I have never been more alone. George Darcy sat in his study, staring into his coffee cup. The warmth of the cracking fire did nothing to dispel the cold in his heart. He considered putting it out, the darkness somehow more appealing than the light.
Eight weeks ago, Anne returned from four months at Matlock with the baby, Fitzwilliam. How his son had changed! A father was not supposed to be so sentimental, but he resented missing those early milestones with his boy. He tried, oh how he had tried to put his bitterness behind him. After all, Anne suffered through the miscarriages and then childbirth. What had he to complain for? The first month he was successful enough. For a little while, it was like returning to the early days of their marriage. The woman he had loved had returned to him.
He groaned and covered his face with his hands. One month ago he confessed his indiscretion to her. Anne was devastated, her fury at his betrayal impossible to miss. They hardly spoke since then.
I wish I never told her. He pushed himself up from his chair, wishing, for a moment, he had not ordered his servants to remove all spirits from his private study. Oh, to be able to escape from this, even for a little while. His gut tightened. No, I cannot think that again. Such thoughts brought us to this place. He crouched beside the fireplace and extended his hands, enjoying the prickling heat. Bradley was right. I had to tell her. The guilt was turning me into a monster. She did not merit my actions, no matter how she hurt me, but what now? Is this all I can anticipate? Cold civility and fumbling attempts at banal conversation over meals? I never thought…
A soft knock broke his reverie. Somehow the noise was unfamiliar, not the purposeful sound his servants made. “Come.” His own voice sounded strange in his ears.
The door opened with a creak and a slight figure clad in robe and nightdress appeared.
“Anne!” He hurried to her side. “Are you well? The baby…”
“We are both well.” She drew her dressing gown around her more tightly.
He could tell she had had little sleep. Her eyes—has she been crying? His gut wrenched at the thought. “Please come in.” He guided her to the settee and sat beside her, struggling with what to say.
Anne stared into the fire for a long time, gathering her thoughts. Regret for her intrusion battled with determination to manage this difficult conversation, rendering her indecisive. She glanced up at him. Hair tousled, his cravat and neck cloth were gone. His waistcoat lay over his desk and his shirt hung untucked. A tortured expression haunted his handsome features. Bradley is right; I must talk to him.
She lifted her steepled hands to her face, as though in prayer, and pressed her fingers to her lips. Eyes closed, she drew a deep breath. “Tell me why,” she whispered. When he did not respond she continued, “Did you love her? Did you…desire her?” Her voice cracked as she forced back her tears.
The answer came decisively. “No, I did not.”
Buoyed by his response, she met his eyes. “Then why, George? I must know.” She hid her mouth with her finger, holding back many things she had already said to him in her mind.
He looked away and scrubbed his face with his hands. “Does it really matter?” he rasped. “I betrayed you Anne, and I am sorry.” He sprang to his feet to pace. “I failed you…and our son abominably. Why I did does not matter, it does not change what I did.” On his knees before her, he drew ragged breaths. “Please, please forgive me. I cannot continue with this distance between us.” He rested his forehead on her knees.
Drawing up her courage, she laid her hand softly on his unruly curls. She stroked his hair, certain she felt him shudder with a tightly contained sob. “Our parson says my Christian duty is to forgive you, so I will…”
His head shot up, hope clear in his eyes.
His face fell.
“If ever I am to trust you again, if ever we are to be as we once were…”
He caught her hands in his, holding his breath.
“I need to understand why.” She set her jaw, waiting, trying to drive away the fear. What reason can he possibly give me for not keeping his vow to me? I cannot see how I am to trust him again.
He stared over her shoulder, unable to meet her eyes. How am I to admit such a thing to her? She will hate me for my weakness, but what more can I lose? If there is even a chance…I must. “This was my fault and mine alone. I felt nothing for her, nothing. She is a selfish, manipulating woman who found me in my cups and offered herself to me.”
She shook her head, anger rising. “Too much port and you take to the arms of another? I can never trust…”
“Anne, I was angry and hurt. I drowned myself in wine so I would not feel.”
Her eyes flashed, locking on his. “Angry? Hurt? Over what?” She jumped to her feet, stepped back from him, and held her open hands between them. “How dare you! What right …”
“What do you mean? You know not what I have suffered!” He retreated to the fireplace, leaning on the mantle.
“What you have suffered? You? Excuse me sir, but it was I who suffered, not you! Or have you forgotten the four babes that I lost?” Shock and hurt mingled with the fury in her eyes.
His chest tightened as an angry heat rose along his neck. “What would you understand of suffering, madam?” He balled his hands into fists so tightly they shook. “It was only babes you lost, ones you never even knew and now you have a healthy son…”
His words were horribly cold, but once released, he could not silence his pain. “But each time I… lost… my… wife,” his voice broke as he stumbled on the words, “…my dearest, precious wife.”
The crackling fire became loud in the silent room. Anne stepped toward him and laid her hand on his arm.
He pulled away sharply and took her shoulders in his large hands. “You stole my wife from me! With each loss you drew farther and farther away from me, into your rooms, into yourself, until my wife was gone. You left me. I was alone.” He stood panting, his fury spent. Slowly he released her and paced the room again. “The port numbed my pain. When Lavinia came to me, I was so angry—Anne I am sorry—I wanted to hurt you as badly as you hurt me. I was wrong. I should never have allowed my temper to…” He could not continue as he leaned against his desk, face in his hands trying to contain the ragged sobs.
Anne stared at her husband, jaw dropped. He is right. In my own grief, I did shut him out. A fresh sorrow washed over her. I hurt him and I never recognized it! What have I done? She flew to his side, clutching at his hands, pulling them from his face. “George…”
He turned aside from her, hiding his eyes.
“ I had no idea. I …hurt you?” Tears flowed down her cheeks, matching his. She took his cheeks in her hands, forcing him to look into her eyes. “I was so absorbed in my own pain I never gave thought to anyone else. I am sorry.”
“It does not excuse what I did, nothing does!” He laced his fingers in hers.
“No, you are right. But now I understand.” She pressed her forehead against his hand for a long moment. “I know hurt … and being angry and alone. I hate that I never saw I was doing that to you.” She sniffled and bit her lip. “I cannot hate you for that.”
He tipped her chin up and gazed into her tear-filled eyes. “What are you saying?”
She swallowed hard. “Will you forgive me for…for taking your wife from you? I was wrong to hurt you the way I did.” She blinked at him earnestly. “Perhaps if we both forgive, we can begin anew?”
“Oh, Anne!” He drew her into his arms. “I am sorry I allowed my hurt and resentment to build. I should have…oh so many things I should have done differently. Even if you can never forgive me, I forgive you, my love.” He squeezed his eyes against the fresh tears he wiped away into her hair. “Let us begin again and I will be the man you deserve. Help me become that man for you and for our son.”
Melting into his embrace, she nodded. “I love you. I want to put this behind us and look ahead. I do not want this last month to be the way of things for the rest of our lives. We will work at this and make it right. Bradley will help us; I am sure. I fear it will not be easy for I find I am less perfect than I thought…” She laughed ruefully as she gazed up at him, loosing herself in his loving eyes.
“You are perfect enough for me, my love.” Tentatively at first, he leaned down to kiss her. She reached up to meet him, tangling her small hand in his hair.
Perhaps we can make this right even now.