The Duke’s Disaster
Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm, exercises the pragmatism for which he’s infamous when his preferred choice of bride cries off, and her companion, Lady Thea Collins, becomes his next choice for his duchess. Lady Thea’s mature, sensible and even rather attractive—what could possibly go wrong?
As a lady fallen on hard times, Thea doesn’t expect tender sentiments from His Grace, but she does wish Noah had courted her trust, lest her past turn their hastily arranged marriage into a life of shared regrets. Is His Grace courting a convenient wife, or a ducal disaster?
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“I am not a nice man,” Noah Winters, eighth Duke of Anselm, pronounced.
Lady Arminthea Collins merely lifted a graceful feminine eyebrow at his self-assessment.
“Perhaps, Your Grace, a gentleman’s veracity is more worthy of note than his niceness,” she observed.
Noah silently applauded the lady’s composure; but then, her sangfroid was one of the qualities that had drawn his notice.
“I am not nice,” he reiterated, “but I am titled, wealthy, and in need of a wife.” Direct speech was necessary if the blasted pansies bordering the garden bench weren’t to provoke him into sneezing.
Noah’s last disclosure didn’t even merit a raised eyebrow.
“Hence your attentions to my employer,” Lady Thea murmured.
“Marliss isn’t your employer,” Noah countered. “If we’re to be truthful, her papa is, and now that she’s announced her betrothal to young Cowper, you will no doubt be looking for another position.”
That comment was a small display of his lack of niceness, but patience and posturing had never been Noah’s greatest attributes, particularly when his nose was starting to tickle.
“You’ve heard an announcement, Your Grace?”
“Endmon was rather jovial at the club last night.” Rather loquacious and rather drunk, like a papa was entitled to be when his darling girl had found another account to charge her millinery to.
Noah’s solicitors had warned him that Cowper’s man of business was in negotiations with Viscount Endmon, Marliss’s papa. All Noah had felt was a fleeting frustration, to have wasted weeks squiring the young lady about in hopes of concluding his bride hunt.
“If you’ll excuse me.” Lady Thea grasped her skirts in both hands as if to rise. “I’m sure there’s much to do, for Marliss will have throngs of callers—”
Noah wrapped a bare hand over Lady Thea’s wrist. His forwardness earned him a two-eyebrow salute, but also had her subsiding back onto the bench.
That wrist was delicate, particularly compared to Noah’s.
“A young lady’s companion,” he said, withdrawing his hand, “is little more than a finishing governess, Lady Thea. You are in want of a position, I am in want of a duchess, and I am offering you that post.”
No eyebrows, no gasp of shock, no reaction at all, as she regarded him out of puzzled green eyes. “You’re serious.”
To a fault, according to most women who’d ventured an opinion, including Noah’s most recent mistress.
“Your papa was an earl,” he said. “You’re comely, quiet, past the vapid stage, and from good breeding stock. You are every bit as much duchess material as that giggling twit you supervise.”
“Marliss is merely young,” Lady Thea said repressively. “But because you are not nice and I am not a giggling twit, you think we would suit?”
A fair summary. “I do, at least as well as I would have suited Marliss or any of her ilk.”
The morning sun caught red highlights in Lady Thea’s dark hair, and confirmed that she eschewed cosmetics. Marliss had been overfond of them, in Noah’s opinion.
“Marliss will be happier with Baron Cowper,” Lady Thea said. “What makes you think I would be happier as your duchess than in another companion’s post, Your Grace?”
Not the you-do-me-great-honor-but speech, which Noah had been prepared for—he did her a very significant honor indeed—but not a meek capitulation either. She managed to reprove without being rude—for which Noah admired her, of course.
Though he hadn’t planned on having the Anselm tiara so thoroughly inspected before the lady tried it on.
“You will never know material want,” Noah said, studying the privet hedge rather than her ladyship’s plain gray gown. “You will never be forced onto your brother’s dubious charity, and once the obligation to the succession is met, you will have as much freedom as discretion and independent wealth allow.”
Though if Noah had any say in the matter, Lady Thea would not order the gardeners to plant pansies beneath her window.
“You believe the obligation to the succession will be easily met?”
Lady Thea fired off the question crisply, but Noah wasn’t sure what she was asking. His breeding organs were as happily devoid of restraint as the next man’s, and the lady was comely enough he ought to be able to fulfill his duty.
“My father produced only two legitimate sons, despite taking three successive wives,” he said. “Your parents managed one son in three tries, so no, I am not boasting of an ability to control all aspects of our union, but I am hopeful Providence will be accommodating. You had a number of uncles on both sides, after all.”
Her ladyship fell silent, no pithy rejoinder, no troublesome questions.
Noah had sat across from her in many a carriage as he’d escorted Marliss on the usual round and knew that silence was one of Lady Thea’s many gifts. She was also quietly pleasing to the eye. She did nothing to draw attention to herself, but any man would notice that she had lustrous sable hair, good bones, a figure politely described as suited to childbearing, and green eyes with a hint of an exotic tilt to them.
She’d do, though this revelation had come to Noah only two days ago, when his informants had learned Marliss was no longer on the hunt for a groom. The idea had popped into his brain out of whole cloth, with the same lack of warning that characterized some of his most profitable commercial gambits.
A proposal to Lady Araminthea was worth a try in any case, because the Season would soon be over, and that meant another year before the next crop of giggling twits was presented at court. Another year of sitting backward in his own carriage, another year of strolling through colorful, troublesome gardens.
“I will think on this,” Lady Thea said. “I have no one to speak for me, so you will provide me any draft settlement documents.”
Provide them to her? The notion offended Noah on her behalf. “What about your brother?”
“If you and I can come to terms,” Lady Thea said, “you may send him a copy of the contracts as a courtesy, but I gather you seek to have matters timely resolved, and decisiveness is not in Timothy’s nature.”
Sobriety was not in Timotheus Collins’s nature, or temperance. Even a man who was not nice could keep those observations to himself.
“I can have drafts sent around to you by the end of the week,” Noah said, though dealing with Lady Thea directly on marriage settlements left him uneasy. “You have no one else to negotiate on your behalf—an uncle, or even a widowed aunt?”
“The Collins family tends to live with more intensity than stamina, Your Grace.” She rose, and this time Noah rose with her. “I am the eldest surviving exponent thereof. Will you walk with me?”
Yes, he would, provided they moved away from the infernal posies.
Noah offered his arm, content that Lady Thea would give him an answer within the week. Because she had no dowry, Noah could easily ensure the settlements favored her, though in the face of the lady’s hesitance, he turned his thoughts to the further inducements he could offer.
She would be his duchess, after all, and duchesses, even prospective ones, were due every courtesy.
“Your sister would of course be welcome in our home,” he said as they ambled away from the house—and the dratted flowers. On an early June morning, Viscount Endmon’s gardens were peaceful, pretty, and softly scented—like the woman whose arm was linked with Noah’s. They followed a gravel walk into a shaded bend in the trees where Lady Thea dropped his arm.
“I have a request,” she said.
Noah was prepared to bargain politely over a long engagement or a fancy wedding, though neither was in his plans. “Provided it’s reasonable…?”
They were out of view of the house and the stables, which was fortunate, for Noah sensed this additional, unanticipated request was the key to winning Lady Thea’s hand. Kissing was a pleasant enough undertaking, usually.
“What sort of kiss would you like?” he asked, for Noah’s expertise comprised the usual repertoire, plus a few extras.
Now she took a visual inventory of their surroundings, as if she either hadn’t known or hadn’t admitted to herself there were different kinds of kisses.
“A husbandly kiss.”
Women. “Because I have never been a husband, we must refine on the point. Is this to be the kiss of a husband greeting his spouse in the morning, parting from her, offering her amatory overtures, or…claiming her?”
