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Authors: Marly Mathews

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“Are you in jest, Your Grace?”

“You simply must abandon calling me Your Grace. Call me Edward, Teddy, Whitney or Rochester
, and I shall call you Caroline.”

“I shall keep that in mind, Your Grace.” An impish glint lit her eyes and she looked as if she attempted to conceal a smile.

He grinned widely at her. “I could obtain a special license that would circumvent the need to read the banns, and it would give us the freedom that a regular license doesn’t. Namely, the fact that I have just taken up residence here. A special license would allow us to marry within the next few days and we could be married by or before Twelfth Night. In fact we could have our wedding on Christmas Eve if you’d like. It should only take me a few days to get to London and return.”

“My step-mother wants
me to marry a gentleman farmer,” she admitted, an expression of distaste crossing her features.

“I’m a much better catch,” he said, with a charming smile that caused butterflies to flutter in her stomach. 

“Alas, I am not,” she stated simply. “I have no dowry and I’m not known in your social circles. The ton wouldn’t know my name even if you mentioned it.”

“The ton still remembers your mother and they know about y
our uncle, the Earl of Thoresby.”

Pain fl
ashed across her face. “Lord Thoresby wants nothing to do with my family. He has a wife who was an heiress and she has given him an heir. He doesn’t want to claim us as his relations because of his wife. She calls us the poor relations and on the one occasion that we did visit my uncle, my cousin chased me and told me that I was his slave. My brothers Christopher and Arthur thrashed him very badly for calling me his slave, and after that Lady Thoresby told my mother we were no longer welcome. My mother told my brother that she hated the man who could raise such a spoiled little hellion. My uncle looked a little hurt when my mother told him that but he hasn’t asked us back, and he didn’t show up for her funeral.”

Now he knew why she looked so lost sitting in his grandfather’s folly. It was as if she felt protected sitting ther
e—and maybe she was protected. His father and his grandfather would have absolutely adored Caroline. In fact, his father would tell him not to let her get away the way that he’d let Margaret slip through his fingers. 


Lady Thoresby is a wretched woman. My mother will have nothing to do with her and I can honestly say that she made the right decision in this instance. What does your father think of you marrying that farmer? Surely, he can’t be thrilled with you putting your lot in with a man of such a low standing in the community.”

“He promised my mother that he wouldn’t force me into a marriage I didn’t want. He agreed that since they married for love, he would not stop me from marrying for love. That means in theory that I have the freedom to marry a pauper or a prince.”

“In that case, you can obtain your father’s blessing. I can ask your father for your hand in marriage if you’d like.”

* * * * *

Caroline’s heart raced and she felt quite lightheaded. His proposition was quite scandalous and yet she couldn’t bring herself to refuse him.

The
y barely knew each other and here he was giving her what she desperately sought—he gave her an avenue of escape.

She wanted to say yes. If she did agree to his plan, he couldn’t chance crossing Gertrude’s path. She’d fight tooth and nail to put a stop their nuptials. No, if she agreed she would have to ask her father privately while Gertrude was off visiting her friend
’s tomorrow.

If she could trust the d
uke to be discreet, then he could proceed with asking her father for her hand. As far as she was concerned, he didn’t have to ask because if he was telling the truth and she had no reason to think he was lying, her mother had already given her blessing.

“If you are quite certain you want to go forward with this folly,” she paused, reflecting on the irony of her choice of words, “then, I pray you won’t come until half past one in the afternoon. My step-mother should be out of the house visiting her friend, Mrs. Thomas.”

It was true, she normally visited Fanny’s mother every Wednesday at that time.

“I don’t have to visit your father at all. With my station in life, Miss Griffiths, people come to me. I’ll have my man summon your father to co
me up to the house at that time. At which point, I will make my proposition to him, and never fear, I will swear your father to secrecy. He might not like the fact that we intend to marry by special license without making a public affair of it. I don’t even know if he’ll be able to attend. I want to do this secretly, you understand. I have my own reasons for marrying without much fanfare.”

“Is your mother pushing you into marrying someone you detest?”

