The Husband Hunt Chapter Ten

"Did you try the tea cakes?" Suzette asked, leaning forward in her seat to select another one. "You should have one."

"No, thank you," Lisa murmured despite her growling stomach. She was not eating a single thing Pembroke had presented for this picnic. She may be hungry right now, but a short bout of hunger was better than hours of vomiting followed by still hours more of dry heaves. She had learned her lesson. Still, it was very hard sitting here watching the others eat so eagerly while she was hungry. But she supposed it was just punishment in Robert's eyes.

The thought drew her gaze to the man in question. He had chosen to sit at another table, leaving her, Christiana, Suzette, Richard and Daniel at their table.

It was Pembroke's picnic, which Lisa had thought they weren't going to attend. However, Christiana had seen the invitation before Robert could get to it and had wanted to go. And they hadn't been able to refuse without telling her the truth of things, which Robert was reluctant to do for some reason. All he would say was that they shouldn't upset Christiana. She didn't know why he cared so bloody much about upsetting her sister. He certainly had no problem upsetting her.

The man had been an ogre ever since the night before, growling and snapping at her every couple of minutes. One would almost think he was jealous at catching her and Charles in what he must have thought was a most passionate embrace. However, he would never admit it if he was. Robert took stubbornness to a new level.

Thoughts of Charles had her glancing around even though she knew he was not there. Pembroke had said Findlay had sent word of a prior engagement, but she suspected he simply hadn't invited the man. She couldn't help noticing that Lord Tibald wasn't there either - also a prior engagement. She had come to the conclusion that Pembroke had simply decided to eliminate the competition during this excursion by neglecting to invite them. She didn't know why he'd bothered, since he himself hadn't approached her even once since the beginning of the journey. Lisa didn't know if he was embarrassed about last night's tussle in the garden, angry that she had rebuffed him, or just too busy seeing to everyone else to find the time to speak to her, but he had spent most of the journey fussing over his mother and seeing to her comfort. The man was definitely a mother's boy.

This excursion was certainly an impressive one though. They had all gathered at the docks, piled on a boat and sailed up the coast to this rather lovely clearing. Pembroke had then herded everyone ashore and while the guests had all wandered about surveying the pretty flowers, trees and a nearby spring, a small army of servants had filed out of the bowels of the ship with tables, chairs, tablecloths, dishes and platters of food. It wasn't really a picnic at all, but open-air dining, she decided. And the spread was really a quite impressive one too. However, she wasn't willing to risk it and end up hanging over the basin all night. Besides, her stomach was still tender and she wasn't really hungry.

"Oh, the torte is lovely too," Christiana moaned. "Really, Pembroke's cook outdid herself this time."

Lisa forced a smile and then stood.

"I think I shall just walk along the shore while you all finish," she said and moved away before anyone could protest.

Some of Lisa's tension eased as soon as she had moved away from the tables, but she didn't truly relax until she'd walked far enough that she couldn't hear the chatter of the diners anymore. In that silence though, she became aware of the sound of footfalls behind her and glanced over her shoulder with a frown that dissolved into a sigh when she spotted Robert following her about ten feet back. Her watchdog was there. She should have known she wouldn't be allowed to take even a moment for herself. The only peace she got anymore was in her room at Christiana and Richard's. It was the only time Robert let her out of his sight. But that began to feel claustrophobic pretty quickly. It wasn't that it was a small room or anything, it was simply that even the largest room shrank in size when you felt trapped in it.

Muttering under her breath, she ignored Robert and simply continued to walk. She hadn't intended to go much farther, but his presence goaded her into continuing along the shoreline and around the bend, out of sight of the others.

"We should probably head back," Robert said quietly behind her and Lisa gave a start at how near his voice was. His words had been spoken practically in her ear. She ignored them, however, and continued without a word.


"What, Robert?" she asked wearily, turning finally to scowl at him. She then quickly took a couple of steps back when she realized just how close he was. They had been close enough to kiss when she first turned.

"Where are you going?" he asked, rather than repeat that they should head back.

"Just . . . wherever," she murmured, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "I just want a few minutes of peace and quiet."

Robert nodded and moved up beside her. "You've been attending a lot of balls and teas. I suppose you're not use to all the busy-ness and people after so long in the country."

"Yes, that's it," Lisa said sarcastically. "It's all the people around me. Not the great, grumpy ogre who follows me everywhere."

