ophy, Lady Marlowe, never knew what woke her. One second she was asleep and the next wide-awake, heart thumping. She lay quietly in her bed listening to the sounds of the storm outside. Had it been merely the howl of the wind that had awakened her?
In the faint glow from the dying fire on the hearth, she could see the bulky shapes of the furniture scattered about the huge room. Nothing seemed out of place. Had she been having another nightmare?
A sudden burst of raucous laughter came drifting up from downstairs. Her fine mouth twisted. Her husband's guests. No doubt drunk and amusing themselves with any of the servant girls who had been unwise enough not to have locked themselves away in their quarters. Of course the Marquis, her husband, did not hire
young women to work for him. Any female who came to work at Marlowe House knew precisely what she was letting gentleman swaying drunkenly before her. Although the years of rampant dissipation were evident on his features, Simon Marlowe was still a fairly handsome man, his black hair thick and gleaming, his skin clear, his body hard and lean. But not yet forty-three, his bold features were already beginning to show the signs of his dissolute life. His eyes particularly, those cold blue orbs, so empty and lifeless, gave clear evidence of the decades of wanton debauchery.
Those same eyes were fixed on her now, a carnal gleam leaping in their depths as he gazed at her tall, willowy form standing in the doorway of her room. The gleam vanished the second she raised the pistol and aimed it at his heart.
“You do not listen, do you, dear husband?” Sophy asked softly, her golden eyes fixed dispassionately on his face. “I told you over a year ago that I would not suffer your abuses any longer. And nothing you have done since that time has changed my mind. You have beaten me and degraded me for the last time. Continue in your attempts to force your way into my bed, and I shall kill you.”
Simon swore violently, his expression ugly. “You arrogant little bitch! You are my wife! You are not to deny me. How dare you threaten me?”
Sophy smiled thinly. “I dare because if I do not, I should have no choice but to kill myself rather than endure another night of your violent and distasteful rutting.”
“Do not speak to me in that tone! I am your husband. You
not deny me.”
“I shall. You forfeited any rights to me on our wedding night, when you took an innocent girl, a girl who might have loved you, and raped her.”
“I did not rape you!” he snarled, his eyes dark with fury. “You were my wife. It was my right.”
“Ah, forgive me, perhaps I am mistaken. It was not precisely rape, but there was no kindness, no gentleness, no understanding for my virgin state. We had hardly left my mother's home before you fell upon me like a ravening beast, deflowering me on the seat of your coach, heedless of my cries or the pain you were inflicting. I cannot say that your methods have changed very much in the years that have followed.” Her voice hardened, giving him no chance to interrupt. “Until I took matters into my own hands, you used me cruelly. You violated me, and, not content with that, you have struck me and treated me with contempt. You fill this house with blackguards and scoundrelsâwhen you are hereâand expect me to put up with their disgusting behavior. They insult me by their very presence in my home and you do not care if they subject me to the most repulsive type of action or distasteful speech.” She looked at him, her contempt evident. “Do you really think that I wish to hear how many virgins they have initiated into prostitution? How many innocent maids they have seduced? Do you honestly think I enjoy seeing your friends drunk and openly fondling the slatterns they bring with them?”
Simon remained silent, his face darkening with rage as she spoke. “You are a prudish little bitch,” he growled when she ceased speaking. “You think you are so high-and-mighty, so far above the rest of us mortals. You accuse me of having abused you. What about you? You owe me an heir. You have denied me my rights and broken your vows.”
Sophy shook her head. “I owe you nothing, my lord. Whatever I may have owed you when we married has been paid to you a thousandfold. You have humiliated me by parading your mistresses before me. I endured your brutality for nearly a year before realizing that I would rather die than suffer your touch again.”
Simon's fists clenched and unclenched spasmodically, and only the threat of the pistol she held aimed at his heart kept him from falling upon her. “Impudent jade,” he snapped. “Someday you will regret this. I will see that you do. You will not always have a weapon to hide behind.”
“You think not? I would not place any wagers on it, dear husband. This pistol and I have become fast friends. I am never without it. Even during your absences, which are thankfully frequent, it is always near my hand.”
The vast hallway in which they confronted each other was in shadow. Only the occasional flashes of lightning from the storm illuminated its cavernous width and the chairs and tables lining one wall. A railing ran along the opposite wall and ended at the grand staircase leading downstairs. Beyond the staircase, the wide hallway continued in utter blackness. From the room behind Sophy, the wavering light of her candelabra shed a soft glow around her, intensifying the burnished gold of her tousled curls and faithfully outlining the gentle curves of her slender body.
With greedy hunger Simon's eyes fell on her breasts, remembering their silken firmness and her small, sweet nipples; his determination to taste those delights again became more urgent. Blind lust instantly consumed him, and his gaze narrowed as he assessed his chances of overpowering her. He eyed the pistol, then glanced at his wife's face.
Sophy read his thoughts as clearly as if he had spoken them aloud and smiled grimly. “I would not try it, Simon. Killing you would not grieve me.”
“I do not believe you,” Simon blustered. “You will not shoot me.”
In the blink of an eye, her aim shifted and she pulled the trigger. There was a loud explosion, the scent of black powder filled the air, and blue-gray smoke drifted all around them. Simon stared in horror at the neat hole that pierced the cloth of his jacket near his shoulder.
“You shot me,” he gasped in disbelief.
“No. I shot your jacket. If I had wanted to hit you, I would have.” She smiled again. “I have used your frequent and long absences well. I am very,
good with my pistol. Would you like another demonstration?”