He surprised her with his answer: “Yes.”

“There’s only one problem with our plan, Your Grace.”

“What’s that?” he asked, raising one eyebrow at her.

He cut a dashing figure in his steely blue greatcoat. His hair was bl
ack as pitch and his eyes were the most intriguing shade of blue—almost like woods filled with bluebells. Maybe marrying a man she didn’t love wouldn’t be so bad after all. She should feel privileged to have a suitor like him and yet she only felt a little sad. Sad that she was being placed in such a situation in the first place and deep down inside of her she was worried how the rest of his family would react to her.

Marrying him would be her dream come true. After all, she’d have his beautiful Gardens to herself. That right there helped to convince her to say yes.

“I don’t love you,” she confessed.

“That’s fine,” he answered. “I think I’m falling in love with you—and if I love you, in time, I feel quite certain you will reciprocate my feelings.”

She prayed he was right. She didn’t know if she could live her entire life with a man she didn’t love—although, it was far preferable to living with a man she hated.

Chapter Three

 

The duke’s words struck her to the core. She was so taken aback, she couldn’t find any words to answer him. How could he possibly be falling in love with her so swiftly? The very idea puzzled her and yet, she recalled what her mother told her about her first meeting with her father. She told her she’d known that night that she would become his wife.

“It’s getting late. You should return home before the sun sets. I will walk with you as far as it’s safe to do so, and let Zeus and Apollo accompany you the rest of the way.”

Her voice welled in her throat. She had to respond to him now. “That’s unnecessary. I will be quite safe. There are no unsavory types in this area.”

He looked unconvinced. “You will allow me the luxury of worrying about my future bride.”

“I haven’t had anyone fret about me since my mother died. I should expect it, as my brothers were terribly protective of me.”

They started walking side by side back to her house. It was a longer walk returning than she remembered, she attributed it to the fact that she was with a man she barely knew and would have to know much more intimately within a small amount of time.

“I want to get one thing straight between us—I don’t think I can officially become your wife until I know you better,” she said softly. 

He stopped short, causing her to halt abruptly as well.

“If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking about, I understand. You shall come to my bedchamber when you are ready. I shan’t force you into my bed.”

Relief washed over her. She curtly nodded her
head. Her cheeks were burning. The fact that she’d even brought up such an intimate subject spoke to the way she’d been raised. Her mother had always been very honest about such things with her and had told her exactly what to expect once she was married. That was why she knew she could never marry Virgil, she could never lay with a man like him!

“This is where we must part ways. If we’re seen together tongues will wag—the rubbish they’d say about us would make your ears go red. I don’t want anyone to know we’re even acquainted until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. I want you as my wife before anyone can raise a fuss about it.”

He bowed to her gallantly and gave her a charming smile. Her stomach dipped and her face warmed. She lost herself in the moment and couldn’t keep the shivers at bay. She shuddered and then frowned.

“The sun is waning. There’s quite a nip in the air.”

He looked at her with compassion in his eyes. “If our rendezvous were not to be kept a secret I would lend you my greatcoat. You should hurry home and warm yourself by the fire. Try to forget your troubles, Caroline. If I have anything to say about it, you will have a good Christmastide.”

Her throat went dry. She couldn’t bring herself to say or do anything. She should be curtsying to him. He was like her Knight in Shining Armor coming to rescue her from
her life of hell. Instead, she tipped her head to him, gave him a brilliant smile and didn’t even shudder when he reached for her hand.

Slowly, he drew her glove off, and raised her hand to his lips, pausing, he eyed her hand with a frown. “These are not the hands of a
lady. You’ve been worked too hard, Caroline. You need to be saved from such a dreadful life. Accepting my offer of marriage has done that for you. As my wife you will never have to do another minute of menial labor.”

He lowered his lips to her hand. The feeling of his warm lips against her skin gave her a start. She let out a little sigh as his lips kissed her hand and then he gently put her glove back on.

Life with him would be comparably better than life with Gertrude. Marrying him wasn’t her only option. Her aunt would welcome her in Boston but if she did take her up on that or if she asked her aunt to come here to debut her in London, she would still feel beholden to her aunt and her aunt’s husband, and like her father, she was loathe to do that.

