Rakes and Roses by Josi S. Kilpack

Halfway through the harpist’s performance, Sabrina Carlisle slipped through the French doors of the Gilmores’ music room, her eyes fixed on the six-foot rose arbor near the back of the garden. It would afford her the privacy she desperately needed. Her breath came in quick gasps, and she put a hand to her heaving chest. This extreme reaction had happened before: a physical attack of such fear and panic that she could not breathe, could not think, and most certainly could not recover herself in that room full of people.

She moved beneath the arbor woven with climbing roses and pressed her back into the thorny branches of the hedgerow that spread out on either side of the archway. The needle-pricks helped ground her in time and place, and the yellow roses of the climbing vine helped remind her of better days. Whatever happened tonight, she needed to keep her wits about her, which meant she had to calm her mind.

Breathe,she commanded herself silently the way Therese, her housekeeper, had coached her on similar occasions. Think of nothing but your next breath.

She forced her mind away from any other thought.

Breathe in.

Hold.

Breathe out.

Hold.

She began to breathe the heady scent of the roses in through her nose and out through her mouth in audible release, focusing on the vibrations of the air moving in her chest and throat and mouth. Picturing Hortencia’s rose garden in Wimbledon helped her remember the peace she often felt there. Richard never came to the rose garden his mother had designed, and Sabrina was careful not to let on how much she liked it so that he would not somehow take it away from her.

A minute passed.

Then two.

Finally, the grinding sensation in her brain subsided, and her thoughts began to clear. Not clear like a stream racing over rocks, but clear like the still pond located in the center of Hortencia’s garden. How she wished she were in that garden now instead of this one that was not her own.

She patted at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her gloved hand, careful not to disrupt the curls around her face, and then moved her hand to her belly, only barely rounded beneath her high-waisted dress.

Richard won’t hurt his own child, she told herself. Which means he won’t hurt me.

The affirmation had proved true for three months now, ever since she’d told him she was finally going to have a child. That he’d not hurt her since that day almost convinced her that he would never raise his hand to her again.

Almost.

Perhaps that security was why she’d been lulled into foolishly commenting on his poor luck at the racetrack. Why had she said such a thing? And in company too. She knew better than to embarrass him. And she knew the look that had flashed over his face when he’d turned sharply toward her.

When he’d announced to the same company that they would not be staying in London for the weekend as previously planned, the old but not forgotten panic had begun to build. Richard was careful in London, where there were morning callers and daily social events she was expected to attend, but at Rose Haven, the Wimbledon estate some seven miles from the city, no one would call on her. No one would know what happened once the doors had closed them in. She had learned to defend herself over the years even though it infuriated Richard into greater brutality, but the baby . . . She didn’t dare do anything that would increase the violence.

How is this my life? What would I give for a second chance to make a different future?

Sabrina pressed on her belly to remind herself it was real. She had reached the halfway point in the pregnancy and had only another four and a half months to go. Therese had impressed upon Richard the delicate nature of Sabrina’s condition, and he’d respected that, refraining from exerting his dominance over her.

She’d had a growing hope that this child could change everything. Remedy his rage. Soften his heart. Give them a place to build from so they could have the kind of marriage God intended. She did not expect to be cherished by such a man as Richard, but as the mother of his child, she’d have some security. She could no longer be so easily replaced, and therefore, he would not handle her so roughly.

Right?

Could she still believe that?

She had to believe it. She would be a mother, and for the first time since Mama’s death, she would have someone to love her. What would that feel like? What would it mean to hold her own child in her arms? A part of her. A part of Mama. A future.

Four and a half more months.

A giggle from the other side of the hedge froze the air in her lungs. A male laugh, low and seductive, closely followed, and Sabrina closed her eyes as though that could hide her. There had been several numbers left in the program when she’d slipped into the garden, and she’d thought she’d have time to compose herself before returning in time for the final performance. How would she explain herself, hiding behind a wall of roses, alone in the dark?

Tears of frustration and anticipated embarrassment pricked the backs of her eyes. She nearly gave into them, except then she would rejoin the party with puffy eyes that would give away her distress.

She looked around for better cover when a man suddenly came into view. He was walking backward through the archway, leading a woman by her gloved hand toward the dark corner where Sabrina had sought her own refuge. He stepped back far enough that he faced Sabrina—her back against the foliage that blocked her from the view of his companion. He stumbled a step before coming to a stop. The man pulled his eyebrows together in confusion.

Please, she prayed, widening her eyes and shaking her head slightly to emphasize how much she needed his help to remain unseen. Please.

“I think there must be a better corner,” the man said. He held Sabrina’s eyes another moment before shifting his gaze to the woman he’d kept, literally, at arm’s length. He stepped back toward the house, and their laughter moved away with their voices until Sabrina was alone again.

Sabrina took a shaky breath, sending a grateful prayer to the heavens for the stranger having spared her. If only she could orchestrate a means to be spared from Richard.

Perhaps if she were particularly attentive and complimentary for the rest of the evening, his anger would cool by the time they returned home. She could praise his hunting last week—he’d brought home three pheasants in only one morning. Maybe if he drank enough he would forget his anger. The baby’s movement had become stronger this week; if he could feel it, perhaps both she and their child would become more human to him. More real. Maybe he would see both of them as worthy of his protection.

As confidently as she could, she stepped away from the wall of roses and looked around the empty garden. The notes of a flute carried from the back doors of the music room as she brushed down her dress and straightened her spine. She had taken only a few steps toward the house when a man stepped into her path.

