The Games Lovers Play – Stephanie Laurens

I have to leave. Lord Devlin Cader, seventh Earl of Alverton, lay slumped in his wife’s bed, with satiation a warm blanket, one imbued with the aftermath of sensual pleasure, lying heavy over his limbs. He did not want to move—not now, not ever. But… On a primal level, he was reassured by the warmth of his wife’s body, stretched alongside his, and his reckless inner self insisted that there was no good reason he couldn’t remain where he was and let the cards fall as they may. Yet while his muscles lay lax and unmoving, his mind had come alive, driven by the knowledge that, courtesy of his unwise and impulsive words of yesterday, there was a degree of urgency in deciding what came next, and thinking rationally while lying beside Therese, with the perfume that rose from her hair and warm skin wreathing his senses, was next to impossible. Aside from all else, if she woke and, with dawn approaching, found him still there, she would be surprised and would question him, and he had no idea what to say. No idea what it would be safe to say or how to explain that, for the past five years, he’d practiced on her and everyone else what some might call the ultimate deception— not that he’d pretended to love her when he hadn’t, but that he’d allowed everyone including her to believe that he didn’t love her when he did. That challenge and the stark realization that he had no idea how to respond to it had him easing away from her. Luckily for him, she was deeply asleep. He turned onto his back and stared upward, unseeing, at the darkened canopy of the four-poster bed. The words she and he had exchanged yesterday afternoon, at her oldest brother’s wedding breakfast, rang clearly in his head. “I am so utterly in charity with dear Christopher. I’d virtually given up all hope that he would ever be sensible enough to choose a lady like Ellen as his bride—that he would recognize the possibilities, the prospects, even were she to appear before him, pressed upon his notice as, indeed, I gather occurred.” It hadn’t been the words so much as her smugly proud tone and the depth of satisfaction in her consequent sigh that had unexpectedly pricked him on the raw and resulted in his unwise riposte: “Perhaps your dear Christopher finally opened his eyes and took his cue from me.” He’d immediately bitten his unruly tongue, but of course, that had been too late.

She’d taken umbrage and sought to set him right, reminding him that, as all the ton knew, she’d had to badger and hound him to the altar—or so she still believed. He could have smoothed things over by smilingly agreeing and ascribing his gaffe to a faulty memory; she’d been expecting that and would have accepted such a retreat with nothing more than a haughty sniff. Except he’d glimpsed a species of hurt swimming behind the nearly reflective silver blue of her remarkable eyes…and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from responding. “Oops.” Such a small, inconsequential, even nonsensical word, yet given the context, his faintly taunting delivery, and her character, it had been tantamount to a red-rag invitation to pursue—to doggedly investigate his meaning until she’d uncovered all and had satisfied herself that she truly understood him. Him and their marriage. He was confident that lure would fix her interest unswervingly on him and allow him to lead her step by carefully judged step forward until she uncovered all he’d kept hidden. She would believe it more readily if she discovered it for herself rather than through him trying to convince her of it. Such was his reasoning, albeit assembled after the fact. Reviewing the events of yesterday, he realized her comment regarding Christopher having had the sense and the courage to seize love when he’d found it had been merely the last straw that had tipped Devlin over the edge of the precipice on which he’d already been teetering.

Therese had been the first of her generation of Cynsters to marry, and consequently, over the past four years, he and she had attended a string of Cynster weddings up and down the country. He and she were now one of a group of couples who regularly met at family events such as Christopher and Ellen’s wedding. When he’d embarked on his deception, he hadn’t anticipated the impact that being surrounded by couples united in marriages based on openly acknowledged love would have on him, much less that it would rescript his view of what he wanted from his and Therese’s marriage. More than anything else, viewing the contemporary Cynster marriages against the backdrop of those of the older Cynster generation had brought home to him that, as he and Therese would inevitably grow old, he wanted to grow old like that—in an openly loving relationship. In a marriage acknowledged as being based on reciprocated love. Although his change of heart and mind had happened prior to yesterday, he hadn’t made any definite decision about how to correct Therese’s belief. He’d been vacillating for months, and yesterday afternoon, his reckless inner self, having grown increasingly impatient to the point of revolt, had seized the opportunity and taken over his tongue, resulting in his uncharacteristically impulsive pseudo revelation. Deep inside, he’d known he’d been dragging his heels for no valid reason, and his reckless self had resolved to act for his own good. Over the years, that had happened twice in business dealings, and in both instances, his inner self had been correct; his reticence over acting was a weakness of sorts—when he knew he should do something, but kept putting it off. He turned his head on the pillow and looked at Therese, letting his gaze linger on her features, currently relaxed in sleep.