“Not overtures.” Her ladyship checked the watch pinned to her bodice, a small, plain gold trinket apparently of more interest than Noah’s kisses. “A kiss to inspire trust.”
Was that the same as a kiss to seduce? But, no. She didn’t mean a kiss to inspire misplaced trust, but rather, a kiss to inspire the genuine article. Noah hadn’t taken Lady Thea for the fanciful sort, but kisses likely did not come her way often enough that she could allow an opportunity for one to pass by.
“Over here.” He took her hand and led her a few steps deeper into the shade. “Close your eyes.”
She had trouble with that, but eventually complied, giving Noah a moment to study her downcast, tense expression. He stepped closer and slipped a hand around her waist, bringing her against his taller frame.
The fit was pleasing, the lady’s martyred expression a trial.
“This isn’t kissing, Your Grace.”
“Hush,” he chided, “and no peeking. This is part of it, but I’m waiting for you to behave kissably.” He rested his chin on her crown, more so she’d know where he was than anything else, but that presumption allowed him to inhale her sweet, meadowy fragrance, and to brush his cheek over the silky warmth of her hair.
To prevent her ladyship from fussing him for his opening maneuvers, Noah grazed his nose over her cheek, then used his lips in the same gesture.
She stiffened in his arms.
Well, damn. So their marriage was to be candles-out, under-the-covers, nightclothes-all-around when it came to conjugal duties, emphasis on the duties. Noah sighed against her temple, and what should have been a kiss to inspire trust became a kiss of longing on his part for what would not be.
For six days, Thea held out, and on the seventh day she sent the duke of Anselm a note. She’d been all set to politely reject his proposal, for she’d already contacted the employment agencies before he’d made his startling offer. She should not be his duchess. Anselm was too intelligent, too assured, too cold, too…large, for her to consider his suit seriously.
The match would be appropriate though, and the temptation to accept had loomed mightily when he’d offered his home to Nonie too. Then there had been that kiss, not like any Thea had experienced, not in any way.
His grace had given her the first kiss she’d asked for, the first one she could say in some way she’d initiated, and his kiss had been so unexpected, so sweet, coming from such a taciturn, dark man. More than anything, that kiss had assured Thea she was no match for the duke. Her insides still went fizzy when memories of his kiss intruded on her thoughts, which they did frequently.
So the kiss had done its job, and weighed in against the notion of holy matrimony with Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm. Not the way Thea had thought it would, true, but effectively, nonetheless.
And now this. The settlements were generous, including a dowry for Nonie, however delicately described. Provision for Nonie was more than Thea could have hoped for, and the sum enough that one day her younger sister might have the happily ever after every girl had a right to wish for.
This generosity meant Anselm was even more shrewd than Thea had thought—or more perceptive. In any case, with Nonie’s future in the balance, Thea’s decision became more difficult. She was not the least bit confident she could carry off marrying the duke, and if she failed in her role, the consequences would be severe.
Still, those consequences would not devolve to Nonie, and thus, Thea wavered.
“He’s here.” Marliss bounced through the parlor door, blue eyes shining, golden curls severely confined with myriad pins. “This will kill Mama, positively kill her, Thea. You’re snabbling a duke, and one with pots and pots of lovely money. Shall I go down with you? I promise to giggle at all the wrong times.”
“Bother you.” Thea said, enduring Marliss’s hug. “You had sense enough to know you’d be happier with Cowper, and you’ll make Cowper happy too.”
Marliss dimpled becomingly. “He’s dear, and he’ll grow into the barony, whereas Anselm never will be dear, and doesn’t care a whit for his title. Maybe you can smooth off his rough edges, Thea, but he’s not my cup of tea. Regardless of his expression, one has the sense Anselms is always scowling.”
“I still haven’t accepted him,” Thea reminded Marliss—and herself.
“You are too sensible not to. I’ll give you fifteen minutes. If you want more, take him to the gardens or the mews. The staff is dodging work this morning because Mama has a bad headache.”
Thea finished the thought. “And the sound of pruning shears will overset her.” Marliss’s mama was easily overset, hence the need for Marliss’s companion to be of a sturdier constitution. “I’ll keep my conversation with Anselm most civilizedly quiet.”
Marliss escorted Thea to the top of the stairs, then blew her a kiss, and Thea was still smiling when Corbett Hallowell, Marliss’s older brother, pushed away from the wall on the second landing.
“In a hurry, Thea dear?” he crooned.
“Yes, if you must know.” Thea tried to hustle past him, but Marliss’s brother-the-heir was lanky, and he snaked out a long arm to clamp a hand above Thea’s elbow. He glanced around before stepping far closer than a gentleman should stand to a lady.
“She set a date yet?” he asked.
“You should discuss that with your sister,” Thea said. With the servants taking an informal half day, Corbett had chosen his moment well.
Corbett’s grip on Thea’s arm began to hurt. “You’ll be wanting another position, my lady.”
“Let me go.” Thea tried to extricate herself from his hold, but succeeded only in tightening Corbett’s grasp.
“I have a position in mind.” Corbett leaned in, pushing Thea up against the wall. “On your back, for starters. It pays well.”
“Let me go, Corbett.” Corbett, several years Thea’s junior and only a few inches taller than she, shouldn’t be posing such a threat—again. She’d kept her voice steady, but her heart was galloping, and panic beat through her veins. Jesus save her, Corbett’s breath held a foul whiff of last night’s spirits.
Scream, she ordered herself. Pray later, scream NOW.
“I like a little fight in a female.” Corbett swooped in as if to plant his lips on Thea’s mouth, but missed—thank God—and landed closer to her ear as she began to struggle in earnest.
“I like a lot of fight in a man,” said a cool baritone, “except those worthy of the name are in such short supply.”
Corbett’s head came up, and then he was gone. One moment he was all pinching fingers, fetid breath, and slobbery lips, the next, he was flung against the opposite wall, trying to look indignant but mostly looking scared.
“If you must prey on your dependents,” Anselm said, “you’d best do it where you can’t be seen, overheard, or held to account. You may apologize or choose weapons. My advice would be something unconventional—whips, knives, maybe—because pistols and swords no longer pose much challenge—for me, that is.”
The duke spoke casually, shooting his cuffs, then winging his arm at Thea. She accepted his grace’s escort but spared Corbett a perusal as well. He was gratifyingly pale and still darting glances up and down the stairs.
“My apologies, Lady Thea.” Corbett found the strength to stand up straight and nod curtly. “Your charms—”
“Tut-tut,” Anselm interrupted mildly.
“Are not for me to take advantage of,” Corbett finished.
“Adequate,” Anselm said. “Be off with you.”
Corbett left, but turned on the third stair up and shot a murderous look over his shoulder, timed so Thea caught it, and the duke, in his towering calm, did not.
“Tiresome,” Anselm said, “but my apologies as well, on behalf of my gender. I gather we’ll have more privacy out-of-doors, unless you need your hartshorn, or a tisane, or some such?”
“A bit of fresh air in the gardens will do,” Thea said, though a stout punch directed at Corbett’s nose would have been a fine restorative too.
The duke had the decency to accompany Thea outside in silence, while her emotions rocketed between gratitude that Anselm had come along, disgust that Corbett had waylaid her again, and the sinking certainty that if Anselm’s offer of marriage had been only reluctantly appealing before—despite his sweet kiss—it looked un-turn-downable now.
But how on God’s earth was Thea to be honest with him?
“Does he importune you often?” Anselm asked, as if he were inquiring as to where Thea had acquired her watch pin.
“Me, the tweenie, the scullery maid. Corbett’s papa dotes on him, and he’s at that age between university and marriage, where he has no responsibilities, and all his friends are similarly situated.”
“You make excuses for him?” Anselm’s tone was thoughtful, not quite chiding as he steered Thea away from the pansies.
