Home > Her First Desire(2)

Her First Desire(2)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

Of course, Lord Latimer wasn’t choosy. Gemma always kept a chair propped against the door handle of her bedroom to keep him at bay, and there wasn’t a maid in the house who didn’t know to avoid being caught on the back stairs with him.

She pounded on the door. The hardwood shook with the force of her anger. “My lord, I must speak to you,” she said with the authority of one who had finally found her voice.

“Gemma, you will leave his lordship alone,” Barstow commanded, marching toward her.

Her ladyship was right behind him. “What is she doing? What is she doing?” she tipsily repeated.

Gemma wished she did know what she was doing. Pure instinct and a long-dormant sense of outrage were in control now.

She pounded on the door harder. “Lord Latimer, open up.”

To her surprise, the door was flung open and the upstairs maid, a new girl by the name of Beth, came charging out. Her lips looked red and bruised. “Thank you,” she whispered under her breath at Gemma as she slid by. The maid hurried down the hall as if the hounds of hell were on her heels.

Gemma stepped in the doorway to face Lord Latimer, whose stare let her know she had interrupted him. The library was a big room with huge windows overlooking the back garden, and comfortable seating for enjoying a book by the fire.

His lordship was on the far side of one of those chairs. His jacket was off and his clothes, including the undone top button of his breeches, were in disarray. He was a short man, in contrast to his brother, Paul, who had been close to six foot. Other than the height difference, the brothers had a remarkable resemblance with dark hair and gray eyes. In any quarter they would have been considered handsome, although experience had taught Gemma that “Handsome is as handsome does” was a very true adage.

For once, Gemma didn’t defer to him. “How dare you open my mail and then keep it from me.” She held up the crumpled letter.

At that moment Barstow reached her. His thick hands came down on her shoulders. Her response was to send an elbow back and into his side with enough force that he released his hold and doubled over.

Gemma took a neat step away from him. She had quite a crowd watching now. Beyond Lord and Lady Latimer, the card-playing guests, their eyes wide with astonishment, had followed them down the hall. They probably could not believe their luck in witnessing such a scene. Gemma had no doubt that this story would be swirling around London before nightfall.

She didn’t care. She was done with being proper and nice. She’d been raised in Manchester where they prided themselves on plain speaking and she had the blood of Scottish rebels on her mother’s side flowing in her veins.

It was time to act like it.

“I want my widow’s portion of my husband’s estate. You owe it to me and I want it.”

She’d asked before, of course. She’d asked politely. Humbly. Meekly. In response, there had been excuses, promises . . . silence.

And she’d accepted it all, knowing how precarious her position was. Finding the letter had been the ultimate betrayal.

“You can’t just take it from me,” she continued. “That money came from my father.”

“Who married you off to my brother, changing his will to name Paul his heir. It is not my fault your father did not see to your best interests.” He’d straightened his clothing, reached to put on his jacket, and was bringing out his “lordliness.” “Or that your husband left your welfare to me.”

“Paul was a philandering, gambling villain who was not a good husband, or even a good man—”

That statement elicited shocked gasps from the magpies—

Gemma rounded on the lot of them. “As if you didn’t know. I was the last person in the world to know exactly whom he was.” To her brother-in-law, she said, “However, even you, Lord Latimer, should be able to understand that out of fairness alone, I deserve to receive something.”

His lordship looked past her shoulder to his wife. “My lady, don’t you believe our guests would be more comfortable in the sitting room? Please, gentle ladies, I am sorry for the interruption of your afternoon. This is a highly personal matter, as you may have assumed. I beg your discretion.”

“Yes, let’s return to our cards, shall we?” Lady Latimer said, her smile too bright, too false. Gemma didn’t know if it was because of the scene she was creating or the sight of a maid running from the once-locked library.

The magpies didn’t budge. They cast knowing looks at each other as if silently agreeing now was not the time to leave.

Gemma understood this was her one chance to strike. She’d shame Lord Latimer into giving her a widow’s portion. “You took my husband’s estate and gave me nothing. You left me destitute.”

The pleasant smile on Lord Latimer’s face hardened. “We have taken care of you, Gemma.”

“By keeping my personal mail from me?” Certain the magpies could appreciate how important private correspondence was, she held up the letter. “My uncle Andrew was my last living relative. I deserved to know of his death. Instead, someone opened this letter, months ago, and didn’t say a word to me.”

Lord Latimer came forward, confident. “Absolutely. I am the head of this household. Everything goes through me—and I was bloody tired of seeing you walk around in black for my brother—which you would have insisted on continuing if you had known. I detest seeing women in black. So maudlin. Here now, ladies, back to your cards and cakes.” He waved his hands as if he was scooting chickens out of his path. “We take good care of our Gemma. Have no fear. We believe she has had enough of death.”

“Yes, we take good care of her,” his silly wife echoed, and Gemma had had enough.

“I can take care of myself . . . if you will give me the money I deserve.”

“That’s the point, Gemma,” his lordship said. “You don’t deserve any money.”

That was an outrageous statement. “You purchased a new coach off the money my marriage brought to this family—” she started, only to be cut off.

“I purchased a coach with my money.” He spoke with finality, his gaze cold. “By the good grace of the law, I inherited my brother’s estate. He inherited your father’s, and he did so with your father’s blessing. If your father wanted you to have money, he should have made a provision.”

“He trusted Paul,” she said, the words almost choking her.

“No one should have trusted Paul. He was a fool, eager to make a fool’s decisions. Everyone knew Sir Michael valued the affections of his wife and was a crack shot.”

Heat rose to Gemma’s cheeks.

No, it was not news to anyone in London that her husband had died dueling over another man’s wife. However, it was unkind of him to bring it up now, especially with such an audience.

Gemma wrapped herself in pride. “And does everyone in London know you kept the news of my husband’s death from me until I came here looking for him? He’d been dead, what? Six months?” Her voice shook with the shame she wanted to heap upon him. “Dead and buried and his widow was not told? Is this how you take care of me?”

Lord Latimer’s thin lips quirked to one side. “Perhaps I wished to save you from tragic news.”

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