October 7, 1766
The Duke of Lindow dropped into a chair behind his library desk, feeling as if he’d taken a sharp blow to the gut. His hand tightened into a fist, crumpling the parchment he held, the record of an “Act to dissolve the marriage of Hugo, Duke of Lindow, with Lady Yvette Mordant, and to enable the said Duke to marry again.”
That would be his second marriage since he had lost his much-beloved wife Marie a decade ago. His ill-advised marriage to Yvette was over.
A pulse of anger went through him, and he shoved it away. Yvette had fled with her Prussian lover a year ago, leaving behind her four children—not to mention Marie’s three and his young ward, Parth—with all the concern of a cat abandoning a litter of kittens.
Hearing voices in the entry, he dropped the document in a drawer just as his twin sister, Lady Knowe, strode into the room. She was dressed for riding, wearing a cream-colored habit in the newest style: a huge collar, a great many buttons on her sky-blue waistcoat, and easily twice as many on the jacket. Her wide-brimmed hat was made of the same sky-blue silk, trimmed with white fur.
“Did it arrive?” She pulled off her hat and threw it on a chair.
Hugo’s mouth quirked up. “Your wig, Louisa.”
“Bloody hell,” Louisa said crossly. She plucked up her hat and the attached wig, shook off a few pins, and plopped the wig back on top of her head, adjusting it in the glass that hung over the fireplace. “Don’t try to distract me. Prism says that you are brooding over the post, which can only mean one thing.”
There was no privacy in a castle, no matter how large.
“I’m a free man.”
His sister came over and gave him a whack on the back. “No rest for the weary, Hugo. You should be on the road to London before the end of the week. You need a new duchess—and those children of yours need a mother.”
“What do you mean, no?” Louisa fell back, hand on her heart, looking as shocked as if he’d declared his intention to retreat to a monastery.
Marie’s death had torn a hole in Hugo’s chest. He hadn’t been able to summon more than mild affection for Yvette, and even that quickly withered in the face of her bottomless need for attention. She had turned to Count Yaraslov, a man distinguished only by his fatuous smirk and his handsome nose.
The last thing he wanted was another discontented woman in his household. “No,” he stated, managing to stop himself from growling it. “No, I am not taking another duchess.”
His sister shoved over a ledger and perched on his desk. “Feeling bruised?”
“Yvette was a weak-headed ninny, and she’ll make the count’s life hell.”
Hugo had come to the same conclusion; he had been married to Yvette for six years, and fathered four children with her, and he still hadn’t understood her. Nothing seemed to please her: not him, the title, the castle, nothing.
Even so, she had wanted—she had deserved—more from him.
“She ran off with Yaraslov because I didn’t give a damn,” he said, meeting his sister’s eyes squarely.
Lady Knowe snorted. “Last time I heard, the church hadn’t started handing out dispensations for adultery on the basis of a husband’s lack of affection. Who could give a damn about Yvette? I can’t abide a woman who makes an art out of complaining.”
“Now, there you’re wrong,” his sister said cheerfully, getting up from the desk. “The babes hardly knew what she looked like, and they’ve forgotten her entirely by now. The last time she visited Lindow Castle was two years ago at Yuletide. Did she spend any time in the nursery? No.”
“She was great with child,” Hugo pointed out.
“Other mothers manage to visit their children during confinement. She deposited the newborn with a wet nurse and climbed into a carriage two days later. About the only thing I can say for Yvette is that she has a constitution like an ox. Six children in four—”
“Four children in six years,” Hugo corrected.
His sister shrugged. “The nursery is so crowded that I lose track. To return to the important point, you have no need for more offspring, but you do need a mother for those you already have. If I include Parth in the number, since the boy is now an orphan, you have eight children.”
“You’re like that old woman who lived in a shoe, except Lindow Castle is a mighty fine shoe. Luckily, you aren’t showing your age—or, should I say, our age—so you should be able to scoop up a new duchess without a problem,” his twin continued.
“No lady would want to marry a divorced man,” he pointed out, keeping it simple. He was not only divorced: he was jaundiced, cynical, and completely uninterested in the flimsy, foolish conversation that passed for polite conversation.
“I’ll be damned if another wife of mine takes a lover,” he added. “I should have killed Yaraslov the moment I heard of it.” The sad truth was that he hadn’t cared enough.
“Pshaw, he wasn’t worth it,” Louisa said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Yvette was a lustful piece. The key is to find a woman with a disdain for the bed. Believe me, London is full of ladies in that frame of mind.”
Hugo groaned. “A lovely prospect for a spouse.”
“You have a fine figure,” Louisa said, surveying him from head to foot. “You’ll need to order a new suit, of course. That is pitifully out of date. Luckily, I have a length of rose silk that I can donate to the cause.”
“Rose silk,” Hugo said with disgust.
“Over-stitched with gold thread,” his sister said, nodding. “You’re disgustingly handsome, even given the Wilde eyebrows, so I’m not worried on that front. No, the real problem is persuading a skittish lady that eight children don’t pose an insurmountable burden. I’ll definitely have to sacrifice the rose silk; it might be enough to weight the scales of your desirability against your offspring.”
“No need for a sacrifice,” Hugo said, his tone sharpening. “I employ two nannies, three nursemaids, and a governess. That’s enough mothering. What’s more, given that Horatius is at Oxford, and Roland, Alaric, and Parth are at Eton, four of the eight would scorn the notion they needed mothering.”
His sister groaned. “Parth is more trouble than your boys put together. Did I tell you about what he—” She cut herself off. “Never mind that. Ignoring those boys, and the two others, for the moment, you have daughters in the nursery. I’m serious, Hugo.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The girls must be taken to London, presented at court, and brought out at parties. That’s not to mention the delicate business of steering them away from fortune-hunters and toward respectable young men.”
She shook her head. “Your daughters cannot wither in Cheshire, going to the local assemblies, living on the edge of a bog, racketing around the castle with no one to talk to.”
That stung. “I visit the nursery at least once a day.”
“Your children are rarely in the nursery so that hardly matters.”
Hugo frowned. “They aren’t running around Lindow Moss, are they?”
“When they’re home, the older boys virtually live in the bog,” Louisa said dismissively. “What’s more, the children love to visit the stables, even the baby. My point is, terrible mother though she was, Yvette knew everyone in London.”
“As do I.”
“I have trouble picturing you rounding up your acquaintances and putting on a ball in Betsy’s honor—which will have to take place in a mere ten years or so. I don’t mind acting as your hostess here, but I rarely leave Cheshire, as you know. I go to London solely to visit the modistes and see an occasional play.”
“Perhaps Horatius will have married by then,” Hugo said, thinking of his oldest son. “I have every faith that he will choose a perfectly trained noblewoman, who can do the honors.”
“I can imagine,” Louisa said. She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll probably hate her.”
“You won’t have to see much of her. Horatius informed me last year that I was neglecting the future of England. He intends to attend every session in Parliament, so he’ll have to live in London a good part of the year.”
“I adore Horatius, but he’s a terrible prig,” Louisa said.
Hugo didn’t answer, because…it was true. Sad but true. His eldest son was best taken in small doses.
“At any rate, you can’t lean on the wife that your heir doesn’t yet have. Horatius is only eighteen. Perhaps he’ll rebel and turn into a complete rogue.”
They both considered it, and shook their heads at precisely the same moment, an unintended benefit of being twins.
“Enough,” Louisa stated. “You have to take a wife, and that’s all there is to it. The girls, particularly Joan, need a noblewoman of unassailable reputation to usher them into society.”
Hugo’s brows drew together, but before he could speak, his sister planted her fingers on his desk, leaning over and meeting his eyes. “Joan looks like Yvette; I’ll give her that. She’s going to be beautiful. But she does not look like a Wilde.”
“She is a Wilde,” Hugo growled, surging to his feet.
Louisa drew her shoulders back but held his gaze steadily. “Don’t play the fool, Hugo. Whether or not it’s true, her golden hair will be seen as a gift from Yaraslov. You need to marry a powerful woman now, so that rumors are throttled early, if only because those gossips are terrified of the Duchess of Lindow’s wrath.”
“Wonderful,” Hugo said, deadpan. “You’re telling me to marry a dragon with a disgust for bed sport. She’ll be a delight to live with.”
“You don’t have to bed her,” his sister pointed out. “Lord knows, you have more than enough heirs. Think of it as taking on a superior governess.”
“I don’t want another governess, no matter how superior.”
Louisa snorted. “I’ll let Prism know that you’ll be leaving for London tomorrow. Take the silk directly to Grippledon; I think he’s the best tailor these days.” She headed for the door, scooping up her hat on the way, but stopped and swung about. “Do not, under any circumstances, mention the children during your courtship, Hugo.”
“You just said that I need to find a woman precisely because of my offspring,” he said. “I should talk of nothing but the children—just as I would when choosing a governess, may I point out.”
“No,” his sister said. She rarely laid down decrees, preferring to run his household with smile, albeit a fierce smile. But this was a command. “Let the woman see you as a man, not a father. No one wants to marry a father.”
Hugo swore under his breath, and then shouted, “I’m not leaving until next week,” just as the door closed behind her.
Lady Stewart’s ball
One month later: November 9
“You’re so fortunate that you needn’t bother to find another husband,” Maddie Penshallow lamented. “You have the best of all worlds, Phee. Your husband was perfectly nice—and, of course, we’re all so sorry that Sir Peter passed away—but he left you with that darling little girl and not a care in the world!”
Ophelia winced at this blithe summary of widowhood, but her cousin didn’t pause for breath. Apparently, Maddie’s husband, Lord Penshallow, was like the rest of his sex: he didn’t brush his teeth enough, made impolite noises at dinner (farted, Ophelia interpreted), and—
“He has two mistresses?”
“Two,” Maddie said, with a distinct lack of despair. “One I could tolerate. In fact, I would happily encourage it. But two is an insult. Two means that everyone in London suspects that I refuse to bed him.”
“Which you do,” Ophelia said.
“That’s private,” Maddie objected.
“No, it isn’t. It hasn’t been since you lost your temper and threw a bowl of cherries at him last month at the Terring Hunt Ball.”
“Glacé cherries,” Maddie said, looking somewhat more cheerful. “When I’m particularly irritated, I bring to mind the way they bounced off his fat head like little tomatoes.”
“Well, after that no one could believe that you maintain cordial relations in the bedchamber. Not when you were screaming about—”
“No need to go into the details,” Maddie said hastily. “It’s not as if you don’t have a temper yourself.”
“I’m trying to change,” Ophelia said.
Her cousin snorted.
“How is your snorting different from his breaking wind?” Ophelia inquired.
“You’re not listening to me, Phee!” Maddie cried. “My point is that you are lucky because you needn’t ever deal with a man again. You don’t have to hear snoring, or a lecture about what asparagus does to his digestive system or be smirked at by his mistress—who happens to be wearing diamond earrings tonight, by the way!”
“As are you,” Ophelia observed.
“Precisely my point,” Maddie said. “I like your emeralds much better than these diamonds, which my husband apparently bought in bulk.”
She cocked her head. “In fact, you’re better looking than when you debuted, Phee. I expect it’s motherhood. Those curves mean that your chin doesn’t look as pointed as it used to.”
Ophelia broke into laughter and gave her cousin a hug. “What you’re saying is that my witchy chin is now topping a fat figure?”
“Voluptuous is not fat,” Maddie protested, wiggling out of Ophelia’s arms. “How is my goddaughter, by the way?”
“Oh, Viola’s fine. She’s just turned two years old, so her favorite word is ‘no.’”
“You gave her your red hair,” Maddie pointed out. “What did you expect? Do tell me that you’ve managed to find a good nanny?”
“Not yet,” Ophelia said.
“I’ll find you one,” her cousin promised.
Ophelia didn’t want a nanny, if the truth be known. Kind people kept recommending nannies: stern, kindly, scholarly, playful… So far, she’d managed to find something wrong with each of them.
Peter had died a few weeks before Viola was born, so he’d never met his daughter. In his absence, she and Viola had become as thick as thieves, as her mother put it. Once Ophelia hired a nanny, that nanny would know everything about caring for a two-year-old girl. She would know better than Ophelia.
There was an excellent possibility that Ophelia was making all sorts of mistakes that a proper nanny would avoid. She had nursed Viola herself, rather than hire a wet nurse, for example, which one matron had told her was certain to lead an unhealthy relationship with her child.
She had enjoyed every moment of that mistake.
Next to her, Maddie let out a little shriek. “Oh, look! I didn’t know he was coming. I haven’t seen the duke in London for a year…no, well over a year.” She turned to Ophelia. “Remember what I told you? There’s only one man in the world who could change my mind.”
“About what?” Ophelia asked absently. Perhaps she would take Viola to the park tomorrow. Her townhouse was only a block from Hyde Park, and Viola loved to visit the duck pond.
But her coachman had said he smelled a winter storm. Bisquet was a countryman, and she trusted his nose, even though the only thing she could smell in London was coal smoke.
“You never remember anything I say,” Maddie said petulantly. “You’re as bad as my husband, but you’re my only cousin, and you ought to be more attentive.”
“I’m sorry,” Ophelia said. “What did you tell me?”
“That I plan never to bed another man in the whole of my life.”
Ophelia nodded. “All right.”
“Aren’t you going to dissuade me?” Maddie opened her pretty blue eyes very wide.
“Why would I? Childbirth is extremely dangerous.”
“My husband has two mistresses,” Maddie said, “so it stands to reason that I should have a lover. Or three.”
“That seems excessive to me.”
“There is only one man in London who might change my mind—and it isn’t my husband; I can promise you that.”
“It would be hard to have an affaire with one’s own husband,” Ophelia pointed out.
“I would give my virtue to only one man,” Maddie said, showing her fine flare for drama. “That duke.”
Ophelia couldn’t think of a single duke with whom she would want to share more than a minuet, but she was reconciled to her own shortcomings. The rest of the world experienced fiery passion, but she didn’t. Thankfully, she and Peter had been alike in that.
“I would probably follow him to Paris after a mere nod,” Maddie said dreamily.
“Which duke?” Ophelia asked, but Maddie didn’t hear because she was gawking at the other side of the room like a pig-herder seeing St. Paul’s for the first time. Ophelia snapped shut her fan, thinking that she probably shouldn’t compare a beddable duke to a cathedral. It seemed vaguely blasphemous.
Maddie blinked and came out of her desirous haze. “Are you retiring to the boudoir? I shall join you. I didn’t see that darling bag earlier. Oh! It matches your gloves!”
Ophelia smiled. Both her gloves and bag were made of butter soft leather, sewn with small spangles. The gloves glittered above her wrists, and her bag sparkled from every angle as it moved with her. “Thank you! A gift from my mother-in-law.”
“You’re so lucky,” Maddie began, and broke off the sentence. “He’s just over there!”
“Who?” Ophelia turned her head, but all she saw was a ballroom crowded with people she’d known her entire life.
“The Duke of Lindow, of course,” Maddie said triumphantly, plucking Ophelia’s sleeve and nodding toward the door. “Tell me you wouldn’t have an affaire with him.”
Ophelia wrinkled her nose. “I’ve heard of him, but we’ve never met.” She didn’t bother to turn, because she had no interest in that particular duke, given his unsavory reputation.
Not that it was his fault that his wife ran away with a Prussian, but there was something horrid about divorce.
Maddie was on her toes, peeking over the crowd. “He’s just so beautiful,” she breathed. “It’s cruel what happened to him.”
“Darling, I’m not going to the boudoir; I’m going to leave,” Ophelia said, making up her mind. “Otherwise I’ll be trapped in the supper dance and I shan’t return home for ages. Viola wakes up at five in the morning and—”
“You are so unnatural,” her cousin interrupted, momentarily startled out of her examination of the infamous duke. “You mean to tell me that you actually rise with that child?”
“She comes to fetch me,” Ophelia said apologetically. The truth was that she was often awake before the patter of unsteady feet came down the corridor. She lay in bed, smiling at the ceiling, waiting for Viola to burst through the door, nursemaid in tow.
Viola babbled incomprehensibly all the way from the nursery, but as soon as she came through the door, she would shout “Mama!” She knew only a few words, but “Mama” and “no” were her favorites, and she shouted them both with great enthusiasm.
“I’m going home,” Ophelia said, wondering why she came. True, she had put aside her half-mourning attire and was wearing a lovely new gown, but that didn’t mean she actually wished to join society again.
It would have been much more fun to stay home with Viola.
“I don’t want to be caught in a snowstorm,” she added.
“Oh, nonsense,” Maddie said. “My coachman was grumbling about the same thing. If traffic snarls up, it might take a wee bit longer to get home, but we’re not in the wilds of Lincolnshire! One scarcely notices snow in London.”
Ophelia wouldn’t have cared if Peter was still alive and traveling in the coach with her on the way home. She was more cautious now, or perhaps less adventurous.
“I’ll walk you to the entrance,” Maddie said, giving up and taking her arm. She lowered her voice. “He’s standing just to the side of it.”
Ophelia sighed. If Maddie started something with a duke whose wife had fled to another country—divorced or not—all society would talk feverishly about it for a few weeks, or even a season. Her husband would be furious.
Lord Penshallow would not forget, even when society moved on to the next scandal. Maddie’s husband may not want his wife himself, but Ophelia was certain he didn’t want another man in his bed. Men weren’t rational about this sort of thing.
“Maddie,” she said, striving for a tactful tone, “I believe you ought to rethink the idea of an affaire with Lindow.”
“For goodness’ sake, lower your voice,” her cousin whispered. “Do you see him now?”
Ophelia looked and froze, which made her stumble. It was mortifying, not helped by the fact that Maddie burst out laughing.
“Didn’t I tell you so?” she demanded.
Maddie hadn’t “told.” She hadn’t said what the Duke of Lindow looked like. He had a square chin, high cheekbones, and a straight nose that somehow came together in a way that made a woman instinctively draw in a breath.
It wasn’t just that he was handsome, or broad-shouldered and tall. He was indefinably masculine in a way few of the gentlemen in the room were. He was wearing a magnificent peruke, befitting a duke, and a rose-colored coat that by rights should look effeminate.
That square chin looked stubbornly masculine. Her husband had never had to shave, but the duke’s chin was shadowed, though his man had undoubtedly shaved him a few hours ago.
Next to her, Maddie was still giggling. “I told you so.”
Rather than respond, Ophelia kept looking. His Grace was clearly bored. He was paying no attention to the two ladies chattering beside him.
Ophelia flipped open her fan. “Why is he here?” she asked Maddie from behind its shelter. “I thought he was uninterested in society, and he certainly looks it. I’ve never met him.”
The last two years she’d been in mourning, but before that, she and Peter had attended virtually every ball held in London. Peter had loved to dance.
“Let’s go toward the door,” Maddie hissed. “My husband is one of His Grace’s acquaintances, so I shall greet him. As for why he’s here, I expect he’s looking for another wife. Or should I say, brood mare.”
“Maddie, don’t you pay attention to anything? The duchess, the one he divorced, left four children behind. That’s why the Private Act passed so quickly. Everyone knows that he needs to marry again; apparently the discussion in Parliament circled around that issue.”
“Four children,” she echoed, wondering how the former duchess could have left her babies behind. She could no more leave Viola than she could cut off her own arm.
“There are more children than those four, because if I remember correctly, he had four or five with his first wife as well, though they must be nearly grown. If we don’t hurry, he’ll move away from the door and I’ll miss my chance.”
“More children than four?” Ophelia kept her fan up as they arrowed through the crowd. “How old is he?”
“Not as old as you’d think. Late thirties, I believe.”
They weren’t the only ones heading in the Duke of Lindow’s direction. There was an unmistakable drift in the room, as if the tide were coming in and he was the shore.
“Three or four from his first wife,” Maddie added, over her shoulder. “All boys.”
“Slow down,” Ophelia hissed, tugging back. “You’re making a spectacle out of us.”
They were close enough now that she could see the duke’s eyes were dark green. His face was all masculine planes and hard angles. He was standing with one leg bent in front of him, a silver-hilted sword on his left hip.
She felt heat in her cheeks just from glancing at his stance. His thigh was pure muscle, and anyone could tell that his calves were not enhanced by horsehair pads. His was an aggressive leg, not a graceful one. She’d put a pretty chunk of her inheritance on a bet that he didn’t care to dance.
That sword? It wasn’t just for show.
He wasn’t the sort of man who would ever interest her. “I truly must leave,” she said, with sudden resolution. “You may stop and talk to His Grace, but I am going home to Viola.”
“All right,” her cousin said, not listening.
Ophelia thought about pointing out that a man intent on courting a mother for his children was unlikely to conduct a highly visible affaire with a married woman, but she dismissed it. Maddie would soon discover whether His Grace was interested or not.
Even as a child, Maddie had always bluntly demanded whatever she wanted. Ophelia wouldn’t be surprised if Maddie strode right up to the man and suggested a tryst.
They were almost at the door, so Ophelia glanced at the duke again.
He was looking at her.
Not at Maddie.
Blood rushed into her cheeks, and she barely caught herself before she tripped again. She was a widow, the relic of Sir Peter Astell. A mother. Not the sort of woman who welcomed a man’s eyes raking over her in a ballroom, as if she were no better than a nightwalker.
She let her eyes narrow.
He blinked as if he were surprised, and then a slow smile crooked one corner of his mouth.
“The duke is looking at you!” Maddie hissed from somewhere to her right. “Phee, that will never do.” Her cousin actually sounded alarmed. “He’s far too much for you. Nothing like sweet Peter.”
That shook Ophelia out of a haze caused by the duke’s attention. She turned her head and smiled at her cousin. “Don’t be silly, Maddie. He’s probably mistaken me for someone else, that’s all. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“It could be that he’s walking toward me,” her cousin said breathlessly. “He could be glancing at you as a decoy.” She gripped Ophelia’s forearm hard enough to leave a bruise. “How do you think he’d respond if I lured him into a side room and tied him up?”
Ophelia ducked behind her fan and hissed, “What on earth are you talking about? You don’t tie up Penshallow, do you?”
“The duke’s so large,” Maddie said, giggling madly. “Of course, I don’t…it was just a silly thought.”
“He doesn’t look like the sort of a man who would wish to be tied up for any reason.” Not that she knew any man who had that sort of propensity, for all ladies whispered about it in drawing rooms over tea.
She dropped her fan just enough to steal another glance over it.
The duke’s eyes were still fixed on her—not on Maddie. He was walking directly toward them, ignoring any number of guests throwing themselves into his path.
“Perhaps he knew your husband,” her cousin said, sounding perplexed. “He really does appear to be looking at you, Phee.”
Ophelia shared her confusion. She wasn’t the kind of woman whom a man lost his head over. She had a pointed nose, a temper, a pile of red hair, and a overly-generous bosom, even more so after being enhanced by motherhood. The thought of Viola brought her back to herself.
