Surrender to Me Page 1

Author: Sophie Jordan

Series: The Derrings #4

Genres: Romance , Historical

Chapter 1

After nearly an hour in the Countess of St.Claire’s drawing room, the long-suppressed words finally stumbled past the Duchess of Derring’s lips. “He’s alive.”

Conversation halted and all heads swiveled to gape at her. Astrid smoothed a trembling hand over her faded muslin skirts and suffered the wide-eyed stares, wondering if there might have been a more prudent way to introduce the topic that had burned on her mind and left her staring into the dark long after she retired to bed last night.

“Bertram,” she clarified, pausing to clear her throat. “Bertram is alive.”

The room’s other occupants—the Dowager Duchess of Shillington and Lord and Lady St.

Claire—continued to stare at her as if she had sprouted a second head. Only Lord and Lady St.

Claire’s baby, bundled on the lap of her mother, appeared unaffected by the announcement, letting loose several happy shrieks, incongruous to the charged silence.

Lady St. Claire was the first to gain her voice. “Bertram lives?”

Astrid nodded to Jane as she bit into a savory tart. If she dined now, she would not need to eat later, which meant more food for the servants.

Cheeks full, she chewed slowly, the flaky crust and burst of pungent truffles and minced onion resembling dust on her tongue. Unfortunate that she could not appreciate the fine fare. Her own cook was good, but she could only do so much with the paltry sum Astrid gave her for market every week. Astrid shook off the thought. No sense worrying over what could not be helped.

“Bertram?” Lord St. Claire echoed beside his wife, his expression politely inquiring.

Jane smoothed her hand over his larger one, the gesture intimate and loving in a way that made Astrid squirm in her seat. Likely it was the strangeness and unfamiliarity of it that disturbed her so. Sentimentality, genuine affection between a man and a woman, struck her as…odd.

“Astrid’s husband, dear,” Jane explained in a hushed voice, looking Astrid’s way almost apologetically—as if she knew how much that particular truth aggrieved her.

 Husband. Unfortunately, she could not deny it. She was in fact married, no matter that some days she managed to forget…managed to pretend she was not.

Perhaps it was insensitive, but she found it easier to believe Bertram dead than the cold truth of the matter—that he lived his life blithely unconcerned of her and the family he left behind.

Only a part of her always knew he lived. And now she possessed a letter indicating her instincts were correct.

“How do you know he’s alive?” Lucy, the Duchess of Shillington, asked. “It’s been a long time—”

“Five years,” Astrid quickly replied, the number embedded in her mind as sharply as her own name. Five long years she had waited. Even knowing he would never return. Not for her. Not for his responsibilities. And certainly not for the hangman’s noose that faced anyone found guilty of forgery.

She had waited, clinging to a thin thread of hope. The hope that perhaps homesickness, at the very least, would seize him and bring him back to face his crimes…and set matters right.

With shaking fingers, she loosened the tattered strings of her reticule and removed the anonymous letter she had read countless times since its delivery yesterday. Without a word, she handed it to Jane, then reached for another biscuit.

Jane accepted the letter, transferring baby Olivia to Lord St. Claire’s arms. He tickled one of the rolls beneath the infant’s chin and she made a gurgling sound, halfway between a coo and giggle.

The sound was bittersweet. Astrid closed her eyes against it, against the reminder of all her life might have been. At nine and twenty, the prospect of hearing her own children’s laughter winked dully, a gem without life or luster.

She opened her eyes and schooled her features into the familiar mask she had mastered over the years. Even before she had married Bertram, she’d made impassivity an art form. Duty and forbearance. Chin high. Eyes straight ahead. Keep the emotion out. With good reason. Emotion led people astray and ruined lives. A lesson learned well when her mother abandoned her for the arms of Mr. Welles, Astrid’s dancing instructor.

Hiding had become as natural as breathing. A vague smile, a cool look, all calculated to reveal absolutely…nothing. A Drury Lane actress could give no better performance.

“No,” Jane gasped, her hazel-gray eyes wide as they lifted from the missive. “Bertram’s in Scotland?”

First Astrid gave a single nod, swallowing the last bit of her biscuit. The emptiness in her belly still there, she plucked another tart from the tray. Taking an indelicate bite, she chewed as Jane passed the letter around, permitting her husband and Lucy to read the words that had reverberated through her head since yesterday.

“Engaged!” Lucy cried in affronted tones. “That—that wretch! He’s wedding an heiress under an assumed identity?”

“A Sir Edmond Powell,” Astrid supplied. Having already investigated the man, she elaborated,

“A prosperous gentleman in possession of quite a bit of land in Cornwall. Coal mines. He spends most of his time abroad. It appears he has not stepped foot on English soil in quite some time.”

“A prime identity to assume,” Lord St. Claire murmured dryly. “No one likely recalls the fellow’s face.”

“He must be stopped,” Jane announced, stabbing an elegant finger in the direction of the letter.

Astrid dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “I agree,” she murmured, carefully wrapping herself in a mantle of calm lest she become swept away on the tide of her friends’ burning indignation. “If in fact Bertram is this Powell fellow. That must be the first matter established.”

“How can you be so self-possessed?” Lucy asked with a shake of her head. “I would be an utter wreck.”

