ONCE A SCOUNDREL
In the final book, the dark moment comes when Faith and Stephen realize that they need to work together to solve the problem of Mary and her son. However, originally, it was Stephen who left, to solve all the problems on his own. I changed it when I realized that Faith was much stronger than he gave her credit for being and was dedicated to having a future with him, no matter what she had to do to make it happen. But here is the original. I hope you agree that the final version is better. Enjoy!
When Mary fell into peaceful sleep, Faith quietly left the room to let her rest and to find Stephen. They had so much to discuss, not least of which was asking her father’s permission to marry her.
Nervous butterflies danced in her belly when she thought of it. And last night. And what they’d done...It had been absolutely wonderful! And perfect, because of Stephen. When she was in his arms, she felt more than special, more than beautiful—she felt loved. Now she knew why her older sisters gazed on their husbands in that dreamy way they did, why her parents insisted that she and her siblings find love matches. Oh, it was divine!
Her heart felt so full that she wondered how it didn’t burst, and she could barely walk without bouncing with joy. She’d never been happier in her life as she was at that moment, knowing that Stephen loved her. That they would marry and spend the rest of their lives together. The past four years seemed like nothing more than a terrible nightmare now, and she’d awakened into a dream.
She saw him and stopped. He stood at the top of the stairs and leaned back against the railing, his arms folded across his chest and his gaze staring thoughtfully at the floor. A smile tugged at her lips. Unshaven and dressed in the same clothes he’d worn all the way from London, his hair sleep-mussed and stubble darkening his face, she’d never seen him look so disheveled. Or so breathtaking.
When he looked up and his eyes softened on her, she came forward and stepped into his embrace, circling her arms around his waist as his own folded around her and held her close. Simply heaven. They would have to be careful—they weren’t married yet, and God help him if either of her parents caught him holding her like this. Again.
But for this moment, he was hers. So she rested her cheek against his chest, closed her eyes, and drank in the delicious pleasure of being in his arms. “Mary’s going to be just fine. You don’t have to worry about her any longer.”
“Yes, I do,” he murmured, his lips resting against her hair. “So much more than you realize.”
She loosened her hold around him and stepped back, doing her best to ignore the sudden unease nipping at her toes. “What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “It’s all gone wrong.”
“What has?” Cold dread fell through her.
Drawing in a deep breath, he rubbed his hand at the back of his neck. “I thought I could put to rights all that India destroyed and somehow carve out a happy future for us, that I could set Mary up in her own home and not have to worry about her or Ethan any longer, to set them off on their own lives as they should have had if Daniel had never died,” he explained quietly. “But I can’t. This fever proves that. I’m all she has right now, and I can’t send her away. I’m caught up in it.” He paused, his eyes staring solemnly into hers. “And if you marry me, you’ll be caught up, too.”
If...If? A dark panic clenched at her chest. There was no doubt about marrying him. Faith would be his wife, and they would have the future she’d always dreamed of having, of a loving home and family, laughter and joy. But when she looked at him now, his face drawn and his shoulders tense, that familiar pang of loss rose inside her.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered, desperately hoping that he’d simply made a slip of the tongue. “Mary has nothing to do with us.”
“I know what people are saying,” he bit out, “how she’s my mistress and that Ethan is mine. If I continue to care for her, those rumors will only get worse.”
“That doesn’t matter now.” She forced a reassuring smile despite the panic that gripped her so fiercely that her breath came labored. “I know the truth—”
With a curse, he cupped her face in his hands. “It does matter, Faith. It matters to me what people will say about you.”
“Of course there will be gossip,” she acknowledged rapidly, hoping that if she somehow kept talking she could turn back this conversation, find her way back into his arms and the happiness they’d had this morning when they were still in bed. “But it will die away once everyone sees what a loving marriage we have. And they’ll—”
“They will cut you to shreds.” Squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, he rested his forehead against hers as he murmured breathlessly, “You’re Strathmore’s daughter, and society would love nothing more than to see you fall. And I won’t help them do that, Faith—I won’t.”
“You won’t be,” she countered, a pleading quality to her voice. “How could you? When we marry, then—”
“Everyone will continue to believe that she’s my mistress—worse, that I’m daring to flaunt her in my wife’s face,” he forced out, the anger in him at the difficult situation he’d been forced into so barely contained that his fingertips trembled against her cheeks. “They’ll make you into a social pariah. You’ll never be welcome again in any house in Mayfair or at any society event. And if you do somehow receive an invitation, they’ll whisper about you behind your back and mock you to your face...the duke’s daughter who dared to marry a rake and got exactly what she deserved.”
She shook her head fiercely, her hands grabbing at his wrists to keep him from pulling away from her. “No! That’s not true.”
“It is, and you know it.”
Her heart raced with alarm, pounding so fiercely that the rush of blood through her ears was deafening. “What are you saying?” She could barely make her lips form the words as she whispered, “That you don’t want to marry me after all?”
“No—God no! I’m not saying that at all. But I have to find a way to make certain Mary and Ethan are cared for, that the gossip surrounding them is completely put to rest, before I can marry you.” He tenderly kissed her lips in an attempt to reassure her, but even the sweetness of his kiss couldn’t push back the dread blossoming inside her. “I will marry you, Faith. I just—” His voice cracked. “I just need more time.”
Time. Her body flashed numb, and if not for her hands grabbed fiercely onto his she could have crumbled to the floor at his feet. They’d had more than enough time. They’d had four years of time and separation and pain and tears. “No...” No! He was hers now, and she refused to give him up, especially after last night. Especially now that she knew he loved her. “No, I won’t let you go!”
“You’re not.” The anguish on his face sliced into her heart, and even as he kissed her she felt him drifting away. The ache in his voice choked a sob from her as he whispered, “Just a little longer, darling.”
She breathed out, unable to find her voice, “How long?”
His shoulders slumped, and he turned his face away. “I don’t know.”
She pressed herself against him and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, desperate to keep him with her. The tears fell down her cheeks, and she buried her face against his chest to take what little comfort she could in his strength and solidity. Her dream had turned into a waking nightmare.
Oh, she was such a fool! She’d prayed for proof that Stephen had changed, that he was no longer the rogue he’d been but a man she could love with all her heart and one who would love her until her last breath. Now she had it, irrefutable evidence that he’d become a kind and compassionate man, the sort who would never abandon Mary and her son when they needed him. And it was ripping her apart.
He was doing the right thing, she knew it. This was why she loved him, after all, because of his good heart and loyalty. But knowing that didn’t lessen the despair burning inside her chest.
“I need time, darling, and I need your trust,” he whispered into her hair. “Will you give me that?”
Somehow, she found the strength to nod against his chest, unable to answer for fear of breaking down completely. Because she knew the truth. No matter the selfless reason behind his decision, no matter that he wanted to help Mary or that he was doing this because he’d become a much better man than he’d ever been before...
He was leaving her again.