“If he was friends with my husband, he can pay me a morning call, as did Peter’s other friends.”
“I know!” Maddie said, her face clearing. “He’s been told what a wonderful mother you are. Oh, Ophelia, you could be a duchess!”
“I’m not available to mother a flock of discarded children,” Ophelia said sharply. She was conscious of a sense of disappointment. Just once, she’d like a man to look at her for herself.
Peter had been shepherded in her direction by his father and her mother during her debut ball. They danced twice and sat together at supper. They hadn’t even been served dessert before he said, with his disarming smile, “I say, we get along pretty well, don’t we?”
They did. They had.
But he hadn’t the faintest idea what sort of woman she was when he asked her to marry him.
“Even to be a duchess?”
Ophelia frowned. “I’m perfectly comfortable as I am, Maddie.”
Her cousin sighed. “It’s true that I can’t imagine you in such an elevated role. It would be like hearing that the baker had been knighted.”
“Maddie!” Ophelia protested. “I’m hardly a baker.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll set him straight,” her cousin said. “You’d better leave unless you want to refuse him yourself; Lady Persell caught his arm, but he’ll be heading this direction again in a moment.”
Ophelia definitely did not want to encounter the duke. The man looked like a hunter, strolling across the ballroom in that pink coat, pretending to be a gentleman, which he wasn’t.
He absolutely was not.
She didn’t know why she was so sure of that, but she was. The Duke of Lindow was a nobleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the term. He probably had vassals, serfs, acres of land, and an escutcheon.
She gave Maddie a brisk kiss and set out for the door. After a moment she sped up, practically diving toward the entrance to the ballroom. It almost seemed as if she could feel his approach like a warm wind at her back, even though that made no sense.
Just as she turned so she could squeeze between two groups of gossiping peers without her panniers bumping them, a hand closed around her elbow.
She felt the shock of his touch through her entire body.
“Yes?” she said, turning. She managed to keep her tone cool. What she saw in the Duke of Lindow’s eyes made her raise an eyebrow. “You must have mistaken me for someone else,” she said, her tone almost kindly.
No one had ever looked at her, at Ophelia, like that. Not even Peter.
Perhaps Lindow thought she was a girl he had loved in his youth.
“I am not mistaken,” the duke replied. His eyes were a dark, dark green, the color of spruce trees when they stood vividly against snow.
His voice startled her, because it was deeper than she would have thought. Like a bear’s growl. In fact, he looked like a bear emerging from a winter’s sleep, she thought irrelevantly. Coming into the world and looking for a nice rabbit to eat.
She was not a rabbit for any man’s consumption. She had no need of a husband, and no desire for a lover, either. Still less did she want to nurture a flock of motherless children, no matter how sad that was.
Given that her own cousin thought of her as a baker, people would know exactly why he was courting her—to turn her into a glorified governess.
“Excuse me,” she said, allowing impatience to leak into her voice. Then she gently pulled her arm from his grasp and walked away.
Behind her, a moment of silence.
And then, to her horror, a shout of laughter.
She was a delight. Hugo’s heart was pounding in his chest in a way it hadn’t for years.
Nineteen years, to be exact.
That was when he had walked into a drawing room in Windsor Castle and had seen Marie being fanned by a couple of impertinent puppies, who were babbling nonsense and making her laugh. His future wife, first wife, had been reclining on a sofa, a perfect lady from the tips of her scarlet shoes to the top of her extravagant, pearl-bedecked hair.
Marie was the one young lady whom every bachelor in London—and most of the married men as well—wanted for their own. She was a minx who delighted in every flirtatious glance and trill of laughter.
Remembering her made Hugo feel a nostalgic flash of love for those heady days. He had known from the moment he entered that room that he had to have her.
This lady was Marie’s opposite. She didn’t look as if she indulged in flirtations. No, she looked fierce, like a warrior, a curvy, beautiful warrior blessed with masses of red hair. She’d powdered it as fashion demanded, but only lightly.
He made his way over to the woman who had been accompanying the lady, before she ran out the door as if the hounds of hell were after her. “Who is she?” he asked, without preamble.
A hint of defiance showed in the woman’s eyes. “Your Grace,” she said, dropping into a curtsy.
For Christ’s sake. All the same, he bowed and then lifted her hand to his lips. “Good evening, my lady. I’m afraid I’m at a disadvantage. I believe we haven’t met.”
“You are acquainted with my husband, Lord Penshallow,” she said.
A tiresome fellow with a propensity to brag about his amorous activities. Hugo felt a dart of sympathy for the lady, but that was neither here nor there. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Penshallow,” he said. “I wonder if you could give me the name of the woman you were accompanying a moment ago.”
Her brows drew together. “You do not know who she is?”
Hugo’s gut clenched. Was she married? It had never occurred to him. A raw feeling swept through his chest at the idea that she belonged to another man.
“Is she married?” he asked, knowing his voice rumbled from his chest.
“So you don’t know who she is,” Lady Penshallow said, looking confused. “No, Phee is not married.”
“Excellent,” Hugo said, gentling his voice. “I’m glad to hear it.” That was an understatement. Phee. What could that possibly be short for? Fidelia? No: Phoebe! Of course. But no Phoebes came to mind.
“I thought you had heard about her,” the lady continued.
He shook his head. “I have no idea who she is.”
“My cousin is a respectable widow,” Lady Penshallow announced. Then she lowered her voice. “She is not looking for a dalliance, and you do her no favors by singling her out in such an obvious fashion.”
Few men and even fewer women dared to defy him, so Hugo smiled at her. “You are very loyal.”
“She is uninterested in men, so you needn’t waste your time,” Lady Penshallow explained with a shrug. There was a hint of warmth at the back of her eyes that suggested that she would have no objection if he cared to single her out. “She was very fond of her husband, and only emerged from mourning in the last few months. In fact, this is her first excursion into society, and as you saw, she chose to return home early.”
“Does she have children?” Lindow Castle was a huge pile of stone that could absorb another baker’s dozen of youngsters, and no one would know the difference.
“She is a wonderful mother,” the lady said, watching him carefully. “She left before the dinner dance so that she won’t be too sleepy when my goddaughter wakes in the morning. At five A.M.”
His mouth eased into a smile. She was a mother. A real mother, the kind Marie had been. The kind he had hoped to find for his boys when he married Yvette, except he had been so appallingly wrong.
“My cousin has no wish to take care of another woman’s children,” the lady continued. “Perhaps you will forgive my observation that you have too many of them. And as I said, she has no wish to marry again.”
Over her shoulder, half the ballroom was gaping at them with fascination. They’d missed his real intention; they thought he was flirting with this pretty young wife. Lord Penshallow was undoubtedly watching from somewhere.
He stepped backward and bowed. “I wish you good evening, Lady Penshallow. I’m fear that, like your cousin, I must leave before the dinner dance. Perhaps you will dance with me another time.” He felt a primitive desire to get out the doors before his lady managed to run away from him.
That’s what she was doing.
She had taken one look at him from those under absurdly long eyelashes and headed for the ballroom door. That meant she felt something. Maybe not the same thing he did—not the same jolt of absolute certainty—but something.
He could work with it.
A butler, resplendent in red livery, handed him his greatcoat. The man was dignified but given his raisin-sized eyes, not too dignified for a bribe. A moment later Hugo had a name.
Ophelia, Lady Astley, the widow of Sir Peter Astley.
He turned it over in his head. Ophelia. One of Shakespeare’s heroines, and a melancholy one, if he had the play right. This Ophelia wasn’t melancholy. Her eyes were intelligent and fiery; he’d bet anything she had a temper that would blaze as hot as her hair.
He walked through the door and saw with satisfaction that the street was just as snarled in carriages as it had been forty minutes ago, when he arrived. Carriages were taking a half hour to traverse the street before the house.
He had jumped out and walked, telling his coachman that he would make his own way home later. Other guests remained in their carriages like a line of patient cows waiting to be milked. Likely some of them were here when he arrived, and they were still here.
Night had fallen. Linkboys were milling about in front of the house and running between carriages, their flaming torches held high, biting circles into the darkness. Snowflakes were falling lazily into those circles of light, as if the white fluff popped into existence when light met the dark air.
Ophelia was nowhere in sight, which meant her carriage had managed to pick her up—but he doubted the vehicle had gone anywhere. Traffic was at a standstill; two coachmen had descended from their perches and were shouting about a scratched side panel.
Which carriage might she be in? To his left were three commodious family carriages, the doors picked out with crests. She wouldn’t be found in one of those. Sir Peter Astley had been a baronet, not a peer.
If there was an elegant barouche, it would have gone to the heir, not to the widow. His brows drew together as he realized that many a young widow, especially one who hadn’t given birth to male heir, might find herself in financial straits. Rational thought quickly asserted itself.
Ophelia had been wearing emeralds, and a dress his sister called a sack gown. It had glowed in the candlelight of the ballroom, glittering with gold thread, but more importantly, with flowers. Hand painted flowers on French silk.
Louisa owned one gown made of hand painted silk, the fabric imported from France. Characteristically, Louisa’s was bright with poppies; in any gathering his sister liked to be the center of attention. Ophelia’s gown had been painted all over with charming flower sprigs. It didn’t call attention to itself, and yet it must have been wildly expensive.
His heart eased. His lady wasn’t worried about money. In fact, she must be swimming in guineas.
Good for Sir Peter. He had died, leaving his wife and baby girl behind, but he’d made certain that they were comfortable, cared for.
There were four carriages to his right. One of them belonged to the Dowager Duchess of Windebank. Two were hired rigs and one…
That was it.
It was small but exquisite, made of rich bronze-colored wood, and fashioned with three windows to a side. The carriage body looked like a delicate egg trimmed in strands of twisted brass, the body painted with bluebirds.
It was absurd, and absurdly lovely. It suited her, down to its curves.
It wasn’t moving and wouldn’t until those coachmen stopped their squabble.
Without haste, he walked toward it, his boots splashing into the sludge on the streets; the first layer of snowflakes had already melted. Delicate silk curtains were drawn across the carriage windows, and a soft glow from the inside told him that Ophelia was sitting in a glow of lamplight.
As he grew closer, he made out her silhouette. She was leaning back against the cushions, reading a book. Hugo paused for a moment, savoring the sensation.
His life had jerked to a halt with Marie’s death. He took care of the estate, went through the motions of being married to Yvette, tried to be the best father he could to the children.
But now, unexpectedly, strangely, with no more than the sight of a tantalizing woman…
His heart was thumping in a rhythm he’d forgotten.
Feeling the prickle of eyes on him, he looked up and discovered that her coachman was watching him closely. The man looked like a good fellow, strong and loyal, with the tenacity and skill to fight off anyone who threatened his lady’s well-being.
A groom in livery was perched behind, his gaze as hard-eyed as the coachman’s.
Hugo bent his head in a silent question.
After a moment, the coachman nodded, so Hugo sprang up beside him. The conversation took longer than he would have thought and necessitated pulling his sword stick out of its sheath and displaying the ducal crest set into his sword.
They had moved approximately three carriage lengths down the street before Hugo leapt down again, having made it clear to Mr. Sanders that, if she agreed, the lady was to become a duchess.
If she rejected him, he meant her no harm.
Now he just had to persuade the lady herself.
Ophelia was humiliated to realize how long it took her breath to calm after leaving the ballroom. It was only, she assured herself, because she hadn’t been in society for some time.
A man hadn’t looked at her with interest in years. Peter had never looked at her like that, her mind insisted.
The duke’s gaze made her feel over-heated. Almost feverish, which was absurd. Thinking about her dear husband steadied her.
She and Peter had approached the bedchamber the way they had their entire life together: with a frank conversation and a generous ladling of respect. Over the eight years of their marriage, they had come together many times, not merely because they were determined to have children—and surprised by how long it took—but because they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.
Ophelia took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, trying to focus on the book she was reading. The Life and Adventures of Mr. Francis Clive. It wasn’t a restful book; the poor housemaid who found herself part of Francis Clive’s “adventures” was now in the family way.
Any sensible woman could have told her that he was a bad man from the first few pages of the book. As opposed to Peter, for example. Once again, the remembrance of Peter’s steady love and respect made her feel calmer.
Her late husband would have understood how shocking it had felt to come into contact with the duke, a man who had palpable power and erotic…well, erotic something.
The duke looked at her with a promise in his eyes and his promise had nothing to do with respect.
Undoubtedly every woman encountered a man like that during her life: a bad man, her mother would have said. A rake, no doubt. One who made all sorts of promises he didn’t—
The Duke of Lindow’s steady gaze came back to her. If he made promises, they would be ones he would keep.
She had the feeling he was offering her pleasure. Possibly a different kind of pleasure than the measured joy she and Peter had shared. Something altogether more overwhelming.
The door of her carriage swung open, followed by a blast of chilly air and the clean smell of fresh snow. Ophelia frowned, reaching toward it. She adored the little carriage that she had helped design herself, but it wasn’t the sturdiest vehicle in the world. Bisquet hadn’t even wished to take it this evening because of the weather, but she insisted.
Broad shoulders blocked the door as a man climbed into her carriage.
Ophelia shrank back, suddenly aware of how alone she was. Her heart stuttered, and a scream caught in her throat as she flung her hand to the roof, intending to yank open the trapdoor between herself and her coachman.
“I apologize.” His voice filled the small space like one deep note from a cello: calm, resonant, safe.
Air slipped out of Ophelia’s lungs. Her hand fell back and she leaned, boneless, against the back of her carriage seat.
The Duke of Lindow closed the door behind himself and sat down opposite her, his intense green eyes fastened on her face. There wasn’t a shred of shame in his expression. There was regret for having frightened her, but the fact he’d invaded her carriage without an invitation?
No, he had all the bravado of a pirate boarding a ship and informing the captain that he had every right to be there.
She felt a welcome spark of anger at the base of her spine and sat up straight again. She was a dowager baroness. He may be far above her in England’s hierarchy, but that didn’t give him the right to frighten her.
To invade her carriage.
“I did not invite you to join me,” she stated adding, after a pointed pause, “Your Grace.”
The duke had stuffed his gloves into his pockets, and now he shrugged out of his damp greatcoat without answering. The beautiful wool was spotted with dark, wet dots where snowflakes had melted.
Ophelia was well aware that the person who talks the most in any confrontation loses power, so she held her tongue.
He had remarkably broad shoulders. Even his neck looked powerful. He was a male animal, lithe and powerful—but one who meant her no harm. She knew that instinctively, in her bones.
His Grace was no Francis Clive, running around looking for adventures and woe betide any young woman who got in his way.
Once out of his heavy outerwear, he shrugged, apparently uncomfortable in his closely tailored, extravagant coat. But then, in one swift movement, he crouched in front of her.
Ophelia could feel her eyes rounding as she looked down. He didn’t touch her, but she felt as if his gaze settled around her like a warm blanket. A sharp sense of vertigo gripped her.
Men like this, dukes, had nothing to do with women like her. She had been considered tremendously lucky that Peter chose her. She was rounded, short, and not particularly beautiful. That wasn’t even taking account of the pointed chin Maddie had mentioned.
What’s more, she wasn’t seductive or flirtatious. Not that she had ever flirted with this man before.
“Your Grace,” she said. “I gather that you have formed some sort of interest in me that is groundless and unrequited. I must ask you to behave like a man of your station and return from whence you came.”
A smile tugged at his mouth. “‘From whence I came?’”
“My meaning is clear,” Ophelia said, scowling at him. “Go. Back to the street, if you prefer plain speaking. You are not welcome in my carriage.”
She had the absurd idea that she’d hurt his feelings, but the emotion flashed by so quickly that she wasn’t sure.
“I apologize,” he said again. “I just saw you for the first time.”
Ophelia waited, but he didn’t continue, so she said, “The fact that we are unacquainted is scarcely reason for this intrusion.”
“How long were you married to Sir Peter?”
This was such an odd conversation. He hadn’t touched her, and she didn’t know him, and yet they were looking at each other with an intimacy that—
She pushed the thought away. She probably shouldn’t answer him, but she did, because what was the harm of it?
“I married Sir Peter in July of 1759.”
“I married Yvette in May of the same year.”
Clearly, that meant something to him, but nothing to her. “Is that why you’re following me?” she asked, a dash of humiliation suddenly turning scalding.
She’d got it wrong; he didn’t desire her. He wanted something from her. Or had she known his previous duchess? She couldn’t think of anyone by that name.
That lopsided smile appeared again. “If I hadn’t decided that Yvette looked like a good mother—a decision so misguided as to be comical—I might have gone to a few more balls, and I would have met you, before you pledged your hand to Sir Peter.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you think that your presence would have affected my feelings for my late husband, whom I loved dearly? You do yourself too much honor, Your Grace.”
His smile broadened and turned into a proper grin. “I deserved that.”
“Yes, you did,” she said tartly. “Now, please stop hovering at my knee or whatever it is you are doing and take your leave before I shout at my coachman and ask him to remove you, pistol in hand.”
“Bisquet confiscated my sword,” the duke said with a broad grin.
With a start, Ophelia realized that the gilded sword that had sat so easily at his hip was no longer there. “He did?”
“You have an excellent coachman. It took me the better part of ten minutes to persuade him to allow me to speak to you.”
Ophelia instantly made up her mind to speak to Bisquet herself and quite sharply too.
“I didn’t offer a bribe, and he wouldn’t have taken one,” the duke said. “May I call on you in the morning?”
“I see no reason for that,” she replied.
He was too handsome, too witty, too everything. There was a hint of sadness at the back of his eyes, and a ruefulness in his tone when he mentioned his wife, Yvette. He was nuanced.
Men were so rarely nuanced.
The word reminded her that he was something else as well: divorced. Any woman associated to him would become notorious, and not merely if Ophelia became his third duchess. Everyone would watch to see if she, too, would find him insufficient, run away, or carry on a flagrant affaire.
Yvette was presumably as passionate in her search for adventures as Francis Clive, and as immoral as well, since she had run away with a foreigner. Leaving not just her children but this man behind. Ophelia had heard about the scandal, of course, but she hadn’t seen him.
Who could leave him?
Yvette likely had very good reason. For example, because her former husband leapt into strange women’s carriages and demanded to be heard.
“Would you deny entry to me if I paid you a morning call?” he asked.
“I am too busy for calls,” she said. Which was a polite way of saying: Yes. Yes, I would.
He looked surprised, which was good. Men of his stature were likely never refused entrance.
“I don’t know you,” Ophelia continued, “and I have no reason to wish to know you. You are frank, Your Grace, so I shall be the same. As far as I can remember, I have no acquaintance with either of your former duchesses.” She raised an eyebrow.
“Not to the best of my knowledge.”
He was looking at her, eyes intent, seeming as comfortable on one knee as he was in the ballroom.
“And certainly not with you, so what in Heaven’s name are you doing, kneeling on my carriage floor?”
“Asking you to marry me.”
For a confused moment, Ophelia thought she’d lost her hearing. “What?”
“You’re the one for me,” he said, his voice deepening to a rumble.
“The one?” To her own shock, Ophelia heard herself laughing. “One, Your Grace? What about your other two wives?”
He rocked back on his heels and grinned up at her.
“You!” she said, rapping him on the shoulder with her closed fan, as if he were as naughty as a schoolboy. “Have you lost your mind? You don’t know me. I am not your ‘one’. Get up, if you please.”
“I wish to marry you.”
“I don’t wish to marry you!” Ophelia said tartly. “I don’t even know you. And even if I did…”
She would never want to be a duchess. Duchesses were forever being gawked at. Papers detailed what they wore, and what they said, and who they smiled at. As Sir Peter’s relic, she had slipped out of that ballroom without anyone taking notice of her.
No duchess walked from a room without people tracking her movements.
He nodded, eyes on hers. “Duchesses are always in the public eye.”
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
With a swift movement, he rose and sat—next to her. Practically on top of her skirts.
“Watch out!” she cried.
He waited while she rearranged her skirts, taking her time because her fingers were trembling and she needed to regain control.
“Your Grace,” she said at last, raising her face to his. “I am not of your world, and I don’t wish to be. I do not reference your divorce,” she said swiftly, when he opened his mouth. “’Tis an infamous thing, but I understand that your wife left under, she left with…” Tangled in words, she stopped.
“The second part of this particular Private Act is the only one that matters,” he said. “The Act dissolved our marriage and specifically enabled ‘the said Duke to marry again.’ I would not have petitioned for divorce if it hadn’t been for our—” He caught himself. “For my children.”
“I see,” Ophelia said, feeling desperately sorry for him.
“In case you are wondering, I did not refuse to allow the children to go with their mother. I’m not sure what I would have said, if Yvette had asked for them, but she did not. She left a letter explaining that our marriage was a mistake and that she felt English children should stay on English soil.”
Ophelia’s gaze fell to the duke’s hand, clenched on the carriage seat.
“She spelled Joan’s name wrong.”
A soft noise came from Ophelia’s mouth, unbidden.
“Joan is my baby,” the duke said. “She’s only two.” His mouth twisted. “Her mother apparently believed we had baptized her Joanna.”
Before she could stop herself, Ophelia reached out and curled her fingers around his fist. “I’m sorry.”
“They are better off with me, although I don’t know how I will explain to them that she didn’t want them at all. When they grow up.”
“I don’t know that you’ll have to,” Ophelia said. “Children are very accepting, as long as someone loves them. My daughter Viola has no idea that a father is missing from her life. At some point she will understand that she never knew him, but I hope it won’t be a grievous loss to her.”
“Sir Peter didn’t choose to leave his daughter,” the duke said, sounding tired, all of a sudden.
Ophelia withdrew her hand, clearing her throat. “I don’t—”
His Grace bent toward her, his eyes even darker green in the soft light of the carriage than they had seemed in the ballroom. Ophelia froze, her heart hammering in her throat. Carefully, delicately, he cupped his hands on either side of her head, bent his head, and brushed her mouth with his.
Ophelia’s mind stuttered and fell silent. The duke’s eyes were fringed with thick black lashes. They didn’t curl up, the way hers did. Instead she had the feeling they hid his eyes from the world—but not at the moment.
His eyes were shining with an emotion she didn’t recognize.
She swallowed hard. “This is madness.”
“Yes. Love is madness. I’m not in love with you yet, Ophelia, but only because I haven’t had enough time.”
It was that moment that Ophelia realized that the Duke of Lindow—a man clearly used to getting exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it, a man whom the world had blessed with beauty, power, and wealth—was truly at her feet.
Metaphorically, because he was sitting beside her and kissing her again. This time, when his mouth brushed hers, her lips parted.