He paused and peered at her with amazement. "I am trying to keep you safe."

"I don't know why. You act like you hate me," she snapped. "Why would you bother keeping me safe when you hate me? And why is it you who is keeping me safe anyway? You could just hire someone to do it. Then you could go on about your happy bachelor's life and forget about me."

"We can't hire someone. Christiana would want to know who he was and why he was needed and Richard doesn't want to worry her in her delicate condition."

Now it was Lisa who stopped walking. Turning on him blankly, she asked, "Her delicate condition?"

"She is with child again, but doesn't want anyone to know until she is further along . . . in case she loses it again."

Lisa stared at him with amazement, several thoughts running through her head. First and foremost was a sense of betrayal that Robert had known about it before she did. And she was Christiana's sister. It seemed like everyone was treating her like a child, the last to be trusted with news.

Shaking her head bitterly, she turned and continued to walk. "And I don't hate you, Lisa," he said, sounding reluctant to make the admission. "I'm just finding this all a bit taxing on my patience."

Lisa snorted at the understatement in the words.

"What was going on with you and Lord Findlay last night?" he asked suddenly, as if the question were torn from him.

Lisa bit her lip and remained silent for a moment, but then shrugged. "You saw what was going on."

"He was kissing you, but he appeared to be rather rough about it," Robert said grimly.

"He - I - " Lisa paused and frowned, then shook her head, finding it impossible to even attempt to explain the debacle she'd instigated. It certainly hadn't tuned out as she'd expected.

"If he was forcing himself on you - "

"No, he wasn't," she said quickly, and then realizing there was no help for it, admitted, "He saw us after you - last night when we returned to the ball. He figured out something had happened. I admitted you had punished me with a kiss for that nonsense with Pembroke and he asked if I'd enjoyed it and if it was better than his kiss. I said they were completely different, and then I suggested he give me a punishing kiss to compare yours to." Lisa rolled her eyes even as she admitted that, realizing now just how stupid that had been.

"And he did," Robert said quietly.

Lisa nodded. "However, it wasn't like your punishment at all. His was rough and . . . well, rather nasty really. Punishing I guess, just as I'd requested." She was silent for a moment and then added, "Which made me realize that your kiss hadn't been a punishment at all."

"We should really turn back," Robert muttered, stopping and turning away.

"I never saw you as a coward," Lisa commented idly, glancing back to seeing the way he stiffened as he paused again. "But that's what you are, isn't it Robert? Afraid to marry, afraid to admit you want me, afraid to admit that that kiss wasn't punishment at all, but just an excuse to unleash the passion you feel for me. And you do have passion for me."

"We have to return to the others," Robert growled, not turning back.

"So go back to the others. I'm safe enough out here on my own. It's not like Pembroke can escape his mother or his other guests and come kidnap me. Besides, what would he do with me then?

Bundle me into the hold of the ship with the servants for the return journey?"

Robert hesitated, but then nodded once grimly and headed away, leaving her on her own.

Lisa really hadn't expected that. She'd expected an argument. Hoped for it even, and had hoped it would lead to another bout of his unleashed passion. Because after Robert's kiss last night she was right back to where she'd been at the start, wanting him and no one else. Lord Findlay and the others were all very nice and sweet and complimentary, but Robert stirred her passion and she suspected none of them would ever be able to make her tremble, quiver and moan as Robert had. She didn't even want them to. It had always been Robert for her. And she suspected he wanted her as well. She just didn't know how to break down the walls he'd erected around himself so that he'd give in to what he wanted and claim her. She didn't even know why he was hesitating to do so.

Sighing, Lisa turned back the way she'd been headed and then froze in surprise when she found herself facing a rather large man all in black with a hood. It was the same damned hood the man who had broken into her room and tried to take her away had been wearing.

"Ro - !" she began instinctively, but never finished shouting his name before one meaty fist slammed into the side of her head, knocking her senseless.

Robert almost didn't turn back at Lisa's shout. It was a broken sound, but he simply thought the wind had captured the rest of his name and taken it away. However, then he heaved a sigh and stopped again. Annoyed with her or not, irritated by her claims as he was, he couldn't simply ignore her. He would have to face her eventually and counter her arguments somehow, because while she was right, he wasn't ready to admit that he did want her. Because she was also right that he was afraid.

