Author`s Note: I`m terribly sorry for the delay.

Chapter 30

A maid was already waiting in her room when she returned. She held still as the maid undid the buttons of her ball gown and helped her out of her garments. Rather than the flimsy nightgown the maid offered—likely chosen because the maid believed that she intended to please her husband when he visited—she requested that she be attired in something far from enticing. The coarse material of the nightgown she donned scratched at her neck, but at least she wouldn`t feel so vulnerable.

After putting on a dressing gown and knotting it tightly around her waist, she dismissed her maid and brushed out her long hair, gathering the locks into a braid that ran down her back. Then she crossed her arms and waited.

He knocked then entered without listening for her reply. He wore only his trousers, boots, and shirt. Without a neck cloth a small patch of his chest, lightly dusted with dark hair, was bared. Olivia sniffed and stood up, looking into his eyes so that his body wouldn`t affect her as much. Big mistake: his face was as magnificent as his body, despite the strong displeasure she currently felt towards him.

He raked his hands through his hair and let out an exasperated sigh. "Damn it, what the hell were you thinking? Wait, let me rephrase that: why weren`t you thinking at all? Didn`t I tell you that you are forbidden to take Georgiana on any evening outings?"

"You did, and as I told you in the carriage, I do not agree with your treatment of your sister."

"Damn it! You have no right to tell me how I raise my sister. She`s my responsibility!" he growled at her.

"I`m hardly surprised that she attempted to run away. I would do the same in her position since you are nothing more than an overbearing, vulgar, tyrant!"

With his long legs, he crossed the room in two strides, bringing them only a few inches apart. Without thinking, she took a step back.

"Every action I do is with her protection in mind."

"Yes, and at the cost of her happiness. Do you realize how heartbroken she is at being separated from Captain Stratton?"

"She`s too young to have her heart broken. In a few weeks, she`ll get over it."

Olivia gaped at him. "You are heartless!"

"No, I am merely being practical. Besides, Captain Stratton has no title or fortune. He could very well be after her dowry."

"Do you think so low of your friend?" Royce turned his face away. Olivia grabbed his shirt and tugged so that he would look back at her. "Captain Stratton seeks Georgiana`s hand not for wealth, but because he loves her."

Royce pulled away from her. "And what if his love for her fades? What if he finds another? I am a man, Olivia, and I know how we can be. Georgiana will be heartbroken, no better than my mother. She should marry for duty, not for passion. It`ll save her from much pain in the future."

"But what if they marry and remain devoted to each other for the rest of their lives? Georgiana will be the happiest woman alive." She bit her lip and looked down, the back of her eyes burning. "If she doesn`t marry for love, then she will make the same mistake I made."

He recoiled, as if in pain. Olivia turned and walked through the door that connected her chambers to his. She locked the door behind her and sank against the wall. A hot tear rolled down her cheek, then another.

The next morning, the maid arrived to rouse her from sleep. Olivia dismissed the servant, turning her head into her pillow to hide her red, swollen eyes. The maid left, but a loud, insistent knocking sounded on the door ten minutes later. Anger shot through her body like a sip of whiskey.

The door flew open, hitting the wall with a bang. Olivia shot up and her eyes narrowed upon seeing that the intruder was her husband. He held a piece of parchment in his hand, his expression mirroring hers.

"Georgiana has eloped with Captain Stratton."

Her eyes widened. "What?"

"Georgiana has eloped with the army captain." He shoved the piece of parchment into her face. She could make out Georgiana`s curvy writing. "And I suspect that you have played a part in this."

Olivia pushed the letter away. She touched her eyes; they were still sensitive and puffy under her fingers. "I have had no knowledge of the elopement until now, but I wish them a safe journey to Scotland and a happy marriage. They deserve each other."

He crumpled up the note and threw it against the wall. Then he turned back to her, giving her the full force of his glare. "How dare you! I`ve had nothing but trouble from you since you came here. You planted all these fanciful ideas into Georgiana`s head, and encouraged her relationship with the captain."

"I have no knowledge of ever doing anything wrong, Your Grace. I am merely doing what most would consider right."

His eyes narrowed. "Leave my house."

She pursed her lips. "I beg your pardon. Did you just ask me to leave, Your Grace?"

"Yes, I no longer want your interference in my household, and I certainly don`t want to see you again."

The words stung her, but she kept her chin held high. "I`m your wife. You can`t expect me to pack my trunks and leave. Where will I go?"

"Yes, I can, and you will. I`m sure your family will welcome you back. I, however, want nothing to do with you. I want you gone by the time I return with Georgiana."