Simon took a prudent step backward. There was still another bullet in her pistol. A sly gleam suddenly entered his eyes.
Sophy sighed in exasperation. “Simon, do not be a fool. I know I only have one bullet left. I will not waste it, so do not try to trick me into shooting wildly. The next time I fire at you it will be to kill you.”
“Simon!” called a voice from below. “I say, Simon, are you there? We thought we heard a shot.”
Throwing his wife a vicious glance, Simon leaned over the railing and looked down. Spying a tall, golden-haired gentleman below him, and a smaller, rotund man beside him, he said testily, “Your ears did not mislead you. Your bloody-minded niece just tried to kill me.”
The blond gentleman, Edward, formally Baron Scoville and also Sophy's uncle, smiled beatifically. Half-foxed like Marlowe, he swayed slightly and glanced owlishly at his friend, Sir Arthur Bellingham, before murmuring. “Told you she was a right 'un, didn't I? Told you she had spirit.”
“Spirit? You are a fool, Scoville,” Marlowe spat. “She's a damned witch! I've a good mind to divorce her.”
“Oh, please do,” cooed Sophy. “You know I would like it above all things.”
“Shut up! Not another word out of you,” Simon said thickly, his eyes icy with rage. Looking down at Edward and Sir Arthur, he muttered, “Go away, the pair of you. Everything is fine. Tell the others that I shall be down in a minute.” He flashed a venomous look at his wife.
tell Annie that I will be down.”
With a languid wave of his hand, Edward departed unsteadily, closely followed by an equally unsteady Sir Arthur. As they returned to the other merrymakers, Sir Arthur murmured, “Told you it was a shot, not lightning. I win the wager.”
With the departure of the two men, the upper hallway was silent again as Sophy and Simon regarded each other. Simon was obviously still considering his chances. Sophy said tiredly, “Go away, Simon. Amuse yourself with Annie, whoever she may be, and your friends.”
“Damn you! You are the only one who can give me what I wantâan heir. You deny me the only thing I want from you.” He took a step nearer and, forcing a pleasant expression on his dark face, said softly, “Give me an heir, Sophy, and I swear I will not ask anything else from you ever again.”
Through cynical eyes Sophy regarded him. She had just turned twenty the previous October, but three years of marriage had left her with little belief in the promises of men. Particularly
man. She shook her head. “Never.”
His face contorted with fury, and he raised a hand to strike her as he had done so often in the past. Sophy merely steadied her pistol and asked softly, “Shall I fire?”
Cursing, Simon spun on his heels and strode down the long hallway toward the staircase. In silence Sophy watched him go, hardly daring to believe that she had wonâthis time.
A crack of thunder rent the air, and almost immediately the hallway was lit by a brilliant flash of lightning. The very foundations of the house seemed to shake. Startled, Sophy froze and something at the end of the hall caught her eye. The gleam of a jewel? Reflected light from a mirror? Still blinking from the nearly blinding flash of only a second ago, she stared into the murky darkness. For one shaken moment she had the uneasy sensation that somethingâsomeoneâwas there. Was that the faint shadowy outline of a man pressed against the wall? Her eyes strained to pierce the blackness at the other end of the hall, but could see nothing. She hesitated a moment, then, deciding it had been her imagination, turned away.
All she wanted was to be safely locked within her room. She stepped back over the threshold and locked the door. Leaning weakly against the cool wood, she only now allowed herself to tremble. Her knees felt like pudding, and she wondered if she would be able to walk back to her bed. There had been other confrontations like this in the nearly year and a half since she had told her husband that she would not allow him to touch her, but tonight had been by far the worst. She had to find a way out of this horrible maze. She had to. Not only for her own sake but for Marcus and Phoebe, her younger brother and sister.
A shaft of anxiety went through her when she thought of Marcus, only fourteen, and Phoebe, almost eleven, being left in the indifferent care of her uncle Edward. Simon had flatly refused to have them come live at Marlowe House when their mother, Jane, had died two years ago come September. Their father, the Earl of Grayson, had died in a hunting accident years ago, three weeks after Sophy's fourteenth birthday. Sophy had thought that her father's death was the most painful event she had ever suffered, but she had learned that there were other equally painful events to overcome. Her mother's death and her marriage both came to mind.
Placing the pistol within easy reach beneath her pillow, she threw off her dressing gown, blew out the candles, and slid back into bed. Staring blankly overhead, she wondered how she was going to endure years of exile at Marlowe House, virtually alone and friendless, forever fending off Simon's advances. Her own immediate problems lay heavily on her mind, and the fates of her brother and sister were never out of her thoughts. A dismal future seemed to stretch endlessly before her. Her only hope, she thought bitterly, would be for Simon to drink himself into an early grave.
Simon's thoughts of Sophy were far less kind as he half walked, half staggered toward the head of the stairs. Bloody bitch! I'd like to put my hands around her throat and choke the life out of her. Then I could go looking for another wife.
When he considered it, Simon was amazed at the fix he found himself in. Because of his reputation, he had not been viewed with pleasure by many of the ton, and as for marrying one of their daughtersâabsolutely not! He might have a title and a fortune, but no family of any substance had been willing to align itself with him. And he had wanted to marry. He had been forty years old and had needed an heirâdamned if he'd allow some second cousin twice removed to inherit! When Edward had proposed a match with his niece in exchange for his gaming debts being cleared, Simon had nearly fallen on his neck with gratitude.