Not that her aunt would expect her to repay her, she knew she wouldn’t. Her husband
, on the other hand—was another story. Marrying the duke would free her from such a bothersome weight on her conscience.

Caroline smiled as she turned away from him, and had a bit of skip in her
step as his dogs shadowed her. As they approached the sight of her house, she heard the duke whistle and the dogs barked and ran back to him.

As she turned into the lane that led up to Banbury House, she saw the figure of her father. He walked briskly to meet her. His eyes were wild with fear and was that anger?

“I’ve worried myself half to death about you, Caroline. Where were you, child? Did I hear dogs barking? Surely, Mrs. Finch wasn’t selfish enough to keep you that long, I was about to set out after you! It’s almost dark, you could have been hurt—you could have been killed!”

“I am sorry for worrying you, Papa. I confess, I forgot the time. I was sitting reading in the Greek Temple Folly on the stately grounds up at Whitney Park. I’m ever so sorry. Pray forgive me,” she said earnestly.

His severe expression melted, and he brought her in close for a hug. “I couldn’t bear to lose you, Caroline,” he whispered against her ear. “Pray don’t scare me so much again. I want to know you are safe at all times, do you hear me?”

She could hear the furious beating of his heart as her head was pressed against his chest. “Yes, Papa,” she mumbled.

True to his word, his heart was racing. He had actually been concerned about her. The thought thrilled her to her core. After he married Gertrude, she’d almost believed that he’d lost his love for her as their relationship had become distant in the last year or so.

“Gertrude is beside herself. I made her hold dinner for you.”

“I don’t want any dinner, Papa. I want to go to my room and retire to bed early. I’m not hungry at all.”

“You can’t starve yourself, my dear. You are getting frightfully thin.”

“You only think I’m getting frightfully thin because of the way that Gertrude tucks into her meals. She eats with such gusto, it’s as if she’s been lost in the desert for days.”

“I will allow you the pleasure of avoiding Gertrude’s company this night. You must somehow find a way to get along with her, Caroline.”

She got her back up at that statement. “It is not that I can’t get along with Gertrude, Papa. She doesn’t like me. She hasn’t liked me since she became your wife. Her daughters despised me as well. She has made it her mission in life to make my life miserable. I am sorry that I lack the qualities that Gertrude holds dear, but she and I will never be good friends. She wants to rule my life, and she doesn’t have that right.”

He sighed heavily as if he didn’t want to have this particular battle tonight.

“You go and retire to your bed. I will ask Sally to bring you up some food later after we have our tea.”

“You don’t have to do that, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll have her bring you up some tea, muffins and some of that damson plum jam that you like so much.”

She looked away from him.

“As you like it, Papa.” Dashing past him, she walked into Banbury House and sped up the steps to her bedroom. Pausing, she looked at the rooms her brothers used to sleep in. She missed them so. She also missed being called to her mother’s upstairs sitting room, to talk with her before they went to bed.

The whispers of the past haunted her. They filled her dreams and plagued her during the day. She could never let go of the past, and maybe that’s why she couldn’t find a way to live in the present.

Sighing, she opened the door to her bedroom, and walked inside. She thought back to how scandalously she’d acted with the duke. They’d spent time alone—something that was unheard of for a gently bred lady like her. He’d kissed her bare hand. Why if her Papa knew he would have a fit! She slipped out of her walking outfit and reached for her nightgown. Tomorrow would be a new day. Tomorrow, she would be one step closer to escaping the rule of Gertrude.

* * * * *

The fire crackled in the hearth and Edward stared into the jumping flames, being reminded of Caroline’s vibrantly red hair. He couldn’t wait to marry her, and he prayed that she would warm up to him as quickly as he had warmed up to her because the thought of having her in his bed wouldn’t leave his mind.

He had told his butler and h
ousekeeper to have the house decorated with mistletoe, evergreen boughs, hawthorn, holly, rosemary, ivy, bays and Christmas roses. And to fetch a Christmas Candle. He wanted the decorations brought into the house by Christmas Eve where they would stay until the Epiphany.

