Corinna sat beside Caroline's bed, watching her sleep.
The duchess had met them at the side door. Marcus assured her Caroline had only suffered a few scrapes and bruises and, after carrying her upstairs, left her to the care of her mother and governess. Michael, at loose ends without his sister, trailed out after him.
She and the duchess had quickly undressed Caroline, washed and dressed her scrapes and cuts, checked and noted bruises, then tucked the little girl into her bed with a cup of willowbark tea. Corinna had been surprised that she hadn't given the little girl laudanum, but the duchess said that her brother had always given the children willowbark tea. Her brother, Corinna learned, was a doctor.
A short time later, Caroline was asleep, and Corinna was left to her thoughts. Rising from the chair beside Caroline's bed, she walked over to the window and stood staring out, barely noting the rocky cliffs and the sea beyond. Instead her mind was reliving the last hour.
The children had been restless all morning, too excited over the return of their uncle to concentrate, so she had given in to the urge to let them outside before luncheon.
How they'd known where their uncle was, she didn't know, but they had unerringly headed for the north side of the house, streaked through the topiary and into the meadow--if one could call rocks and weeds a meadow--beyond. Accustomed to the children racing everywhere, she had followed at a brisk pace. She, and the twins, knew that if she needed to, she could catch either of them.
It was one of those unspoken tests she had passed at Collingswood. The Thanet governess had been impressed. And so, to her chagrin, had the collective parents, marveling that she could move so fast in a dress, corset and petticoats. Caroline and her cousin, Shana, moved quickly because they lived in divided skirts, and their parents occasionally allowed them the freedom of breeches. Both had been put on their first ponies astride.
The duchess had explained succinctly. "Girls need to be able to run as much as boys. Dresses are not designed to give them that kind of freedom. So, in the country, they are allowed to be hoydens as much as they want. In the city, or in company, they are perfect little misses and know how to behave."
Corinna had been surprised yet again. Someday when she had children of her own, she would remember that bit of wisdom. If, she corrected herself, she ever had children.
The idea of children brought her thoughts back to Marcus. She had been unforgivably rude. Not only had she not spoken directly to him at all, but she had never even looked at him, except when he had been looking at Caroline. Then she couldn't tear her eyes away.
He had changed. It was a trite phrase and did not do justice to how much. His hair had been a dark, glossy brown when he left, now it had lightened a little and had blond streaks in it. While he had never been soft or overfed, he had also not been as lean and muscled as he appeared now. He exuded a strength and virility that no young woman could possibly be proof against, herself included.
A frisson of awareness had snaked through her at his nearness, and when their hands brushed, fire, hot and instant, had engulfed her, shaking her normally calm facade. She had felt the warmth steal into her face and refused to look at or answer him when he blatantly asked her name. She had left Caroline to supply it, relieved when Caroline used the nickname the twins had given her.
He would find out eventually. All he had to do was ask the duchess and she would tell him whatever he wanted to know about "Miss Camden." Then, she knew, the charade would be over.
She had been dreading a meeting with him since he arrived yesterday. Expecting to be asked to even the table out at dinner, she had been relieved when the summons hadn't materialized. Then, this morning, when she realized the children were heading toward him standing on the cliff, she had steeled herself for the introduction to follow. Instead, Caroline had been tripped by one of the kitchen tabbies and she had been spared again.
Not that he would have recognized her.
At fourteen she had been nearly half a foot shorter, rail-thin, flat-chested and freckle-faced. That long ago evening, when she had stood beside him in the small, dimly lit church in Little Tympington, the top of her head had barely reached his shoulder. Late-bloomer that she was, she hadn't even become a woman, in the accepted sense of the word, until the next year.
Except for her eyes, today her mirror showed no trace of that young girl. When she bothered to look, she saw a woman with curves in all the right places, generously endowed, with a narrow waist and gently flaring hips. Would Marcus find her attractive?
She had no doubt that as long as he thought of her as Corrie, he would never connect her with his young bride. And perhaps that was to her advantage.
Turning from the window, she crossed back to Caroline's bedside to look down at the sleeping child. Straightening covers that did not need straightening, she sank into the chair again. To watch Caroline sleep. And to think.
St. Ayers, she had learned from the children, belonged to Marcus. It had been left to him by his father, and their father had merely been watching over it while he was in India. They were hoping that his return hadn't put an end to them spending their summers here. If she had anything to say about it, it wouldn't. But there was the rub.
In order for her to have any say about it, she would have to make herself known to Marcus and he would have to acknowledge their marriage. Suppose he didn't want to? Suppose he had forgotten all about her after Douglas's death?
The person she had encountered today was a far cry from the person she had known eight years ago. There was a hardness about him, a sense of power and supreme confidence she hadn't remembered from her interaction with him and Douglas before. It was likely it had been there all along, but had not impinged on her consciousness. On the other hand...
People grew and changed. She knew and accepted that. But had Marcus changed for the better? Had his time in India hardened him on the inside as well as the outside, or did the carefree young man who had been willing to sacrifice his freedom for a mistreated fourteen-year-old still exist beneath the surface?