Author`s Note: This story is at 270 reviews. I wonder if we can bring it up to 300 ;). The final chapter will be posted next week.

Chapter 31

Olivia`s sudden return to Herford Manor was met with surprise, but her parents allowed her to stay with them without questioning her. They suspected a problem in her marriage with the duke, but were wise enough to keep their curiosity in check.

Henry bore down on her the morning after her arrival.

"Did that damn duke hurt you?" he demanded at the breakfast table.

Everyone froze. The room was silent except for the clink of a spoon hitting the floor.

Olivia stared at her congealed eggs. She took a deep breath. "Of course not," she finally answered in a shaking voice.

"I don`t believe you. I`ll kill the man if I discover that he made you shed a single tear!"

Lord Herford cleared his throat. "Henry, I think Olivia would like to enjoy her eggs. Please refrain from such unpleasant topics at the breakfast table."

Olivia pushed her chair back and stood up, throwing her napkin on her half-full plate. She avoided eye contact with her family. She couldn`t bear to see the pity in their faces. "Please excuse me. I`m f—feeling unwell," she said, her voice cracking. She fled the room. Her eyes stung with tears.

Henry caught her halfway up the staircase. With an iron grip on her wrist, he spun her around.

"Olivia…" He brushed her tears away with his knuckle. A gasp escaped her lips as he embraced her.

"Please, let me go. I`m tired." Despite her protest, she clung to him and buried her face in his shoulder. More tears trickled down her cheeks.

"Don`t lie to me. I know that Sutherfield hurt you." He stroked the back of her head. His touch was surprisingly gentle. "I`ll kill him for what he did. I`ll put a bullet in his chest like I should have done when he compromised you."

The thought of shooting Royce lightened her mood slightly. "I want to be the one to wield the pistol." A choke laugh escaped from her lips.

Henry chuckled. "I`ll give you lessons starting tomorrow morning, and I`ll be your second," he said in a joking tone."

Olivia sighed. "Thank you. You`re the most irritating man in existence, but I love you, Henry."

"I love you, too… Even though I find you too vain for your own good."

She pinched his arm. He jerked his hand away and glared at her for a moment before his gaze softened.

"At least I`m not as arrogant as you are."

"Fair enough," he murmured against her hair.

"Thank you." She clung to him in silence. For at least a few minutes, she wanted to forget her stupidity and what had happened in the past few days. She wanted to pretend that she had never married and that she was still a young debutante safely curled up in her mother`s bosom.

"Will you be staying here long, Olivia?"

She tensed up. There was no knowing how long she would be here, since Royce was quite furious the last time she saw him. Even if he arrived here to take her back to Leighton Abbey, she wasn`t going to leave. It was a possibility that her stay in her parent`s home was going to be long-term.

"A long time, I`m afraid. I don`t want to go back to Royce. He`s a complete tyrant."

"Don`t worry, I won`t let you go back to him. And if it`ll make you happy, I`ll leave right now and make you a widow. You can marry whoever you want after that."

"Thank you," she murmured, though she knew that her brother would never murder the duke as much as he wanted to. Not even his future title as viscount would protect him from the hangman`s noose.

"Can you tell me what happened with him?"

Olivia wet her lips and swallowed. "I don`t wish to speak of it, but what happened was entirely his fault."

Royce wanted to do nothing more than jump on his horse and chase after Olivia the moment he discovered her disappearance, but the little common sense he had left managed to convince him that it would be best to give her a bit of time before he confronted her. Besides, a week was barely nothing compared to the years that they would have together. Years to take rides on his estate, eat breakfast together, waltz around ballrooms, raise children…

He felt as if his heart had been torn out of his chest. Marriage with Olivia had turned him into a sentimental fool. It wouldn`t be long before he began reciting poetry under her window.

It was early evening when he arrived at the Herford estate. He climbed off his horse and walked to the door, stuffing his hands into his pockets. His teeth chattered, and his nose was numb, but he was determined to see his wife.

He pulled out his hand and pounded on the door. A minute later, he heard the click of the lock turning, and the butler opened the door.

"May I help you, sir?" The butler asked, wrinkling his nose as if he had encountered a particularly foul smell. Royce realized that his clothes were covered in mud after two days of travel.