He started to turn back, caught movement out of the corner of his eye as he did and instinctively ducked and swerved, narrowly missing the hamlike fist that had been aimed at his head. Blinking in surprise at the large man now confronting him, he glanced past him to see Lisa lying unconscious on the sand back where he'd left her, and then ducked and rolled to the side as the man in black swung for him again.

Robert was popping back to his feet, mentally preparing himself for the next blow when he saw the fellow pull a long, large blade from the back of his trousers and toss it from hand to hand as he crouched slightly before him.

Bloody brilliant, Robert thought grimly. Fisticuffs were one thing, but a one-sided knife fight was not good. Not good at all. It was even more worrisome because if he failed at overcoming the huge bastard now moving in on him, Lisa would be lost. Which meant he'd better not lose if he wanted to keep her safe.

Very aware of that fact, Robert began glancing around for something he could use as a weapon. The only thing handy was sand at the moment, and he didn't hesitate but bent to grab up a handful even as he leapt to the side to avoid the knife now plunging toward him. He wasn't quick enough; the tip of it sliced into him, scraping across his ribs as he went, but he ignored the stinging pain and straightened, tossing the sand at his adversary's eyes.

The trick worked. The man stumbled back, reaching for his face and Robert charged, bending at the waist to ram his shoulder into the man's chest. The tackle took the fellow down and Robert landed on him hard and then began slamming his fists into his hoodcovered face and stomach until he simply couldn't hit him anymore.

Much to his relief, when he stopped and knelt over the man, his attacker didn't move or suddenly rise up to start hitting back. It appeared he was unconscious. At least he could see that his eyes were closed through the eyeholes in his mask.

Robert sank back on his haunches with relief and then glanced down at his chest, grimacing when he saw the long slice in his shirt and the blood staining it. His gaze then shifted to where Lisa lay in the sand. It was probably good she was unconscious. She would have fainted if she'd seen the blood anyway, he thought wryly. Lisa had never been very good with blood.

His gaze swiveled back to the attacker and he started to lean forward, intending to remove the man's mask, but paused as the cut in his stomach protested. Sighing, he sank back without removing it. He would send Richard and Daniel for the fellow and they could unmask the man and tell him who he was. Right now, the more important thing was to get Lisa safely back to the others. His wound was bleeding quite a bit, and Robert was growing weaker by the moment. Should the hooded man wake up and have another go at him, he wasn't at all sure how he'd fare.

Taking a breath, he forced himself to his feet and then stumbled through the sand to Lisa.

Lisa moaned and turned over, wondering why her head felt like someone was dancing on it. She then opened her eyes slowly. She was in bed in her guest bedroom at Christiana and Richard's home. "Oh, thank goodness. You're awake," Christiana murmured, suddenly appearing in her line of vision as she pent to peer at her. "Chrissy?" Lisa said uncertainly. "What happened?"

"Don't you remember?"

That question from her other side brought Lisa's attention to the fact that Suzette too was there. She glanced at her uncertainly and then peered back to Christiana, her gaze sliding over the dresses they wore. The same dresses they'd been wearing at Pembroke's picnic.

"Oh," she breathed, recalling heading out for a walk, her words with Robert and then the big man with the hard fists. "Did Robert save me?"

"I'll say, and damned near died in the doing," Suzette said grimly.

"What?" Lisa asked with horror.

"It's all right. He's fine," Christiana assured her, glaring at Suzette for scaring her. "But he took a nasty wound to the chest saving you. And he bled quite a bit while carrying you back to the picnic. But the doctor thinks he'll be fine."

"He carried me wounded?" she asked with dismay.

"Yes. He didn't want to leave you there unconscious and unprotected," Christiana explained gently. "And as it turns out, that was smart. He knocked out the fellow who attacked you, but when Richard and Daniel went back to find him he had regained consciousness and gone. If Robert had left you behind . . ."

She let her words trail off, but Lisa supposed they didn't really need to be said. If Robert had risked leaving her behind while he went for help, she might very well have been gone too. Sighing, she massaged her forehead unhappily trying to ease some of the aching there.

"Is your head hurting?" Christiana asked with concern.

"Aye," Lisa said with a grimace, and Christiana turned to pick up a glass beside the bed.

"The doctor left a tincture for you. He said it would help, but would make you a bit woozy. So don't get up and try to move around after you take it."

Lisa sat up with Suzette's help to drink the tincture. Once she'd downed the last of it, she sank back with a little sigh and then asked, "Is Robert here?"