“Of necessity, I understand him,” she said. “He’s no worse than most of his kind.”
“Meaning he’s not the first to pester you,” Anselm concluded, sounding displeased. “Shall we sit?” He’d drawn Thea into the shade at the back of the property, where they’d have privacy, at least until Marliss appeared. He chose a bench for them, then came down beside her.
“I was planning to refuse you,” Thea said. “But your generosity toward my sister, and the inevitability of scenes such as the one you just interrupted have persuaded me toward acceptance, Your Grace.”
“Noah,” he replied, sounding no more thrilled to hear her acceptance than she was to tender it. “If we’re to be married, you should know my name.”
“Shall I use it?”
“You are welcome to,” he said. “Why?”
“Why accept my proposal?”
“I will never know material want,” she quoted him, when she should have been blurting out the blunt details of her past. “I will not be cast on my brother’s dubious charity. I’ll have independence once certain matters are tended to.” She was too much a lady to refer to the settlements directly, but they were impressive.
His grace’s expression suggested he did not like hearing his reasoning cast back at him, and Thea’s resolve faltered.
“My sister will be safer under your protection than the indifferent efforts of my brother,” she said, marshalling her scruples. “I can see to her come-out as your duchess.”
“And you’ll be away from Corbett’s charming importuning,” Anselm concluded. “You know, I would find you another situation, did you ask it of me.”
Thea hadn’t known that, but more glorified governessing would do nothing to assure Nonie’s future.
“I will not ask it.”
His grace’s features showed fleeting amusement. Thea knew what he was thinking: She’ll take my name, my coin, my protection for life provided I get breeding rights, but she’ll not be beholden to me for a simple act of consideration. Women.
“A special license then?” he asked.
Thea nodded, as anxiety chewed at her nerves. The moment when she might be honest with the duke and suffer only his quiet disdain was passing. He would get children on her, and he had a right to know the truth of her situation.
“Shall I see to the details?” he asked in the same tone Thea used to inquire whether a guest at tea preferred one lump of sugar or two.
“Marliss will be wed fairly soon,” Thea said. “I assume I’m welcome here until then.”
“And leave you where Corbett can follow up on his apology?” the duke scoffed. “Not blessed likely. You will bide with my sister Patience. How soon can you be packed?”
Anselm—Noah—wasn’t stupid. Maybe not nice, but singularly capable of grasping the unpleasant realities of a woman’s life in service. A lady’s life in service. Thea opened her mouth to speak the words that would have him retracting his proposal.
“This afternoon,” she heard herself say. Anxiety rose higher, even as leaving Endmon’s household also sparked relief.
“I’ll send a coach at three. We’ll soon no doubt be interrupted soon, so you’d best apprise me of any changes you’d like to make to the settlements.”
Thea waved a hand as if batting away an insect. “The settlements are fine, more than fine, generous, and I thank you.” In for a penny… “When can I collect Nonie?”
“We can collect your sister tomorrow. I assume you’ll want her underfoot as you prepare for the wedding?”
“Of course,” Thea murmured, while vividly recalling the one time she’d been on a runaway horse. The memory was unpleasant, and the sensations—stupefying panic, primarily—were reasserting themselves.
“How long will it take to locate your brother and get him into wedding attire?” Anselm asked.
His grace was appallingly blunt, though Thea liked that about him. “A few days,” she said. “The Season is reaching its apex, and he’ll be about somewhere.”
“I’ll see to it. Anything else?”
Thea’s gaze traveled to the back of the house, where all was still, not a sign of life.
“Yes.” She was to become Anselm’s wife, a far more daunting prospect than simply swanning about as his duchess. “It’s not about the settlements.”
His grace sat back, regarding her with a banked impatience that suggested for the duke, Thea had become a piece work in the Concluded Business category. A last-minute request was merely an irritant for her prospective husband.
Husband, gads. Tell him. “I need time, Your Grace.”
“I barely know you.” Though twenty years into marriage with this man, Thea might still barely know him, and not mind that a bit.
“You’ve been sharing carriages and walking with me and Marliss for weeks,” he shot back. “I’ve kissed you.”
“Once. I’m not asking for a lot of time, and we can be married whenever you please, but after that…”
“You want me to woo you?” Anselm made it sound as if Thea’s request were peculiar—eccentric. Interesting, in an abstract, slightly absurd way.
“Not woo, precisely.” Most people would call Anselm handsome, for all his expression was usually sardonic. Dark hair, unnaturally vivid blue eyes, aristocratic features, and a nose and chin suggesting he held to his convictions. But he was too big, too robust, too male.
“I am marrying to beget heirs, Lady Thea,” he reminded her.
“You’ve had years to do that,” she reminded him right back. “A few weeks or months one way or another won’t matter. Your proposal was unexpected. I’ve not been assessing you as a potential mate, though you apparently had that luxury with me all the while you were courting Marliss.”
The duke’s lips compressed into a line, and Thea could see him weighing the desire to argue against the constraints of a gentleman’s manners.
“The vows will be consummated on our wedding night, but after that, we’ll take it slowly,” he allowed, his delicacy relieving a little of Thea’s worry. “Not as slowly as you’d like, more slowly than I’d like. And I have a request, also not in the settlements.”
More than that, Thea sensed, he would not give her, but his concession was enough, because she’d find some way to tell him the whole of the bargain before vows were spoken. She waited for his additional request—that she call on his sisters, limit her spending, let him speak with Endmon.
Men took odd notions.
“Kiss me,” he said, something flashing through his eyes that might have been humor.
Odd, unexpected notions. “I’ve already kissed you once, Your Grace. That was quite enough.”
“No, it was not.” Anselm laced his fingers with Thea’s. “I kissed you. Now you kiss me.”
His hand was big, brown, and callused, hers graceful, pale, and smooth. Pretty, but ultimately useless, those hands of hers.
“What sort of kiss, Your Grace?” For kisses apparently had their own taxonomy.
“Any kind of kiss you like, provided it’s wifely and not some cowardly little peck on the cheek.”
The duke was challenging her, and Thea silently thanked him. Her worries and fears and second guesses were getting the better of her, but a challenge restored her balance.
Anselm had approached their previous kiss, with a casual élan Thea could never carry off, though she could imitate his ducal imperiousness.
“Close your eyes, Your Grace.”
The duke sat beside Thea, eyes obediently closed as she rose and balanced with one knee on the bench, one foot on the ground. She purposely put herself higher than he, trying to create the fiction that his size didn’t intimidate. Her experience was limited though, so she had to aim her kiss by cradling his jaw in her hand before she pressed her lips to his. His skin was surprisingly smooth, indicating he’d shaved just before calling on her, and his scent was…
Lovely. As Thea settled her mouth over his, she inhaled lavender and roses, an odd fragrance for a man, but fitting somehow. Anselm’s mouth moved under hers, and his hand cupped her elbow. Thea let her fingers trail back through his dark hair, which was as thick and silky as it looked, and beguilingly soft, while his features were so rugged.
As his tongue seamed Thea’s lips, her hand went still, her breathing seized, and she paused, listening with her mouth for him to repeat the caress.
“Now you,” he whispered, before joining his mouth to hers again.
He wanted her to taste him?
Tentatively, Thea complied, the texture of the duke’s lips against her tongue soft, plush, and…enticing. She did it again, and Anselm leaned closer, his arms looping around her waist. With her last shred of sanity, Thea grasped that kneeling over him like this put his face at bodice level.
She lifted her mouth from his and tried to step back, though Anselm’s arms around her waist prevented her retreat.
“None of that,” he chided, drawing her down beside him. “We’ll bide here a minute, while you gather your wits.”
“It’s not every day a lady accepts a marriage proposal.”
“Oh, yes.” Thea touched her lips with her index finger. Was the buzzing sensation from her lips or her finger or her entire body? “That.”
