In Which Winnie Halifax
Is Utterly Ruined
Ten years ago, Winifred Wallace told one tiny lie and became Mrs. Spencer Halifax. Now, her deception is about to catch up with her: in the form of one very large, very redheaded accidental husband, whose patience with hellions has just about run out.
At twenty years of age, Winifred Wallace had to her name one dress, seventy-two pounds sterling, and three necklaces dripping with diamonds.
When one was utterly alone in the world, Winnie reflected, it was rather a good thing to be rich.
Unfortunately, as she could not bring herself to sell, pawn, or otherwise divest herself of the necklaces, her funds were somewhat circumscribed. She was not, however, too poor to rent a small cottage and a plot of land on the farthest tip of western Wales.
No, money was not the problem. She had the funds. And yet, as she stared at the Viscount Loxley’s elderly steward across the desk, she felt suddenly, alarmingly unsure of herself.
She had the money—and yet she did not know if she could bring it about.
The steward stared at her over his half-moon spectacles. Winnie put her hand inside her large netted reticule and squeezed the coins that clinked inside. The coins felt cool and hard and real beneath her hands. They would not vanish. She could do this.
“You’ve come to rent the cottage?” the grizzled man repeated. “You mean to…raise sheep?”
“Yes,” Winnie said. She flipped the coins nervously between her fingers, hidden by the fabric of the bag. Four coins for the Southdown ram. Another two for the ewes. One for the materials to build the hay-rack, and another four for the winter’s fodder.
And twenty for the first year’s rent—if she could just persuade this man to let her have the cottage.
“You,” the steward repeated. He nudged his spectacles with the tip of one gaunt finger. “Alone.”
“Yes,” Winnie said again, more definitely.
She loved sheep. She was an expert on sheep. She had borrowed every book on animal husbandry available at Heavisides’ Select Library; she knew the precise time to wean a lamb from its mother and the earliest indications of hoof-ail. She could discern a Southdown from a Merino at twenty paces.
At least, theoretically. She had never actually seen a sheep at closer than twenty paces. In fact, Winnie had never been on a farm of any kind, had never even left London prior to her flight a week ago.
But she’d known, somehow. She had known it was coming, from the brittle brilliance of her mother’s smile and the violent rapping on the door at night. When her mother had spilled handfuls of guineas and jewels on the chaise longue and flashed her signature feline smile, Winnie had not even been surprised.
“Take your pick, beauty,” her mother had said. “I’m for Paris. Do you want the Champs-Élysées, or the money?”
Winnie had chosen the money.
She thought her mother had been expecting it. Their final parting.
Eliza Wallace might not have understood her daughter, who hated glitter and flash, whose greatest desires centered around a library and a flock of sheep, but she knew Winnie. She’d known what Winnie would choose.
Perhaps, those last months, when Eliza had worn her bodice ever-lower, had charmed just one more aristocrat and stolen just one last pair of diamond ear-bobs, she had been thinking of her daughter. Perhaps she had been setting aside this money for when they would eventually part: Eliza for France, and Winnie for her precious sheep farm.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps Winnie only wanted very much to believe that her mother had cared.
Winnie raised her chin and looked at the steward across his desk. “I can afford the rent. There is no reason for you to balk. I am well prepared to establish my flock on these lands. I will make no trouble for you or for Viscount Loxley.”
“But a woman alone”—the steward’s voice was reedy and uncertain—“it’s just not done. The men in the village will be at you night and day! The viscount likes for things to be proper, you know.”
And for the first time since her mother had left, a trickle of anger slid in between Winnie’s fear and uncertainty and frantic desire for independence. The men would be at her night and day? And yet she was the one to be punished—simply because she was not married?
It was asinine. It was unjust.
For once, Winnie could understand why her mother had taken such pleasure in having her way with wealthy men, in deceiving them and stealing from them, and leaving them so utterly besotted that they almost did not mind what they’d lost.
Winnie gritted her teeth. No. No. She would not lose her cottage over this. There had to be another way. There had to be a solution to this problem.
She could only think of one.
Slowly, she made herself relax the tense muscles of her jaw. Slowly, ever so slowly, she made her lips curl up into a smile. Her mother’s smile, wide and feline and entrancing.
It had the intended effect. The steward looked suddenly uncertain.
“Sir,” Winnie said, “you’ve misunderstood entirely. There will be no men after me because I am already married.”
“You…are?” The steward gazed at her doubtfully. Winnie amplified the smile. “Are you a widow then?”
“Certainly not.” That would not do. A young widow? She’d be inundated by gentleman callers on the morrow. Winnie searched her imagination.
“My husband and I are estranged,” she decided. “He has chosen to remain in London, while I have elected to live independently here in Llanreithan.”
“And he does not mind, your husband?”
Winnie waved a hand airily. “He is a modern man.” Inspiration struck, and she made her face stiffen a bit, as though she were hiding a wound. “He has…found other companionship. It is of no consequence to me, of course.”
She allowed her voice to crack on the final word. Dear God, she was her mother’s daughter, for all that she did not want to be.
The elderly steward leaned forward. He had softened toward her. She could feel it.
“And you so young!” he said. “A sin, that’s what I say. Is that why you introduced yourself as Miss Jellicoe when you entered?”
Oh blast, she had. Hell. She had chosen her pseudonym on the mail coach as she’d ridden from London to Llanreithan. She’d plucked the name from the address on an envelope that she’d watched slip from a satchel of letters and fall onto the street. The wind had caught it; the envelope had fluttered into the air and then wheeled merrily up, up, into the sky and away.
“Ah,” she said. She pinched her own thigh through her skirts until her eyes started to fill with tears. “Yes. You’ve found me out. I should not have tried to deceive you, only it has been so difficult to come to terms with my separation from my husband.”
She made her voice grow rather tragic. The steward leaned forward, utterly enthralled. “In fact, I am Mrs. Spencer—”
Oh hell, why had she said Spencer? It had just popped out, familiar on the tongue—the very pseudonym her mother had used in London, and thus utterly unsuitable.
“Er,” she tried again, “Mrs. Spencer…”
Think, Win, think! A town, a name—the place you were born—say something!
“Halifax,” she said. “I am Mrs. Spencer Halifax.”
Ten years later
Spencer Halifax, Earl of Warren, looked at the jailer. The man was built like a bull—a short bull—and appeared to be missing at least three fairly important teeth.
“You are certain?” Spencer asked. He tried to peer again into the dimness of the tiny ring of cells, but it was no use. It was too dark, and the building was too windowless, and the cells were entirely too fetid. “You’re certain she’s in there?”
“Oh, aye, she’s in there.” The jailer spat directly on the floor. “A hellish vixen, she is. She’s been here eighteen hours, and the only moment of peace I’ve had is when I went to piss. Screeching and caterwauling to wake the dead and—”
The jailer paused and looked up at Spencer. It was several inches up, and his loutish form suddenly seemed to quail a bit, deflating under Spencer’s gaze. He did not, perhaps, often encounter men who could outmatch him in a fight without breaking a sweat.
“Who did you say she was to you?” the jailer asked.
Spencer thought again of the letter he’d received from his solicitor. Of the hours he’d spent on the coach staring in consternation at the fair copy of the ten-year-old marriage record.
Mrs. Spencer Halifax.
“I believe,” he said, “that the woman you have incarcerated in this hellhole is my wife.”