He turned around and left the room. Olivia fell against the pillows. She could feel the familiar sting behind her eyes. Turning her head into the pillow, she screamed out her frustration. How could she have married such a stubborn, overbearing man? He was worse than Henry!

Throwing off the blankets, she ran to the window just as Royce exited the house. His face was hidden by the thick coat he wore to keep out the biting winter wind, but she could recognize his voice as he belted out orders and snapped at the servants. A horse was brought to him, and he mounted it. The horse sped off into the distance, kicking up dirt and snow with each step.

Olivia turned away from the window, walked over to the bell pull, and it gave it a hard jerk. Her maid entered a minute later, breathless, her hair falling out of her bun.

"Do you require something, Your Grace? Shall I pick out a dress for you today?"

"Yes, I want to wear my traveling gown." The maid looked at her in surprise. "Notify the stables that I want a carriage prepared for me in two hours. Have my trunks packed. I`m leaving for my parents` house today."

"I`ll request the carriage right now, Your Grace." The maid curtsied and left.

Olivia went over to her dresser and examined her eyes in the mirror. They weren`t as red as she had thought they would be, but her swollen eyelids were as effective as yelling out to the household that she had been crying last night. She sighed; it wasn`t as if she could do anything to stop the servants from gossiping, since her husband`s frequent absences from the estate was enough to indicate their rocky marriage.

The maid scratched at the door and entered. Olivia straightened and turned to face her. She couldn`t stop any rumors from spreading around, but at least she would be safe from them at her parents` house.

Most importantly, she would be safe from Royce.

The words he exchanged with his wife rang in his ears. He had been too rash, too overcome with anger to realize his mistake. She may had disobeyed him when it came to Georgiana, but he certainly didn`t want her to leave the house. She was his wife, for goodness sakes, and belonged with him!

He groaned. How was he going to fix his mistake? After all that he had done, she most likely hated him by now. It`d be a miracle if she gave him her forgiveness, which he didn`t deserve in the first place.

But that was a problem he was going to have to solve later on. He had a more pressing issue, more specifically, Georgiana. That rogue, William Stratton, would have to step over his dead body before he allowed him to marry his sister. He had to catch the two by the end of the day, before the servants realized Georgiana`s absence. If one word about the elopement got out, his sister would be ruined beyond redemption.

At that thought, he cursed and sped his horse on. He arrived at Lord Huntley`s estate a few minutes later. A groom came up as if he had known of the duke`s arrival and led the horse to the stables. Royce took of his gloves and went to the front entrance. He fisted his right hand and pounded on the door.

To his surprise, Lord Huntley answered the door.

"I was just about to send for you Sutherfield."

Royce breathed a loud sigh of relief. "Thank god. Is she hurt?"

"A bit hysterical, but fine nonetheless. Come in." He stepped back and held the door open.

The duke entered, but Lord Huntley`s arm held him back. "I`ve known you for years, Sutherfield, and you can do some pretty stupid things without thinking."

Royce scowled at the earl. "Let me through. I want to see Georgiana."

"I will, but I might warn you"—he leaned in close—"I will put a bullet in you if you harm a single hair on my little brother`s head…or break his heart."

"I won`t allow him to marry my sister." He pushed past Lord Huntley and went down the hall.

"They`re in the drawing room," Lord Huntley called out before he followed.

Royce threw open the door. Georgiana and Captain Stratton, who were sitting on the chaise, flew apart. Captain Stratton stood up and moved away from Royce`s sister, clasping his hands behind his back.

He narrowed his eyes at them. "What do you two have to say for yourselves? I ought to call you out for this, Stratton."

Lord Huntley cleared his throat. "Remember, Sutherfield, I want no harm to come to my brother."

He turned around to shoot a glare at the earl.

"I was going to take her home, Your Grace," Captain Stratton said. "I love Georgiana, but I would never marry her without your blessing."

Georgiana lifted her head. Her eyes were red and puffy. Pain shot through Royce`s heart. "It was my idea to elope. William dissuaded me from it. If you want to blame someone, blame me, Royce."

Royce`s hands were fisted so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He looked at the floor. Damn it, why did women`s tears affect him so? "He`s an army captain on half-pay, Georgiana."

"I don`t care. I know he`ll take care of me better than any other man."

"What if I refuse to give you a dowry? You won`t be able to live in the way you are used to."

Captain Stratton stepped forward. "With or without a dowry, I`ll love Georgiana the same."