Anselm’s gaze warmed again with that fleeting suggestion of humor.
“That.” He slipped his fingers through hers, and a silence stretched between them.
Unnerved, on Thea’s part. No doubt pleased on the duke’s.
“Why now?” Lord Earnest Meecham Winters Dunholm, as Noah’s only surviving adult male family member, could safely ask that question. “You’ve had years to find a filly, Noah, and you’ve not troubled yourself to do so. I had my doubts about you, you know.”
“They were hardly secret,” Noah said as Meech handed him a glass of very fine spirits. “And, yes, if you’re interested, I sent Henrietta her parting piece before the Season even started. You’re welcome to console her on my departure.”
Meech’s countenance brightened. “Henny Whitlow? She won’t hold a little snow on the roof against a fellow. Might drop by and see what her terms are these days.”
Noah took a sip of drink for which he himself had paid.
“Her terms are expensive,” Noah said. “Too expensive for you, Uncle, so don’t think of taking her on full-time.”
In fact, the entire elegant apartment on an elegant Mayfair side street was billed to Noah, as were the servants’ wages and tradesmen’s deliveries. Meech had tried for a time to live off the proceeds of his gambling, with notable, if elegant, lack of success.
“From one Winters to another, it pains me to say it, young man”—Meech settled into a wing chair—“but while the spirit is enthusiastically willing, the flesh is not what it once was. Though mark me, experience can compensate for a great deal of what passes for youthful vigor. Besides, with a bit of charm and guile, a man needn’t be writing bank drafts.”
Meech had been the dashing, blond, blue-eyed ducal spare in his youth, and he’d aged handsomely, considering how dissipated his lifestyle had been.
“Henny’s easy to please, as long as your credit is good on Ludgate Hill,” Noah said, which was no compliment to himself and no insult to dear Henny.
Meech took a parsimonious sip of his drink. “In my day, we were neither so mercenary about these things, nor so sentimental. We understood sweetness without turning it into a business transaction, and we understood our place in life.”
Which was, apparently, to lecture all and sundry at the least provocation. Noah rose, for Meech was merciless when he had a captive, well-heeled nephew for an audience.
“Now comes the speech about great-nephews being sadly absent from your golden years. Or did I leave out the part about respecting one’s elders by increasing their stipends?”
“Elder,” Meech corrected him with a pained smile. “Singular. But because you’re putting your shoulder to the marital plow, so to speak, I’ll forego that particular homily. Do I know the lady?”
“One hopes not biblically,” Noah said, almost meaning it. Meech had married once, quite young, and mercenarily enough that he was still sporting the lady’s surname as a condition of the settlements. Having buried his young bride decades ago, Meech claimed he’d be doing the women of England an injustice to limit his favors again to only one wife—of his own.
The portrait over the mantel was of two men and a single woman, all three stylishly mounted, enjoying a visit under a venerable oak. Every time Noah saw the painting, he wondered where the lady’s groom had got off to.
“My intended is the daughter to the Earl of Grantley,” Noah said, for Meech would pester him until he delivered up the details. Meech knew everybody, being in great demand among the hostesses to even the numbers and keep morale up among the widows and wallflowers.
“A sturdy, sensible lady fallen on hard times?” Meech asked, downing the rest of the drink.
“Pretty enough,” Noah conceded, though Thea was quietly lovely, “and her brother is a twit who’s bankrupting the earldom at a tidy gallop.”
“There’s another sister, isn’t there, not so long in the tooth?”
“Lady Antoinette.” The bargaining chip that had likely decided the matter for Lady Araminthea. “She’ll dwell with us, and yes, I know I would have had a few more breeding seasons out of the younger sister, but she and I haven’t met.”
Even Noah would not marry a woman sight unseen.
“So why are you marrying now, and why this Lady Thea?”
Lady Thea had something to do with the why now.
“When both my father and my junior uncle did not live to see fifty,” Noah replied, “I promised Grandfather on his death bed that I’d meet a marital deadline. As for Lady Thea, she’s an earl’s daughter serving out her days as a companion. Given the reputation of you lot”—he waved a hand to indicate his father and uncles before him—“I want a respectable duchess. Ladies come no more respectable than the companions at the edges of the ballrooms. Then too, I like Lady Thea.” Which Noah probably should not have admitted in present company. “But not too much.”
“That’s promising.” Meech topped up his own drink, his tolerance for spirits being legendary among the college boys. “Does she like you?”
“She’s willing to tolerate me,” Noah said, opening a gold snuffbox on the mantel and catching a whiff of cinnamon, of all the nancy affectations. “The female who likes me has yet to be born to the human species.”
“Take after your grandfather, you do. None of my charm, though I was a late bloomer too.”
“Very late,” Noah rejoined, for sober maturity had yet to entirely settle upon Meech. “Will you fetch Harlan from school?”
“A note will fetch him from school. He hasn’t your penchant for the books, Noah. God knows who that boy takes after.”
A subject even Meech should not have raised.
Noah set his drink on the mantel next to the snuffbox. “Just get him to the wedding in proper attire. Breakfast will be at Anselm House immediately after, family only, and my thanks for the brandy.”
“Do you suppose Henny would like that snuffbox?” Meech asked.
Henny had better taste than that, but she was kind. “You should ask her, but please, for the love of heaven, do not bring her up at the wedding breakfast.”
Meech poured the remains of Noah’s drink into his own glass, something he likely would not have done had a servant been present.
“If you’re intent on seeing this wedding accomplished forthwith, I will not be in evidence, Noah. Pemberton and I have accepted Deirdre Harting’s invitation to a house party out in Surrey, and she would be most disappointed did we let her down. I’ll give Henny your regards before I go, though.”
For a man in his late forties, Meech was handsome, trim, and charming by most hostess’s standards. He and his bosom bow, Pemberton, could have passed for twins, right down to a shared distaste for weddings.
“Far be it from me to expect my nuptials would take precedence over your socializing,” Noah said, though he was disappointed—or he should have been.
Meech walked with him toward the front door. “You’re sure you won’t take up with Henny again once the wife is settled?”
“I’m sure.” Almost sure.
“Best keep your options open. Wives can be the very devil.”
“You would know, Uncle. You’ve had so many.”
“Disrespectful pup. If you’re lucky, you’ll grow up to be just like me.”
“I could do worse,” Noah graciously allowed—Meech had at least avoided diseases of vice and tiresome addictions.
Noah accepted his hat, cane, and gloves from a footman, and saw himself out, stopping by his own establishment only long enough to send the requisite note to his younger brother—half brother, in truth—then choose a ring for his bride from among those presented for his perusal.
“And for the morning gift, Your Grace?” the dapper little gentleman inquired. “Perhaps you’d like to see some bracelets, necklaces, earbobs?”
“No, thank you.” Noah had forgotten this detail, but Thea Collins did not strike him as a jewelry-acquiring sort of female. She’d want independence, not ornamentation. “The lady will choose most of her own jewelry, but I will certainly recommend your shop to her.”
“Our sincere thanks, Your Grace.” The man bowed and took his leave with a blessed absence of further obsequies.
When Noah’s town coach rolled up to the Endmon establishment, his intended was ready, her belongings stowed in one pathetically battered and small trunk. Her luggage was lashed to the boot, and amid a teary send-off from Marliss—and only Marliss—Noah collected his bride.
“Are you sorry to leave your charge?” Noah settled into the carriage while his future duchess sat across from him, cradling a small, maple wood box on her lap.
“I will miss her,” her ladyship conceded, “but Marliss is destined for her own household now, so my task was complete.”
“Lady Thea, does my person offend you?”
“I beg your pardon, Your Grace?”
“I’m a frequent bather, and a devoted slave to my tooth powder,” Noah went on, “and I will wear only clean linen, so I must wonder why my affianced bride has left me to myself on the forward-facing seat.”