 Because I’ve been an utter wreck before.

When Bertram left she had surrendered to emotion. She had let herself feel. Dark roiling emotions: rage, betrayal, desperation, fear. She had lost her head. And committed an unforgivable act. Sucking a deep breath into her lungs, she shoved the memory back down, the taste bile in her throat.

Lord St. Claire lowered the letter and gazed at her with unflinching intensity. “When do you leave?”

She inclined her head, respecting his ability to know her mind. Likely because an honorable man such as he would not let such an affront slide past.

“Tomorrow morning.”

“You mean you intend to go to Scotland?” Lucy blinked.

“Naturally. I have to see for myself if it is Bertram.” She inclined her head slightly. “And if so, I’ve a wedding to stop.”

“B-but how?” Lucy asked. “You—” Her mouth shut with a snap as color flooded her cheeks.

“Haven’t any money?” Astrid supplied, smiling thinly. Five years and Lucy still tiptoed around the subject of her insolvency.

Astrid had stoutly turned down her friends’ offers of money. The idea of taking money from Jane or Lucy turned her stomach. They were the only _good _ in her world. She would not use them. Her friendship with them would remain untarnished.

Lucy examined the letter again. “Where is this Dubhlagan?”

“Just north of Inverness,” Astrid answered, having already researched a map of Scotland.

“Good God,” Lucy muttered. “The very ends of the earth. However will you manage to travel there?”

“I’ll take the train to Edinburgh. From there I’ll take the mail coach.”

“Mail coach?” Jane snorted, then sobered when she met Astrid’s solemn expression. “Good Heavens, you’re serious.”

“Take one of our coaches,” Lord St. Claire offered. “My man John is a crack driver and you’ll get there in half the time.” He frowned. “Although you really should have an escort.”

“My maid will suffice.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of a man.”

Astrid shook her head. Her father had passed away shortly after her marriage to Bertram. Yet even if he had not, she could not imagine him accompanying her on such an errand. He had not chased after his own wife when she left him, nor welcomed her back when the chance arose.

Why would he have supported Astrid in going after her errant husband? He would have advised her to leave well enough alone. That it was Bertram’s shame…as it had been her mother’s. That she should stay put and forbear. Duty and forbearance. The noble, dignified path.

Lord St. Claire reached beside him for his wife’s hand. Astrid watched as he folded Jane’s slim fingers into his own, her throat thickening at the display, at how things _could _ be between a husband and wife.

“I would accompany you myself, but I cannot leave Jane,” he explained.

“Of course not,” Astrid agreed, clearing her throat with a swallow. Her heart tightened at the idea of a man so devoted to his wife that he would not leave her during her confinement. “I am capable of going alone.”

“Astrid, are you certain—”

“That I wish to confirm whether Bertram is posing as another man? Do I want to stop him from marrying another woman?” Astrid looked starkly into Jane’s eyes and nodded firmly, cold determination sealing her heart. “Positively.”

If she could save another woman from Bertram, perhaps she could gain a small measure of redemption.

Perhaps she could look herself in the mirror again and see a person worthy of respect.

After all, how difficult could such a journey be? A quick jaunt to Scotland, a few words with Bertram—and, if need be, the father of the girl to whom he was betrothed—and she could return home a new woman, duty satisfied.

Chapter 2

Astrid stared down the unwavering barrel of a pistol as she stepped from the carriage into the cold, buffeting wind and wondered precisely when her journey had detoured directly to hell.

“That’s it. Nice and easy with you.” The highwaymen motioned for her to stand beside Lord St.

Claire’s coachman.

Her maid followed closely, clinging to her h*ps as though they were handholds.

Astrid struggled to keep her footing on the rutted and uneven road that had so abused her for the last several days of the journey, culminating in this final indignity. Robbery. And just when they were so close to their destination.

With the coach at their backs and the three highwaymen before them, Astrid, her maid, and the coachman were effectively caged. Not that there was anywhere to run in the rocky gulley that rose up on either side of them.

Her nose wrinkled as the blackguards drew closer. Their odor reminded her of the way her father’s hounds had smelled, wet and muddy after the hunt. The unkempt trio wore soiled tartan and leered at her from long scraggly strands of hair.

They were not the first Highlanders she had seen since crossing into Scotland, but they were by far the filthiest. And most imposing. Desperate men. And she knew from experience that a desperate man could do just about anything. Indeed. She knew that fact well.

Their eyes darted and assessed with rapacious speed, wild animals honing in on their prey. They snatched her reticule from her wrist. She watched in bleak frustration as one of the louts pulled open the strings and dumped the paltry few coins into his grimy palm.

“This all you have?” he barked in a thick burr.

“Yes,” she lied. A few shillings remained, sewn into the hem of her cloak.

She may have agreed to borrow Jane’s carriage and coachman, but she had refused offers of money. Pride insisted she could fund the journey herself. Over the years, she had learned how to economize, selling off everything she possibly could. Anything that wasn’t entailed. Any item of value that Bertram had not taken with him when he fled. She estimated she could journey to Scotland and back on her own resources. Just barely. But not if these ruffians confiscated what she hid in her cloak.

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