Lord Huntley cleared his throat again. "Our dear uncle on our mother`s side has always been fond of Will. When he dies, Will is set to inherit a considerable fortune and estate."

Royce took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Olivia`s words from that morning rang in his ears.

He opened his eyes.

"Mother had always loved father, but in the end her love was never returned. That caused her a great deal of pain. I sought to protect you from mother`s mistake, but it seems that I`ll cause you even more pain if I forbid you to see Captain Stratton." He took another deep breath. "I`ll allow the captain to court you if that`ll truly make you happy."

Lord Huntley chuckled and clapped him on the back. Royce stumbled forward from the force of the hit. Both Georgiana and Captain Stratton stared at him in confusion. Then they looked at each other and embraced.

Royce flinched. "I said that you can court my sister. However, I said nothing about marrying her. Or…" He grabbed Captain Stratton by the back of his collar and pulled him away from Georgiana. "…doing anything that would compromise her such as embracing or kissing—especially kissing! Georgiana is only sixteen, and I expect her to wait a while before marrying. Well, preferably, I`d like her to never marry-"

Georgiana threw herself into his arms. He stumbled back and stood there, wondering what the hell he should do with his arms before he wrapped them around her back.

"Thank you, Royce," she whispered in his ear.

Warmth blossomed in his chest.

"Well, I think now is a good time to celebrate," Lord Huntley said. He pulled out a bottle of champagne. The cork came out with a loud pop.

Royce pulled away from Georgiana. "Every time if a good time for you to celebrate. You`re always finding an excuse to drink champagne and get foxed."

Lord Huntley clutched his chest in feigned pain. "Are you saying that I`m only drinking for the sake of drinking? Not for Will and Georgiana`s impending nuptials?"

"There are no impending nuptials," Royce growled. "I gave the captain my blessing to court my sister, not marry her."

"Ah, but we all know what follows a courtship." Lord Huntley winked at Georgiana, who giggled in return. He fetched three long-stemmed glasses from the sideboard and filled them to the brim. Then he took a long swig from the bottle.

Royce, Captain Stratton, and Georgiana rolled their eyes at the same time.

"Please don`t forget that we have a lady present, my dear brother. At least wait until she leaves before you get foxed." Captain Stratton sighed and took his glass.

"I think now is a good time to discuss the terms of the courtship."

Georgiana groaned. "Please, Royce."

He held up his hand. "Let me continue, Georgiana. I`m doing this for your own good." Clearing his throat, he continued on. "I will be chaperoning every time you call on my sister. You will maintain the proper distance of two feet away from her. If I catch you even looking at her inappropriately, I will call you out."

Lord Huntley whistled. "Enjoy courting the girl, Will. Sutherfield will be breathing down your neck like a dragon every step of the way."

Captain Stratton ignored his brother`s words. He nodded and held out his hand. "I accept your terms, Your Grace."

Royce shook the captain`s hand, his grip tighter than necessary. He couldn`t help but be impressed by how the captain didn`t even bat an eyelash at the pain. Perhaps he wasn`t intimidating enough?

He stepped away and eyed the empty glass in Georgiana`s hand. Then he glared at Lord Huntley. "Damn it, Huntley! You know that Georgiana is only allowed to have half a glass of wine—and only with her dinner on special occasions!"

"Don`t be such a tyrant." Lord Huntley waved his hand in dismissal and tipped the bottle to his lips. "She should celebrate her engagement with my brother with a full glass of champagne."

"I did not say that there was any engagement," Royce muttered, glowering at the earl. "Damn it, I think you need a wife."

Lord Huntley looked down, the wide grin on his face fading. He took another long swig from the bottle.

"I doubt my brother will want to marry if he can help it," Captain Stratton said.

Royce raised an eyebrow. "I thought he was engaged to some young lady. Come to think of it, I`ve never met her."

"Ah, I only keep her around to discourage the attentions of other young ladies. I do want to be able to walk around in London without having a debutante shoved in my direction at every step, after all. It`s too damn inconvenient to marry. I`d rather protect my freedom."

Royce agreed that marriage came with its own inconveniences. He had more trouble in the last two months than he had in rest of his life. Still, as Olivia came to mind, he couldn`t help but think that marriage had his own merits.

At Lord Huntley`s insistence, Royce and Georgiana stayed for supper and a few more glasses of wine. The moon, as round and bright as a newly minted coin, was high in the sky when they left the house to go into the carriage. He held out his hand to help Georgiana into the carriage and then followed after her.

His sister placed her head on his shoulder and sighed. "Thank you, Royce."