She clutched her wooden box, her expression genuinely abashed. “I meant no offense, Your Grace. Habit only, I assure you.”
Her ladyship didn’t move until Noah held out a hand, steadying her in the moving carriage as she switched benches. He took her box from her and kept her hand in his.
“You’ve met my sister Lady Patience?”
“She called this morning. A very amiable woman.”
“My sisters are all amiable,” Noah replied. “All three of them, until they fix on some objective, and then they amiably ride roughshod over all in their path to achieve it.” Including their ducal brother.
“They are each wed, are they not?”
“Thanks to a merciful God and the pudding that passes for brains in the heads of most young Englishmen, they are. Have you considered a wedding trip?”
“I have not,” Lady Thea said, her gaze on their joined hands. “A journey seems inappropriate, as our union is not…”
“Not…?” Noah wouldn’t rescue her from the windowless corner she’d painted herself into.
“Not sentimental in nature, Your Grace. You’ve assured me we’ll have time to become acquainted, and you’re busy enough without having to create the appearance of doting on your broodmare.”
Lady Thea would have had ample opportunity to draw that conclusion. During her weeks of chaperoning Marliss, she’d seen that a duke worth his title must needs go through life at the speed of a particularly fierce whirlwind. A duchy did not run itself.
“I do dote on my broodmares,” Noah informed her. “They’re more likely to catch that way, and I enjoy it.”
“Doting will not be necessary.” Lady Thea injected enough frost into her tone that a lesser man might dread his wedding night.
“We’ll see.” Noah rubbed his thumb over her wrist, which was the only inch of skin exposed below her pretty neck. “In case you’re interested, I might enjoy being doted on a little myself.”
“How would one go about that?”
“You’ll think of something,” he assured her, “but we arrive to your brother’s residence. I hope you sent a note?”
“Of course. One to Tim, one to Nonie. You may leave my music box here.”
Though Noah did not want to encourage his bride’s tendency to issue orders, he put her box under the seat.
The coachman set them down in the porte cochere, where no footman or butler appeared at the door to greet them. Noah looked askance at her ladyship, but her chin was held high as she opened the door and admitted them herself.
“Lady Thea!” A plump older woman in apron and cap came scampering up the hallway. “It’s that glad we are to see you. Lady Nonie will be down directly now you’re here, and you’ve brought a caller.”
“Hello, Mrs. Wren.” Thea bent so the lady could kiss her cheek. “Is my brother home?”
“Oh, he’s home, my lady.” Mrs. Wren’s expression suggested the greatest of her earthly burdens lay one floor above. “Whether he’s at home, I surely couldn’t say. Perhaps you and the gentleman would like to greet Lady Nonie in the morning room?”
“We’ll see ourselves up,” Thea replied. “If you could please send along some tea, once you’ve let Nonie know we’re here?”
“Thea!” A younger, merrier version of Thea came skipping down the stairs, dark curls bouncing with each step.
“Thea, you’ve come, oh, thank the saints.” Lady Nonie threw herself against her sister and held tight. “Is it true? Is this your fellow?” The girl tossed a barely recognizable curtsy at Noah, and proceeded to obliterate the protocol for introductions. “You’re the Duke of Anselm?”
“I have that honor,” Noah replied.
“Lady Antoinette,” Thea interjected, “may I make known to you my betrothed, Noah, Duke of Anselm. Your Grace, Lady Antoinette Collins, my younger sister.”
“My lady.” Noah bowed over the younger woman’s hand, and saw a smaller replica of Thea, one not so plagued by life’s injustices and realities. “It will be my pleasure to offer you a place in our home for so long as you care to join us.”
Or until some pudding-headed swain came along sporting a ring.
Nonie blushed and slipped her hand into a pocket. “He even talks like a duke.”
“I take tea like one too.” Noah said, seeing smitten lordlings by the half dozen lounging about his parlors several years hence. “If that’s the plan?”
“Of course,” Lady Thea said. “The parlor is this way, and bother it, Nonie, have we not a single footman to take his grace’s hat and gloves?”
“Not a one,” Nonie replied blithely. “They work until the pay runs out, then find other positions until the next quarter’s funds show up. I can take his grace’s hat and gloves.”
“I’ll hold on to them for now,” Noah said. When the party reached the morning parlor, he set his accessories on a sideboard. The curtains hung the merest inch askew, the rug needed a sound beating, and the andirons hadn’t been blacked in a week.
Shabby in the details, not yet desperate.
The sisters were desperate to spend time together, though, based on the speed with which Nonie chattered on about some cat and the boot boy, and a bird loose in the pantry.
“Are you packed, Lady Antoinette?” Noah asked when the girl had paused to take a breath.
“I am.” She spared Noah a smile that was no doubt already turning heads when she walked in the park. “I’ll fetch my trunk down before we go.”
“You,” Noah shot back, “will sit right there and sip your tea, while I see to your trunks.”
He left the ladies in the morning room and found his way to the corridor housing the family bedrooms. A passing maid—cap askew, apron stained—pointed him to Lady Nonie’s room and gave him directions to Lord Grantley’s quarters.
Noah found his lordship facedown on a bed and sporting one stocking only. The rest of him was sprawled across the covers, naked as a babe, snoring the day away.
“Here lies the head of the Collins household,” Noah muttered. Grantley couldn’t be much more than twenty, his form hardly that of a man. The abundant evidence confirmed he eschewed physical exertion, and his hands qualified as those of a gentleman—or a lady.
The young earl screamed like a female too, when Noah tossed a glass of cold drinking water on his back.
“What the blazes!” Grantley slewed up onto all fours, shaking his head, then must have realized he wasn’t alone. “Who the hell are you, and why in blazes did you do that?”
“I’m your prospective brother-in-law,” Noah replied, “and unless you want my boot planted on your tender and none-too-attractive backside, I suggest you get out of that bed and prepare to send your sisters into my keeping in say, ten minutes.”
Noah smiled nastily. “You have the two, Nonie and Thea. I’m marrying Thea, the taller one, and she’s bringing Nonie with us for safekeeping. Your solicitors have the contracts, and the wedding is in three days.”
“Three days!” Grantley bounced to the edge of the bed, then sat very still. “Shouldn’t have moved so quickly. Beg pardon.”
Noah passed him the empty washbasin. “See you in ten minutes,” Noah tossed over his shoulder, heading for the door. “Nine and a half, now.”
It took twenty, but Grantley managed a semblance of casual attire when he showed up in the morning parlor.
He nodded at his older sister. “How do, Thea, and who’s your gentleman friend?”
“Noah, Duke of Anselm.” Noah bowed politely. He held the superior rank, but they were under Grantley’s roof—and the ladies were looking on. “At your service, and it is my happy honor to report that Lady Araminthea has accepted my suit. The wedding will be at eleven of the clock, on the indicated date with a wedding breakfast at Anselm House thereafter.”
Grantley squinted at the hand-lettered invitation Noah passed him and ran a hand through hair lighter—and less tidy—than Thea’s.
“Is this cricket, Thea?” the earl asked. “Seems hasty to me, but maybe you’ve anticipated the vows?”
Even Lady Nonie’s expression went blank at that insult.
“Were you not so obviously suffering from the lack of couth that characterizes most with your insignificant years,” Noah said, “I would call you to task for the slight you offer my bride.”
Both sisters were sipping tea as if their reputations depended upon it.
Hopeless. “Grantley, you will swill some strong black tea and then assist me to retrieve Lady Nonie’s effects from her room,” Noah instructed.
“Hirschman can do it.” With a shaking hand, Grantley accepted a hot cup of tea from his younger sister.
Hopeless and arrogant. Noah’s sympathy for his bride doubled. “Where will I find that worthy?”
“He’s a man of all work,” Thea said. “He’s been with us forever, and he’ll likely be in the kitchen if he’s on the property.”