Her breath stopped, and her hands uncurled of their own volition, flattening themselves against his chest. Through layers of silk his chest felt warm and hard. In that moment when she gasped for breath, his tongue slid into her mouth and an inarticulate male sound, a growl or a rumble, came from his chest.
Ophelia shouldn’t…she couldn’t help it. Her tongue met his, curiously. She hadn’t felt desire in well over two years, but it came back to her in a rush, tingling through her veins, growing hotter and hotter.
The kiss didn’t end. She and Peter had kissed each other; of course, they had. But not like this. Peter never devoured her, never kissed her as if time had stopped. The duke’s kiss was a decadent kiss, unhurried, hungry, sensual.
Her heart began thudding in her chest, and under her fingers, the duke’s heart was thudding too. She had the sense they could kiss all night and he wouldn’t complain.
This was a get-to-know-you kiss, which was such a disgraceful thought that Ophelia shook off the erotic haze that had lured her into kissing him back and started to draw away.
“Please?” he asked. His voice rumbled from his chest, soft and dark. His hands shaped her waist and slid up her back. His hands were so large that it felt as if they covered her like a blanket.
Ophelia lost her breath again. She opened her lips and fell back into their kiss, letting it melt her, letting feelings that she’d forgotten unfurl in her body, touching her here and there with fire.
Her breasts woke up, as if she were still nursing. She wrenched her mind away from that thought. It wasn’t just her breasts. Her skin was prickling to life all over, her neck, her legs, her…
She didn’t even think about what came next, not that there as a “next,” obviously. There was just this kiss, a kiss with a stranger, that was somehow ravenous and affectionate.
That thought shocked her and she pulled away.
He let her go instantly, his hands falling away and leaving her back cool and uncaressed. She met his eyes and saw the same surprise in his eyes that she felt. But there was a faint smugness as well.
He thought he had her, because he was so good at kissing. As well he should be, given the number of wives he’d had.
Ophelia took a deep breath. “That was pleasant,” she said, willing her cheeks to stop burning.
“I found it so,” His Grace said amiably.
The smile playing on his lips made her want to scowl at him, but that would be too revealing. “If you would please take your leave—”
As the words left her mouth, she realized that her carriage was swaying back and forth, presumably on its way to her house.
“Your coachman couldn’t clog the street, so when I didn’t reappear immediately, he set out.”
Ophelia did scowl. “Don’t read my thoughts. I don’t like it.”
The duke’s laugh was husky, joyful in a manlike way.
“When we reach my house, Bisquet can return you to the ball,” Ophelia said, noticing that the duke had a dimple. A dimple! In that masculine face it was like a private jest.
He was so much a duke. It was fantastically easy to imagine him bowing before the king in snowy stockings and powdered wig. She could picture him addressing the House of Lords, or stepping out of his ornate carriage, or doing other ducal things.
But a little dimple? A husky chuckle? Dukes weren’t supposed to have those—nor the mischievous look in his eyes. Not that either.
They weren’t supposed to kneel before plump widows of no particular stature. The notion made her feel suddenly vulnerable, as if the wind had changed. It was so tempting to imagine throwing away the propriety, the rules, that had ruled her entire life.
Viola’s reputation was tied to her own. She couldn’t have an affaire with a duke no matter how much she liked his kisses, and she didn’t want to marry him. Time to get rid of him.
“It’s been very nice to talk to you,” she said, “but there is nowhere…” She stumbled to a halt. “I do not wish to know you further.”
“Not at all?”
She couldn’t read his eyes, but that couldn’t have been a flash of vulnerability—could it?
Or was it certainty: that’s what she saw most clearly. A kind of deep, knowing certainty shining from his eyes. As if he knew something about her that she didn’t.
“No,” she said sharply. “My life is very pleasant. I do not wish to be a duchess. I certainly do not wish to mother six more children.”
“Eight!” She felt indignation rising up her spine. “No one should have so many children.”
He cocked his head. “The world does seem too small for the number of the bawling, squalling Wildes I have dropped into it. I apologize.”
“You should not marry again,” she said, less severely. “What if you had even more?”
The lines of his face were sharp, almost fierce, and yet they softened into a smile and that dimple appeared again. “I told my sister as much.”
Ophelia stared at him in fascination. “You have a sister?” It was hard to imagine a female version of him.
The carriage was silent except for the rising whine of wind. As if gravel was thrown at the glass, a flurry of snow hit the windows.
He pulled back a flap of her silk curtains. “That came on fast.”
“Has it turned to a snowstorm?” Ophelia frowned and plucked open the curtain at her side. In the light cast by the torches attached to the sides of her carriage, snow swirled thick and dark. The fairytale like fluff that she had glimpsed over the duke’s shoulder when he first joined her had turned to a howling dervish. The carriage was progressing at a crawl.
“Bisquet was concerned about snow,” she confessed. “I don’t live far from Lady Stewart’s house, though, just on the other side of Hyde Park.”
“In my experience, coachmen generally favor staying tucked in a warm stable feeding their horses hot mash and themselves a hot brandy.” The duke dropped the curtain.
Outside, the sudden storm battered the carriage, and Ophelia knew that if he hadn’t been there, she would have felt rising anxiety, if not pure terror. How would she get home to Viola? What if the carriage overturned?
Instead, she felt rosy, hot and uncertain after their kisses. Her stomach clenched, wanting more—more kisses, more caresses, more. Put that together with a wave of nerves due to the quick-rising storm, and she felt uncertain and off balance.
The duke looked utterly calm. It was only when if she met his eyes that she saw emotion there, and the expression in his gaze had nothing to do with storms. His eyes were fiery with desire held tightly leashed.
“We’re already well into Hyde Park and will arrive at your house in no time.” He sounded so sensible. He couldn’t be trembling, the way she was.
Then he reached out and caught one of her hands and brought it to his lips and she caught another flare of desire in his eyes.
The storm didn’t bother him—but she did. That was a surprisingly satisfying thought.
“Thank you,” she said, forcing herself to relax. Her breath was catching in her chest, but she wasn’t sure whether it was due to the storm or his kisses.
“I might as well point out that there are virtues to having a husband,” His Grace said, his dimple making an appearance.
“Are you planning to clamber out and take the reins?” She didn’t take her hand away. His was comforting, a big male hand that looked capable of anything. “You have calluses on your fingers…from driving?”
He nodded, turning her hand over. “Whereas your hand is delicate and pink.”
“A useless hand,” Ophelia said, pulling it away.
But he hung on. “A hand needn’t be scarred to be useful.” His mouth twitched and then he said, “Marie rocked her babes every night. Her hands were not scarred, but they were not frail.”
Ophelia was caught between a sense of danger—he really was looking for a mother for all those children—and elation that he had understood. He wouldn’t scorn her if he knew she rocked Viola to sleep.
Just as that thought went through her mind, the carriage skewed across the road. The duke reached out and plucked her into his lap as easily as she might pick up Viola.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
He braced one huge boot against the side of the carriage opposite them, and the other on the opposite seat. Ophelia craned her neck sideways to frown at him just as the carriage slipped again.
This time it slid clear across the road.
“We’re likely to lose a wheel,” the duke said in her ear, one arm across her chest like an iron band, the other holding onto the strap.
“A wheel?” she managed, but the crack of splitting wood drowned her voice.
His Grace said one short, brutal curse, not at all duke-like.
The carriage began to list to one side slowly, as if it were a boat on the verge of sinking underwater. Just when it was about to fall over, it rocked back the other direction and she heard a crunch as the axle presumably hit the ground. They were tilted, but not upside down.
The door blew open, and, with a theatrical swirl, snow blew into the carriage.
Ophelia hardly felt it. The duke’s massive body had taken the shock of the carriage rocking, and now he tucked her closer against himself, as if his arms could ward off the winter. The wind caught the door and slammed it shut again.
“We made it,” the duke said, sounding very satisfied. “Your carriage driver, Ophelia, is worth every cent you pay him.”
“We lost a wheel, but he managed to keep us from toppling on our heads,” His Grace said. “Much though I love the feeling of you in my lap, I’m going to clamber from this carriage so that I can get you out. I don’t like the idea that a fool might be bowling along in the dark and run straight into us before he can stop himself.”
Ophelia was breathless, terrified, oddly exhilarated at the same time. “I must get home to Viola.” She caught his sleeve as he snatched up his gloves and pulled them on. “I must go home.” It came out like a command, the way no duke is addressed, let alone by an unimportant widow.
He turned, put a hand along her cheek. “I’ll carry you if I have to.”
Ophelia sat back, her heart pounding. There was a horrid tension between her shoulders at the idea of being separated from Viola. At the same time, there was something so sweet in the duke’s eyes that she felt dizzy.
Her cloak had fallen to the floor. He tucked it around her, threw open the door, jumped down, and was gone.
Ophelia looked around, dazed. Her pretty, feminine carriage was not only changed by losing a wheel. She felt as if he had—the duke had—invaded it with smile and his sensuality and his certitude.
She would say his certainty came from being born to a title, but it didn’t. There was a calm confidence that was the backbone of the man. It was potent, like strong tea. Not like Peter, though that was a disloyal thought, and she oughtn’t think it.
Peter would have been as excited and worried as she, if this had happened. Their eyes would have met and they would have known without words that they were feeling shared terror.
The duke hadn’t felt terror, none at all. She heard utter calm in the steely strength of his arms, and the rumbling satisfaction in his voice when he said her coachman was worth his wages.
Bisquet would be cross at her; he had protested leaving the house because the sky was lowering. But she had insisted. It was the first invitation she’d accepted since she left off mourning.
She had wanted to arrive in her sparkling, beautiful carriage. She hadn’t spared much thought for the hot, crowded ballroom.
But then she’d seen the duke.
There was no point in thinking about it. Instead she thought about the way he smelled, like clean man and snow. A touch of leather and spice.
He tasted good too, faintly like peppermint. The thought of his taste and his kisses lit a trickle of fire in her belly again.
The wind picked up again and slammed snow against the carriage, but Ophelia had made a deliberate decision not to worry. His Grace would get her home. He wouldn’t let Viola wake up alone.
It might take a few hours, but she would be with her little girl again. The sound of men’s voices shouting came over the sound of the wind.
She wasn’t alone.
If the duke had his way, she would never be alone again. She turned that idea over in her head. Now that he wasn’t in the carriage, she could think more clearly. She truly didn’t want to marry again.
She’d enjoyed Peter’s company, but she adored being by herself, doing whatever she wished. No one made demands on her.
Peter had liked to dance and of course she willingly accompanied him everywhere. It wasn’t until he passed away that she realized how happy she was not to spend her evenings in crowded ballrooms.
And the duke? She shuddered. One could scarcely imagine the burden of social engagements that he likely had to fulfill.
Tomorrow, she would be alone again, and happily so.
Hugo turned his head and shouted a last instruction to John Bisquet, then gently opened the carriage door and climbed inside. Snow came with him, of course, blowing over his shoulder. His wig was matted and wet, so he pulled it off and tossed it on the tilted seat.
Ophelia was tucked in the corner of the carriage, cloak pulled up to her nose, bright eyes examining him over the velvet.
“Hello,” he said, feeling the earth shift again. He wasn’t a smiling man, but the corners of his mouth curled up without conscious volition. He was grinning like a fourteen-year-old fool, and he didn’t even care.
“Your Grace,” Ophelia said, inclining her head ever so slightly.
She had dignity. He liked that. Honesty made him admit that he’d like her just as much if she was an undignified, giggling woman. Well, maybe not quite as much.
The carriage was securely balanced on the snapped axle, so he sat down on the slanted seat. “We’re in the middle of the park, Ophelia.”
“I do not know why you think it’s appropriate to call me by my first name, when we scarcely know each other.”
“My name is Hugo.”
“That’s irrelevant, Your Grace.”
He laughed, watching as her eyes narrowed—thinking he was mocking her. He would never mock her. Never. The truth of that blazed through him. Not that he had ever mocked anyone.
If someone ever mocked her in his presence, he’d go off like an exploding chestnut.
Ophelia was wearing that exquisite, hand-painted gown, and they were a good walk from her house. “We need to get you home to Viola,” he said.
She nodded, her eyes solemn.
“Bisquet and your groom are taking one horse back to the mews. He reckons that your lead horse can bear both of us easily enough. No saddle, but if you’ll trust me, I won’t let you fall off.”
“All right,” she said, sitting up straight. Her velvet cloak appeared to be trimmed and lined with white rabbit fur.
He choked when she picked up a fluffy round thing that was easily the size of her upper body. “What is that?”
“Four foxes worth?”
“Rabbits,” she corrected. “Rabbits have so plagued my country house that last summer I ordered them at every meal.”
He gave a bark of laughter. “Your muff is the size of a healthy child because your lawns are overcome by rabbits?”
“My muff is enormously fashionable,” she said, but there was a gleam of humor deep in her eyes. “I don’t care for waste.”
Hugo tucked that fact away in his mind. It was an excellent trait for a duchess, of course. He picked up his tricorne and leaned forward, about to put it over her head, so it would keep the snow from drifting onto her pile of hair.
“No need,” she said, smiling. She reached back and pulled forward a wide hood, wide enough that it went up and over her hair before falling down to frame her head.
He cleared his throat. It wouldn’t be appropriate to kiss her again, just because she looked so adorable dressed for winter. “The good news is that the wind has let up,” he told her instead. “But snow is still falling.”
He jammed the tricorne onto his head, leaving his damp wig where it was. Ophelia tucked her book into an inside pocket of her cloak and tied a bow under her chin. He unhooked the lantern that lit the inside of the vehicle and pushed open the door.
Outside, the snow was swirling in the air, and the sounds of London had receded, muffled as if the air itself had thickened, each breath turning to a thousand flakes.
Bisquet had positioned the mounting block before the carriage door, precisely as if the vehicle wasn’t listing to one side. Ophelia took Hugo’s hand and stepped down from the carriage as gracefully as a cat hopping from a chair.
They stood in a pool of light lit by the torch Bisquet had left behind, its light protected from the snow by a neat little tin hat. Hugo didn’t let go of her hand. They both wore gloves, but he still loved curling his fingers around hers.
God, I’ve fallen so deep, he thought suddenly, with a moment of blinding clarity. Then he shook it off because his lady was standing in the snow.
Laughing. She was looking about with obvious joy, and laughing.
His skin came alive with a primal, raw hunger, as well as a bewildered gratitude. The sensible man he’d been before he walked into the ballroom was gone.
The new Hugo pulled his lady into his arms so suddenly that her eyes flew to his in surprise. There were snowflakes on her eyes, melting on her lips. He covered her laughing mouth with his, dazzled by the flash of cold followed by heat. Her mouth was sweet and wet, and threw him instantly into a flush of sensual hunger such as he’d had—
He pushed that thought away.
No comparisons. Ever.
The world had given him so many blessings, and he had thought never to have one of this magnitude again.
She tasted like snow. Their tongues met and twisted around each other, danced an ancient measure. His heart thudded in his blood, making his breath shudder and his hands tighten around her.
Ophelia had kissed him in the carriage. But now, with the snow swirling over their heads, she was fire and ice at once. She submitted to him and owned him all at once. When she drew back, minutes later, he felt remade.
As different from his usual self as the white trees, the white carriage path, the white mound that was her little carriage. The one he would beg her to give up because its perch was too fragile to carry precious cargo.
Tomorrow, he told himself.
She was smiling up at him, still arched against him, allowing her hand to rest in the hollow of his back.
“I’m happy,” he said, hearing wonder in his voice with a touch of embarrassment. And when she laughed, “Gentlemen aren’t supposed to experience an emotion so infantilizing.”
He snorted. “My given name is reason enough for never admitting to such a foolish emotion.” He let her go and turned to the horse. Bisquet had cut the lead to use as reins and thrown a blanket over the horse. A layer of snow already covered the blanket.
The coachman had also left a brass lantern hooked it to the bridle. Hugo checked, but it was no more than pleasantly warm against the horse’s shoulder. The gelding snorted and twitched his ears.
“I’m going to pull off that blanket and put you straight up on his back.”
At her nod, he whipped off the blanket, and lifted her up, taking care to make sure that she was well-seated, her cloak tucked around her skirts. “Side-saddle is absurd,” he muttered.
“I have too many skirts to sit any other way,” she pointed out. “Are you going to snuff the torch?”
“No, I’ll leave it burning, just in case someone tools along in the snow and doesn’t see the downed vehicle until it’s too late.”
Keeping the reins in his hand, he stepped on the mounting block and vaulted onto the back of the horse, his right arm going around Ophelia to steady her. She put a hand on his chest and smiled up at him and he changed his mind about side-saddle.
If she had been seated before him, he couldn’t have seen her face.
“We merely need to make our way through Hyde Park,” he told her.
“This is so improper,” Ophelia said a moment later, as they walked out of the circle of torchlight, leaving the carriage behind them. Their lantern cast a pale light by comparison, though the snow reflected every ray with the glint of diamonds.
Hugo pulled her close and felt an indescribable satisfaction when she relaxed against him. “It’s a beautiful night,” he said, trying to distract himself from imagining her leaning against him naked. “All the hedges looked like puffed-up pillows.”
“Or large ladies huddling under rabbit-fur cloaks.”
“My daughter Betsy loves fairy tales,” he said, forgetting his sister’s admonishment not to mention his children under any circumstances. “When she was a very little girl, she told me that snowflakes are fairies in little slippers that spin over the church steeple and don’t come down until they’re tired.”
Ophelia adjusted her hood so that she could look up at the duke. He didn’t appear to be trying to telling her stories about his children, trying to impress her, because he’d heard of her unfashionably nanny-free nursery. Yet most aristocrats didn’t speak of their children with easy familiarity and pride.
She had the distinct impression that this particular duke would never try to impress a lady. Perhaps no duke would bother. The title was enough to make the female half of the population simper and beg for a ring.
That thought was souring, but he was giving her a lopsided grin. “Betsy is the most fanciful of my children.” A guarded look went through his eyes. “Damn it, I forgot. My sister told me not to mention them.”
Laughter bubbled up in her. “The children?”
He nodded. “No talk of children while courting a lady. Please forget that I said anything about Betsy.”
“I haven’t given you permission to court me,” she pointed out. “I like children.”
His hand tightened around her waist. “I couldn’t have imagined being so lucky. We are courting, Ophelia.”
Ophelia felt as if the white-topped trees of Hyde Park had drawn closer to the horse as the horse stepped forward, the sound of his shoes lost in the soft blanket that covered the path. Snow was still falling thickly into the tall trees around them, drawing close to create a chilly boudoir, a personal space in the middle of Britain’s largest city.
They had kissed twice: in the carriage, in the snow. Those were the duke’s—were Hugo’s—kisses. Now she curled her gloved hand around his right hand, the one that held the reins.
He pulled up, giving the horse a soft command. It came to a halt, and then even the soft clip-clop of its hooves was gone and the only sound was the gentle swish of branches bracing themselves against white blankets.
“I feel as if time has stopped,” His Grace said, the words a deep rumble from his chest.
“I’m not marrying you,” Ophelia said, peaceful with the decision. “I’m merely kissing you because, as you said, this is a time stolen from our normal lives. You kissed me twice.”
“Which means you owe me two kisses?” he prompted hopefully.
“I haven’t kissed anyone since Peter died. I didn’t even think about that.” How could she have let the moment go without noticing, without marking it, without a silent apology to Peter?
The duke nodded, his eyes dark. “After Marie died, I thought I’d never kiss another woman.”
“But you did.”
A rueful look crossed his eyes. “In the second year, I got drunk one night, and found myself in the arms of a cheerful barmaid.”
Ophelia couldn’t help her spurt of laughter. “The barmaid and the duke!”
“Oh, she had no idea who I was. I was in to a pub with friends. She was friendly, and warm, and she coaxed a frozen man back into life.”
“I’m not frozen,” Ophelia said.
“We men are more stupid than women,” he said, his shoulders shifting, uncomfortable with the subject, she’d guess. “I couldn’t bear the pain of it when Marie died. I…”
He sighed. “I was very young and passionate. I vaguely wanted to be Romeo to her Juliet—though she didn’t take her own life—but I had children. And a ferocious will to live. What I did instead was turn myself to stone.”
Ophelia leaned into his shoulder so she could see his eyes.
“Just walking about, not really alive.”
He shook his head. “You weren’t nearly as mad, were you?”
She took a deep breath and decided to tell the truth. “It sounds as if you loved Marie in a different…as if you had a…Peter and I were enormously fond of each other.”
His eyelashes closed for a moment and the sound that came from his chest sounded like—like relief? Surely not.
“I loved him, of course,” she added. “He was Viola’s father and he would have adored her. I see her in him every day.”
“I tell myself that if Marie hadn’t died, I would have been a good father to the three boys she and I had together,” His Grace said thoughtfully, “but I’m not certain. I might have followed the path of least resistance, the parenting traditions of my parents and all my friends. Seen the boys a couple times a year.”
The snowy silence felt as if it compelled truth. “I might have done the same. I know that Peter would have insisted on attending social functions every night as soon as I was in full health.”
“Mourning sent me into the nursery,” Hugo said.
She lifted up her face and finally remembered what she meant to do when she silently asked him to stop the horse in the midst of a snowy forest. “Kiss me,” she whispered huskily.
His eyes lit.
“Not marriage,” she reminded him. But her lips had reached his, and the slow slide of her tongue against his sent her shivering against him, her hand closing around the chilly cashmere of his greatcoat.
The snow had no intent; it fell here or there without volition. But the two bodies straining together, warm mouths, clinging arms… there was a ferocious intent in them.
Ophelia felt her limbs weaken and desire riot through her, making her whimper into his mouth and move restlessly on the horse’s broad back, her legs tingling, her flesh tender and longing for caresses.
“I want you,” the man kissing her growled.
Peter never growled. He wouldn’t have known how. But somehow, she found herself kissing a man whose growl came naturally from his broad chest. She was in unchartered territory, Ophelia thought dimly.
If she stayed with this man, this duke, her peaceful, small life would never be the same. The cheerful tenor of days spent in the nursery would change.
He would want her with him, during the day. During the night.
She and Peter hadn’t shared a bedchamber; the idea was inconceivable. She had the strong feeling that this duke wouldn’t conceive of marriage any other way.
His mouth slanted down over hers, hunger speaking to her in the brush of his chilly cheek against hers.
“Getting cold,” she murmured some time later. It wasn’t true. She felt like a torch in his arms, as if she were burning at every pore. She could tumble into the snow and it would all melt beneath her.
She didn’t know what she wanted from him: but she did know one thing. In the wake of Peter’s death… this warmth was precious.
Worth chasing, preserving, exploring.
That low sound he made?
She wanted more of that.
“Did you say you’re cold?” he asked suddenly, a kiss later. His voice grated like gravel underfoot.