He’d said enough to engage her legendary inquisitiveness, then aided by circumstance, had frustrated her every attempt to learn more immediately; because they’d had their children with them, she’d declared that they wouldn’t stay, even overnight, at her childhood home, Walkhurst Manor in Kent, given that the bridal couple had intended to retreat there and the manor wasn’t that large. Along with most of the Cynster couples attending, he, she, and the children had driven back to town, and because of the children, they’d been among the first to leave. They’d broken their journey to dine at Sevenoaks, then continued to London, arriving at Alverton House just before midnight. Courtesy of the children and the ever-present staff, Therese hadn’t been able to question him regarding what she no doubt considered his inexplicable comments, and after settling the children, she and he had retired to their respective rooms, then later, as he usually did, he’d joined her there, in her bed. In doing so, he’d made very sure that from the moment he’d walked through the door, she’d been sufficiently distracted to be unable to form coherent questions and, later, that she’d been drained of all energy and inclination to do so. He could hear the soft sough of her breathing, quiet and steady, much as she was. Capable, reliable, steadfast, loyal; she was that and so much more. From the instant he’d first set eyes on her—across Lady Hendricks’s ballroom—he’d recognized that she had epitomized everything he wanted and needed in a wife, and so it had proved. When he’d first looked into her silver-blue eyes, he’d known beyond question that his life had, in that moment, irrevocably and inescapably changed. He’d loved her— had fallen in love with her—completely and utterly, just as, thank all the saints, she had fallen in love with him.

He blinked into the darkness. Arrogant of him, wasn’t it, to be so certain of that? He’d never encouraged her to say the words, given he’d been so set on not admitting to the same sentiment in return, yet… While he couldn’t know with absolute certainty what she currently felt for him, his knowledge of the female of the species assured him that the glory they habitually shared in that very bed—an outcome that, despite his extensive prior experience, he’d only ever attained with her—was a manifestation of the emotion that, regardless of his deception and her obliviousness of his truth, lived inside them both. Now that he’d cracked open the door on his most deeply held secret and invited her to explore, in the same way that he’d initially plotted to keep her—his otherwise highly observant wife—from perceiving his true state, he was going to have to tread warily in crafting their way forward. The first step in any such plan was, unquestionably, to get up and leave her bed. Now, before she awoke and found him still there. As part of his pretense that, on his part, their marriage was entirely conventional rather than a love-match, he’d never been there, beside her, when she woke. He always left her sleeping, and as far as she knew, he spent the better part of every night in his own bed. As she slept soundly and he always made sure she was boneless and pleasurably enervated prior to her slipping into slumber, she had no idea that he rarely left her side until dawn drew near. While the sun had yet to rise, dawn wasn’t that far off. He forced himself to adhere to the script he’d written and ease from the bed.

Immediately, he regretted the loss of her warmth. Lips setting, he shrugged on his robe and belted it, then quietly left via the connecting door that led to his apartments. Once in his bedroom, rather than crawl between his cold sheets, he walked to the window, drew back the heavy curtains, and looked across Park Lane to the trees in the park beyond. Leaves still clung to the branches of the old oaks, and a fine mist was slowly thickening, draping the nearly skeletal canopies with insubstantial wisps. He stared out at the chilly sight while the reasons that had driven him to conceal his love scrolled through his mind. His parents and their marriage. And more recently, that of his best friend. At the time of his and Therese’s wedding, his reasons had seemed sound, undeniable, and self-evident, and the decision he’d made incontrovertibly correct. As a young boy, he believed he’d seen first-hand the injuries that could be inflicted on a man, even one of strong character, who, having fallen in love with a lady of resolutely determined personality, made the mistake of acknowledging that love to its object. To his younger self, his parents’ marriage had served as a stark lesson in what could happen to a gentleman unwise enough to admit that he loved a strong-willed wife of managing disposition.

In his eyes, his mother had lorded it over his father, taking his love, regard, and support for granted and frequently riding roughshod over his pride and his standing, belittling and diminishing him before their staff and their children. His father had never protested or reined his mother in, and times without number, Devlin had seen him swallow his pride and accede to her dictates. Devlin had been forced to stand and watch, impotent to do anything to lessen the impact as, in his eyes, his mother’s undermining had only grown worse and more hurtful with the years, albeit only in private. To the world, the previous Earl and Countess of Alverton had been a devoted couple. Then Devlin’s close friend James, Viscount Hemmings, had married a virago, purely and openly for love. Despite the fact that everyone agreed James and Veronica were madly in love, they never ceased sniping at each other. If Devlin had needed a further lesson in the dangers inherent in a marriage between a gentleman of his ilk and a strongwilled lady being openly anchored in love, the Hemmingses had provided it. His experience of his parents’ marriage and his observation of the Hemmingses’ union would have made him eschew the institution of marriage altogether, except that then, he’d succeeded to the earldom, and all the ton had expected him to marry and secure the succession. Admittedly, if he’d remained a bachelor until he died, his younger brother, Melrose, seven years his junior, would have stepped into the earl’s shoes, but neither Devlin nor Melrose nor, indeed, anyone else had deemed that a wise course to follow; currently twenty-nine years old, Melrose had shown no sign of settling down or becoming serious about anything at all. Consequently, when Devlin had first locked eyes with Therese and recognized that she held out the promise of all he would ever want and need in a wife, he’d seized her.