"Across the hall," Christiana answered, setting the empty glass down.

"Oh," Lisa said quietly, and then glanced at Christiana sharply. "How are you?"

Christiana's eyebrows rose slightly. "I am fine. I was not the one knocked out or stabbed."

"Yes, but all this excitement cannot be good for the baby. You should rest," Lisa said firmly.

"The baby?" Christiana said blankly.

"Robert told me that you are with child," Lisa said solemnly. "I wish you had told me yourself. I - "

"With child!" Suzette squawked, glaring at Christiana. "And you did not tell me?"

"I did not tell you because I am not with child," Christiana said dryly to Suzette and then glanced back to Lisa. "Robert said I was?"

"Yes. He said that was why he had to watch over me and we could not hire a body guard. You would ask questions and might get upset and lose the baby again," Lisa explained.

"Well, that might be a concern if I were with child. But I'm not," she said impatiently and then asked with bewilderment, "Where the devil would he get an idea like that?"

"Ah." That sound from the door made all three women glance that way to find Richard standing there with Daniel at his back. At least Daniel started at his back, but Richard now collared his friend and urged him forward into the room, saying dryly, "Ask Mr. I'vegot- a-plan here."

"Daniel?" Suzette asked with surprise. "Did you tell Robert that Christiana was with child?"

"Yes, actually, my love, I did," he admitted without shame as he moved around the bed to stand behind her. He bent to press a kiss to her forehead as she tilted her head back to look at him, and then shrugged and said, "It was the thing to do."

"Why on earth would you do that?" Christiana asked with amazement, covering Richard's hand with her own when he paused behind her and set it on her shoulder.

"Because it meant a guard couldn't be hired to watch out for Lisa and that Robert would have to do it himself," Daniel said simply. "Which he really wanted to do anyway. I just gave him the excuse he needed to move in here and do it."

"What?" Lisa asked with bewilderment.

Daniel glanced to her and smiled gently. "Lisa, my dear, Robert loves you. And not like a little sister," he added dryly. "But he's allowing his fears to prevent him doing anything about it. He needed a nudge, so I supplied it. When this business with Mrs. Morgan came up, he suggested an around-the-clock guard on you, but I said Christiana was with child again and that the worry of this business might cause her to lose the child. We would have to look out for you ourselves."

"But you haven't looked after me at all," she pointed out dryly. "It is Robert who has been with me night and day since - " "Wait. What business with Mrs. Morgan?" Christiana

interrupted with a frown and then glanced to Lisa. "Have you seen that woman since coming to London?"

When Lisa grimaced, it was Richard who quickly explained about her tea and all that had followed.

"Damn," Suzette muttered. "We should have known she was up to no good. No proper lady would be giving young girls books like that one about Fanny."

"Never mind that," Christiana said impatiently and turned to glare at her husband. "Why did you not tell us about this Mrs. Morgan business?"

"Because then you and Suzette wouldn't have let Lisa out of your sight," Daniel explained for him.

"Too right we wouldn't have," Suzette said dryly.

"Which wouldn't have given Robert the chance to realize his feelings," Daniel pointed out calmly, and then returned his glance to Lisa and added, "And, no, Richard and I haven't been watching out for you. We trusted that to Robert. In fact, we've been keeping Suzette and Christiana away as much as possible to leave him here alone with you." He paused and raised an eyebrow. "How has that been going?"

Lisa scowled at her brother-in-law. "Not all that well, thank you very much. He's stubborn and stupid and . . . male," she finished with disgust.

"Has he kissed you or anything?" Suzette asked. Lisa snapped her mouth closed, but could feel the heat of the blush that bloomed on her face.

"He has, hasn't he?" Suzette crowed.

"Once," she acknowledged shortly. "But he's also been a horrible ogre, nasty and short-tempered and most unpleasant." "He's jealous that all your suitors are fawning all over you," Daniel said with a shrug. "That's a good sign."

Lisa peered at him uncertainly. She'd come to the sad conclusion that Robert simply didn't love her and that explained his lack of interest in marriage. That if the right girl had come along, one he did actually love, he would change his mind. But Daniel was suggesting that Robert did love her. Biting her lip, she asked. "Why do you think he loves me?"

When Daniel merely burst out laughing at the question, it was Richard who said gently, "Lisa, every other word out of his mouth is your name when we are with him. Lisa likes these almond pastries too. Lisa is coming to town next month, next week, tomorrow. Lisa would have enjoyed this play. Lisa would have liked that." He smiled gently. "We have known he cared for you for quite some time, and had hoped he would get over his worries about the supposed Langley curse on his own."