“Mmm,” Ophelia said. He pulled back, but that was all right. There was the enticing smooth skin of his neck, a powerful neck with a man’s sinews and a man’s strength under her lips.
He shifted, said something to the horse, and they were off again.
“Your hat is covered with snow,” she said, giggling.
Even with only light from the dim lantern, she could tell that his eyes were burning hot.
“It’s too cold and snowy for you to go home tonight,” she added.
She felt his reaction in his body, through her dress and cloak, and his shirt, waistcoat, coat, greatcoat…
“You could stay at my house if you wished,” she whispered. Between them, a snowflake spiraled down twisting in the air, melting as it reached their warm breaths.
“I do wish,” he stated.
Their eyes locked. She was unnerved by the invitation she had issued. Unnerved by the kisses she had given him. Unnerved by the images going through her head: the duke without clothes. Those broad shoulders bending over her as she lay on her back, quivering all over because this desire was scorching.
It was madness.
“My invitation does not mean marriage.”
Then, “In that case, I’m not certain I should stay the night, Ophelia. To my mind, bedding means marriage.”
“The barmaid?” she asked, eyebrow raised.
“I didn’t bed her. She sat on my lap, kissed me a few times, and ran off to take care of other tables.” He lowered his head and brushed his lips past hers. “Even drunk, I managed to remember that I had a family waiting at home.”
She dragged her hands down over taut muscles, thinking about men she’d seen working in fields of wheat. Men who weren’t peers. Men who didn’t have thin chests and slender calves.
The idea of going to bed with him was terrifying. And fabulous.
“I’ll spend the night with you, Ophelia, but I won’t make love to you until you promise to marry me.”
She made a disappointed sound before she could stop herself.
He laughed, a joyful noise that echoed off fir trees muffled in snow.
“You’re probably right,” she said, straightening her back and wrinkling her nose at him. “I have never had the ambition to become a fallen woman.” She couldn’t stop smiling, because she had the first inklings of that ambition in the last hour, and he knew it.
They rode out of the last line of trees, into the street. A link boy ran toward them, inadequately dressed, and fell in at the horse’s head, leading the way with his torch.
Another block and they would be home. Halfway, Bisquet came trundling down the street holding another torch, followed by two grooms.
Ophelia let male voices rise around her, the sounds urgent and yet peaceful. There was nothing men liked better than a small emergency. An obstacle that was easily overcome.
When the duke leapt off and then turned, his arms open, she slid down into his embrace, knowing that Bisquet was watching. Her grooms were there too, eyes wide.
Hugo didn’t care, even though he felt Ophelia’s body stiffen infinitesimally. He turned and began walking up the road with her in his arms, holding her and her skirts, and her cloak, and her huge muff.
“I can walk,” she said, nestled against his chest like an extraordinarily bedraggled bird.
“I like carrying you.”
“I can see a star,” she breathed, a few steps later.
He tipped his head back. “I see chimneys and snow.”
“It’s there. The snow is stopping.”
Up the stairs to an excellent townhouse: Sir Peter had left his wife more than comfortable. Hugo spared another charitable thought for the man and pushed it away.
A stout butler with anxious eyes stood with the door open. Ophelia was obviously surrounded by good servants, which said a great deal for her. Hugo smiled. “Good evening. As you can see, I have your mistress safe and sound, if wet and cold.”
“Fiddle,” Ophelia said, “this is the Duke of Lindow. We are going to put him up for the night.”
“Yes, Madam,” the butler murmured, bowing low.
“Good evening, Fiddle,” Hugo said. He strode into the spacious entry and put Ophelia on her feet. The next few moments were taken up by the removal of layers of damp clothing. His greatcoat had held off most of the water, but Ophelia’s velvet cloak had soaked through.
A maid took her up the stairs, and he followed the butler, who was solemnly offering a bath.
“Roberts can serve as your man,” the butler said, gesturing to a young footman. I shall have your clothing cleaned, pressed, and returned to you by morning. Would you like a light repast after your bath?”
Hugo had just made an unwelcome discovery.
This wasn’t his house. If Ophelia wished to sleep with him, she’d have to come to him. There was nothing he could do about it.
He was not a man who liked to be at another person’s mercy. But it was Ophelia, he reminded himself. He was at her mercy in more ways than one.
He took a bath and ate an excellent meal, bundled in a warm wrapper, sitting by a crackling fire. The butler withdrew, taking the footman with him, and the house fell into silence.
It had to be two in the morning. He pulled open the curtains. Below his window a street lamp shone through the snow, another sign of Sir Peter’s care for his property and his family. Snow still fell but lighter now, drifting and spinning rather than tumbling down.
He turned from the window, leaving the curtains open so that the room was lit with a soft, romantic glow, a fine setting for a seduction, if only a lady would join him. The bed was laid out in fine linen that smelled faintly of lemons and starch. The mattress was comfortable. A warming pan had taken the chill from the sheets.
It had everything to make a guest happy—except for one thing.
Which explained why he lay awake, staring into space, hoping.
Ophelia didn’t want to be a duchess, and he didn’t blame her. He had too damn many children, and yet he couldn’t bear the idea that even one might not have existed—and that included his orphaned ward, Parth.
He would marry Yvette again, knowing what lay ahead, to have their children.
Just as he was deciding to close his eyes and fight for Ophelia’s hand the next day, the door opened soundlessly.
He slid out of the bed faster than he’d ever done before and snatched her in his arms as an involuntary groan escape his lips. “Bloody hell,” he whispered into her hair, “I feel as if my blood went to a simmer hours ago, and I haven’t calmed down since.”
Ophelia’s hair slipped through his fingers as she tipped back her head. She’d washed out the powder, and strands of silk covered her shoulders.
“I want you,” she whispered. “But perhaps not as a husband. I haven’t decided that yet.”
“Am I on probation?” He wasn’t sure what to think about that. His body had no doubts. He could seduce her, bind her to him, show her the pleasures of making love, because it was possible that Sir Peter had not.
The ethical side of him didn’t feel happy about seduction without marriage.
“I’m a widow, Hugo,” she said, her eyes crinkling into a smile. “I can bed whomever I wish, and I choose you. Tonight.”
“What if I seduce you into marriage?”
She laughed, the sound lazy and sweet. “Do your worst, Your Grace. Do your worst.”
He had her on the bed in a minute and unwrapped her as carefully as if she were made of the finest china.
Ophelia hadn’t bothered to put on a nightgown. Why should she? Hers were all white and edged with lace, clothing that hinted at chastity and innocence. A woman bent on sin needn’t pretend to virtue.
That meant she got to see Hugo’s eyes darken and his jaw clench as he pulled open her dressing gown.
She followed his eyes down. She was a creamy, curvy type of woman, whose breasts had become even more lavish after nursing Viola.
The desperation in his eyes fired her blood—past a simmer, straight to a boil that made her shift on the bed, pink rising in her cheeks, her hands reaching for him.
He moved back before she touched him and pulled off his wrapper. She caught a flash of hard male body, a slice of golden skin, and then his mouth crashed down on hers and his body lowered with hardly more grace.
His weight made a sob rise in her throat. There was something so comforting about being surrounded by warm strength. The feeling of a man’s body on top of hers was marvelous.
He began kissing the side of her neck, so she turned her head and ran her hands over powerful shoulders.
She felt untethered, as if she were held to the bed only by the weight of his body. How could she have forgotten the delicious feeling of skin roughed by hair, hard muscled thighs, and hard other things? Hugo rolled against her and her arms tightened as her belly clenched. A puff of air escaped her lips.
“Tell me if I’m too heavy,” he murmured.
“I like it,” she said. She almost stopped there, but this man wasn’t her husband—and she didn’t want another husband. With a lover, she could be absolutely honest. So she kept going. “I like the way our knees knocked together, and the fact your arse is extremely muscled.”
His grin was pure mischief, a man’s wicked fun, not a boy’s.
She let her fingers dance over his bottom, making him shiver. “I would never have mentioned that word to Peter.”
“Could we forget the word ‘Peter’ and keep “arse” instead?” He pulled back, coming up on his knees so she could see his face. He was older than Peter had been, with traces of laugher around his eyes.
“You don’t fancy comparisons?” She reached up and traced the amused arch of his lip.
“Not allowed in polite society,” he stated, with all the calm authority of a duke.
“Are there any other rules I should know about extra-marital congress?”
“No thinking. Thinking is as bad as mentioning former spouses.”
“I can’t stop thinking,” Ophelia said. “I think all the time.” A little panic slid down her spine. She pictured the way she and Peter had made love. Above all, they were courteous and kind with each other. Of course they had been thinking during the act.
She had constantly thought about what Peter would like her to do next. She had the strong feeling he had done the same. That’s why their marital life had been so successful.
But just as that panic rose, it dissipated. She wasn’t marrying the duke. What they did in bed this evening wouldn’t set a pattern for future years to come.
“I will try to make you stop thinking,” Hugo said. His voice rumbled, confident and happy at the same time. “Making love is a time to be in the flesh.”
Ophelia wrinkled her nose. “Is that some sort of pun on intimacy?”
“In your flesh?” His eyes danced with laughter when he leaned over and kissed her, and somehow joy came with his touch.
Ophelia didn’t pull back until she decided that if they didn’t move on to being “in the flesh,” she might burst. Her insides were tightening; no, all her muscles were tight. Every time he thrust his tongue between her lips, her heart beat faster, and her hands clutched him more tightly. Her core was aching for him in a way that she didn’t remember.
Because it had been so long: that was the only reason she didn’t remember. Hugo would never succeed in making her stop thinking. Thinking was what she did best.
Another twinge of anxiety went through her. Did she even understand how to do a bedding that had nothing to do with marital satisfaction, or procreation? One that was for nothing more than personal pleasure?
“Are there any other rules?” she asked, surprised by the hoarse tone in her voice,
“Experience suggests that I have energetic seed, so I will do my best to protect you.” Hugo leaned over and picked up something that Ophelia instantly recognized, because Maddie had told her about it. The object had the appearance of a sausage without filling, oddly adorned on one end with a pink ribbon.
She wrinkled her nose. “I surmise that is a condom.”
Hugo shrugged and dropped it back on the bedside table. “We’ll have no use for it unless you promise to marry me.”
“What?” Ophelia’s eyes caught on his chest. He had a delicious set of indentations that led right down his torso. Muscles, presumably. And he had a trail of hair that arrowed down to his… And her eyes stopped again, lower.
The duke was a great deal larger than Peter had been. In fact, he was of a size that she considered—though she had never considered such a thing before—to be obstructive. Perhaps impossible.
His eyes followed hers. “Yes, there’s that.”
“I see,” she said carefully.
Hugo moved backwards, and her eyes moved with him. “It’s not that interesting,” he said.
“Actually, it is.”
“Same general shape as most men’s, from what I’ve seen.”
He ran his hands down her front, his fingers pausing on her nipples, sweeping on and around her sides to her back. “Let’s go back to discussing arses.” His hands curved under her body, around her bottom, and a hoarse sound escaped his throat. “Yours is marvelously round. Perfect, in fact.”
Ophelia’s mind had split in two. Part of her brain was busily informing the rest of her that this behavior was utterly inappropriate. She couldn’t take her eyes off of that part of him that rose proudly, bobbing in the air. The sight of him made the melting sensation in her stomach increase. Probably that was sinful. Certainly it was embarrassing.
The other part of her mind suggested she tuck her arms behind her head, so she did, causing her bosom to rise into the air. He wasn’t the only one who had impressive…parts.
She did it.
“Are you commanding my attention?” Hugo inquired.
“Yes,” Ophelia said, breaking into a giggle. “This is so funny,” she added, allowing herself to say precisely what she was thinking. “I never imagined laughing in bed.”
“Huh.” Hugo slid his hands to her front and then they curved around her breasts. “I don’t feel like laughing,” he said, voice rough. “I don’t mind if you do, Ophelia. Laugh as much as you like.”
Ophelia sucked in air, all impulse to giggle leaving her. His lips drifted across the curve of her right breast, lingered just long enough to make her quiver, and then closed over her nipple.
Sound rasped through her throat and her hands flew from behind her head, winding into his hair, holding him in place. Not that he showed any particular wish to move. For long minutes his mouth caressed the curve of one breast or the other, returning to her nipples.
And Ophelia just let it happen. Behind her closed eyes, the world receded until nothing existed but a hot, heady joy that melted into desperation. Reason and logic floated into the dark. Desire was like hot tea on a cold day: she actually felt it slip through her body, warming her in places that hadn’t felt frozen.
But had been, obviously.
Gradually, she began feeling slightly anxious, nervousness thrumming alongside desire. She didn’t want to orient herself in the real world. She wanted to stay in the warm darkness, her body twisting under his caresses, low moans coming through her lips.
Peter would have stopped long ago, moving onto the next, for lack of a better word, activity. Surely Hugo was growing bored and would rather be doing something else. Something less one-sided. Unfortunately, she was selfish. Self-interest choked the words in her throat.
Instead she clutched his hair more tightly, embarrassing noises flying from her mouth every time he tightened his lips or curled his tongue around her nipple.
A shrill inner voice made itself heard. She and Peter had been considerate bed partners, and after hearing stories from other women as a young bride, she had redoubled her efforts to express her appreciation for his kindness.
Yet here she was, taking without giving.
She forced her eyes open. Hugo had her breasts plumped in both hands. Far from looking bored, he was suckling one nipple with an intensity that made another moan escape her lips. He looked as if he couldn’t stop himself.
Thoughts were going every which way in her head. A streak of pleasure was followed by a panicked protest that she ought to do the same for him. The breath caught in her throat, because he did something—that thing—with his tongue and fire streaked down her legs. She couldn’t focus on his expression because she kept closing her eyes. Her toes curled and her legs shook and she almost felt as if…which was absurd.
Her eyes flew open again and she craned her neck. He didn’t show any signs of getting bored. But he must be getting bored. And she…well, she was ready for what came next. A good deal readier than she sometimes was.
Hugo lifted his head, making her hands fall from his hair, and met her eyes. “Stop thinking.” His tone wasn’t that of a duke accustomed to obedience. It was the growl of a man in the grip of pure lust.
Ophelia blinked at him. “I was just…I don’t want you to grow bored.”
Hugo shook his head, and broke into a chuckle.
“I thought you didn’t laugh in bed,” she said, her mouth curving up. Instinctively she reached out to run her hands down his forearms. They were powerful, muscled. The arms of a man who could protect anyone, a child, Viola…her mind wandered away from thoughts of her child.
Ophelia didn’t need protecting and neither did Viola.
But Ophelia needed more of him. Fierce, base desire roared through her body.
Hugo reared up on his knees and shook his head. Her eyes were drawn precisely where he, apparently, wanted her to look.
“If a man is bored, what happens to his cock?”
Ophelia managed to stop a flinch. She was a widow, not a maiden. She had to get used to bold speaking and words that were considered fit only for sinful congress. Because that’s what she was engaging in: sinful congress.
He reached down and ran a hand over his private parts. Ophelia watched with utter fascination at the way his hand clenched, even twisted a little. The head emerged from his hand looking red and–
Ophelia lost her train of thought again.
“It would wilt,” Hugo said, because she hadn’t answered.
“I understand,” Ophelia said, though she didn’t. Not really.
“I was determined to find a third wife who was experienced in bed sports,” Hugo said conversationally.
“I haven’t promised to be your wife!” She frowned at him. “I am experienced. I mothered a child, in case you need a reminder.”
“My first two wives were both inexperienced, to say the least. They both got the idea right away, though.”
Then he winced, because presumably he remembered just how expert his second wife turned out to be. Or how voracious. Or…
Presumably she ought to be solemn and sympathetic, but Ophelia found herself giggling instead. “I guess your teaching was a mite too successful the second time around. Oh! I can’t believe I said that. I’m so sorry!”
Thankfully, Hugo’s mouth eased into a smile. “Either that, or the golden locks of a Prussian count cast mine into the shade.”
Ophelia didn’t need to glance at his thick head of hair to know which she preferred. “If we’re not discussing my previous spouse, oughtn’t yours to be taboo as well?”
“Certainly in the bed,” Hugo said “Where was I?” He reached out, his eyes gleaming.
“You truly don’t mind?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“This,” she said with a wave that vaguely indicated everything above her waist. “I thought you’d want to do other things.”
“Have you ever heard of the poet Robert Herrick?”
Ophelia shook her head.
Hugo curved his hands around her breasts again. “Display thy breasts, my Julia—well, have to change that line, won’t we? Display thy breasts, my Ophelia, there let me behold that circummortal purity.”
Ophelia giggled, looking down at his hands and her breasts. “Circum-what?”
“Circummortal. No idea what it means. I’d suggest ‘dazzling’ in your case. Perhaps ‘round’.” He pushed her breasts together and they plumped up. “Because your breasts are dazzlingly round. And God, so dazzlingly delectable.” He lowered his head and whatever he said next was muffled by her skin.
Time passed. Ophelia decided to stop wondering about what he was thinking. Peter never— No. More generally, she doubted that many men thought about poetry while they were in bed.
Hugo’s fingers were making their way down her sides, creeping across her stomach. But all the time he kept going from one breast to the other until her legs were trembling. To her shock, her whole body was damp, her hair sticking to her brow. She couldn’t stop moving, either, wiggling under his weight, trying to silently suggest that he direct his attention elsewhere.
“May I?” Hugo asked sometime later.
She raised her head and stared at him. His eyes gleamed at her, desirous. He didn’t look like a duke any longer.
But that was all the intelligent thought she could muster. She’d never appreciated her breasts before. No, that wasn’t true. She had been inordinately proud of them for producing milk on command when Viola needed it.
This was different. Every time he tightened his lips around one of her nipples, heat connected to far-flung parts of her body, making her shiver.
“May you what?” she asked belatedly, hoping that he meant he would take that large…tool of his and do what God had designed it to do.
“Kiss you,” he said, with such a sweet expression that her lips shaped a smile without conscious thought. In one smooth movement, he moved up so his elbows were on either side of her ribs. They fell into a kiss. A different kiss than she’d ever experienced, because she had never, ever felt a shivery excitement that tightened her chest and made her entangle her legs with his like a wanton.
Her hips couldn’t stop arching toward his. His response was to kiss her more deeply, hovering over her, kissing her with the same ferocious attentiveness that he gave her breasts. As if there wasn’t something better to get to.
Finally she had to ask.
She pulled back.
“Phee?” His voice rasped and when she put her hand on his chest, it was not heaving…but his heart was pounding.
“Aren’t you wishful to go on to the rest?” She couldn’t think how else to phrase it.
“Because I haven’t agreed to marry you?”
“Yes and no.” He started dotting kisses on her face. “I’m enamored. I’m metaphorically at your feet. I don’t want to muck this up. I want to know everything about you. I could happily do nothing but kiss your breasts for hours.”
She couldn’t think what to say to that.
“Except I’d probably spend in your bedsheets,” he added, in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable.
Ophelia shook her head. “I don’t think—”
“You’re not ready for this?”
“Is that terrible? I’m sorry.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m supposed to be a merry widow, and I was feeling…but this is just all so new.”
He brushed his lips over hers. “Absolutely fine. Deliciously fine. You let me kiss your breasts. Bloody hell, the man who wasn’t grateful for that would be dead. Why do you look so worried?”
“It’s like…it feels as if the maid has served tea but no biscuits,” she said, trying to explain.
“I don’t want biscuits,” Hugo said. He leaned toward her again, face intent, and kissed her precisely on the nose, on each eye. “Tea, glorious tea, is every Englishman’s delight. I never touch biscuits. Wouldn’t, even if you begged me.”
A smile curved on Ophelia’s lips despite herself. “Not even if I begged you?”
“Never.” His expression took on the stoic heroism of a British officer facing a French battalion. “Tea is enough to sustain me forever.”
“Huh.” Ophelia’s mind slipped away again, into a memory of her marriage—but she pushed that away. No thinking of Peter here, in bed.
Instead she pushed herself up against the headboard. She was still quivering, aware of a disturbing throbbing sensation between her legs, sweat behind her knees, a fast heartbeat. Evidence that—
Hugo shifted and moved to sit beside her. His legs were very hairy, his skin a darker color than hers. Obeying impulse, she leaned over and trailed her fingers up his leg from the knee on up. She avoided the…avoided the private part of him, which was standing up in a very public fashion.
Her caress had an effect on it, and she heard a muffled sound in Hugo’s throat.
“Aren’t you going to put it to rest?” she asked, feeling her ears grow hot with embarrassment.
“To rest?” He turned, his face alive with pure delight. “Darling!”
“What?” she asked. “I’m sorry if I used the wrong terminology.”
“I rather like the idea that I have control over my privates.”
“Not around you.”
Ophelia shook her head. The night was getting odder and odder, so odd that she could scarcely remember how it began. “I’m not that sort of woman.”
“I do not think you are a loose woman, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“I mean that I’m not the sort of woman a man loses his head over.” She took a shuddering breath. “In fact, we should be honest with each other.” She looked at him. “I don’t know why you’re in my bed, but it hasn’t much to do with me, has it?”
He looked at her, every inch of his expression conveying a stubborn belief that it did, in fact, have a great deal to do with her.
“I’m not the sort of woman who drives a man to desperation,” she said, trying again. “I’m short and fairly round.”
His eyes shifted to her breasts and from the corner of her eye she saw his tool jerk forward, as if it was volunteering an opinion on her roundness.
“You seem not to mind that,” she added.
“Well, my point is that there are many roundish women in London.”
“They aren’t you.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I’m getting to,” Hugo said. “I like everything I’ve seen so far.” He grinned, just in case she missed the innuendo. “I see your point, though.”
“You do?” It wasn’t entirely welcome.
“We need to get to know each other better. May I spend the day with you?”
“Here? Why would you stay here?”
“To get to know you better,” he said promptly. His smile had a fiendish kind of pleasure to it, a ridiculously boyish stubbornness for a grown man.
“You’re a duke,” she said. “You have better things to do.”
He paused just long enough to give a semblance of having thought it over. “Can’t think of anything.”
“What do you mean by ‘getting to know you’?” she asked. Suspicions crowded into her head. After all, she was sitting in bed with him.
“Go riding together?”
“In the snow?”
“I’m trying to remember how people become friends,” he said. “It’s been years since I’ve had much to do with society, and all I remember of Marie, my first wife, was dancing, flirting, and kissing her in dark corridors.”
She elbowed him. “Remember the rule?”
“No spouses in bed,” he said obediently. “I won’t tell you how Yvette and I got to know each other.”
His voice cooled, just enough so that she noticed. She hadn’t known his second duchess but she had heard gossip, after she fled the country. The interesting thing was that Hugo apparently thought Yvette had been a virgin when they married.
Fairness intervened. Rumors were no more than rumors.