Noah left the three siblings to their tea, and noted more evidence of poor household care as he made his way below stairs. A streak of bird droppings left a long white smudge on a window in the foyer, a carpet in the hallway bore a dubious stain, and the door to the lower reaches squeaked mightily. Fortunately, Hirschman was indeed in the kitchen, but Mrs. Wren nearly wrung her apron into rags at the sight of a duke in her domain.
“Mr. Hirschman, if you’d see to Lady Nonie’s things?” Noah asked when Mrs. Wren had ceased fluttering and muttering.
“Of course.” Hirschman rose, presenting a sturdy if slightly stooped frame. “But where might I ask, is the young lady off to?”
About time somebody asked, because Grantley didn’t seem inclined to delve into particulars.
“Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm.” Noah bowed slightly, because this fellow was likely all that had kept Grantley’s wastrel friends from bothering Lady Nonie. “Betrothed to Lady Thea, who is gathering Lady Nonie under her wing. Lady Thea is with her brother and sister now, and the wedding is to be in several days’ time.”
Bushy white eyebrows rose, and the housekeeper’s apron-wringing came to an abrupt halt.
“So soon?” Hirschman asked. At least he didn’t inquire outright if they’d anticipated their vows.
“I cannot countenance leaving the young ladies to shift for themselves any longer than necessary,” Noah said. “Or perhaps there’s some hidden streak of sobriety in Lord Grantley I’ve failed to appreciate?”
“Not perishing likely,” Hirschman scoffed. “Too much like his friends, that one. I’ll fetch the trunks, but Your Grace will leave the direction with Mrs. Wren, if you please.”
Noah complied, because Hirschman’s request, while presuming in the extreme, was fair. If Grantley turned up missing, his sisters ought to be notified—eventually.
When Noah returned to the morning parlor, Grantley was looking a little less like a fish dead three days, and Lady Nonie’s speech had slowed to a rapid approximation of conversation.
“If you ladies are ready?” Noah picked up his hat and gloves. “Lady Nonie’s trunks are being loaded as we speak.”
“You’re leaving?” Grantley asked. He was a good-looking enough young man, but would soon lose his appeal if he remained dedicated to dissipation.
“We’re off to the home of His Grace’s sister, Lady Patience, until the wedding,” Thea said, “and thence to Anselm House.”
“Because you’re getting married,” Grantley recited slowly, “to him.” He blinked owlishly, likely still a little drunk from the previous evening’s revels.
“We’ll send a carriage for you,” Noah said, “and some footmen. Who’s your tailor?”
Grantley waved a hand in a gesture Noah had seen Thea make. “Some fellow on Bond Street.”
“That narrows it considerably,” Noah said, his sarcasm clearly escaping Grantley’s notice. “Ladies, shall we?”
“Bye, Tims.” Nonie hugged her brother. “You should go back upstairs and have a little more rest, I think, and don’t forget your tooth powder.”
Thus warned, Thea merely extended her hand to her brother. “I look forward to seeing you at the wedding, Tims, and thank you for coming down.”
He bowed over her hand, his expression bewildered as they took their leave. Some of Noah’s ire toward “Tims” abated when he saw how lost the earl was to part with his sisters.
Noah knew how that felt. He’d forgotten he knew, but he did know.
“This is the lot of it?” Noah asked as Hirschman set down a second trunk amid a paltry pile of bags beside the coach.
“I haven’t many clothes that still fit,” Nonie explained. “This is it. My thanks, Hirschman.”
“On your way, your ladyships.” Hirschman tugged his forelock. “Mrs. Wren and I will look after Master Tims, same as we always do.”
Noah shot Hirschman a speaking look. “You have my direction. I’ll send a carriage, clothing, and a squad of dragoons to impress the pup into the wedding party. Warn him he’d best be sober. He’ll regret shaming my bride in any way.”
Noah handed up Thea, then Nonie, and signaled the coachman to hold for a moment when the door was closed.
“How bad is the earl?” Noah asked Hirschman, walking a few steps toward the rear of the coach.
“For now?” Hirschman scrubbed a hand over his chin. “His lordship’s not awful, he’s just young and stupid as a stump. He gets took advantage of, but the solicitors curb the worst of it, and the old lord set it up so they can keep him from ruin for at least another year. Once he turns five-and-twenty, though, he gets the reins, and God help us then, Your Grace.”
“If he lives that long. You and Mrs. Wren are adequately provided for?”
“We take our wages out first when the quarterly money shows up. The rest is spread around as needs must.”
“Do the best you can.” Noah pushed a card at him. “If the water gets too high, send word to me.”
Hirschman tucked the card into a pocket. “Master Tims gambles,” he said quietly. “Drinking and gaming, and running with his cronies. That’s the worst of it, and many a young lord has found ruin on that road.”
Ruin, disease, a tour of the sponging houses, idiotic duels, and penury. “His sisters are safe,” Noah said, “and they’ll stay safe as long as I draw breath.”
“Good day to you, then, Your Grace,” Hirschman said, stepping back, “and felicitations on your coming nuptials.”
The first such felicitations Noah had received.
“My thanks, Hirschman.” Noah climbed into the carriage, taking the backward-facing seat, and wondering why, though he’d known Grantley was a useless puppy, he hadn’t considered that the man was also Lady Thea’s useless puppy of a brother. What manner of titled brother would allow his sister into service, for pity’s sake?
The young men of England, Noah silently concluded, didn’t even have pudding for brains.
“You mustn’t let Anselm’s growling fool you,” Lady Patience said as the maid arranged Thea’s hair. “He was the best of brothers, and still is, though my husband accounts him excessively willing to engage in trade. You won’t mind that, will you?”
Patience was a feminine version of her brother. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, with swooping eyebrows that turned a pretty countenance toward the dramatic.
“I’m marrying His Grace,” Thea said, meeting Patience’s gaze in the vanity mirror. “This relieves me of any right to judge the man for decisions made prior to our union.”
Thea desperately hoped reciprocal reasoning would apply, for there had been no opportunity to be private with the duke.
Had he planned it that way?
Patience smiled over-brightly. “Tolerance is a fine quality in any married woman, but once married, your husband will provoke you sooner or later. You simply learn the knack of keeping your judgments to yourself—most of the time. Not that I don’t love my James, because I do, of course.”
She fell silent, and Thea endured another spike of panic, for loving Noah Winters was difficult to imagine—assuming the wedding happened. She’d yet to find a moment to pull him aside and have a frank discussion with him. Since accepting his proposal, Thea hadn’t been alone with the duke, and now they were to be wed.
Now, within the next couple of hours, and then their life together would begin.
Duke and duchess.
Man and wife.
The two becoming one flesh.
Gads. Thea could imagine respecting Anselm, yes, certainly, and maybe thirty or forty years from now harboring some affection for his irascible old self. But loving him? The notion was as peculiar as the idea of—what had he said?—doting on him a bit?
Once they’d had their frank discussion, what would his reaction be? How did a lady even broach such delicate matters?
“Can we not simplify this style?” Thea asked as her coiffure became an increasingly complicated arrangement of braids, curls, and hairpins.
The maid aimed a commiserating look at Patience, who had been the soul of graciousness thus far.
“It is your wedding day,” Patience said. “In olden times, you would have worn your hair down. You should have it as you wish.”
“Down then.” The style would surprise Thea’s groom, and any lady who’d been consigned to his grace’s Concluded Business heap would find that notion appealing.
When they arrived at St. George’s and Thea’s gaze met that of her prospective husband, she saw the surprise go through him, followed by that little softening of the eyes she suspected meant he was amused. His amusement was tempered by something else though, something she couldn’t quite fathom, but it inspired him not to offer his arm to her as she approached the altar, but rather, to take her gloved hand in his.