"I want to see the Duchess of Sutherfield."

"Of course. Please wait a moment."

The door was closed in his face. Royce scowled and tapped his right foot. If no one returned within the next moment, he was going to disregard propriety, knock down the door, search for his wife, and smother her with kisses and apologies until she forgave him.

Seconds later, the door reopened. Henry Pennant stood in front of him, his wide shoulders blocking the doorway.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Royce demanded. "I asked to see my wife!"

Henry`s answer was to draw back his fist and punch him. Royce stumbled back, his hands covering his right eye.

"Stay away from my sister! You`re not welcome here!"

The door slammed shut, and the lock turned with a click. Royce kicked the thick wooden door and howled as pain shot through his leg.

Olivia looked up as her brother returned to the supper table. "Who was at the door?"

She had been afraid that Royce had arrived when the butler announced that a young man wished to see her. Or that perhaps Captain Stratton had come to talk about Georgiana. Henry insisted on seeing the gentleman first, and he came back only two minutes later, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand.

"It`s no one of consequence." He returned the curious looks that everyone at the table shot him. "Get back to eating. It was just someone who came to the wrong house."

Olivia could hear her mother turn to her father and say, "Do you think there`s anyone in the neighborhood also named Olivia? I could`ve sworn there isn`t."

She looked down at her piece of roast beef. It was beginning to look less like a piece of meat and more like an unappetizing, dry chunk of wood. Pushing her chair back, she stood up and cleared her throat. "I`m feeling a bit tired. Please excuse me."

Her mother raised an eyebrow at her. "Are you sure? You`ve hardly touched your meal. Shall I have cook send up something that will help you sleep?"

She shook her head. "No, I`ll be fine." She left the dining room and went upstairs. A fire had been lit in her chambers, and the sheets of her bed had been turned down on one side. As she yawned, she thought that the pillows looked even softer than usual. She yanked on the bell pull to summon a maid and went over to the window to pull the curtains closed.

A movement below made her pause. She squinted and could have sworn that she saw a human shaped shadow beside one of the trees on the grounds, but it was gone as suddenly as it had appeared.

She blinked and rubbed her eyes. It was probably a figment of her imagination. She was exhausted and so much had happened in the past week. It was hardly a surprise that she was beginning to see things under all this stress.

When she turned around, she found her maid laying out a nightgown. With one last look outside, she closed the curtains and moved towards the center of her bedchambers to have her dress taken off.

An unexplainable longing shot through him when Olivia came to her bedroom window. He could have sworn that her eyes lingered for several seconds on him as she looked down at the grounds, but she turned away and closed the curtains.

Damn the butler and her meddlesome brother! He wanted to burst into the house, go up the stairs, and wrap his arms around her.

He flexed his hands. Damn, it was such a tempting thing to do, but completely stupid. That dumb brother of hers would point a pistol in his face the moment he took a step into the house, not even caring that she was his wife and technically his by law.

Taking a deep breath, he leaned against the tree. He was going to have to tread carefully in this situation, wait until the opportune time. One wrong or untimely move could bungle up everything. He felt like a young man trying to court a woman for the first time. It was a strange feeling, and quite unseemly for a duke.

With one last look at her bedroom window, he turned and left the estate.

A pattering at the window woke her hours later. She moaned and rubbed her eyes, sitting up. The room was dark; only a few glowing embers remained in the fireplace. She kicked off her sheets and stepped out of bed, cringing when her feet made contact with the cold floor. She stroked the fire until it bathed the room in warmth.

Again, she heard the pattering at the window. She frowned. Was it raining? She went over to the window, threw back the curtains, and gasped.

Someone stood below her window, a man judging by the boots that were illuminated by the lamp sitting next to his feet. Another pebble hit her window. She jumped back in surprise. A gust of cold air blew in when she opened the window. Goosebumps formed on her arms and legs, and she shivered.


Her name was almost whispered. She swallowed hard, recognizing the voice. It belonged to the man who she wanted to forget. He stood below, a handful of pebbles clutched in his right hand. They fell to the ground like rain.

Her eyes burned. Why did he have to come and remind her of everything, just when she was settling into the peaceful routine of her old life? No wonder Henry lied to her when she asked him who called during supper. Her brother wanted to protect her from Royce.