“We often read aloud to each other,” she said, avoiding Peter’s name.
“Are you a reader?”
“I am reading a book of reflections,” he said. “Translated from French.”
“Reflections on what?”
She glanced at him and miraculously managed not to roll her eyes. “You’re jesting.”
“Unfortunately not,” Hugo said amiably. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested.”
A flare of temper went up Ophelia’s back. She hated that men made assumptions about what would and wouldn’t interest a woman.
She glanced at him; he had picked up her left hand and appeared to be examining her fingers. She drew her hand away. “Why wouldn’t I be interested?”
She kept her tone sweet, but Hugo’s eyes shot to hers. Perhaps being married twice had taught him something about women.
“The full title is something like this: Reflections upon Ridicule, or What it is that Makes a Man Ridiculous, and the Means to Avoid it.”
“Are you learning from the author’s reflections?” Miraculously, she managed to keep her tone from implying that it was too late for whatever lessons he garnered.
Hugo sighed. “No, it’s hopelessly foolish. I lost a bet and my sister demanded I read it, by way of punishment.”
“Your twin sister?” Ophelia was aware there was a thread of wistfulness in her voice.
“Are you an only child?”
She nodded. “Much beloved and cossetted, but the only one.”
“My twin sister, Lady Knowe, does not care for cities, so she resides in the country.” He paused. “Are you greatly enamored of London?”
“I am not,” Ophelia replied. “Peter loved the Season, though. In particular, he loved to dance.”
Hugo winced. “I’m not a very good dancer. My sister says that I resemble a tree forced to bend in a high wind.”
“Do you creak?” Ophelia asked, laughing.
“I clomp around the ballroom, looking faintly horrified.” Hugo propped himself up on his elbow. “Do you float about like thistledown?”
Ophelia moved her shoulders uncomfortably. “I’m a good dancer.” Then she added, in a rush, “I think that’s why Peter asked for my hand in marriage. Besides the fact that our parents approved, I mean.”
Hugo raised an eyebrow. “An odd qualifier.” His eyes drifted down her body. “There are so many reasons that a man would want to marry you, Phee. Do you mind if I call you that?”
“I suppose not. How did you know to use it?”
“Maddie? Oh, is that how you knew to climb into my carriage?” Ophelia would have frowned at the idea her cousin shared her name and sent the duke out of the ballroom to find her…except a small clear voice in the back of her head informed her that Maddie had done her a great favor.
“No,” Hugo said. “Maddie refused to tell me your last name; she merely referred to you as Phee and informed me that you were not a governess, and I should not pursue you. I deduced that the beautiful, mysterious lady I was determined to meet was called Phoebe.”
“Ophelia didn’t occur to you?”
“A somewhat lachrymose name,” Hugo pointed out. “Perhaps I shall call you Phoebe…such a cheerful name.”
“I like Ophelia,” she said.
She felt a flood of relief that she had been right to turn down the duke’s offer of marriage. He was such a dukelike man, renaming her because he didn’t like the literary connotations of her name. “I think it’s unlikely that I would take my own life, the way Shakespeare’s Ophelia did, based on my name. If my parents had named me after Lady Macbeth, would you expect me to turn to murder?”
“What was Lady Macbeth’s name?”
She frowned. “I don’t think anyone knows.”
“Names are important,” Hugo said, toying with a lock of her hair. “I’d bet you anything that her name wasn’t ‘Beth’.”
“Beth? Why not Beth?”
“Because Beth is a timid name.”
Ophelia shook her head. “That’s cracked.”
“Names are important,” Hugo insisted. “I named all my children after warriors.”
“Warriors? All eight of them?”
Hugo’s mouth twisted. “Yes, in fact. My first three are Horatius, Roland, Alaric, now at school along with Parth, who was first my ward and became my son when his parents died. He too is named after a warrior.”
“Did the naming work?”
“In a manner of speaking. They’re ungodly naughty. Satanic imps. Especially, I have to say, Parth. He eggs on the others to worse misdeeds. Besides the older boys, Yvette and I had Leonidas, Boadicea, Alexander, and Joan.”
“You named your daughter Boadicea?” Ophelia shook her head. “Why did your wife allow it? Do you know how often people have commented on my unfortunate name?”
“Boadicea was a great warrior,” Hugo protested.
“Insanity,” Ophelia muttered. Definitely she was right not to marry him, if only on the basis of crimes of nomenclature.
“I have to admit that Boadicea has threatened to eviscerate anyone who calls her by her given name, so we call her Betsy.”
“Are your second four as naughty as the first round?” Ophelia asked.
“Very naughty, especially Betsy. All but Joan. Joan is sweet and extremely shy.” His brows drew together. “She’s the reason I came to London to find a wife, actually.”
“How old is she?”
“Two years old.”
“Exactly the same as my Viola!” Ophelia beamed at him. “Viola is not shy in the least, though.”
“Viola is not a warrior’s name,” the duke murmured. He leaned over and brushed a kiss on her lips.
Oddly enough, their conversation felt more intimate than their kisses, though Ophelia didn’t shape that thought until she came back to herself enough to realize that Hugo was now lying partially on top of her. He’d returned to her breasts and was lavishing them with attention.
“You–you look as if you would never stop,” she whispered.
“I could die here at your breasts, and I’d be happy,” he said, raising his head.
“That’s a very odd thing to say. A very odd thing to think.”
“I wouldn’t want to die anywhere if Viola wasn’t near me, if I couldn’t say goodbye to her.”
Hugo dropped a last affectionate kiss on the curve of Ophelia’s breast and moved to sit beside her again. “You are a marvelous mother.”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Why you followed me, because you want a mother for your children, for Joan in particular.”
She gave him a faint smile. “All evidence, including your own statements, is against you. But I don’t want to mother anyone other than Viola. I am not the wife for you.”
The duke nodded, and something in Ophelia eased. He accepted her decision.
“I might have an affaire with you,” she said. “But only if you understand that there is but one outcome, when we separate and return to our lives. Since you need to find a mother—and I agree that a two-year-old girl is a good reason—we should part now. Or at least, in the morning.”
“I gather that the strongest relationship you’ve had in your life is with Viola?”
Ophelia pushed herself up against the headboard. “Viola means more to me than anything or anyone on earth. In general, I believe a mother’s love is commonly referred to as the strongest attachment a person can feel.”
He was silent a moment. “Not having been a mother, I cannot dispute your feeling. My strongest bond has been with Marie. I love my children beyond measure. But they are adamantly their own. Marie was mine, and I was hers.”
“That’s a lovely sentiment.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t a sentiment. It was a rock-hard fact that was the most important thing in the world to me while she lived. In some ways, it still is.”
Another good reason not to become his duchess. Ophelia barely stopped herself from patting his hand. “I’m happy that you had such a passionate bond with your wife, your first wife.”
“I was very lucky. I walked into a room and saw Marie; I instantly knew that I would love her the rest of my life.”
Ophelia leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Does anyone know what a romantic spirit lurks behind the Duke of Lindow’s aristocratic countenance?”
“I don’t give a damn if they do.” He said it simply, without shame.
Many men would have been mortified to admit to feeling so strongly. Certainly Peter would have been startled and annoyed had he been struck by such a ferocious emotion.
“I felt exactly that way when I saw Viola,” Ophelia said, pulling up her knees and wrapping her arms around them. “She was wrinkled and her head had the oddest shape. I thought she would be deformed for life. And yet I loved her so much that my heart didn’t seem to have enough space for the emotion.”
“When you have another child, your heart will magically find room. Horatius is a pompous boy, and yet I cannot stop myself from adoring him. Alaric is wild and curious; North is a philosopher at heart and a devil-may-care horseman by day; Parth is determined to be the richest man in England. The rest tease him for his ignoble goal, but he doesn’t give a damn.”
“And the others?”
“I don’t know them as well yet,” Hugo said. “We fathers aren’t encouraged to spend time with very young children. Marie spent a great deal of time in the nursery, so I would go there to find her. These days, I visit the nursery once a day.”
He frowned. “All the same, I know the boys much better than Yvette’s children, because she didn’t believe in long nursery visits. She thought it disrupted children’s routine and might confuse them.”
“A man doesn’t need permission from his wife to visit his own children,” Ophelia said, her tone rather tart, if truth be told.
Hugo leaned against the headboard. “I do visit, but very briefly, I’m afraid. I’m often very busy. I’m not offering that by way of excuse, but virtually every day brings some complication.”
“What sort of things do you do?” Ophelia asked. “Peter—” She caught herself. “I have been caring for my estate, which is small, of course. It takes me a morning a week, at most.”
“I am the judge for my duchy, which encompasses three villages. Two hundred people work in and around the castle, and then I own a townhouse, and an estate in Scotland. And a few other concerns.”
Ophelia nodded. “It does sound like a great deal of work.”
“Not enough to make up for the fact that I don’t know my four younger children as well as I should.”
“That is also true.” Ophelia kept her tone even, because Peter hated nothing more than disapproval from her. A spouse, he always said, was the bulwark against the world’s unkindnesses and should never be critical.
Hugo just nodded. “What do you suggest I do?”
“Spend part of every day with them. Not just a visit to the nursery. Do things together.”
“They are very small,” Hugo objected. “Joan cries every time she sees me.”
“That must make you feel terrible.”
“I would like to say yes,” he said. “I want you to think—well, to admire me. But to be honest, I always thought that at some point she would stop crying. Perhaps by the time she was able to carry on a conversation. Joan’s nanny reports that she speaks only three or four words.”
“Joan has her own nanny?”
He nodded. “The two younger children have nannies, Mrs. Banks and Mrs. Winkle. There’s a governess, Miss Trelawny, for the older children. And some nursemaids, Myrtle, Flora, and Betty.”
“Viola doesn’t have a nanny,” Ophelia confessed. She felt even guiltier upon hearing about all the people helping the duke’s children become civilized adults. “I only have a nursemaid. Of course I must acquire a governess.”
“Not if you don’t want to,” Hugo said.
“I am a lady, and Viola must be a lady too. What if she thinks that one’s mother is always there to play with?” She peeked at Hugo from under her lashes. “Sometimes we play together.”
He blinked, as if he had no idea what she was talking about.
“I cut out houses from foolscap. People too. Sometimes horses, though I’m rubbish at cutting around their legs.”
“She plays with paper?”
“She does crumple them,” Ophelia said with a wry smile. “But not before I tell her a story about the people who live in the house.”
“I can’t tell stories,” Hugo said. His tone was final.
Ophelia sighed. Peter had been given to statements like that as well. Perhaps it was a male failing.
“I could try it,” Hugo said, surprising her.
“You wouldn’t be embarrassed?”
Astonishment crossed his eyes but he kept his answer simple. “No.”
Of course he wouldn’t be. Dukes were probably never embarrassed. Why should they be? Ophelia fidgeted, thinking of the way her skin crawled with embarrassment when she thought about a nanny entering her nursery and seeing the way she played with Viola.
“If you were my duchess, you needn’t be embarrassed either,” Hugo said, exhibiting a nimble ability to turn the conversation to his advantage. “Duchesses set the fashion; they don’t follow it.”
“I have no wish to set fashion,” Ophelia stated.
“Your dress last night was very elegant, and so was your carriage.”
“I ordered both because I enjoyed the designs, not because I wanted them seen or copied by others.”
“You are already a duchess,” Hugo murmured, leaning over to kiss her cheek. “Would you be offended if I mentioned that I haven’t had a cockstand this long for years? Since I was a young man.”
Cockstand? Ophelia tried out the word in her head and decided it was useful. “Is that a compliment?”
“Of a sort.”
“Would you like me to return to my bedchamber?”
“Absolutely not. Unless you wish to go.”
Ophelia thought about that for a moment. This was a night stolen out of time, in a way. She had decided not to marry the duke, and he wouldn’t bed her without that promise. So they were at an impasse.
“We could be friends,” she said, blurting it out.
“We can’t be spouses, because I don’t wish to marry you. We can’t be lovers, because you don’t want to bed me without my promise.”
“Oh, I want to,” the duke growled.
Ophelia waved her hand, ignoring the fact that her body clenched at the rough desire in his voice. “You know what I mean.”
“Not lovers, not spouses.” His voice was mournful. “Friends? I don’t want to be your friend, Ophelia.”
That stung, but why would he want to be friends? She had been at risk, for just a moment, of forgetting the real reason he had singled her out: because she was a good mother. Because he had children whom he didn’t know, by the sounds of it.
“I understand,” she said, keeping her expression absolutely even. She’d learned that trick during her marriage, because of Peter’s dislike of disapproval. She’d practiced in a glass until she knew the exact arrangement of her features that portrayed benign interest without judgment.
Without the flash of real anger that she felt inside. She was good enough to kiss and fondle, good enough to marry, but not good enough to be friends with?
“I didn’t say that correctly,” Hugo said.
“I think your point is an excellent one,” Ophelia said. “Men and women are rarely friends, as I understand it.”
“I am friends with my twin sister.”
“Marvelous,” Ophelia said, another stab of resentment going through her.
“What are you thinking?”
“I am wondering why a man who has so much has any need of a wife. You have all those children, and a sister to boot.” She colored and looked down at the expression in his eyes. “Besides that, I mean.”
“I am lucky,” he offered.
“I think it’s very interesting that you summon up my wealth as my family.”
Ophelia forced a smile. This had been pleasurable, and startling, but now she wanted to be alone. A bone-deep melancholy was building up in her heart: a feeling of missing Peter. That was the problem with being widowed: grief wasn’t something one got over with a year of mourning, or even two.
“I think perhaps we should sleep alone,” she said.
“Most women think that the Duchy of Lindow is my greatest gift,” Hugo said, taking her right hand and bringing it to his lips. “Power equals money, after all. The holder of a dukedom is all-powerful in a society like ours.”
Ophelia tugged her hand free. “You seem to me an excellent representative of that power and money.” She swung her legs over the bed, reached over, and picked up her robe. She didn’t mind sitting in bed without clothing, but she wasn’t going to stand up naked. The light cotton brushed over her nipples, sending a thrill of feeling down her body.
“I’ve mucked it up, haven’t I?” Hugo said, moving off his side of the bed.
“There was nothing to muck up,” Ophelia replied. She walked around the end of the bed. “I have much enjoyed our time together. I truly have.” She reached out and caught his hands in hers. “This has been a pleasure.”
“Ophelia,” the duke said.
She shook her head. “I do not wish to be a duchess, Your Grace.”
“May I stay tomorrow?”
“I think not.” She kept her voice even, without a hint of what was really in her mind. There was no reason to spend time together if they couldn’t even be friends.
“Your Grace.” She struck just the right tone. Her voice was firm, reproving but not overly proud.
He shook his head. “Phee, do you know how many people say no to me?”
“If you give your two-year-old a chance, I expect she will startle you in that respect,” Ophelia told him. “Good night, Your Grace.”
She left before he could answer.
Hugo fell back onto the bed, feeling as if he’d been struck—not for the first time that evening.
She’d said no.
She meant it, too. Marie had played games with him, but from the moment they met, she’d been as interested as he was. After that, it was a matter of mating. He flaunted his dukedom and his body, like Fitzy, the peacock at Lindow Castle, spread his tail. Marie pretended to run away, enjoying every moment of the game.
They had been young and beautiful. He had been already a duke, feeling no real grief for the father he had barely known. She had been the treasured eldest child of a marquess, who had excelled at everything she chose to do—including marriage.
Marie had been unbearably dear to him, partly because she was so direct, so uncomplicated. She was a child of laughter and joy, who loved him, and loved their children.
Ophelia was far more complex. She had grieved and was still grieving, unless he was wrong. She had faced life alone—in more than one way. She and her husband had been partners, but not true lovers. Not the way he and Marie had been.
That thought made his heart ache for her.
But she didn’t need or want his pity.
Somewhere in that conversation he’d gone badly wrong. He was banished from the house, and his chance of winning her hand had diminished.
Think as hard as he might, he couldn’t put his finger on what he had said wrong.
In the morning, the young footman returned his clothing, immaculately cleaned and pressed. His sword made an appearance as well, and Hugo buckled it on without inquiring how the coachman explained possession of the duke’s weapon.
Fiddle ushered him into a charming breakfast room and informed him that his ladyship always broke bread with her daughter in the morning. Lady Astley’s carriage was at his disposal, and Fiddle would order it prepared to return him to his townhouse after the meal.
Ophelia must be in the nursery. Hugo would be damned if he’d leave without saying goodbye.
He finished the meal without haste, talking to Fiddle of this and that, learning far more of the household than the butler imagined he had revealed. Ophelia’s eggs were brought from her country house, as was her meat, “and as much produce as Lady Astley deems practical,” the butler said, more than a hint of pride in his voice.
Fiddle was brother to Ophelia’s coachman in that: Bisquet made it clear that he was proud to serve his mistress, and he would lay down his life to protect her.
Hugo’s servants were loyal too. But he had the feeling that they were loyal to the dukedom. They enjoyed wearing livery. His butler, Prism, was devoted to the family as well as to the duchy and his position as head butler of several estates. But most of his servants were proud of being part of the dukedom, not of serving Hugo himself.
Ophelia was not only complicated; she had built a life for herself that he would be hard-pressed to match. No one knew better than he that the life of a duke or duchess could be a tedious, even lonely one.
Everything he did was considered interesting. If he went to chapel, by the time the service ended, there would be a throng of people outside, waiting for him to throw alms, or simply gawking at his clothing. At his carriage.
At his children.
Could he bring Ophelia into that fishbowl? He looked around him. The breakfast room was painted pale blue, with lovely plaster arabesques covering the ceiling. Every piece of furniture was exquisite, and each one spoke to Ophelia’s taste.
In contrast, Lindow Castle was a hodgepodge, a huge, sprawling mangle of towers and wings, with secret passageways, suits of armor, dusty tapestries, endless staircases.
A stuffed alligator resided in the drawing room, and their peacock screamed warnings at any time of day or night.
Marie had been raised to be a member of the aristocracy. She hadn’t blinked an eye at miles of bookshelves, tottering retainers grown old in service to the duchy, fourteen sets of china.
She had created a home for her husband and child: a beautiful, graceful place.
His heart settled like a stone. He couldn’t do this to her. She would come to blame, if not hate him. He had been spoiled by the fact that Marie instantly responded to his proposal with enthusiasm—but also by the fact that she was raised to be a duchess.
Her mother had accompanied her to the castle and lived there for the first six months of their married life, making certain that Marie successfully took over the household. Marie had dived into all of it with joy and was never more happy than when she announced she was carrying a child a month after their wedding (in truth, she must have carried Horatius up the aisle, which spoke to their mutual enthusiasm about the marriage).
By contrast, Ophelia was enthusiastic about bedding, but not about him. He frowned, not sure what happened…hadn’t they discussed being friends? He didn’t want to be friends with her.
He wanted to be her lover.
But now he had the idea that she didn’t even wish to be friends.
In the end, he didn’t storm the nursery. He sent his gratitude by way of her butler, accepting Fiddle’s explanation that Lady Astley never received calls before noon.
He returned to his townhouse and fell blindly into the work involved in running one of the largest duchies in all England. He went to Parliament. He went to Court, registering that Ophelia would probably loathe the pomp and circumstance. Or would she? He hardly knew her. He went to the Opera, noticing how every member of the audience swiveled his or her head when he entered the Lindow box.
He put on his pink suit and went to another ball. Ophelia did not appear, although he surreptitiously watched the door all night.
He danced with an eligible daughter of a marquess, who giggled and told him that she loved kittens more than life itself. He translated kittens into children, bowed, and walked off without another glance.
He danced with the dowager Countess of Webbel, who told him, in so many words, that she was too old for children. She cast condescending looks in all directions when he danced with her for the second time and then made the fatal error of asking in a sweetly poison tone about the whereabouts of his sister, Lady Knowe. His twin was part of his household; the boys thought of her as their mother. He would divorce again before he wedded a woman who would drive his sister away.
The following day he went back to court, and Her Highness graciously introduced him to one of her ladies-in-waiting, a dowager marchioness. Lady Ethel Woolhastings had to be fifty, far older than he.
But she didn’t look fifty; she might easily pass for forty in candlelight. She had kept her figure, and her bodice admirably displayed her bosom’s girlish shape.
What’s more, she knew how to care for a noble household. She met his eyes with understanding of his situation; she could and would usher his daughters through the Season. Her own two daughters were happily married.
She was even nice.
She was perfect.
He wrote his sister with the news that he’d found precisely the woman whom she bade him to marry.
He escorted Ethel to a concert at St. Paul’s, since she was fond of orchestral music. He wasn’t, but it didn’t matter. He met her daughters, who were unexceptional, well-mannered young women.
She suggested that he send his daughters to an elite seminary in London. “Children,” she said, “thrive in groups, and the idea that children of the nobility do best with a governess is an old-fashioned idea.” He agreed, thinking that Betsy, in particular, would enjoy school.
He decided to ask her to marry him.
When the duke sent a note the afternoon following their snowy adventure, accompanied by a bunch of exquisite hot-house posies, Ophelia asked Fiddle to have them put in a vase in the morning room, and then changed her mind and brought them to her bedchamber.
Of course, Hugo wouldn’t pay her a call. It would be vastly improper. She had refused him, roundly and without hesitation.
He needed a wife.
Still, when the snow was cleared away and Maddie appeared, full of news about the duke’s exploits around London, she felt unaccountably disappointed.
It was absurd—as absurd as the fact that she still found herself lying awake at night, her light nightdress feeling like a wool blanket, her body prickling with unusual and unwelcome desire.
By three weeks later, it seemed that His Grace had found his next duchess.
“Ethel Woolhastings,” Maddie reported, wrinkling her nose. “Really, I would have thought he could do better. She’s so old. And so…Well, I do think it’s sad when a woman won’t accept her age, don’t you think? She has to be fifty-two if she’s a day and she wants to marry a man at least a decade younger.”
“May I give you another cup of tea?” Ophelia asked. She was horridly shaken, but determined not to show it. Hugo was nothing to her.
One night, one silly night.
Thank goodness, no one knew of it.
“Yes, please, with sugar,” Maddie said. “Penshallow says that His Grace is making certain there won’t be any more children, and God knows, that is a good idea. I know Lindow is madly wealthy, but paying that many dowries would bankrupt anyone.”
“That seems cold-blooded, but I suppose…” Ophelia’s voice died away. Hugo had been willing to marry her, unless he was fooling, but she didn’t think he had been. Hard thinking in the middle of the night had convinced her that her initial impressions were correct: he had looked at her as no man had ever before.
But she had sent him away.
And he stayed away.
“It’s too bad,” Maddie said, putting more sugar into her tea. “He was quite taken with you. If you hadn’t left the ball so suddenly, you might have bewitched him and become a duchess.”