He reached to his side and scratched Zeus’s head. Apollo laid at his feet and had fallen asleep as his loud snores filled the room.

He hadn’t expected to find love so quickly after fleeing London.

Caroline was everything that Myrtle was not. She had grace and a magical quality to her. He wanted to tell her he thought of her as his Christmas Nymph. He didn’t know if that
daring proclamation would entice her or scare her away from him.

Tomorrow he would
ask her father for her hand. After that, he would set off to London to obtain a special license. How he would keep the news from getting to his mother was another matter entirely. She wasn’t as flighty and daft as she sometimes let on to those around her. Most thought she was a woman who only thought of gay parties, music and how to obtain the latest fashions out of Paris.

He knew the truth. His mother was as sharp as a tack—her intelligence was unrivalled amongst her peers. She could dance circles around most of the men in the haut ton when it came to crafting out plots. There was a reason she’d landed a husband like his father and r
aised herself from the gutter. She’d used her physical beauty and her sharp mind to get her where she wanted. 

If he wasn’t careful, she would discover his scheme, and she’d do all that she could to foil that ambition. She wasn’t playing at asking him to marry Lady Myrtle, she was deadly serious. He knew why she wanted Lady Myrtle as her daughter-in-law.

Myrtle hadn’t an ounce of steel in her, and therefore was pliable to the duchess’s every whim. She would do whatever his mother wanted her to do, and if she tried to rebel, his mother would outwit her at every corner.

Caroline, on the other hand, was a match for his mother. She would stand up to her and not bow down. He just had to make it quite clear to Caroline that when she married
him, she would be on equal footing with the duchess, who at that point would be known formerly as the Dowager Duchess of Whitney.

His mother might put on haughty airs now, but he knew where his mother came from—and she hadn’
t been the granddaughter of an earl. Though she’d almost entirely rid herself of her French accent, she’d been an actress before she’d married his father.

His father had seen her on stage in Paris after Lady Margaret had refused him, and in a fit of rebelliousness, he’d married the beautiful actress and brought her
back to England with him. Once in England, he’d equipped her with the best language masters he could hire in an attempt to soften her accent, and enrich her knowledge of the King’s English as what she’d known of it had been quite rough.

Genevieve Desjardins beauty had rivaled that of most of the eligible young women in England so when his father returned from France with her as his new bride, most of the young bucks in his set envied him. His marriage to Genevieve had caused a bit of a fuss but the scandal had died
down quite quickly as he was a duke and therefore forgiven most anything.

Those that envied him for marrying a French beauty like Genevieve didn’t know what a terror he had married, and would have gladly retracted their jealousy had they known what she was like behind closed doors.

Ambition had been her number one strategy when it came to catching herself an English Duke. She’d wanted to raise up through the ranks in England in a way that she could never do in France. For in England they quickly forgot about her questionable origins and she became the delightfully witty duchess.

His poor father hadn’t been prepared for such a hellion. He still recalled how dazed he used to look whenever Edward’s nanny brought him to see his father.

Defeat had shimmered in Hugh Rochester’s eyes. He’d known he was beat—he’d known that for the rest of his life, his wife would rule his world with an iron fist.

Gertrude sounded like his dear Mama, as much as he knew about how hellish his mother could be, he couldn’t help still loving her. She’d never been a mean mother to him—even though she’d been quite distant during his childhood. Whenever he did see her she had lavished him with love.

And though his mother had her redeeming qualities, he knew deep down in the very essence of his being that he could never marry a woman like her. Moreover, he knew he could not marry a woman she recommended he marry. Her seal of approval might be good enough for some within the haut ton, but it certainly wasn’t good enough for him.

He would throw her entire world off its axis and strangely enough, he felt a perverse sense of enjoyment when he imagined his mother’s
flawless face scrunched up in disapproval. Yes, she could highly condemn Caroline and he would smile during her entire dramatic performance.

BOOK: His Christmas Nymph
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