"Why are you here? I thought you wanted me to leave."

He stared up at her. She had to look away so that she wouldn`t have to see the pained expression on his face. It made her heart ache, even though she knew it was better for her to try to feel nothing whenever she saw him.

"I want to talk to you. Come down here or let me inside."

She clutched the window sill. It was tempting to go down. It felt like a decade since she had last seen Royce, and he was even more handsome than she had remembered. He looked quite sincere; perhaps he would apologize to her.

But what if she forgave him, and he got angry at her again? Would he hurt her enough to send her back to her parents` home again?

"I don`t want to talk to you. Leave me alone."

She slammed the window shut and turned away, her heart beating madly against her chest. When she turned around to face the window again, the grounds below her were dark and empty.

It was only until the sky turned a light pink that she finally found sleep that night. By the time she woke up, the sun was up and shining in her face. She groaned and rubbed her eyes, her entire body feeling as sore as if she had spent an entire day riding. She got out of bed to tug on the bell pull. Then she slipped back into bed and stared at the ceiling.

"Oh, you`re awake," the housekeeper said as she entered carrying a tray. "I brought you a pot of tea."

Olivia sat up. "What time is it?"

"Almost noon. I thought it`d be best if you slept in today since you weren`t feeling so well last night." The housekeeper added a bit of milk and sugar into the china cup before pouring the tea.

She felt as if she was Olivia Pennant again, a simple miss with no responsibilities and no worries other than what gown she was going to wear today.

The housekeeper handed the cup to her. She smiled and murmured her thanks, cradling the cup in her hands to enjoy the warmth of it. Her stomach felt more settled than it had been yesterday. The figure she saw outside her window was blurry in her memory, as if it was just a dream.

"The family will be dining below in a few minutes. Would you like to join them, or shall I send up a tray?"

"I think I`ll go down." Olivia took a sip of tea and wished for one of cook`s biscuits to go with it.

The housekeeper nodded in approval. "Very good, Your Grace. I`ll send your maid up."

Olivia watched as the servant left. Then she sat the half-full cup on the tray and settled back onto her pillows.

Wearing a light blue gown that she thought complimented her coloring nicely, she went downstairs. A footman opened the dining room door for her, and she stepped inside.

Then she wished that she was in any other place other than dining room. Even the most desolate desert on earth would have been more preferable.

Like a proper gentleman, Royce stood up. Never caring about formalities in a family setting, her father and Henry remained seated. The latter was glaring at Royce and stabbing the roast chicken with his fork as if it was the duke rather than a piece of dead bird.

Emma gave her a pitying look.

"Olivia," her mother cried. "It`s such a delight that you`re well enough to come down today. Guess who surprised us with a visit?"

Olivia took a deep breath, dragged her feet to the table, and sat down. She kept her eyes glued to her plate, because she knew that if she looked up, she would have to stare into Royce`s deep blue eyes.

Lady Herford turned to Royce. "I`m afraid that my daughter is still quite angry about whatever quarrel you two had. She`s quite stubborn. She inherited the quality from her father`s side of the family. I assure you that she`ll grow out of it soon enough."

Lord Herford coughed. "Actually, Olivia got the quality from her mother`s side," he told Royce.

"Actually, I find Olivia`s stubbornness and spirit quite charming. It`s one of the many reasons why I love her so much."

Her heart skipped a beat. She almost raised her head to look at him. Was he serious about loving her? Or were his words just for the benefit of her family? Surely it had to be for her family`s benefit; if he truly loved her then he would have never told her to leave him.

But, then, why did he come here?

Lady Herford clapped her hands together and beamed at her son-in-law. "How romantic! I don`t think I`ve ever seen a couple more in love with each other than you two. Isn`t it nice having such a loving husband, Olivia?"

Olivia bit her lip and looked around the table, lowering her eyes when they passed Royce. Everyone—even the servants—were looking at her, and she imagined that Royce was doing the same even though she took care not to even lay eyes on him.

"I—" She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Her attempts to calm herself didn`t help at all; she felt as if she was going to cry into her plate of bacon and eggs. "I`m sorry. Please excuse me."