“You yourself told me that he was too much for me,” Ophelia pointed out.
“I changed my mind once I spoke to him,” Maddie said. “One of us should have had him, and he didn’t want me.”
“If he hadn’t been looking for a nanny, he might well have fallen for your charms,” Ophelia said, rather hollowly. And then she added, “Thank goodness he was, because your husband would not have been happy.”
“Who cares what Penshallow thinks?” Maddie said, hunching up a shoulder. “Yesterday I received the most horrid, ill-written note that you can imagine, informing me that my husband had been making children’s stockings.”
“I was confused too, but it seems that he’s gotten his mistress—one of his mistresses—with child. I made him tell me all.”
“Oh, Maddie.” Ophelia reached out and covered her cousin’s hand with hers. “I’m so sorry. What shall you do?”
“What can I do?”
But Ophelia had known Maddie for all of her life, so she just waited.
“I told that ungrateful wretch that I’d raise his child,” Maddie burst out. “Oh! He’s so dreadful. First I accosted him with the news, and he pretended to know nothing. Then he admitted to giving the woman ten pounds so that she can bring the child to the Foundling Hospital.”
“One has to pay the Foundling Hospital?” Ophelia asked. She poured more tea, because in moments of crisis, tea helped.
Maddie added a great amount of sugar. “If you want the child to be apprenticed, yes. Penshallow had the nerve to boast that he took his responsibilities seriously! And then—oh, Phee, I can barely say this aloud, and only to you, obviously…”
“What is it?”
Maddie took a deep breath. “He suggested that if the child is a boy, we take him in and pretend that he’s mine. Because Penshallow needs an heir, obviously. And I don’t want to bed him ever again. I refuse.” Her voice rose.
Marriage was a terrible coil. Hugo’s unfaithful duchess came into Ophelia’s mind—and she pushed the thought away.
She was practicing a strict diet of not thinking of the duke except in the dark of night, in her own bed, where she didn’t seem to be able to control herself.
“I think you should do it,” she said. “The child is Penshallow’s, after all, or he believes as much.”
“He says it is.” Maddie looked up and Ophelia saw to her horror that her brave, plucky cousin was starting to cry. “The poor woman hadn’t known a man before him.”
“But he didn’t…”
Maddie shook her head. “Apparently, she is very beautiful and wants to take another protector and put this behind her.” She gave Ophelia a lopsided smile. “I think that my husband may have been roundly told off, for all he’s protesting that he was the one to end the relationship.”
“The baby exists, and it’s his,” Ophelia said. “Maddie, darling, I think this child may answer many problems, if it turns out to be male. If not, Viola will have a girl cousin, and you know how much I would love her to have more family.”
“She could have had eight siblings, if only you hadn’t fled the ball so early,” Maddie said sniffling as she pulled out a handkerchief.
“Nonsense,” Ophelia said. “You said yourself that His Grace was looking for a nanny. How far along is, ah, this woman?”
“Far enough so that I must pad my waist if I’m to carry it off,” Maddie said. “Thank goodness for sack gowns, for who’s to say whether I’m seven months along or not?”
“That many?” Ophelia asked, startled.
Her cousin nodded, and picked up her handkerchief again.
“Maddie, it couldn’t have been better,” Ophelia said, after thinking it over. “Truthfully. I will go around with you for a few days, and make sure everyone knows that you’re carrying a child. Then you can retire here for your confinement.”
“That would seem very strange,” Maddie objected.
“Not at all! Everyone knows you are my dearest cousin, and since your mother is no longer with us, it would be perfectly unexceptionable for you to stay with me. Oh, Maddie, we’ll have so much fun! I love babies, as you know.”
“I won’t have her here,” Maddie said, with sudden energy that suggested she cared more about Penshallow’s infidelity than she suggested.
“Of course not,” Ophelia said. “If you wish, I’ll speak to Penshallow myself. The woman must be well cared for, and not allowed to drink anything, particularly gin. I’ve read that it can lead to terrible problems.”
“I asked about her whereabouts,” Maddie said, sniffling again. “That wretch didn’t even bother to look ashamed. Apparently he owns a house where he’s been keeping her. I bid him to question the servants and make certain that she’s eating well. He’ll do it, as she may be carrying his heir.”
With that, she burst out sobbing, and Ophelia gathered her up and rocked her back and forth, making plans the whole while.
“Where are you bid to tonight?” she asked, once Maddie had calmed again.
“The theater, followed by supper at Lady Fernby’s house. I shall sit in Penshallow’s box, though he informed me that he is busy, likely with his other mistress.”
“Excellent,” Ophelia said. “You must write to Lady Fernby, and tell her that due to your delicate condition, you wish me to accompany you. I’m sure that she’ll have no objection; we are quite friendly.”
“Oh, she loves you,” Maddie said. She brightened. “The duke will attend as well! She boasted that he and Lady Ethel would join them.”
Ophelia winced, but luckily her cousin didn’t notice.
“Nothing’s been announced between them,” Maddie continued. “Perhaps you can still be a duchess, Ophelia. What shall you wear?”
“It doesn’t matter what I wear,” Ophelia said. “More important is what you wear. You can trust your maid, can’t you?”
“Of course,” Maddie said. “She was my nanny—” She broke off. “Oh goodness, I suppose I’ll have to find a new maid because Dottie will wish to return to the nursery, without a doubt.”
“Excellent!” Ophelia said, jumping to her feet. “When I was carrying Violet, my maid fashioned a marvelous sling since my back hurt so terribly. It will hold a pillow in just the right position at your waist.”
“And you trust her?”
“With my life,” Ophelia said. “The same for all my servants.”
“All right,” Maddie said, getting up. “I suppose it’s better to pretend to carry Penshallow’s child than actually have to carry it.”
“Under the circumstances, yes,” Ophelia said. “And much safer too. Just think of how many ladies have lost their lives in childbirth.”
Maddie brightened a little. “It’s terrible for one’s figure.”
“Exactly,” Ophelia said. “Just look what it did for my bosom.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Maddie protested, following her from the room.
Hugo was meeting with one of his estate managers when a great noise rose from downstairs. He knew instantly what it was, so he rose and offered the man a smile. “It seems that I must break off our meeting, Mr. Elms. My children are apparently paying me an unexpected visit.”
“I understand,” Mr. Elms said, gathering up his estate book. “May I take it that you approve of the plans for new hedgerows, Your Grace?”
“Yes,” Hugo said, going to the door. “If you’ll forgive me.”
And with that, he headed downstairs. It was stupid beyond all measure, but he had missed them. All of them, even little Joan, who wailed every time she saw him.
The entry was filled with Wildes. On first glance the boys looked grownup, wearing their Etonian coats, so his sister must have just scooped them up from school. But Alaric was pummeling North in the shoulder and Horatius was barking a lecture. Not to be left out, while four-year-old Betsy looked thrilled and ready to leap into the fray.
“Betsy!” he called.
“Papa!” she shrieked, running toward the stairs. All heads turned, and the babble of voices rose higher.
Hugo scooped Betsy up into his arms and gave her a kiss. North, Parth, and Alaric ran to him. They stopped a foot or so away and bobbed bows, and then as he put Betsy down, all three of them hurdled into his arms. Leonidas followed, grabbing one of his legs and even Alexander struggled to be put down and trotted toward him. Only Joan buried her face in her nanny’s neck and refused to look at him.
Ophelia had made him feel like a worthless father, but he wasn’t.
Horatius advanced two steps, and gave an exquisite bow. “Your Grace,” he said.
“Horatius, you ass,” he said to his heir, “come give me a hug.”
His eldest submitted to an embrace, but reluctantly.
Hugo walked over to Joan’s nanny, and with a nod, took his little girl, talking before she had a chance to start crying. “I missed you, Joanie.” Looking down at the smaller children, he said, “Do you all know what I found the other day at Bartholomew Faire? It’s something the older boys dearly loved when they were small.”
“What, what?” the younger children shouted.
“Wooden horses!” he said, laughing as he looked down at their excited faces.
“Children’s trinkets,” Horatius said, in as lofty a tone as an eighteen-year-old could imagine.
“Which is why I bought you a Spanish dagger,” Hugo said promptly. Horatius’s eyes brightened. Joan seemed to have forgotten her fear of him; she was sucking two fingers and stared at him with round eyes.
“Louisa,” he said to his twin, raising his voice because Leonidas and Betsy were clinging to his legs, demanding horses now. “This is a welcome surprise.”
“My dear, I realized that we couldn’t let you make such a large decision on your own,” his sister said, handing her pelisse to one of the footmen and then kissing Hugo on both cheeks, a habit she picked up on the Continent. “I fetched the boys from Eton and here we are!”
“I shall miss an examination in theology,” Horatius announced.
“Who cares about theology?” Alaric asked. “They’ll give you top marks in absentia for command of supercilious nonsense.”
“Good show of vocabulary,” Lady Knowe said affectionately, ruffling his hair. “Horatius, my dear, the headmaster promised that you may make up any examinations you wish.”
Over North’s and Parth’s raucous laughter at the idea of requesting to make up an examination, Hugo said, “I am considering taking a duchess, Children, and that will, of course, affect your lives as well.”
“I told you that had to be it!” Alaric said to Horatius. “You owe me a ha’penny.”
Hugo grinned as he watched Horatius, punctilious as he was, instantly pull a coin from his pocket and hand it over.
“Didn’t think I’d marry again, did you?” he asked.
“After a divorce? I hoped not,” Horatius said, doing a pretty good job of looking as sour as a bishop.
Lady Knowe slung her arm around Horatius’s shoulder. At the moment they were precisely the same height, though he might continue growing, of course. “You can rest in your grave, Hugo, assured that your heir will mend your ragged reputation.”
Hugo laughed. “Meanwhile, Horatius, your younger siblings are in need of a mother.”
Horatius looked from his father’s face to Joan’s bright golden hair, and Hugo almost saw the realization strike him. Joan was still sucking her fingers but thankfully, she hadn’t started sobbing.
“Ah,” Horatius said.
The future duke was arrogant and conceited, but his heart was in the right place. He loved his siblings, no matter how rigid he was. “In that case,” Horatius said. “I concur with Lady Knowe that it is best that we aid, to the best of our ability, in choosing the third duchess.”
“I just hope she won’t be frightened off,” Lady Knowe said. “I should be, just looking at these grimy children. Prism, could I ask you to stow the varmints somewhere under the eaves, while I have a restorative with His Grace?”
The family butler, who had accompanied her from the country, bowed and turned to their London butler. Between them and the small crowd of nursemaids, they began ushering the small children upstairs. Hugo handed over Joan, rather proud of the fact that she hadn’t burst out crying.
“You don’t wish to retire to your chamber?” Hugo asked his sister, rather surprised.
“We’ve no time to waste,” Lady Knowe said, giving her pelisse to a footman. “I want to hear everything.”
With that, she pulled him off to his study. Where he told her everything, because she was his twin.
“I knew something was wrong,” Lady Knowe pronounced. “I am never wrong in such things. I could feel it in my gut, but I had hoped it was just the bother of finding another wife.”
“As I told you by post, I found one,” Hugo said, feeling very tired. “Ethel Woolhastings will make an excellent duchess.”
“I’ve known Ethel for years, Hugo.”
“I can’t say that I remember her.”
“You wouldn’t,” Lady Knowe said. “You were too busy chasing Marie around the room to notice anyone else, and she was already a mother when you first appeared in London.”
“She seems very agreeable.”
“She is,” his sister said. “I’ve shared many a recipe for a good skin food with her. She’s not the sort to pretend to know nothing about a new diet when in fact she’s eaten nothing but cucumber for weeks; but if it works, she tells everyone.”
“Ah,” Hugo said, thinking that didn’t sound very interesting. But “interesting” wasn’t what he was looking for. Presumably his daughters would enjoy recipes for skin food.
“You told me to find a woman who would be a good mother and was uninterested in bedding me,” he said.
“So I did. Tell me a bit more about Sir Peter Astley’s widow. Ophelia, wasn’t she?”
“There’s no point in further discussion of Ophelia,” Hugo said. “She doesn’t want me and made that quite clear.”
“I shall make that determination myself,” Lady Knowe retorted.
Hugo tossed back a glass of sherry. His twin was a pain in the arse, and she would only complicate things. “Horatius will approve of Ethel.”
“Of course he will. She is a pleasant woman who won’t be so inconsiderate as to have more children and burden the estate.”
Hugo frowned at her.
“I adore Horatius,” his sister said, unrepentant. “I have since the moment I laid eyes on that bawling red-faced little monster. But he can’t help himself, Hugo. It must be some sort of disease that erupts now and then in the ducal line. He thinks like a duke, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.”
“He’s not yet the duke,” Hugo said. But he felt far older than his years at the moment.
“Where are you bid tonight?” Lady Knowe asked, polishing off her sherry.
“Theater, supper with Lady Fernby,” he said, dispirited. “She’s a friend of Ethel’s.”
“And mine as well,” Lady Knowe said, looking delighted. “I shall send a message immediately and ask her to add a cover to the table. Now I need a restorative sleep, and then I will dress. What time do we fetch Ethel for the theater?”
“Six o’clock,” Hugo said. “We must be on time.”
“I remember that,” his sister said. “Ethel is amiable about most things, but quite punctilious about others. Including manners. I shall have to have a word with the children before we formally introduce them. Her girls were delightfully well-trained from the age of two, as I recall.”
“Joan seems to have calmed somewhat,” Hugo said.
“When she isn’t shrieking like a night bird,” Lady Knowe said briskly. “Leonidas was been desperately naughty in the last few weeks. I think he misses you most of all, Hugo. He needs a man in the house.”
“He’s only six!”
“A troublesome time for boys,” his sister stated.
She was given to pronouncements about children, though Lord only knew where she got the authority. She read that thought in this face, because she added, “As I well know from watching your four older sons grow up, Hugo!”
“I suppose that’s true,” he said, rising. He brought her to her feet and kissed her cheek. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Louisa. If you are not comfortable with Ethel in the castle, I shan’t marry her.”
“That is not a good reason to choose a wife,” she said, laughing.
He shook his head. “I mean it. You come before her. I’ve already scrapped one possible duchess whom I thought you wouldn’t like.”
Lady Knowe raised an eyebrow.
“The dowager Countess of Webbel.”
Her shriek carried them out of the library and into the corridor, and he found himself grinning for the first time since the snowstorm.
He would always feel a pang when he thought about Ophelia. But he was a grown man, who was long acquainted with disappointment—not to mention grief. He had a loving family, and that was the most important thing.
The only important thing, really.
As it happened, the Penshallow box at the Theatre Royal was directly across from the Lindow box. From Ophelia’s point of view, it couldn’t have been more unfortunate.
She and Maddie arrived in plenty of time. Maddie had cheered up and decided to enjoy her role as a woman in a delicate condition; she fanned herself constantly and entertained her friends with whispered commentary about the trials and tribulations of carrying an heir.
As far as Ophelia could see, there was near-universal acceptance of Maddie’s condition, but she knew it wasn’t enough to merely display Maddie with a cotton roll at her waist.
At the play’s intermission she surveyed the ladies who crowded the Penshallow box, and selected the worst gossip of them all, Lady Arden, and then adroitly drew her to the front of the box, exclaiming that she hadn’t seen the lady for months.
Once they were cozily seated, Ophelia confided that she had insisted her darling Maddie keep the secret of her condition.
“I understand that for the first months,” Lady Arden said, looking faintly skeptical, “but so near to confinement?”
Ophelia flipped open her fan and spoke behind it. “Surely you know that my dearest cousin’s marital relations are stormy.”
“To say the least!” Lady Arden’s eyes brightened.
“Most of London believes that it is due to a lack of passion between herself and her husband,” Ophelia whispered, “but the reverse is true. There is too much emotion between them.”
“Ah,” Lady Arden breathed.
“Her delicate condition makes her so emotional,” Ophelia confided. “I feared for the life of the child.”
“Lord Arden likes to tell stories of a time when I behaved in a most unladylike fashion while carrying our second child,” Lady Arden said, apparently won over. “Arden insisted on roast partridge for luncheon over my express command, and I could not abide that odor. I vomited on his shoes. Deliberately, he says.”
“I have persuaded my dearest cousin that she would do best to retire from society after this evening,” Ophelia said. “I certainly don’t want her to lose control of her temper as she did at Hunt Ball last month. I trust you will pay us a call? She will be resting comfortably at my house.”
“An excellent plan,” Lady Arden said, clearly recalling the way that glace cherries had bounced off Maddie’s husband’s head. “Men simply do not understand how hard it is to manage one’s emotions during the months.”
“Lord Penshallow will visit daily, of course,” Ophelia said.
“Of course,” Lady Arden echoed.
Then she asked precisely the question that Ophelia had been hoping to avoid. “Did you see that the Duke of Lindow is in attendance, accompanied by Lady Woolhastings?” She nodded at the box across from them, which was as thronged as their own with visitors. “I must say, that pairing has surprised me.”
“Oh?” Ophelia asked. “I know Lady Woolhastings, of course, but she is considerably older than we are.” If she felt an errant thrill at that truth, it was only natural. Or so she assured herself.
“Her eldest daughter and I were presented at St. James in the same drawing room, so yes, she is my mother’s age. Just look at them together!”
Ophelia had managed not to glance at the ducal box before the play, or during the first three acts, but now she couldn’t stop herself.
Hugo wore a sober coat of dark blue, enlivened by a sumptuous apricot waistcoat. He was standing, since ladies were visiting their box. Two women remained seated in the front. One was Lady Woolhastings and the other was a tall lady wearing a gown a la francaise that made Ophelia feel a flash of pure jealousy.
“I would never wear that gown at her age,” Lady Arden said.
“You wouldn’t?” Ophelia breathed. “I think the blue is exquisite.”
“Oh, that,” Lady Arden cried. “Not that. Everyone knows that Lady Knowe—the duke’s sister—orders all her clothing from Paris. No, that sack gown that Lady Woolhastings is wearing.” She shivered.
Ophelia deliberately hadn’t looked closely at the woman whom Hugo had chosen to replace her. That sounded bitter, and she had no right to bitterness, given his proposal.
She was wearing a neat, small wig, that covered her head with organized rows of curls, and she had a quite pretty face.
“That’s a very close wig. Do you think that she’s shaved her head?” Lady Arden whispered. “Ladies of my mother’s generation often do so. I’m certain that Lady Knowe has. Just look at how beautifully her wig fits her head. One knows instantly that it too was bought in Paris.”
Ophelia raised her shoulders in a hopeless shrug. Hugo had adored her hair. She couldn’t imagine him in bed with a bald woman.
“But that dress,” Lady Arden moaned. “Lady Woolhastings is going to be a duchess, and she is wearing a dress that airs her entire bosom to the theatre, at her age?”
The gown in question was fashioned from material striped with red flowers with horizontal ruffles down the front. Almost none of that cloth appeared above the waist: the lady was flaunting oceans of creamy skin, with only a small ruffle keeping her nipples from open view.
“Of course, His Grace doesn’t care about her clothing,” Lady Arden said. “He’s interested in her maternal side.”
Ophelia was looking at Lady Woolhastings’s face. She had a kind look about her, not to mention the fact that her skin was remarkably unlined. “That seems unnecessarily harsh. Her daughters are very well married, are they not?”
“Yes, she’ll be a good mother to those children,” Lady Arden agreed. “Though not even she could marry off the youngest one.”
Ophelia raised a startled eyebrow. Generally, she avoided gossip of this sort, but that was precisely why she was talking to Lady Arden, of course. If she believed in Maddie’s confinement, then everyone would.
“I hear that the youngest is the spitting image of the Prussian,” Lady Arden whispered, her eyes alight. “Golden hair and a Prussian nose.”
“I’m certain there is golden hair in the Lindow family line,” Ophelia said firmly, avoiding even the faintest tone of indignation. It never did to show emotion in these situations. “I can hardly imagine a two-year-old with a Prussian nose! I expect it is as stubby and round as my own daughter’s.”
“You are so good-natured,” Lady Arden said. “It’s a pity that the duke didn’t look to you, my dear. Everyone knows what an excellent mother you are. What’s more, you wouldn’t make such an obvious faux pas. A duchess oughtn’t expose her bosom to the world.”
“I couldn’t wear that dress,” Ophelia said with a sigh.
“Perhaps you would be able to marry off that child, but Ethel will not, mark my words. She won’t be a powerful duchess, if you understand what I mean.”
Ophelia did understand.
She herself had married above her when she espoused Peter. Luckily, she’d had a relatively smooth introduction to polite society. Peter was an excellent coach, and she learned a great deal from observation.
Lady Woolhastings was comfortably used to being amongst the highest in the land. She was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, for goodness’ sake. She obviously didn’t care what women said about the inadvisability of wearing such a low-cut gown at her age.
All that didn’t mean she was prepared to negotiate the thicket of gossip-mongers.
There had been no gossip about Lady Woolhastings that Ophelia had ever heard. Ophelia, on the other hand, had faced rancorous disapproval from some who had considered her uppish and called her a night-mushroom because her parents belonged to the bottom ranks of the gentry. They said she had no right to marry Peter, and felt free to elaborate about how she might have wrangled a proposal from him.
In her opinion, Lady Woolhastings likely had no idea how vicious polite society could be.
Thankfully, the end of intermission was signaled by a loud trumpet, and Lady Arden rose to return to her seat.
“I saw you talking to Lady Arden,” Maddie whispered, once the play began again. “Everyone else was so happy for me, but I find her a bit frightening. Did you convince her?”
“Oh yes, of course,” Ophelia said.
But she was thinking.
And watching the box across the way.
Supper that evening was a small affair, made more informal by the fact that they had uneven numbers, due to Ophelia and Lady Knowe joining the table at the last minute.
Lady Fernby was unperturbed by this development. She was a jolly woman who rushed to meet them at the door of her drawing room, genuinely thrilled by the news of Maddie’s condition.
“This shall be my last public outing,” Maddie announced. “But I would be most happy if you paid me a morning call, Lady Fernby. I expect these last months will be endlessly tedious, although I am lucky enough to have my dear cousin’s company.”
“Of course, you must go into confinement,” Lady Fernby agreed, nodding. “You’re already showing, my dear. One does not wish to leave society with an unpleasant image of one’s enlarged waist.”
Personally, Ophelia thought this was absurd. If she ever carried a child again—which she would not, obviously—she would do exactly as she wished, no matter her size.
“I agree,” Maddie exclaimed, smiling as proudly as if she were truly carrying a child.
“Toward the end of my first confinement, I resembled a whale,” Lady Fernby said. “Have you seen images of that sea-beast?”
Who would have thought that her cousin would be such a good actress? Ophelia followed her hostess across the drawing room, silently shoring up her resolve to treat the duke as she might any other gentleman whom she’d never met before.
