately. She hurt him and he wasn’t use to that. So he lashed out when all he wanted to do was change her view of him. He didn’t know how to handle the situation. His temper wasn’t helping any. He was going to lose her heart completely if he didn’t get it under control.
“Milady, is everything… Oh my!” A servant cried out as he entered the den. Her screams must have alerted him. Now the poor man was red with embarrassment.
He wasn’t the only one. Natalya could only imagine what her appearance must have looked like with her breast and legs exposed. Gabriel must have loved humiliating her!
Groaning Gabriel glared at the man. “Get out! And close the door behind you!”
“Yes Lord Devall!” The servant closed the door quickly.
Gabriel shook his head, frustrated. This morning couldn’t get any worse! He looked down at his wife. She had covered herself as best as she could. He removed himself from her body, redressing. She just lay there.
“Get up Natalya.” She didn’t respond. Sighing, he knelt beside her. “I’m sorry for abusing your trust. I’m sorry for hurting you with my words. I’ve never felt vulnerable like this. I don’t mean to lash out at you.”
Natalya heard him, she even believed him, but it was too late. She’d never trust him again.