Despite her already well-established reputation of being strong-willed to the point of ruthlessness, despite her being in every possible way the epitome of the sort of lady he’d been determined above all others to avoid. Despite her being the very last lady he should have considered offering for, with one look—one fateful look—she’d changed his mind. But she hadn’t changed his mind about allowing her to know that he loved her. Prior to yesterday, he’d never let her glimpse even the slightest hint of his true regard. Staring at the mist now blanketing the park, he grimaced. He’d thought himself so very clever, and indeed, he had been. He’d used her own self-conviction to steer her beliefs, subtly guiding her interpretation of what she saw. She was so confident in her own abilities to observe, understand, and manage, it had never occurred to her that, in him, she’d met her master—or at least, someone equally adept and rather more duplicitous. Now, he faced unpicking and reforging the web of beliefs he’d encouraged her to create, the framework of understanding on which their marriage was based. And he had to—absolutely had to—manage that task without destabilizing the edifice that now rested upon that foundation.

He did not want to damage—not in any way—what they already had, both the ease of interaction that had evolved over the years and the calm, ordered, settled existence that he, she, their children, and their households enjoyed. He was well aware the latter owed much to Therese’s managing disposition; she was adept at organizing so that everyone and everything ran smoothly and efficiently, to the point that the tranquil atmosphere that prevailed within his households was the envy of many of his peers. In moving forward, impulsively or otherwise, he didn’t want to risk harming the relationship they already had, yet if he’d learned anything from his years of successfully investing in new industries, it was that, sometimes, risks were well worth taking. His exposure to the marriages of her cousins, his awareness of the benefits that flowed from the acknowledgment of mutual love—the joy, the unfettered happiness and unrestrained sharing, the closeness that was so much more evocative and enthralling— had tempted, then seduced, until he’d finally swallowed his pride, accepted his innermost truth, and admitted that if there was any chance of claiming that sort of marriage for himself and Therese, then he was willing to fight for it, willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal. How much, if anything, he might have to sacrifice wasn’t at all clear, but with his unwise words of yesterday, he’d taken the first irretrievable step toward claiming the sort of marriage that, were it not for his reservations over admitting to love, might have been theirs for the past five years. Eyes narrowing, he gazed out at the fog that now obscured the park. He hadn’t had to woo Therese; instead, he’d manipulated her into persuading him to the altar. It would be up to him to manage this transition as well, and as he wished to succeed in that delicate endeavor, he was going to need a plan—a carefully thought-out campaign to convince his wife of five years that he loved her as much as she loved him. The morning was well advanced when Therese finally opened her eyes. She blinked, then turned onto her back, confirming that, as always, Devlin had left long ago; when she passed her palm over the sheet, it held no lingering warmth.

On a nevertheless sated sigh, with the memories of shared pleasures making her smile, she stretched her arms over her head, then snuggled them back beneath the covers. Staring up at the canopy of lilac silk, she reviewed the events of the previous day. Her smile widened as she remembered Christopher and Ellen’s transparent happiness; she’d been so delighted to see the pair so patently in love. Then she recalled Devlin’s odd comments. Her smile faded as she re-examined them. She ended frowning. On the journey back to London, she’d replayed those comments countless times and still had no clue what he’d meant. She knew her husband; he wasn’t given to making abstruse comments. “So what the devil did he mean?” In her mind, she recreated those moments when he and she had stood by the side of the Bigfield House ballroom. She’d been fondly observing Christopher and Ellen moving among the crowd.

Devlin had been standing beside her—now she thought of it, he’d stuck by her side through most of the day—so he’d been there to hear her sigh happily and commend Christopher on his good sense in recognizing the possibilities for happiness that Ellen represented and acting and marrying her. Looking back…it seemed that something about either her sigh or her comment had provoked Devlin into saying, “Perhaps your dear Christopher finally opened his eyes and took his cue from me.” She frowned direfully at the lilac silk. “That still makes absolutely no sense.” After examining the words yet again, along with his intonation and every other little clue she’d learned over the past five years that could help clarify her husband’s thinking, she still found herself utterly at sea. “Nonsense.” She wrestled the covers more tightly about her and frowned even harder. Not only was she confused, she was confused over being confused; normally, she encountered no difficulty interpreting Devlin’s utterances. Even more discombobulating had been his response when she’d challenged him to explain. Instead of laughingly admitting he’d forgotten that it had been she who had dragged him to the altar rather than the other way around, he’d met her gaze and, with an odd light in his greeny-hazel eyes, had smiled in a rather strange way and, quite deliberately, said, “Oops.