He rose as they walked toward him and Ophelia was unable to look away. Wearing pink silk had had a civilized effect. But now? In sober navy?
Without that glittering, silky veneer, he was all man. He looked massive and powerful, like a man whose relatives commanded large armies and built a country. A man who could command a horse with his knees, the better to use his hands to wield a lance or a sword.
Did he say that he was judge for the county? He looked like a judge.
Not his expression, though.
She shivered, despite herself. He was staring at her, just as he had in the ballroom where she first saw him. And this time, she had no trouble deciphering his emotions. Hugo was burning with need and desire.
Beside her, Maddie giggled and whispered, “Phee, you have some explaining to do!”
They reached the group and both sank into curtsies as Lady Fernby introduced Maddie and Ophelia to the duke and his sister, Lady Knowe.
“We’ve met,” Maddie said, smiling at His Grace mischievously. “You remember, don’t you, Your Grace? It was at a ball some weeks ago. You were asking me…” She tapped her chin with a finger. “Now why can’t I remember what it was you were inquiring about?”
“A woman’s memory is affected by carrying a child,” Lady Knowe said. “May I offer my congratulations on your happy state, Lady Penshallow?”
“Thank you,” Maddie said sweetly. “I am very excited. My husband and I have been married for some years without being blessed by fruit of our union, so this is a true joy.”
Something flashed through Lady Knowe’s eyes and Ophelia realized that she knew. Somehow this lady knew that Maddie had a roll of cotton tied around her waist. But one glance at her face told Ophelia that Lady Knowe would never engage in cruel gossip or broach such an important secret.
All the same, she had better tell the world that Maddie was confined to bed for the last weeks of her pregnancy. She could handle morning calls herself, just in case more women had the same awareness as the duke’s sister.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Lady Woolhastings,” Ophelia said, dropping into a curtsy. “I hope you are well?”
“Absolutely,” the lady said cheerfully. She showed no signs of feeling possessive toward Hugo, or even delight about the fact they were attending the supper together. Public acknowledgement was very close to betrothal.
Strange. If Ophelia was there with the duke…
She had to let him kiss her hand. She met his eyes.
That was a mistake.
Hugo watched Ophelia walk through the door. Her figure was round, and her cousin Maddie’s features were more regular. She wasn’t the most fashionable lady in the room, either; his own sister made certain she always had that honor.
But…she was the only woman in the room for him.
She hadn’t looked at him in the theater. She had seated herself opposite him, in the front of the Penshallow box, laughing and talking as if he didn’t exist. It was appalling to recognize what happened to him during the five acts of the bloody play—none of which he remembered.
He had entered the theater a calm, mature man with a plan to marry a woman of the correct constitution and personality. The moment that Ophelia walked into the box opposite his, arm around her pregnant cousin, not even glancing in his direction…
It all changed. He changed.
By the intermission, a raging river had taken over his blood. She was his, and he loved her, and if she didn’t want him, he would wait forever.
There would be no Ethel, Duchess of Lindow. The idea was anathema.
“Steady,” his sister said, low in his ear.
He turned to her, unable to say a word.
She smiled at him with the kind of exuberant, effortless joy with which she had warmed both their lives. “You lucky bastard,” she whispered.
“I am, aren’t I?”
“You still have to win her.”
She strode forward, going to meet Ophelia and her cousin. Hugo stood for a moment, letting the truth sink into his bones. A better man would let her go. A better man would leave her to her pretty house and loyal servants.
He wasn’t that man.
Deep down, with a ferociousness that came from loving a woman to her core, he believed that Phee could learn to love him—and that a life with love was better than the most exquisite house in all London. He already loved her, because that was simply the way it was for him.
He had a firm belief that it was better to be loved in a great, dusty castle than unloved in the prettiest house in the world.
He strode toward her, trying to adjust his features into those of a man of power but no feelings. A man who could marry a woman fifteen years older than he, for the good of his children. A man who had reconciled himself to a life of chastity.
Ethel wouldn’t want to bed him—he thought—but that didn’t mean he would be unfaithful.
He thought he was doing a pretty good job of being himself…until he met the dancing eyes of Ophelia’s cousin, Maddie Penshallow.
“Oh, no,” Maddie cried, once introductions were over and they were standing about making conversation. “Tis the fault of the child I carry, but I forgot my reticule. Ophelia, dearest, won’t you fetch it for me?”
“I can send a—” Lady Fernby began.
“Never!” Maddie cut her off with a shudder. “I cannot allow a stranger to touch my reticule. Please forgive me, my lady.”
“I completely understand,” Hugo’s sister chimed in. “Duke, please accompany Lady Ophelia to the entry. She may lose her way.”
She may lose her way?
He didn’t snort, but it was a close thing.
After the way Ophelia managed not to see him at the theater, he would have expected her to refuse, but instead she gave him a small smile. “I would be most grateful for your company, Your Grace.”
“It isn’t very far,” Lady Fernby said, clearly uncertain about whether the structure of her house, or possibly her household staff, were being insulted. “This drawing room is in the back of the house, but…”
“I have a terrible sense of direction,” Ophelia said. “His Grace and I shall return with your reticule in a minute or two, Maddie.”
As they walked toward the door, Hugo heard his sister ask Ethel if she’d met his “horde of children?”
“I understand there are ten or eleven of them,” Maddie added in a horror-laden voice.
“Lady Penshallow is your cousin, Phee,” Hugo said, as if they had never separated. “It seems she wants you to be a duchess. In fact, it could be that my sister and your cousin will unite to frighten Lady Woolhastings,” Hugo pointed out. “Not that I’ve offered her my hand, because I have not.”
Ophelia’s red hair gleamed through the light powder she wore. She was perfect, from her deep lower lip, to her pointed chin. “God, you’re so beautiful,” he said, pausing at the door. “I thought perhaps I had imagined it; you couldn’t be as beautiful as I had remembered you.”
She looked up at him, utter shock on her face. “I’m not beautiful! I’m nice enough looking.
Maddie is beautiful.”
Hugo shook his head. He pushed the door open and they walked into a corridor that led to the front of the house. They couldn’t stay here; the butler would appear in a moment with refreshments.
He pushed open the door directly across the corridor and discovered a small morning room, probably Lady Fernby’s private refuge, given the basket of knitting, the gossips pages lying to the side of a comfortable chair.
“My lady?” he said, walking inside and holding the door open.
Ophelia bit her lip.
He smiled at her, letting the deep joy he felt at being with her again show on his face. His mind was racing. Kisses weren’t enough to convince Ophelia to marry him. He had to woo her. Court her, the way a future duchess deserved.
But on the other hand, he…
She walked inside and turned about to face him. To him, she was already a duchess: utterly composed even in moments of deep impropriety, as now.
“May I kiss you?” Hugo asked, shutting the door and putting on the latch as well.
She looked rather amused. “That wouldn’t be a good idea at this juncture,” she observed. “You accompanied another woman to this supper, Hugo.”
At least she was calling him Hugo.
“I can’t marry Ethel,” he said flatly. “I thought I could, and then I saw you in the theater and realized that if I can’t have you, I’d rather be alone.”
A soundless breath came from her mouth. “Truly?”
He nodded, his throat tight. “Truly.”
“But I’m not beautiful, not that kind of beauty.”
“You are.” He said it with the confidence of a man who had always trusted his own opinion above that of others. “I’m not the only one to think so, but it’s not just your beauty. I hope you don’t mind, but my sister told me your history. She rarely comes to London, but she has a vast number of correspondents.”
“I see,” Ophelia said. She folded her hands before her. She was wearing a gown that he recognized, thanks to his sister, as being à la francaise. Lady Knowe had monstrous petticoats this evening, and her silk gown was embroidered with birds of paradise.
Hugo found he vastly preferred a simple rose stripe, albeit decorated with silver edged ruffles.
“Sir Peter was lucky enough to be introduced to you during your first foray into the season,” he said now. “He was smart enough to know what he had in front of him and he snatched you up before another gentlemen had a chance.”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t like that. My parents knew his parents…”
“Your parents’ only mistake was that they underestimated your charms,” Hugo said deliberately. “Sir Peter saw you, an intelligent, gorgeous, and sensual woman and he knew he’d found gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if he proposed to you during your second dance.”
She blinked. “Over supper following our second dance.”
“Had he waited until the next day, he wouldn’t have been able to afford you,” Hugo said. “Society is akin to the law of the jungle. I saw you during your first foray into polite society after widowhood. I knew that I had no time, so I followed you into a snowstorm. Why do you suppose that was?”
A smile was easing the corners of her lips. “Could we simply agree that you and Peter were slightly mad and leave it at that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to win you under false pretenses. I think you could likely have
any bachelor of your choice in all London, Phee.”
She was laughing now. “Including the twenty-year-olds, just leaving Oxford?”
“Those too.” He meant it. “London is full of women who are brittle, angry, or—like my second wife—dissatisfied. You look like a person who knows how to be happy.”
“I’m no more happy than the next person,” she said, looking startled.
He raised an eyebrow. “Were you madly in love with Sir Peter?”
“That is private.”
“Yet you never succumbed to bitterness or ennui,” he said, ignoring her unhelpful response. “You built a life with him, a man whom you’d known for the space of two dances. He enjoyed London, so you accompanied him here.”
“That is common for married couples,” she interjected.
He shook his head. “I’ve been in an unhappy marriage. My wife was unwilling to be in the country for a day more than she had to, although my responsibilities did not allow me to live a life in the city. She moved to London.”
“If you would like to marry me because I would put your desires ahead of my own,” she said, shaking her head, “I think you should return to your former theme.”
He shook his head. “I would put your desires above my own. You love dancing; if you wish me to, we can engage a dancing master to bring me up to snuff. What I am saying is that if I was lucky enough to win your hand, you would be my partner, Phee. We would go through life together. I know that Sir Peter would agree with me that a true marital partnership is a gift from God.”
“Partnership suggests friendship,” she said. “You declined to be my friend.”
“If I did, I wasn’t clear,” he said. “I want to be so much more than merely a friend. You would be my closest friend, but also my lover. The person I wish to walk beside for the rest of my life.”
“Hmmm,” she said. Her eyes were shining, and Hugo felt a flash of hopefulness. “Let’s go back to the question of whether I am more beautiful than Maddie, which is plain absurdity.”
He walked closer to her, unable to resist her smile. “To me, you have the perfect nose.” He kissed it. “I adore your chin.” He kissed it.
“Now I know you’ve lost your mind!” But she didn’t move away.
“Your lips are exquisite,” he whispered, and dropped a kiss on them. “Your eyes are like deep, like…like pools of hot cocoa.”
She started giggling again.
“I’m not a poet,” Hugo said. “All I can say is that I am putting my life, my title, my family at your feet, Phee.” He caught her hands in his. “Everything that I am. And fair warning, I shall keep trying to convince you. Last time I saw you, you were adamant that you would have nothing to do with me. But now…you allowed me to escort you. You allowed me to bring you into a room apart.”
He held his breath, hoping.
“I didn’t like to see you with another woman,” Ophelia confessed, a delicate wash of pink rising in her cheeks.
“The moment I saw you again, I realized that I couldn’t marry Ethel.” He stated it calmly. “There will be no other woman, if you won’t have me.”
“You had good reasons for courting her, I’m sure.”
“Your refusal was not a good enough reason,” Hugo said. “The lady deserves more than a man who is more than half in love with someone else.”
“Perhaps you deserve more as well,” Ophelia suggested. She took a step toward him. Now they were close enough so that the hem of her skirt brushed his shoe and he caught a whiff of sweet lemon from her hair.
“I love the fact that you don’t wear a wig,” he said. “Damn it, you make me feel as unbalanced as a lad of fifteen.”
Watching her eyes carefully, he took the last step toward her and his arms closed around her. “If you marry me, you’ll lose your freedom,” he said, his voice roughening. “The life of a duchess is not easy, although I will do everything in my power to buy you as much privacy as I can.”
Ophelia met his eyes and then cupped his face in her hands, came up on her toes, and brushed his lips with hers. “I think I would give away my freedom for you. What is it for?”
“Had I met you while I was married to Yvette and you were married to Sir Peter, I would have said freedom was the right to love you, body and soul. Beautiful, wanton body and proper, delightful soul,” he clarified.
“I may choose to use my minutes learning how to love you.” Her eyes twinkled. “Or I may not.”
Her hands fell away and she stepped back. “Your Grace, we must return to the drawing room or our absence will be marked.”
Blood was running hot in Hugo’s veins. He had an erection that was definitely not hidden by his cut-away waistcoat, and probably wasn’t going anywhere as long as Ophelia was within an arm’s length.
She raised a finger. “We cannot embarrass Lady Ethel. You must extract yourself from your obligations, no matter how ephemeral, before you pay me so much as a morning call.”
A smile burst over his face, together with a wild surge of lust. “After we marry, we shall retire to my castle and live there for a month—six months!—no society, just the two of us.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And a nursery full of children?” But she looked rather excited. “I shall take your request into consideration.”
“May I kiss you, please, Phee?”
She shook her head. “I would not kiss a man who is nominally another woman’s.”
A duke always realizes the limits of his power.
Hugo bowed and kissed his lady’s gloved hand.
His heart sang.
When had Ophelia decided to marry Hugo?
What was the precise moment when she decided to take on eight children, a duchy, and—most importantly—a man who tempted her nearly to madness?
Who wanted to live for the next six months in a castle in Cheshire?
He paced along the corridor at her shoulder, seeming as quiet and tame as a house cat. But she could feel the wild energy coursing through him. The air she breathed felt like intoxicating wine.
Hugo knew what a marriage based on that excitement was like; she didn’t. But now she had a glimpse of it, a sense of it, and it was intoxicating.
Returning to the drawing room, she saw Lady Knowe seated with Maddie and Lady Woolhastings, telling them such an engaging story that they were both leaning toward her. Lady Fernby pressed her hand and asked to be excused for a few minutes to address a small problem in the kitchen.
No one paid attention as Ophelia slipped into the seat beside Maddie; her cousin just squeezed her hand and said, breathlessly, to Lady Knowe, “Then what happened?”
“They were playing at pirates,” she said now. “Horatius, bless that child, has grown up to be as pompous as a sixty-year-old barrister, but as a boy he could never resist an eye patch. Now he’s eighteen and far too mature to play a pirate.”
Hugo seated himself beside his sister, ignoring the empty seat next to Lady Woolhastings.
For her part, Lady Woolhastings paid him no attention. Her eyes were round. “You are describing extraordinary behavior,” she said, obviously choosing her words carefully.
“Not for those varmints,” Lady Knowe said cheerfully. “I often have to send them to bed with only bread and butter for supper. The nursemaids keep honey in the nursery and I pretend not to notice. Am I right, dear Edith, in thinking that your two children are both female?”
Lady Woolhastings nodded.
“Boys—particularly Wildes—are a completely different breed,” Lady Knowe said. “Mothering them is a Sisyphean task. Some days I lurch from crisis to crisis.”
Maddie was patting her stomach as if there truly were a child there. “Oh! I hope I am carrying a boy,” she cried. “I should love to play pirates! Wouldn’t you, Lady Woolhastings?”
Ophelia squeezed her hand again. Maddie’s irrepressible good spirits would be such a gift to the child she didn’t carry, but who would be her own.
“No, I certainly would not,” the lady stated, “but I have no objection to children playing whatever games they wish in the nursery. Most nurseries are on the third floor precisely so that noise does not disturb the household.”
Lady Knowe wasn’t finished. “After they burned down the rectory—an accident, I assure you, and thank goodness, no one was hurt—the rector asked me, most earnestly, if I thought they should be exercised.”
“Exercised?” Hugo repeated.
Ophelia glanced at him and had to look away in order to stop herself from laughing. The duke’s eyes were dancing with laughter.
“Oh, whatever it is you do to evil spirits,” Lady Knowe said, waving her hand.
“Exorcized. He thought they were possessed?” Lady Woolhastings said. She looked perturbed. “I, for one, would not welcome such an impudent suggestion from a cleric.”
“A metaphor, I assure you,” Lady Knowe said. “Help me, Duke. Defend your children. Leonidas, for example, isn’t nearly as naughty as the older boys were.”
“I hate to mention it, but dead chickens come to mind when one thinks of Leonidas,” her brother said cheerfully.
“That is true,” Lady Knowe acknowledged.
“Isn’t he merely six years of ago? What did he do to the chickens?” Maddie gasped.
Apparently chicken carcasses were occasionally taken from the kitchen and made their way under the covers of dislikable guests staying at the castle, thanks to little Leonidas, who would tuck them carefully under the coverlets.
“It isn’t the smell that’s vile,” Lady Knowe said judiciously, “as much as the feathers. They paint them red, you see, so when someone puts their feet down in the bed, they encounter a disagreeably sticky, wet object. When they removed their feet, they appeared to be covered with blood. Shrieking invariably ensues.”
“Naughty,” Lady Woolhastings stated.
“I believe you know the Bishop of Halmarken, Lady Woolhastings?”
The lady’s eyes narrowed. “These children behaved so disgracefully toward a man of God?” For the first time, she seemed genuinely affronted. “I should send them to bed without any supper at all.”
“They also played the dead chicken trick on a scion of the Swedish royal family,” Hugo said. “I do not blame Leonidas; after all, he’s only six years old. My older sons planned the trick, even if Leo was dispatched to the royal bed with the infamous chicken.”
“I know what I’d do,” Maddie exclaimed. She was obviously enjoying herself immensely. “I’d make those boys sleep with a dead chicken at their feet for a whole night. Perhaps a week.”
Lady Knowe shook her head, her eyes twinkling. “Dearest, think of the nursemaids. They are the most valuable members of a household, as you shall soon learn. They won’t tolerate odor, let alone stray feathers, and one can hardly blame them.” She lowered her voice. “They have much to put up with, as it is. I am loathe to admit it, but His Grace’s children were very slow to learn to use the privy.”
“Well, that I will not put up with,” Maddie said, nodding her head as if she had the faintest idea how to train a child.
“Wetting the bed,” Lady Knowe said with a melodramatic groan. “Day and night. During naps until the age of five. We have three more years of it ahead, given that little Joan is scarcely two.” She heaved a lugubrious sigh. “But, of course, they are darling children. Edith, my dear, I simply can’t wait to introduce you to them.”
“Indeed,” the lady said.
“I brought them with me and they are ecstatic at the thought of meeting you. If you don’t mind plain speaking, they are tired of my oversight. I am always having to punish them for this or that.”
“Surely the boys are at Eton,” Lady Woolhastings said.
“When they are at Eton. They’re constantly being sent down for some prank. I can’t decide whether Alaric or Parth is the naughtier, but on balance, I think Parth wins. We had to pay the barkeeper after that most unfortunate episode with his daughter.”
“One of your sons cavorted with a barmaid?” Lady Woolhastings said, turning to Hugo. Her brow was furrowed.
“‘Cavorted’ is a strong word,” he said.
It was clear to Ophelia that Hugo knew nothing of the barmaid, and Parth didn’t either. In short, Lady Knowe had begun to embroider the truth in a strenuous effort to alarm Lady Woolhastings.
“I never share such trifles with the duke,” Lady Knowe said, leaning over to pat Lady Woolhastings on the knee. “A good half of each day is spent soothing the anguished spirits of those who have fallen victim to His Grace’s children. I cannot wait until he takes a third duchess. I mean to retire to a small estate I have in Kent and try to recover my lost youth!”
For the first time, Lady Woolhastings looked appalled. Ophelia saw her assessing Lady Knowe’s wrinkles.
“They have turned my hair white,” Hugo said with a shrug.
Ophelia rolled her eyes. She’d seen Hugo’s hair at close range. Perhaps there was a little silver over the ears, but only enough to make him look distinguished.
Lady Knowe patted her brother’s knee. “As we have both learned, when one has children, particularly so many children, one must give up on life’s vanities.”
“I did not neglect myself while raising my daughters,” Lady Woolhastings stated.
Maddie gave her a smile. “I am hoping that I carry a boy for more than one reason. Nothing is crueler than the contrast between the unlined skin of a young girl in the first blossom of youth and the mother who chaperones her.” She clasped her (cotton-filled) belly. “If I carry a daughter, I only hope I shall face the disparity with good grace! Humiliation is too strong a word.”
“The Wilde girls are, of course, extraordinarily beautiful,” Lady Knowe said innocently.
Lady Woolhastings suddenly had the look of a woman who has made an important decision. She rose to her feet. Hugo stood, and Maddie jumped up, which made her “belly” jiggle alarmingly.
“I am feeling unwell,” the lady announced.
“If you’ll forgive me, you do look rather sallow,” Maddie said. “I well remember when your daughter and I attended our first balls together, my mother often retired to bed exhausted.”
“At your age, dear lady, it is always best to retire early with a restorative,” Lady Knowe said sympathetically. “My own dear mother—”
Lady Woolhastings bridled. “I am not the age of your mother!”
“I trust you will feel much improved on the morrow, Lady Woolhastings,” Ophelia said, intervening.
After a round of courtesies, Hugo led his visibly irritated guest toward the door in search of their hostess.
Lady Knowe, Maddie, and Ophelia said nothing until Lady Woolhastings and the duke had left the room.
Then Lady Knowe said, with a cackle of laughter, “I thought all the naughtiness would be effectual, but in fact, you found the perfect weapon, Lady Penshallow!”
“Please, call me Maddie,” she said, reaching out and taking Lady Knowe’s hand. “I have a feeling that we might become much better acquainted in the near future. Phee is my dearest relative and I cannot bear to lose her to the wilds of Cheshire.”
Ophelia felt herself turning pink. “I believe this conversation is uncalled for,” she said. “Nothing…that is…”
“Surely my brother has thrown himself on his knees and declared his love? Because he does, you know.” Lady Knowe regarded Ophelia with bright eyes. “He’s in love. Simply dizzy with it.”
“I don’t know why,” Ophelia said, glancing at the door, but their hostess had not reappeared, and neither had the duke. Presumably he was escorting Lady Woolhastings to her house.
“I’ll leave the why’s up to him,” Lady Knowe said. “If I know my brother, he’ll be able to convince you of his reasoning. All I can say is that I haven’t seen him so happy since his first duchess died. He made a mistake with the second, Yvette, but he had the best of intentions.”
“He was trying to find a mother for his children,” Maddie said, nodding. “That’s why I thought he asked about Phee. But then it turned out he didn’t even know that Phee is an excellent mother. He didn’t know who she was at all.”
“He’s not in love with her for that,” Lady Knowe said. “Mothering is the least of it. I will warn you, my dear, that my brother seems to be extraordinarily potent. Yvette complained of it endlessly and swore he wasn’t allowed to come near her without a French letter, but to no avail.”