She put a hand to her mouth to keep from screaming, then lowered it as she recognized him as the one whose tryst she’d interrupted. He put his hand on her arm and steered her back behind the roses. Her heart was in her throat. If Richard learned she was in the garden with a man . . .

“Are you all right, madam?”

She blinked at him. “What?”

“Are you all right? When I came upon you a bit ago, you looked . . . Well, you looked terrified.”

The man’s honest concern brought tears to her eyes, and she tried to swallow the lump in her throat so she could assure him she was fine. Except she wasn’t fine. Her plans to deflect Richard’s anger might not work. They might return to Wimbledon this very night.

“May I help you?” he pressed when she did not answer.

Sabrina blinked. “Help me?”

He smiled sheepishly, as though embarrassed for having assumed himself capable of the assistance he offered. “I am hardly the heroic type, madam, but if I can assist you in some way, I will do what I can. My name is Harold Stillman.”

She’d never heard his name before, and her wariness increased even as hope fluttered in her chest. “You are new to London,” she surmised. She was tapped into the best gossip networks of the ton, and she’d have heard of a man like him if he’d been in Town for any length of time.

He was handsome—golden-haired, blue-eyed, tall and lean—and he carried himself with the arrogant confidence of youth and freedom. There was a roughness to him too, however, a sense that he didn’t quite belong. It made her wonder where he’d come from.

She had struggled to find her place in the Polite World too. Being the illegitimate daughter of the duke of Anglesey had its privilege; for instance, she had always been called Lady Sabrina, even though she did not technically deserve the address, but the privileges could not overcome the scandal of her birth completely. She’d married Richard because of the security he offered. His grandfather had been an earl, and his family was both wealthy and well-respected. He gave her a legitimacy she’d never had before. However, she’d paid too dear a price for that security. She thought of the child she carried, and she wondered if she were not bringing in someone else to pay too high a price alongside her.

“I am new to Town,” Mr. Stillman said. He looked past her toward the light of the house. “And out of place and eager and all those things us young bucks are when we arrive in such a place as this.” He rolled his eyes and waved his free hand in the air. “Lady Gilmore is my friend’s aunt, so I don’t know many of the other guests, but is there someone I can fetch for you? Your husband, perhaps?”

“Not him,” she said quickly, then felt heat in her cheeks when he lifted his eyebrows. Luckily, her anxiety led to a quick solution this time—perhaps the perfect solution. “But there is someone else you could alert for me, if you are sincere in your offer.”

“Of course,” he said with a nod, a glimmer of eagerness in his blue eyes.

“There is a woman inside the music hall,” Sabrina said. “Her name is Lady Townsend. She is wearing a green ostrich feather in her dark hair and an emerald pendant.” Sabrina touched her throat to indicate its placement.

His expression was intent as he focused on her words.

“Could you tell her that I am ill, and direct her this way? I shall move closer to the house once you leave so she will find me easily enough.”

“Certainly. Is that all?”

“Yes,” Sabrina said, her optimism of this newest idea growing.

Lady Gloria Townsend was Sabrina’s dearest friend in London, and had been from their very first introduction during Sabrina’s Season. She had not held Sabrina’s birth against her and championed her in the social circles Sabrina could now take for granted.

Sabrina had not announced the pregnancy because it was not yet obvious, and the ton was oddly uncomfortable with pregnant women. Once word was out, invitations would slow, and Sabrina would be expected to remove to Rose Haven in anticipation of her confinement.

Gloria would understand all of that once Sabrina revealed the secret, and she would insist on a visit tomorrow morning to discuss the particulars. Richard would not be able to take Sabrina from London until the other women of her acquaintance had all come to get their share of the news. Sabrina had been hoping for a child for five long years, and to finally be on the brink of motherhood was reason to celebrate with her friends. As long as she remained in London, she—and the baby—would be safe.

Sabrina being ill from the pregnancy would also explain her leaving the music room in the first place, furthering the protection she needed should Richard have noticed her disappearance.

“Having you pass my message to Lady Townsend would be a great help to me, Mr. Stillman.”

Mr. Stillman looked toward the house, then back at her. “Are you ill? Is that why you are here?”

She could tell by his expression that he suspected something else. Something more. Something that better explained the terror he’d noted on her face when he’d first come across her. It was unfair to lie to him when he’d come to her rescue, and yet she could not tell him the truth. “If you could fetch Lady Townsend for me, I would be forever in your debt.”

A smile suddenly lit the young man’s face, so bright in the darkness that she had to blink against it. The face she’d already deemed handsome was suddenly breathtaking. “I am all about having beautiful woman in my debt.”

He winked, and she made a sound that was part gasp and part laughter. Such boldness would do him no favors in such high circles as that of Lord and Lady Gilmore, and yet that same boldness might just save her tonight.

“I shall fetch Lady Townsend. Who shall I say has asked for her?”

“Sabrina,” she said, then hurried to clarify. “Lady Sabrina.”

Mr. Stillman raised his eyebrows, then nodded. “I shall do as you ask, Lady Sabrina.” He took her hand and raised it to his lips, keeping his eyes on hers. “And I hope that one day we might meet again under better circumstances.”

Sabrina was appropriately offended by his suggestion—she was a married woman, soon to be a mother—and yet she felt a rush of validation. This man thought she was beautiful. This man was kind, even if he was obviously a rake. This man treated her with gentleness. They held each other’s eyes until she remembered to speak.

“Lady Townsend,” she whispered, needing him to leave, needing to begin the process that would take her safely back to the party.

Mr. Stillman lowered her hand and nodded. “Lady Townsend.”