Known for always doing the right thing, Adam Stanford's honour and gentlemanly conduct are forgotten when he meets Catherine Bourgeault. Adam will risk his reputation and everything he holds dear in order to possess this sensational woman. What seems like a straightforward effort to steal another man's wife however, is fraught with deception, and the darkest secrets of a crazed man who'll go to any lengths to save his aimless marriage.
Lady Catherine Bourgeault placed her fork on her plate and ended the pretense that she was enjoying her supper. She had scolded the cook repeatedly, but as long as the baron did not care nothing would change.
"What's the matter, my dear? Do you not find the meal to your liking?"
Catherine stared down the long table to where her husband sat, though she felt no need to answer his facetious question. She would never understand how he stayed so thin, for he ate great quantities of food and drank copious amounts of wine, and quality of taste was never an issue.
Lord Bourgeault expelled a loud belch and patted his stomach. "Robby," he bellowed,
"another bottle of Port and don't dawdle."
The burly footman who stood at the dining room entrance rushed to do his master's bidding, fetching the Port from the sideboard. Rather than waiting for the servant to pour the wine, the baron grabbed the bottle and took a swig.
She'd had enough. One more night of dancing attendance on a drunken reprobate and her mind might go numb forever. Happily, he no longer demanded her presence when he was in his cups, rambling on at her until she felt like pulling her hair out in frustration.
She stood to leave.
"One moment, wife." He paused, his manner sly. "I have an announcement to make."
Catherine felt a fissure of alarm sluice down her spine, but she allowed her face to register nothing more than mild curiosity. She knew he liked to disconcert her, and she refused to grant him the pleasure of believing he had succeeded.
When she did not speak the baron began anew, although she knew she had irritated him. "If all goes according to plan," he said, "we will have a guest coming for a short stay. I will expect you to play the hostess." It was not a request.
"When might that be, Edgar?" She allowed her tone to fall just short of insolence.
He stood abruptly, knocking the chair he sat on to the floor with a crash. He wrapped his great hands into fists and, leaning them on the table in front of him, glared at her. "The arrangements haven't been made." His eyes narrowed as he continued to study her. "Do not toy with me, Catherine, for I can and will make you very miserable."
"I have no such intention, Edgar. I simply do not understand what purpose it serves to have me preside over festivities no decent woman would allow. I'm aware that men engage in activities that are less than noble, but they usually protect their wives from the goings on. Let me greet your guests and then withdraw."
"This is no ordinary gentleman." He spoke softly now, although she still detected his displeasure. "He is the Earl of Ashworth, and I wish you to be especially pleasant to him."
"What does that mean 'especially pleasant'?"
"It means," his voice took on a silky quality that unnerved her more, "I want him to feel welcome in my home, and I expect you to do your part."
"Why would the Earl of Ashworth pay you a visit?"
"Business if you must know. Nothing that need concern you. Robby, right my chair."
The baron sat down heavily and emitted another deep-throated belch as the footman once again hastened to do his master's bidding.
Catherine swallowed, unable to hide her disgust. "It's Abel and Cain, isn't it? Why do you continue to use those horses to entice the unsuspecting to this barren old castle? We both know you have no intention of selling them. No one will be able to meet the price you have placed on their hides."
The baron bit the end of one fingernail and spit it across the table. He smiled at her, his expression smug. "The earl can many times over--without a noticeable dip in his bank account, I might add."
"But you are also rich, Edgar. You have no need of the money." "I would prefer you not mention that to the earl."
Catherine understood the threat attached to what seemed an innocuous request. "If that is all," she said.
She turned once more to leave, and once more he detained her.
"There is one other thing, love." Why must he always appear gratified when he knew he was
about to tell her something she would hate? "I purchased you a new gown to wear the first night the earl is here. Cost me a pretty penny and, I assure you, it is very fashionable."
And she could put it next to all the other gowns he had bought her now hanging in her wardrobe, she thought disparagingly, gowns only a trollop would wear.
Aloud she said, "Perhaps, if fashionable began in a bawdy house, Edgar. How could you wish the gentlemen you invite here to view your wife as someone so vulgar? Perhaps someday you will explain it to me."
"You know everything I wish you to know, my dear. You may go now." He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. As always, the baron had had the last word.
Catherine left the dining room and entered the great hall of the castle. Lifting her skirts, she dashed up the ancient staircase to the landing above. She went to her room and slammed the oaken door with a burst of angry energy.
Damn him! Damn him! What had she done to deserve her fate? She would have cried, but the knot of pique that had formed in her chest would not allow her that relief. She paced back and forth across the moldering carpet, arms folded tightly across her breasts, trying to calm the maelstrom of loathing that had taken her emotions.
She wanted to scream her hatred for that detestable man who symbolized everything wrong with her world. At times like this she envisioned planting a razor-sharp blade in the middle of his bony back. Then she was seized by a guilt so overpowering she feared losing her mind. Worst of all, she could see no end to the madness. Her bed had been made, albeit for her, and now she must lie in it until that drunken bastard in the dining hall cocked up his toes and released her from this prison.
There came a timid knock at the door and, with Catherine's permission, her maid slipped into the room. "I heard your door close and thought you might be needing my assistance."
"Edna, you know very well I slammed the door, and now I'm feeling miserable because I allowed that man to incite me into throwing a temper tantrum."
She was embarrassed by her loss of control, smiling an apology at her servant. She cringed inwardly because Edna's neutral expression did not mask the little abigail's concern. Catherine knew her situation aroused feelings of pity among the staff. All were aware of what she had suffered at the hands of her husband--not in a physical way, for the baron's affliction precluded that, but emotionally, a more subtle form of abuse.
Having spent all her pent-up rage, Catherine felt suddenly limp as though all her bones had been removed. She let Edna help her disrobe and don a soft flannel nightgown, and with unsteady legs she climbed into the middle of her four-poster bed to lie on her back atop the counterpane.
"After all these years I ought to be used to these little scenes with my husband. I suppose he would be gratified to know he can still disturb me so."
She turned her face to stare at the diminutive maid who stood patiently waiting at the foot of the bed for further instructions.
Smiling wanly, Catherine shook her head. "You must grow weary of such self-indulgence, Edna. Get some rest. Tomorrow is another day to live through."
Having said that, Lady Bourgeault flung her arm over her eyes to block out what remained of the ruined evening.