Those three words squeezed his chest. He looked down at his younger sister with tenderness and stroked her hair.

"Are you happy?"

"Yes, very much, Royce." She looked up and smiled at him.

He smiled back. "If Captain Stratton breaks your heart or makes any untoward advances towards you, then I`ll be more than happy to chase him away with my dueling pistols."

Georgiana laughed. "Don`t worry. William is a complete gentleman. He won`t do anything. Anyways, if he does, which I doubt he will, I don`t want you to harm a single hair on his handsome head."

Royce doubted that the captain was a complete gentleman. There was no such thing as one. Every man, including himself, possessed some sort of wickedness. He couldn`t help but imagine the terrible things Captain Stratton would do to his dear sister if he left them unchaperoned.

Still, he was glad that his sister was happy. He may not have approved the match or the man, but his sister`s happiness was paramount.

"I`m sorry," he said a few minutes later. "I did such a terrible job of raising you after mother died. I thought I was doing what was best for you, but I was only pushing you away. Forgive me."

Georgiana tensed under him. "I should be the one apologizing—for trying to run away."

It was the first time that she mentioned the incident that happened a year ago. Despite demanding her reason for leaving the house several times, she never told him why.

But he had to know.

"Why did you run away? Was it because of me?"

"Partly." She relaxed against him. "I was so sad about mother`s death. The house was too unbearable to live it. It was so frustrating not being able to go out, and I thought that you didn`t understand my pain."

"I felt pain, Georgiana. You know I loved mother." He sighed, resting his chin on the top of her head. "I know I shouldn`t have been so hard on you when I found you, but it`s so dangerous out there. I thought that I was going to lose you like mother."

"I`m sorry."

"I`m sorry, too."

There were a few minutes of content silence between them.

"I like Olivia," Georgiana said.

"I like her, too."

"Do you love her?"

The question took him by surprise, but as he thought it over he couldn`t think of a reason why he should not like Olivia. She was vain and spoiled, yes, but she had a spirit stronger than that of any other woman he knew. Since marrying her, he had never felt such a strong range of emotions: he was angry one second and happy the next. He didn`t think that he would ever get bored of marriage with her.

"Yes, I do. I love her very much."

He was such an ass. How could he have been so cruel? All she had been doing was helping Georgiana, but he had to tell her to get out of his sight. He wondered if she had listened to him.

Either way, he was going to have to apologize.

"Royce?" She pulled away and looked at him. "What`s wrong?"

"I said something to her today that I truly regret. I fear that her forgiveness won`t come easily."

She stroked his cheek. "You could apologize."

"I should."

His sister smiled and added, "And it wouldn`t hurt if you gave her a gift to soften her up a bit."

"Yes, I haven`t given her the family jewels yet. I could also have the gardener cut some roses from the greenhouse."

Georgiana`s eyes widened. "Oh no, you can`t do that. Olivia is terribly allergic to flowers. You don`t want to kill her."

"Allergic?" He thought of all the times in which he had given her flowers. She always smiled and thanked him as if she appreciated the gift. He realized how little of an effort he had taken to truly know his wife. "I suppose I`ll have to settle with giving her a few trinkets. You don`t suppose she likes horses, does she? Huntley is selling a nice mare that comes from good stock."

"She enjoys riding," Georgiana said. "But don't forget to apologize first. You don`t want her to think that she`s being bribed into forgiving you for whatever you did."

"Of course. Of course." He stroked his chin and leaned back.

The carriage stopped. A footman opened the door, and Royce stepped out, offering a hand to his sister.

"I`m sure Olivia will forgive you," she said as she took his hand and stepped down.

"I hope so." He kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you. Now go to bed. It`s getting quite late."

She smiled at him once more before running inside.

He was overcome by a wave of weariness. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he went inside. Several servants were standing inside the house, waiting for him, but he dismissed them with a wave of his hand and climbed the stairs.

The closer he got to his chambers, the darker the halls became. It was as if the walls were splashed with ink. Thankfully, a warm fire greeted him in his chambers. He turned to the door that joined his rooms with his wife`s and was surprised to find the door open.

He knocked on the wood. "Olivia, are you there? I need to talk to you."

He waited a moment, but there was no answer. The door creaked as he pushed it open fully. The fireplace was empty. His breath came out in white clouds. He went over to the bed. The sheets were as smooth as an untouched pond. Frowning, he turned and sat on the end of the bed.

That was when he saw it. The doors of her wardrobe were open, but no gowns hung inside. It was as if whoever occupied the room decided to move out.

Olivia was gone.