” Therese heard that single syllable resonate in her mind and narrowed her eyes to slits. Abruptly, she shook her head, thrust back the covers, and electing to consign her handsome husband’s almost certainly deliberately confusing utterances to the darkest recess of her mind, all but leapt from the bed. The chill of the late-autumn morning struck through the fine silk of her nightgown, and she grabbed her robe from the chair on which it lay. Shrugging into the woolen robe, she hurried across the carpeted floor to the bellpull and tugged it, summoning Parker, her dresser, with her washing water. Therese belted the robe and went to the window. Grasping the curtains in both hands, she drew them wide, revealing a view over the rose garden at the side of the house. It was foggy outside. She stared down at what was usually a calming sight and heard in her mind, once again, “Oops.” Their children frequently used the word, as did Devlin when dealing with them. Invariably, he used it to denote a mistake, often a deliberate or cheeky one.

Therese folded her arms beneath her breasts. “So where in that short exchange did he make a mistake of that nature?” In suggesting an equivalence between how their marriage and Christopher’s had come about? Judging by the bare words, that seemed the obvious answer, but no matter how often she replayed the words as Devlin had said them, especially the way he’d said that oops with that certain light in his eyes, she couldn’t convince herself that was what he’d meant. Every word that had fallen from his lips had been definite and deliberate, and he’d been watching her intently throughout. No, he’d meant something other than the obvious, and she was increasingly certain that his oops hadn’t been any indication that he was backing down or resiling from what he had said. “Annoying man!” Especially as, the more she replayed that oops in her head, the more it sounded like a leading comment. A teasing lure, an invitation to play some game with him, but she had no idea what game that might be, and she wasn’t at all happy about that. A tap fell on the door, and Parker came in, followed by the tweeny hefting a porcelain jug of hot water. By the time Parker looked Therese’s way, she’d wiped the frown from her face. She nodded equably to the dresser. “I’ve an at-home this morning and two this afternoon.

My rose-silk day gown might be best.” Banishing her husband’s annoying oops from her mind, she focused on getting ready to face her day. Therese walked into the breakfast parlor and wasn’t surprised to find it empty. Portland, the butler, held her usual chair for her. As she sat, he murmured, “His lordship breakfasted earlier, ma’am, and has gone riding in the park.” Having expected as much, she picked up her napkin and flicked it out. “Thank you, Portland.” She glanced at the well-stocked sideboard. “Just tea and toast, please.” She weakened and added, “And perhaps some of Cook’s strawberry jam.

” “Of course, ma’am.” While Portland whisked away to fetch her tea, she found herself gazing at Devlin’s empty chair. She wished now that she’d held firm to her intention of the previous night and questioned him the instant he’d entered her room. Unfortunately, when that moment had come, it hadn’t seemed an appropriate one in which to commence a wifely interrogation. Aside from all else, she still found Devlin, nude, immensely distracting, so even if she’d managed to get a question out, she would likely not have remembered his answer. Portland returned with the teapot, a rack of warm toast, a dish of creamy butter, and another holding rich strawberry jam. She smiled and thanked him, poured herself a cup of tea, then set about slathering a slice of toast with butter and jam. Lifting the slice to her lips, she crunched, chewed, and staring unseeing across the table, reminded herself of the reality of her marriage. Although from their first meeting she’d recognized that Devlin was attracted to her, she’d never deceived herself by imagining he loved her. Nor had she assumed that he would somehow, over time, come to love her; she’d viewed that as unlikely, and nothing over the past five years had changed her mind.

She’d approached finding a husband—the right husband for her—in her customary, organized, methodical fashion. She’d accepted that being a Cynster, it was possible, even likely, that she would be struck by what her brothers and male cousins labeled “the Cynster curse,” an apparently inescapable compulsion that ensured that every Cynster married for love. Consequently, from her first forays into society, she had evaluated every likely gentleman who crossed her path, expecting that, eventually, she would find the right man and fall in love. While the Cynster curse was assumed to result in a mutual love-match, and she knew it most often had, as far as she could see, there was nothing in the words “a Cynster always marries for love” that stated that said love was guaranteed to be returned. She’d gone into her own search with an open mind, but by the time, at age twenty-one, she’d embarked on her third Season, she’d learned a great deal about herself and about how the gentlemen of the ton viewed her. She’d overheard enough comments, and over the years, those comments had only grown more definite and accepted; she was too prickly, too strong-willed, too much her own person, and most damaging of all, too managing. She’d been considered “too” in far too many ways to be viewed by tonnish gentlemen as a desirable parti; she’d never been destined to be a comfortable wife.

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