Anselm held Thea’s hand throughout those parts of the ceremony that allowed such liberties, the celebrant not daring to even raise an eyebrow. More remarkable still, when the service was concluded, Noah indulged in the modern display of kissing his bride in public. Had Thea known the duke would get up to such tricks, she might have taken evasive maneuvers, but he’d caught her unawares with another soft, almost tender, kiss.
What had she got herself into?
“Having second thoughts, Duchess?” the duke asked as he handed her up into an enormous coach drawn by four spanking-white horses.
To whom could he possibly be—Oh.
“Second thoughts regarding?”
“Our holy matrimony,” he said, helping her shift the yards of material of her wedding gown. “Why do females insist on donning such splendid finery when travel will immediately follow?”
Thea had worn her last truly good dress. “Was that a compliment my gown?”
“Suppose it was.” Anselm plopped down on the seat as if just he’d rowed five miles of the Thames upstream. “Will you wear your hair down all day?”
“I’ll do something with it before we sit down to eat.” Perhaps Thea and the duke would be given a moment’s privacy before the guests arrived, and then she’d find a way—
“Turn a little.” He’d taken off his gloves and moved Thea by putting his hands on her bare shoulders. “Hold still.”
Carefully, he drew off her veil and coronet, then smoothed his hands through her hair.
“You are presuming, Your Grace.”
“I’m tending to my bride. Who would have thought you had all this hair, so tightly do you coil it up.” Gentle tugs and twists accompanied this ducal scold to Thea’s tresses.
“You’re braiding my hair?”
“When a mare is ridden into the hunt field, she has her mane and tail braided. Keeps the brambles and burrs from plaguing her.”
His Grace had a decided fondness for female horses. “So I must permit you this liberty?”
“You’d best. Consider it a form of doting.”
His hands were competent and oddly soothing as he finger combed Thea’s hair over her shoulders, then trailed it straight down her back to her hips. Despite a crushing urge to close her eyes and subside against the cushioned seat—despite equally compelling urges to bolt from the coach and to pour out her heart to her spouse—Thea kept her spine straight until the duke secured her braid with the few pins and combs she’d worn to the church.
“Thank you, Your Grace. I will have less work to do tonight when I brush it out.”
“Tonight, madam, I’ll brush your hair out,” he said.
The butterflies that had been settling in Thea’s stomach took wing again. She and her husband needed to talk, but just as she turned to address him, the Anselm town residence came into view.
The duke remained unnervingly attentive to her throughout the breakfast. To Thea’s surprise, Tim appeared looking reasonably alert and sober, and quite well put together. He’d been at the church, to escort her up the aisle, but she’d hardly seen him for having been distracted by Anselm, looking so stern and proper in his formal attire.
The duke always looked stern and proper—unless he was smirking, and looking stern, proper and sardonic.
The breakfast passed in a chattery blur, for all three of his grace’s sisters and their spouses were present, and the women conversed at a great rate, managing to include Nonie and Thea in most of the topics. The men communicated apace as well, mostly with shared looks of indulgent patience, raised eyebrows, winks, and sighs. Anselm’s sisters had chosen good men, and the notion comforted.
In all likelihood, Anselm had chosen good men for his sisters.
All too soon, Thea had changed into a carriage dress and was again seated beside the duke, his traveling coach speeding them to one of his smaller holdings in Kent.
Really, truly the time had come to have that talk.
Anselm stretched long legs out toward the opposite bench. “You’ll pardon me if I catch a nap?”
He was tired. One didn’t brace a duke with bad news when the duke was exhausted.
“You can sleep in a moving vehicle?” Thea asked.
“In this one.” He shrugged out of his jacket, for he too had changed into less formal attire. The coach was luxuriously appointed, the most comfortable conveyance Thea had ever been in, and marvelously well sprung.
“Come here, duchess.” His grace fitted an arm around her shoulders. “You might as well rest too. We’ve at least an hour before we get to our destination, and we’ll have staff to meet and civilities to observe. Patience tells me you were up until all hours, fretting over fripperies.”
Fretting, yes, but not over fripperies.
With that, he settled Thea against him, and to her surprise, the duke made a comfortable pillow. In the swaying coach, he held her securely, tucking his chin against her temple.
“Relax,” he growled into her hair. “I would not gobble you whole on the King’s highway. There’s a time and a place for that, and it isn’t here and now.”
He drew her hand across his waist and secured his other arm around her as well.
By degrees, Thea did relax. Her husband-cum-pillow-cum-worst-fear had indeed fallen asleep, but slumber eluded her. She’d never been held like this, not since very early childhood. The duke had been trying to put her at ease, perhaps, but he’d left a question circling in her brain, one that robbed her utterly of a desire to sleep:
Was her wedding night the proper time and place to gobble her whole?
Had Noah sprouted horns and fangs, that his bride should regard him so warily? Noah had read Thea as a practical sort, inured to the indelicacies and inconveniences of life—she’d been a companion to a spoiled twit, for pity’s sake, how much more mundane could a lady’s circumstances be?
And yet, his bride was dignified, or she was when awake. Now, she was curled against his chest, her hair tickling his nose as her breath fanned past his neckcloth. She’d fought the lure of sleep, and he’d feigned slumber himself for a good thirty minutes before he’d felt her gradually succumb to fatigue.
Thea wasn’t as substantial a woman as he’d thought, not physically. Her dignity was substantial, her posture militarily erect, her presence as contained as the Queen’s on a public occasion. But beneath his hands, her bones were delicate, and in his arms, she felt soft, feminine, and womanly.
Good qualities in a new wife, but disconcerting for being unexpected.
Noah had suggested they rest mostly because Thea had looked tired to him, and a tired female could be fractious, regardless of her species. Fractiousness did not bode well for the wedding night, which could well set the tone for their intimate dealings for decades to come.
If need be. Noah had meant what he’d said about getting heirs, and then leaving his duchess in peace. He wouldn’t keep a mistress until that time either, though absolute fidelity would likely be beyond him. He was a Winters, as much as he tried to ignore that legacy.
Noah untangled a strand of Thea’s hair from her lips—his duchess had a lovely mouth.
She’d appreciate discretion, were he to stray. When he strayed.
Every husband owed his wife discretion, just as she owed the same to him, once the requisite progeny were safely thriving. The idea of another man braiding Thea’s hair did not exactly appeal, though, probably an artifact of the morning’s vows.
The new Duchess of Anselm had lovely hair, thick, silky, fragrant, and shining, another unexpected aspect of Noah’s bride. His thoughts continued to racket about, until the coach passed through the estate village two miles from his main gates.
“Wife?” Noah brushed his lips near Thea’s ear. “Duchess? Araminthea?”
That got her attention. Thea pushed up sleepily, her hand braced on Noah’s thigh in a location she might not have chosen were she more alert.
“We’ve almost reached Wellspring. Best get put to rights. The staff will be formed up in the hall.”
“Gads.” She straightened, leaving a curious lack of warmth in her wake. “I slept like the dead.”
“I rested as well. Our nuptials were a taxing performance. Here.” He adjusted one of her hair combs. “That’s better.”
“Your neckcloth is off center.” Thea tidied Noah up as casually as one of his sisters might have.
“Where does a lady’s companion learn to put a gentleman’s cravat to rights?” he asked.
If he hadn’t been watching her, he might have missed the slight flaring of her eyes, the minute pause in her hands.
“Tending to her orphaned little brother. There, you’re presentable, in dim light.”
“My thanks, Duchess.”
Thea’s husband had the knack of making two words sound anything but grateful. Still, Thea was appreciative of Anselm’s steady arm, of his ease with his dutifully assembled staff. He said something complimentary about each of the dozen or so indoor servants lined up in the entrance hall, but didn’t tarry unnecessarily. The help was in good health, well attired, and cheerfully sincere in their welcome to her.