She pushed her chair back and ran out of the room. Royce and Henry called her name. Lowering her head, she wiped her eyes and pushed past a maid who was carrying a stack of linens. She reached the staircase.

"Olivia, wait!"

She turned. Royce was only a foot away from stretching out his arm and being able to grab the back of her skirts. Henry wasn`t far behind. Turning around, she started climbing. On the third step, a hand clamped on her wrist.

"Let go of Olivia," Henry said, panting. "You`re not welcome, and she obviously doesn`t want to talk to you."

"I will not be stopped from seeing my wife." She could feel his warm breath hitting her neck as her husband leaned close. "Olivia, just give me five minutes. I only want to talk to you."

"You don`t have to listen to him, Olivia. I can have the footmen escort him out."

"It`s okay, Henry. I`ll talk to him."

Henry scowled. "Then I`ll stay here and listen."

Royce`s grip on Olivia`s wrist tightened slightly. "I should add that I wish to talk to my wife in private. That means you should go back to your meal, Pennant."

"I damn well won`t leave you alone with my sister. Either you say whatever you have to say to her in front of me or you—"

"Henry!" Olivia paused and took a deep breath. "Leave, just leave. It`s not as if His Grace will do anything to harm me inside this house. I`ll be fine."

"Olivia, you don`t have to do this."

"I`ll be fine," Olivia repeated.

"Very well, but if he does anything I will have my satisfaction at dawn tomorrow. Scream if you`re in trouble."

She listened to the thump of Henry`s retreating steps. Then she sighed. "We can talk in the music room. It`s not that far and no one will bother us."

"Lead the way." His hand moved to her elbow.

Olivia moved up the staircase. When they reached the music room, Royce reached forward to turn the doorknob and push open the door. She pulled away from him and approached the pianoforte. A book of sheet music was lying on the instrument. The pages were yellowed. No one ever entered the music room these days—except for the upstairs maid who came to dust every afternoon.

"Do you play?" Royce asked.

"Of course I do. What lady doesn`t?" She flipped through the sheet music. "I`m not that good," she admitted. "Mama tells me that I sing and play like a troll."

"How unconventional for a girl like you," Royce murmured.

She wondered if he was insulting her. Young ladies were expected to be skilled at playing and singing, but music had never been one of her talents. She also lacked the patience to embroider, and her watercolor and dancing skills were only passable. All she had to recommend her was her face and name, and she realized that if she had been born into a different family with a plain appearance, she would have been considered an unremarkable girl.

Perhaps she didn`t deserve the title of duchess.

She moved to the window and stared outside. It had snowed sometime during the night, and a blanket of white covered the ground as far as she could see.

"Why are you here?" she finally asked. "I thought you told me that you never wanted to see me again."

"I was being a fool. I didn`t mean any of those words."

"If you didn`t mean them, then you wouldn`t have said them."

Royce exhaled loudly. "I was angry, yes, and I allowed my temper to get the best of me, but if I could choose to take back my actions towards you, I would do so."

She touched the window; it was as cold as ice. A lump formed in her throat.

"Forgive me, Olivia. I am terribly sorry about the way I treated you. Forgive me, and come home with me. I miss you."

Heat rushed through her body. Her grip tightened on the window sill. She spun around. "Forgive you? You want me to forgive you? Do you expect me to forgive you every time you run off to London for weeks on end doing whatever I hate to imagine you doing? Must I watch Georgiana get married off to an old lord when she loves another? I refuse to be with you for your own convenience."

Royce moved forward, his hand outstretched. He brushed his thumb across her right cheek, and she realized that she had been crying.

She slapped his hand away and glared at him. "Don`t touch me!" She turned away from him. "I will do my duty of providing you with a son. Other than that, I ask that you don`t attempt to speak to me unless it is absolutely necessary. I wish to live with my parents from now on."

There was a long pause, and then: "Of course, Olivia, I understand. I just want you to know that I was wrong about Georgiana; I shouldn`t have been so protective of her. I`ve given Captain Stratton my consent to court her." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. I love you, Olivia."

She gasped. The floorboards let out a tired groan as Royce moved across the room. He opened and closed the door gently, the only noise being a small click.

When she turned around, he was gone.