"What curse?" Suzette interrupted with surprise.

"Surely you know about his father's marriage? The rumors floating around about Lady Langley's affair with Gower?"

"Oh, well yes," Suzette admitted with a frown, and then added, "But that is just gossip."

"I'm afraid it's not," Daniel said solemnly. "Gower has been bragging for years about his long-standing affair with Lady Langley."

"Oh dear," Christiana murmured.

"Hmm." Richard nodded and squeezed her shoulder. "But she is only the latest in a long line of unfaithful wives to the Lords of Langley. Robert's father raised him on the belief that it was a curse on the Langley men and told him he may as well get used to the idea that one day he would find his own wife grunting in a stall with his stable master."

"Oh my," Christiana said with distaste. "What a horrid thing to tell him."

"Why did he never tell us any of this?" Suzette asked with a frown.

"It isn't exactly proper conversation for ladies," Daniel said dryly, and when she looked about to protest, added, "I know the three of you have been as close as siblings to him. And that is probably what saved him. But - "

"What do you mean by saved him?" Lisa interrupted.

Daniel raised his eyebrows. "Well, what kind of man do you think would come out of having his ear filled with such rot by a bitter father?"

Lisa considered it, her eyes widening as she realized it would have been a bitter, woman-hating man.

"Exactly," Daniel said as if she'd spoken the words aloud. "I suspect his friendship with the three of you, and knowing you were all fine females and faithful friends is all that kept him from becoming as bitter and angry as his father and grandfather before him."

He let that sink in and then added, "However, even knowing the three of you hasn't completely eradicated the effects of being fed such drivel all his life. He fears that if he gives in to his feelings and marries Lisa, he too could incur the curse and find himself cuckolded."

"He thinks I would be unfaithful?" Lisa squawked with outrage. "Do not take it personally," Richard said soothingly. "I suspect it is so ingrained, he thinks it is impossible for it not to happen. That the curse would make you do it."

"What rot," Lisa snapped. "Nothing and no one makes me do anything I do not wish. And I simply would not be unfaithful to my husband, no matter who he was or what he did. I would not break vows made before God."

"She wouldn't either," Christiana said staunchly. "Our Lisa is as faithful and loyal as a dog."

"Thank you," Lisa said, and then frowned because really, faithful and loyal as a dog simply didn't sound very attractive at all.

"Yes, well it is not I who think you would be unfaithful," Daniel said reasonably. "And Robert probably doesn't even really believe that himself, it is simply what he has been raised to believe it will most certainly happen. An irrational fear, but it's keeping him from what he wants most anyway."

Lisa frowned over this and plucked at the blanket covering her, but finally asked plaintively, "Well, how am I supposed to help him over this fear?"

"I am not sure you really can," Daniel admitted regretfully. "I suspect your best bet is to compromise him and force him to marry you."

Lisa's mouth dropped in amazement and then she asked, "Are you suggesting I seduce him, ensure we are caught and that he has to marry me?"

"No, of course he isn't," Richard said coldly, glaring at his friend.

"But of course," Suzette said at the same moment. "That would work. Robert is too much a gentleman not to marry you if you were caught in a compromising situation. And once you are married, he will see that you are faithful and good and give up his fears." "Oh, Suzette, I don't know," Christiana said uncertainly.

"Forcing him into marriage . . . Well, Robert might be very angry. It could start them off badly."

"But it would start them off," Suzette argued. "Which is surely better than her marrying someone else and longing for Robert all her life while he mopes about kicking himself for losing her. At least they would be miserable together rather than apart."

"Something without misery would be better still," Richard said dryly.

"All right," Suzette said with a shrug. "So what do you suggest?" There was silence as Christiana and Richard exchanged glances and then Christiana sighed. "I don't know. I guess we should all think about it."

"You'd best think quickly then," Daniel said quietly. "Robert is here now and in bed, which would surely make her seducing him easy. But once the Bow Street runners return with the name of the suitor . . . Well, there will be no reason for him to even stay here. And I suspect he will retreat as quickly and far away as he can once that happens and when he does, her chance will be lost."

Lisa frowned at his words, knowing they were true. Time was ticking away. If she wanted to win Robert, she had to do it soon, or she might lose her chance altogether.

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