A heartening contrast to the Earl of Grantley’s household.
And then the duke excused himself, promising to see Thea again “shortly.” He bowed politely to her once she was ensconced in the chambers set aside for the lady of the house, and ordered a tray for her, as well as a bath.
When she’d partaken of a little food, and too much wine, Thea climbed into the largest tub she’d ever seen. She sank into the steaming water, there to try to compose the words she’d use to tell her new husband what manner of bride he’d married.
As she finished drying herself and donned a nightgown and robe, she heard the door to her sitting room open and close, and the duke’s voice, dismissing the maid. Then he was in the doorway, still attired for the day, but regarding Thea with a particular light in his blue eyes.
“You did not linger in your bath, duchess?”
“I did.” Was Thea to have awaited him in the bath? “By my standards, in any case. I also had something to eat, thank you.” She could not have said exactly what.
“You’re fortified for the coming ordeal?” His lips quirked, as if he thought the question funny.
Thea pulled her wrapper closer and re-secured the knot in the belt. “Will it be an ordeal, Your Grace?”
“You may trust it will not be.” He prowled closer, giving Thea a whiff of lavender and roses. “Not physically, but please don’t tell me I’m to briskly dispatch with my intimate duties, Lady Thea. We are bride and groom, and entitled to linger over our pleasures on our wedding night.”
“As to that…” Thea crossed her arms and prepared to launch into her rehearsed speech, but when she looked up, the duke was there, right there before her, and all the air left her lungs. She hadn’t heard him move, and yet he was staring down at her, his gaze both amused and puzzled.
“Can’t you trust me a little, Thea?” He grazed a single finger along her forearm, raising the fine hairs, and the tempo of her heart beat. “I would have us be friends to this extent at least.”
“In bed.” He drew the same finger back to her elbow in a slow trail. “I will take care of you, you may rely on that.”
“Dote on me?”
“And allow you to dote on me, a little.” He smiled crookedly, a different smile than she’d seen on him before. Warmer, almost charming.
“We must discuss a few things first,” she managed as that long, tanned finger moved slowly over her forearm, from wrist to elbow and back again. She felt that touch right down to her knees, which should not have been possible.
“We have decades to talk,” he said, gently uncrossing her arms, “and if you’re fretting over what’s to come, talking will not ease your worries. It won’t be so bad, Thea. In fact, I’ll make it as good as you’ll allow it to be.”
“But there are matter…”
As Thea spoke, Anselm slowly, gently wrapped her in his embrace, bringing her hands up to his neck, then settling his mouth over hers.
“Later, Thea,” he murmured. “Now comes pleasure.”
How could a man who stomped, smirked, and ordered his way through life kiss with such languor? Thea knew the meaning of melting bones as the duke’s mouth went on campaign, moving over her lips with such tenderness she could barely remain upright. Just a brush, a tease, a nuzzle, a taste, a sighing of his breath over her cheek, and Thea’s knees threatened to buckle.
“Kiss me back,” Anselm challenged her. “Dote on me.”
His mouth was doting on Thea, exploring slowly and thoroughly, and then his tongue…
A man ought not to have such an appendage, and certainly not both a tongue and that other most troublesome bit of flesh. He could invite with that tongue, insinuate, flirt, encourage, and, God help her, arouse. Thea’s fingers sifted through his hair, her body curved into his taller frame, and her lips learned the feel and taste of a man who intended to dote on her to the limit of his conjugal rights.
What on earth had she got herself into?
Noah’s bride was charming him, despite her inexperience, her starch, her uncertainty. Prior to marriage, he’d dealt exclusively with professionals in the bedroom, usually keeping a mistress, and occasionally sampling the charms of those other women available for a price. He was emotionally uninvested, and so were they, and he liked it that way. The bored widows and straying wives were for Meech to deal with, as were the messy endings and sad misunderstandings such encounters often led to.
Noah’s partners were playing a part, and he paid them to play it well. They were to make him feel desired, inspire his lust, accommodate it, and send him on his way lighter in the pocket. Increasingly, he had not been lighter in the heart when he’d left their powdered, perfumed, diaphanously draped company. They were assessing his worth as they cooed and sighed, seeing not him, but a ring, a bracelet, a parure, or perhaps even rooms on Curzon Street.
Those women could smile at a man as if he were their every carnal dream personified, and yet be thinking as they panted and sighed of what to wear to tomorrow’s opera. The calculation of it was almost admirable… Almost.
Araminthea Collins…Winters was having trouble keeping any thoughts in her head at all. She was shyly enthusiastic about kissing Noah, and her grip in his hair was fierce. She probably didn’t hear the sounds she was making, of desire and surprise, and she couldn’t be aware of how her unconfined breasts pressed against Noah’s chest.
Breasts whose fullness surprised him—wonderfully.
A figure suited to childbearing was also a figure suited to bed sport.
“Are you laughing at me, sir?” Thea’s eyes were wary, but he didn’t let her pull away.
“I’m smiling. Not that I have anything against laughter in bed. You, madam, are overdressed.”
When Thea would have scampered off, Noah gathered her close.
“We’ll blow out the candles, Thea,” he assured her, “but you’ll have to be my valet.” When she relaxed in his arms, he stepped back and held out one wrist for her to undo his sleeve button.
“You didn’t bring in a dressing gown,” she said, staring at his hand as if it bore claws, “or a nightshirt.”
“I won’t need them.” Noah kept his hand out and saw that Thea was inclined to argue, but she stifled her inclination with a huffy sigh and deftly unfastened his cuffs. “Cravat next.”
One garment at a time, she relieved him of his clothes, folding each item tidily over a chair. When he told her to unbutton his shirt, she stayed right where she was, his cravat in her hands.
“You are decidedly fond of imperatives, Your Grace,” she snapped. “You might consider asking me to tend to your buttons.”
“I just did, and you are stalling.”
“You ordered me,” she said, taking great care to fold the cravat before stepping closer and getting back to work. “You told me to remove your waistcoat, told me to untie your neckcloth, told me—”
Noah grasped Thea’s hand and brought her wrist to his mouth.
“Now I’m telling your wrist how lovely it feels to put my mouth on your flesh,” he murmured, bending over her wrist and tasting the pulse there. When he allowed her to have her hand back, she finished unbuttoning his shirt.
“My thanks.” Noah offered the words as an olive branch. He hadn’t intended to aggravate his new duchess when she was already understandably nervous. He was, however, trying to find the present limit of her sensibilities, so he could push her right to that limit and a bit beyond. The next time they were intimate, he’d push beyond that, and beyond that, until she was as comfortable with their carnal dealings as he could make her.
Handling a new wife was the same as acquiring a market, or the controlling shares in a business. One simply needed a plan, some resources, time, and determination.
They were married, after all. Thea could turn to no other for her intimate diversions, not for quite some time. Fairness required that Noah teach her pleasure, and share it with her often.
Assuming she’d allow him to.
“Why don’t you get into bed?” he suggested—not ordered. “I’ll see to the candles.”
Thea drew off her dressing gown and climbed into bed while Noah politely busied himself dousing the candles. He left one burning and while he finished undressing. In the dim light, he took his time using the wash water, because he intended that Thea watch while he made use of it.
Considerate of him, if he did say so himself, virginal sensibilities being the tedious impediments to passion that they were.
Naked as God made him, his cock anticipating the consummation of their vows, Noah padded to the bed and climbed in. He bounced over to his wife’s side and wrestled her into his embrace, all their previous kissing apparently forgotten.
His dear bride was stiff in his arms and averting her face.
“You said you’d give me time, Anselm.”
Time to become even more nervous and fearful? Not likely.
“I said we’d consummate our vows and then take our dealings slowly,” he reminded her. “There’s no point to putting this off, Thea. None at all.”
“Yes”—he heard her nervous swallow—“there is.”