Ophelia discovered that she didn’t want to hear anything more about Yvette. Or Hugo’s beloved first wife, either.
Lady Knowe apparently read her expression, because she turned to Maddie without losing a beat. “So, tell me when your child will be born?” she asked, gesturing toward Maddie’s pillow.
She turned a little pink. “Four months or so.” She cleared her throat.
“Maddie will stay with me until the child is born,” Ophelia said, giving Lady Knowe a look that told her the subject was closed.
Lady Knowe broke out laughing. “In case I didn’t think that you had the gumption to be a duchess that glance you just gave me would have proved me wrong.”
Ophelia gave her an uncertain smile. But there was one important question she had to ask: “Will you really be leaving the castle and moving to Kent?”
“I do not want to be in my brother’s household if it would cause the least disquiet in his marriage. It can be difficult if two women share domestic duties.”
“Oh please,” Ophelia said, putting her cards on the table. “I adore my daughter. I am growing…fond of the duke. But I think about taking care of a castle and eight children…” She stopped hopelessly.
“You will grow to love them, because they are vastly lovable,” Lady Knowe said smiling. “Even when they are naughty.”
“I would be very grateful if you would consider making your home with us,” Ophelia said. It wasn’t as if she accepted the duke’s proposal, and yet here she was, making domestic arrangements. “I have no wish to run a castle by myself or truly, to run a castle at all.”
Lady Knowe’s eyes searched her face.
“Far more importantly, as I see it, you are the children’s mother,” Ophelia said. “To rip you away from them would be terrible. I cannot imagine moving away from my daughter, Viola. Nor would she be happy without me.”
“I will admit that I find the idea of leaving them painful.”
“You were never planning to leave,” Maddie said. “You just told Lady Woolhastings as much to frighten her off.”
“No,” Lady Knowe said. “If I felt that my brother’s happiness was hanging in the balance, I would leave. They are not my children, after all.”
“Ah, but they are your children,” Ophelia said, reaching out and touching her knee. “I would as soon come between a mother and her children as—” Her mind boggled.
“Right,” Lady Knowe said, her eyes looking suspiciously bright. “Our hostess seems to have gone missing. Shall we have some champagne to celebrate my brother’s extraordinarily good luck?”
She looked toward the door, nodded, and a footman sprang into action. A few minutes later they were holding glasses of champagne.
“Normally I do not hold with a future mother imbibing of the grape,” Lady Knowe said to Maddie. “But I feel it would not be harmful to your child.”
“No, indeed,” Maddie said, taking her champagne. “We’ve sent Ophelia’s former nanny over there to make sure that my husband’s mistress—one of my husband’s several mistresses—doesn’t engage in unhealthy habits.”
“Excellent forethought,” Lady Knowe said, accepting without a flicker of an eyelash the truth about Maddie’s child.
“If male, that child will be Lord Penshallow’s heir,” Ophelia said, just to make sure that Lady Knowe knew the consequences of mentioning the child’s parentage to anyone. But she had the same feeling that Maddie obviously had: one could trust Lady Knowe with one’s greatest secret.
Ophelia didn’t often drink wine other than to sip it now and then. But at the moment, more than a sip was called for. She had an exhilarating feeling that her life was changing.
Surely that called for a toast.
When the Duke of Lindow finally returned from escorting his former almost-betrothed to her house—having been told in no uncertain terms that the lady in question declined any further consideration of matrimony—he found the entire house party quite tipsy.
Dinner had been served, after which the ladies had retired to a sitting room and continued to imbibe champagne.
“Three bottles,” Lady Fernby said cheerfully. “One each.”
His future wife looked at Hugo with huge brown eyes and said, “Due to her delicate condition, Maddie went home in my carriage, but I waited for you. I’m inclined to marry you.”
“I’m very happy to hear that,” he said.
“We’ve been celebrating your…your fourth duchess, isn’t it?” Lady Fernby asked, her words slurring into each other.
“Third, and last,” he corrected.
“My last duchess,” Ophelia said dreamily. “It sounds like a poem. I’m happy to be your last duchess, and in return, you will be my first and last duke.”
Hugo’s heart was thumping hard. His sister—darling, wonderful Louisa—had rid him of Lady Woolhastings. And then, it seems, she had offered toasts until she succumbed, because when he looked about for her, he found her reclining serenely on a sofa, looking as prim as if she were napping in her own bedchamber.
“She was up most of the night with Alexander, who was feverish,” Ophelia said. Her tone was defensive.
Hugo dropped a kiss on her head because…she was defending his family. To him. “Was she drinking champagne from that tankard?” he asked, nodding toward a empty cup on the table beside his sister. “No wonder she went to sleep.”
“She says that champagne tastes better from a pedestrian vessel,” Ophelia said. “That’s a quote. Your sister has a fascinating way of expressing herself.”
Hugo then turned to say goodbye to Lady Fernby, only to discover that she, too, was peacefully slumbering.
After that, he gave the butler a guinea to ensure that Lady Knowe got home safely.
“I will send the lady home in Lady Fernby’s best carriage,” the man promised. “Accompanied by a groom, it hardly needs to be said.”
“Best send two,” Hugo advised. “My sister is as tall as I am, and unless she is completely alert, one groom will find it difficult to steer her into the house. I shall escort Lady Ophelia to her residence.”
“Excellent,” Ophelia cried, jumping from her chair. “I don’t know why everyone is asleep. I don’t feel tired in the least.”
They no sooner entered the carriage than Ophelia launched herself at him and kissed him, more clumsily than expertly, but with more than enough passion to make up for it. The feeling when her tongue met his was enough to make Hugo start shaking all over.
Perhaps it was age, he thought dimly.
Perhaps he felt things more fiercely, because time had a different meaning for him now. He knew that loved ones could die. He knew that time was finite. Perhaps that was what made a simple kiss feel like a conflagration, like no kiss he’d ever shared before.
Even with Marie.
For her part, Ophelia wrapped her arms more and more tightly around his neck, pausing only to murmur husky words that he couldn’t quite make out. His body was tight, blood thumping through his loins, head fogged by the scent and the taste of her.
By the time the carriage shuddered to a halt, his breath had become a harsh noise in his ears, his heart thumping in his chest. He had his hands inside her cloak now, running over her breasts.
“I will marry you,” Ophelia said to him, as Hugo pulled his shaking hands from her cloak and tried to straighten her hair. It was hopelessly disordered, hair pins scattered all over the carriage floor.
“Thank you,” he said, shocked to see how guttural his voice had become.
He certainly could not take her inside and seduce her, in the drawing room, in the corridor, the butler’s pantry: anywhere with a roof.
It wouldn’t be gentlemanly. Not right. She’d had too much champagne. A whole bottle, if Lady Fernby was correct.
“You are not going to feel well tomorrow,” he said, running a finger down her perfectly trim little nose. “God, we’re going to have beautiful children. If you want children,” he added hastily.
“Do you want more children?”
He shook his head. “Not in the general way, but with you? Hell, Ophelia, I would love to have a child with you. As long as your first birth wasn’t difficult?”
“Extremely easy,” she said, dimpling at him. “Well, Duke, I suggest we go to my bedchamber and try to make a baby. Your sister assured me that I would be carrying within the week, so that means a special license.”
Hugo’s eyes widened. “You discussed children—having children with me—with Louisa?”
“She brought up the subject and I thought it was a good idea.” She blinked at him. “Not a good idea?”
He shook his head. And then nodded. “You can discuss whatever you wish with Louisa.”
“Louisa,” Ophelia said. “I like her name. She has promised to stay with us. Yvette’s children are really hers, you know.”
“I do know,” he said. “Marie’s are shared with her as well. Marie never would have wanted to leave them, but I am certain she approves of how Louisa has mothered them.”
“I suspect my Viola will be won over immediately,” Ophelia said. “By you as well. She’s never had a man in her life, other than our butler, of course. So, will you please come into the house with me, Your Grace?” A sensual little smile played around her mouth.
Her brows drew together. “Because of Lady Woolhastings? I was hoping…”
“Did you hope that I was gone for two hours because she was clarifying her disinclination to marry me? She cleared that matter up in the first five minutes. After that we shared a carriage in silence for forty-five minutes, as there was a traffic snarl around Shepherd Market. It took me equally as long to return.”
“I’m sorry,” Ophelia said, not looking in the least sorry. “But truly, Hugo, you would have been very unhappy with her. She was not interested in being a mother.”
“I thought she would be helpful with the girls’ debuts,” Hugo said, and shook his head. “It was wrong thinking, precisely the same kind of mistake I made when I chose Yvette.”
Ophelia leaned forward and brushed her mouth over his. “Come inside.”
“I can’t because you’ve had too much champagne,” he said. Or at least he said most of that before they started kissing again and he lost track of words.
“Champagne?” she said sometime later.
Dimly, Hugo knew that a groom had opened the carriage door and closed it immediately.
“I haven’t had too much champagne!” She cupped her hands around his face and grinned at him. “I’m not used to drinking wine.”
“That’s precisely why I cannot take advantage of you,” he said apologetically. “Because it would be taking advantage of you, Phee, and I won’t do it.”
She gave him a wicked grin, leaned forward, and ran her tongue along the seam of his mouth. “I had a glass of champagne before dinner.”
“And a glass of champagne with berry tart. But to be completely frank, Your Grace, your sister imbibed the better part of two bottles, and Lady Fernby and Maddie polished off the third.”
Hugo searched her eyes and wondered why he hadn’t seen it immediately. Of course she wasn’t tipsy.
Her eyes were sparkling with laughter and desire.
“Thank God,” he breathed. He pulled her into his arms and slammed his mouth down on hers.
She opened her mouth to his with a silent laugh that went straight from her chest to his.
After that, it was a matter of lifting Phee from the carriage and greeting the butler, Fiddle, at which point Ophelia matter-of-factly told him that she’d accepted the duke’s proposal of marriage.
Hugo found the words so moving that he waited until her butler turned away and caught her in a sudden kiss. “Love you,” he said fiercely, in a low voice meant for her ears only.
But when he followed the butler up the stairs, he thought that Fiddle’s smile indicated that he’d overheard.
Hugo didn’t mind.
“Ophelia will wish to bring her household with her,” he said, on being showed into the same elegant bedchamber as last time.
“I have no doubt,” Fiddle said, bowing.
“I can assure you that no servants will be dismissed,” Hugo said, holding out his hand.
The butler shook it. “Thank you, Your Grace. I appreciate that, and so will the household.”
“You’ve taken care of her at a time when others might have taken advantage. I can never thank any of you enough.”
“We are all very fond of Lady Astley.”
Hugo may have thought Ophelia was tipsy, but in fact she knew exactly what she was doing, and the rightness of it hummed through her veins as she bathed and allowed her maid to put her in a nightgown.
A chaste white nightgown, because that’s all she had, but she meant to sally forth and order something marvelous made of silk and lace for her wedding night, whenever they decided to marry.
First things first.
She had to meet his children, and he had to meet Viola. Not that either encounter would change anything, because the deep-down connection she shared with Hugo? The way she no sooner glanced at him than she felt a flutter of desire?
That trumped everything, even if his children took a look at her and decided they loathed her. Not that she thought it would happen.
When she walked into his room, it was lit just enough, creating a cosy nest. Perhaps an eagle’s nest, because propped on piles of snowy white pillows was a man with piercing eyes and a powerful body who—
Loved her, according to his sister.
Was in love with her.
Was Peter ever in love with her?
The answer was obvious. They had never walked toward each other, knowing that their hearts were beating as fast as physically possible. Knowing that desire was a thrum in the blood and the legs and the head.
Of course, Hugo had climbed from the bed to greet her, his manners bred in the bone from generations of noblemen and their nannies. She paused and let him come to her.
Ophelia had never felt more than pretty: usually she thought of her face as comely, an old-fashioned word that seemed appropriate.
But under the blaze of his gaze, she felt beautiful.
He reached out and wound his arms around her, pulled her close, and put his cheek against the top of her head.
“I’m short,” she said, breathing the words into his chest. He smelled like the soap she bought for guests. It made her happy, as if she owned a small part of him. As if she had changed him.
“Just the right size,” Hugo said. She could tell by the roughness in this voice that he meant it.
She ended up smiling against his skin like an idiot, and then because there it was—smooth and warm, roughened with hair—she started to kiss his chest, brushing her lips across ridges of muscle, kissing his flat nipple and then kissing it again, harder, when she felt the effect ripple through his body.
Like the wind in a wheat field, she thought dimly, and then lost track of the thought because he scooped her up in his arms and was carrying her to the bed.
He put her down gently, on her back and lowered himself on her tentatively, but Ophelia had always been the sort of person who made up her mind and then threw herself into life with abandon. She wrapped her legs around his waist in an instinctive movement that would have likely given Peter a heart attack. He groaned aloud and the sound went down her spine.
After that, she promised herself not to let Peter have even a corner of her mind, at least not when she was in bed with Hugo.
“Phee,” Hugo said, lowering his head to hers. He licked into her mouth with an impatient ownership that made her shiver even more. His kiss was possessive, as possessive as the gesture of winding her legs around his hips.
“You’re mine,” she told him later, when her lips were plump and tingling from an endless kiss that broke only for gasps of air that sounded like groans.
“Always,” Hugo said. He moved to her side and cupped her face in his large hands. “I am always yours, Phee. To death and beyond.”
They had that together: that knowledge that life is meant to be savored, and that time is limited.
“We have a choice in every moment of life,” he said, his voice brushing her body. “I choose to spend every one of them with you, Phee.”
“Are we never leaving bed, then?”
He kissed her again, so fiercely that her legs felt boneless. “No,” he said later, enough later that her nightgown had been tossed to the floor. He raised his head from her breast to say it.
“What? Please don’t stop,” she begged.
He glinted at her and then put his mouth over her nipple. “This?”
She arched toward him. “More.”
He pursed his lips. “More?”
Words were coming from Ophelia’s mouth but they didn’t answer the question. It was more as if her lips refused to be silent but her brain couldn’t spare the time to shape an opinion. One of Hugo’s hands made its way down her belly and slipped between her legs.
“God, you’re so wet,” he whispered, his voice cracking.
She wound her hands in to his hair and did the one thing that Ophelia Astley had never done in her life: she commanded.
“Now, Hugo,” she said. “Now, damn it.”
The duke who never took direction from anyone—and that included his young wife Marie—cracked a smile and braced himself over her. “Sure?”
“Yes.” Ophelia drew her knees up and made herself vulnerable in a way that she never could have imagined: body and soul. Hugo’s kiss ravished a small unnourished part of her soul that she never suspected existed.
And yet there it was.
Making itself known with trembling intensity and a stream of inarticulate words, some of them profane.
Hugo braced himself and thrust forward, and her body, which had been on high alert, melted in a confusion of grateful pleasure that rushed through her like heat and fire. She closed her eyes and let her hands run down his muscled back all the way to his arse, loving the way that she felt trembling under her fingers.
She didn’t even realize that she was babbling until Hugo laughed and said, “I never would have imagined you were so vocal. And so obscene.”
She blinked at him, hurt burning down her spin as fiercely as desire had, and so she saw the moment that he realized what he’d just said and added, “No. O, shite, no. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Um,” Ophelia said, suddenly incredibly aware of the fact that her legs were bound around him as if she—
She unwound herself and put her feet back on the bed. “I’m not usually…”
“Oh God, Phee.” There was a rasp in his voice that she liked. “Please don’t take offense. I’m an idiot.”
He had stopped moving, and she had stopped moving, so now they lay together awkwardly, and Ophelia, for one, felt frozen.
She cleared her throat. “I apologize for the profanity.”
“Fuck that,” he said, breaking the obscene still life they’d created by thrusting again.
Desperate herself, Ophelia responded with a squeak and a swallowed word.
“Give me your hands.”
Bemused, she brought her arms down to the bed and bent her elbows so that their fingers could entwine. Then Hugo started kissing her so deeply that even if she had thought of words, there was no air to speak them. His body took on a rhythm that made passion quake down her legs and press tighter against him.
“Here,” he said, when she’d almost lost control of herself, but not quite. He uncurled his right hand, reached back and pulled her knee up. Her pelvis tilted and she helplessly let out a broken sound.
“Put your legs around me,” he growled into her mouth.
She did, and it changed the angle so that she was breathless, suddenly mad, shaking all over. She managed to keep her mouth shut, though, until he suddenly stopped and put his lips on hers.
Their hands had fallen apart and she was clinging to him again.
“Talk to me,” he growled. “Please talk to me.”
She was sweaty and shaking. She wanted to come more than she had…well, forever. Instead of talking she kissed him and let her hips talk, but then he began moving faster, and her head fell back.
Tension was building and building and she wasn’t sure when she started talking again, but she registered the joyous glint in his eyes.
Then they were both gasping for air, trembling violently, and she was pushing up against him with all the strength in her body.
And then the world exploded around them with a fiery intensity that she, for one, had never experienced.
“Bloody hell,” she whispered a while later.
“There’s my duchess,” he whispered back. “My last, wonderful, beloved, profane duchess.”
“Duchesses probably don’t curse.”
“Mine does.” He licked her cheekbone. “Sweats, too. I’m so lucky, so damned lucky.”
Ophelia believed him, because the look in his eyes wasn’t one she’d seen before, but her soul instantly welcomed it. “I’ve never felt…said anything like that before,” she said, stumbling into an explanation that she suspected he didn’t need.
“Lucky me,” he whispered. “I suspect you know this, but I’m fucking in love with you, Phee. And I’ve never used that sentence before either. Dukes don’t swear.”
“In love?” she said, wonderingly. “I didn’t…”
“Me too,” she said back. “I love you too. I’m in love with you too. I will, I do.”
“I do, I will.”
A Note from Eloisa!
Thank you so much for buying Say No to the Duke. Hopefully you loved the new novel about Betsy, Jeremy, and the whole chaotic, funny Wilde family. I’d be deeply grateful if you shared your opinion Amazon, Goodreads or BookBub, helping other readers discover the Wildes!
I can scarcely believe it, but Wilde Denial is finished. I’m renaming it My Last Duchess, and my publisher (Harper Collins) will be publishing it after it’s been through a proper editing process with my editor of many years, Carrie Feron.
I’ll add an Epilogue, for one thing! So if you want your own copy someday, I’ll let you know when it’s available.
My next book, Viola’s story, is called Say Yes to the Duke, and it’s currently scheduled for publication at the end of next May. A special excerpt follows this letter! I’ll be sure to write to you as soon as a preorder link is available.
Here’s a secret: I think I’ve come up with a new ideas for the next free novella—based on a character whom you know very well. She’s fashionable, fabulous…and I’ll leave it there.
Are you signed up for my newsletter, Five Fabulous Things? It’s the best way to get news about Viola’s book and the rest of the Wildes. Plus that new novella!
Please don’t post the link to this story on-line. I’m writing it specifically as a thank you for my most devoted readers.
So thank you again ~ and all my best wishes for a joyful, healthy summer,
~ Excerpt from SAY YES TO THE DUKE ~
Miss Viola Astley, the stepdaughter of Hugo Wilde, Duke of Lindow, considered it the greatest misfortunate of her life that she was, in every important respect, the complete opposite of a Wilde.
She had realized as a child that she was no more akin to her step-siblings than a donkey to a dragon. Her mother Ophelia had married the duke when Viola was only two years old, so her earliest memories were defined by feeling not Wilde.
Her stepsister Artemisia, for example, was beautiful, bold, and audacious.
At the age of six!
Whereas Viola was timid, tongue-tied, and fairly useless.
Her older stepsister Betsy was famous in the family for being able to shoot arrows from horseback; Viola was afraid of horses, and didn’t care for arrows either. Betsy had rejected nineteen suitors before accepting a future marquess; Viola felt seasick at the idea of flirtation, let alone marriage.
Fear in itself marked her as not Wilde. The Wilde children were fearless. For example, the oldest Wilde, Alaric, was a writer who wandered about foreign countries with his wife and children in tow, fearlessly doing fearless things.
Viola felt nausea at the mere idea of a ballroom, so the London Season—which would open this year with the Lindow Ball, celebrating Viola’s and her stepsister Joan’s debut into polite society?
Akin to the entrance to the fiery depths of hell.
Even thinking about her debut made Viola’s stomach squeeze into an anxious knot, let alone the idea of night after night of public occasions, one after another for months.
Her Aunt Knowe had promised her that the day would come when she would no longer felt a warning flash of heat, followed by a chill, followed by a lurch of her stomach, followed by…
And anything she’d eaten for breakfast.
Her mother Ophelia just hugged her and said that ballrooms didn’t matter.
Viola lived in a world in which ballrooms and huge dinners mattered.
Lindow Castle was more than just her home: Since the powerful Duke of Lindow rarely attended Parliament, the ruling members of England came to him. Lindow was often bursting at the seams with aristocrats and politicians.
Moreover, his children were infamous. Sometimes it felt as if all England awaited the next Wilde escapade. Prints depicting her stepsister Betsy’s debut had dominated the front widows of stationery shops for months.
Betsy had just laughed.
But Viola found the idea that someone would pay for her image horrifying. The Wildes were marvelous, and she loved each of them more than life itself, but the duke’s blood didn’t run in her veins. She wasn’t a real Wilde.
She didn’t belong in the castle, though her parents would be horrified if she voiced that conviction.
Her family loved her, and so did the castle peacocks, one half-grown crow, and two cows.
At the age of seven, Viola had discovered that the two adorable calves in the castle cowshed were being fattened for Easter dinner. She had named them Daisy and Cleopatra and begged her stepfather not to turn them into prime beefsteak. Her favorite refuge became the cowshed, the one place where beloved, brilliant, shining Wilde siblings only came if they were searching for her.
She had spent hours there, sitting on a stool, reading a book, and listening to the soft mooing of animals never forced into wigs and corsets and made to dance the quadrille.
“I can get through it,” she said now to Cleo, stroking her smudgy soft nose. “I can survive the Season.”
Cleo didn’t answer.
Likely she knew as well as Viola that survival was probable, success unlikely.
Even Aunt Knowe had a tight look around her eyes when she talked of the upcoming debut ball. She had taken to dosing the footmen with dandelion potions and asking them if they felt capable of serving dinner without breaking plates.
They had put the off the debut last year after Viola nearly lost her supper at a local soiree when a young man asked her to dance.
“Another year will make all the difference,” Aunt Knowe had promised.
So they had spent the last year in the country, Joan flirting madly with unmarried visitors while Viola tried to persuade their elderly vicar to allow her to open a Sunday school. When he passed away in his sleep, Viola gave up her dream of Father Duddleston begging her stepfather to allow her to remain in Cheshire, and reconciled herself to the truth.
She had to debut.