Authors: Marly Mathews
Caroline had been tricked.
However would she maneuver her way out of this sticky situation? She couldn’t bear the thought of being alone with Edward and Lady Wallsworth and her old mother weren’t anywhere in sight.
The carriage door opened, and she found herself face to face with Edward. His eyes burned with longing, and he literally exuded his extreme want for her. She felt quite alone and quite vulnerable. His
beautiful eyes literally ate her up.
re not playing fair, sir,” she whispered.
“Would you kindly allow me to help you out of the carriage? My godmother and her mother await you in the Drawing Room.”
She swallowed thickly, to still the caustic remark she wanted so desperately to throw at him. She couldn’t lose her head.
“You were in bad form the way you treated me, Caroline,” he murmured
, as she slipped her gloved hand into his hand.
“No, I was not, sir. I couldn’t very
well marry a man I barely knew. It wouldn’t have been the sensible thing to do.”
“We might not have known each other for as long as some courting couples do, but we shared something immensely profound, and you cannot deny that.”
Her cheeks were burning red. How could she make this travesty end?
She stood on solid ground and yet, her world felt as if it was completely off its axis. She felt so lightheaded. Every time she was around him, he made her feel this way and it was most annoying.
“I think I should like to go inside now and visit with your Godmother as she invited me to do, unless of course that’s a pretense.”
“You must know why you were invited now,” he remarked, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. She studied him closely her heart racing. He was just as nervous as she was, he just knew how to shield his emotions more than she could. “Why don’t we take a stroll around the beautiful gardens, before going inside for tea?”
Would it help her any to have a row with him? Did she even want to get cross with him? All she wanted to do was concede to his every whim. In fact, if he asked her to steal away with him to Gretna Green, she just might be inclined to do so! Maybe she just had to throw caution to the wind and do what she deeply desired.
e is no need for you to deny it. I can see how much you want to walk with me in your eyes.”
“You, sir, assume far too much. I do not wish to take a leisurely strol
l in the gardens. I wish to go inside and be with…”
“Chaperones,” he surmised. “I’m awfully surprised that your auntie even allowed you to come here by yourself. I was half expecting a wretched looking companion with you wh
en I opened the carriage door. You know the type. Someone old, severe looking and wearing a widow or spinster’s cap.”
“Please stop it. I could wear a mobcap, and maybe I should,” she murmured, averting his gaze as she rushed up the steps to the door that led to her freedom. He kept pace behind her and thank goodness he had for she lost her balance on the top step and nearly went for
a backward tumble had his strong arms not wrapped around her to steady her.
“Promise me you will neve
r do that before it’s your time,” he whispered against her ear, his breath making her shiver. “This feels like heaven. Having you so close is my true heart’s desire.”
“I was only a means to an end for you,” she murmured breathlessly, trying not to look into his captivating eyes. She would drown in his gaze, she knew she would.
He looked completely aghast at her latest proclamation. “You wound me deeply, Caroline. I never set out to use you, not the way you think.”
“You were running from a fortune hunter, and I was your means of escape—and now that I think of it, mixing me up in your plot
was a mischievous thing to do. You wounded me, sir!”
“You were not my means of escape, not the way you believe. I wanted you from the very first moment I set eyes on you, Caroline. You were everything I had ever wanted in a woman. You had substance, something the woman that my mother picked out for me lacked in spades. You looked so beguiling sitting in my grandfather’s folly—you are and will always will remain, my Christmas Nymph.”
Her stomach twisted and pain lanced her heart. How could she continue to rebuff him? He talked so sweetly and seemed so sincere—and yet—she couldn’t quite believe she was worthy of a man such as he.
“You talk with such beguiling charm and yet—“
“And yet what?” he asked softly, still holding her close. She wanted to lose herself in the moment and let him have what he wanted from her.
“I can’t allow you to court me until you promise me one thing.”
“Anything,” he said, hope dancing in his sparkling eyes.
“While I’m very happy living with my aunt, her husband and her children. And yet, I can’t stop thinking of my
father. He truly was a good father to me before becoming leg-shackled to that harridan of a woman, and I can’t resign myself to marrying a man whom he dislikes.”
Edward’s eyes hardened. She believed she’d stepped over the imaginary line and finally pushed him out of her life for good. Instead, the hardened glint in his eyes faded to be replaced by his soft look of admiration for her.
“In that case, my dear, there is only one thing to be done.”
Her heart skipped in her chest. “What is that?” she murmured breathlessly.
“Your father and I will have to become allies.”
Shock sliced through her. “Your sentiments, are they genuine, sir?”
“As genuine as my feelings for you. I’ve gone through a great deal of life searching for the woman who would complete me, Caroline. If you think I’m going to allow such a simple challenge to our happiness stand in our way, you are greatly mistaken. I will make peace between your foolish papa and I, and I will give him a proposition he isn’t likely to refuse.”
She was about to ask him what he meant by that dangerous statement when Lady Wallsworth’s butler found them.
“Her ladyship awaits your arrival in the Drawing Room, Miss Griffiths.”
“I bid you adieu, for now, Caroline.” He kissed her hand gallantly and then turned to stride away.
Her heart felt heavy in her chest—had she just made things better—or worse?
Edward arrived at Carleton Abbey and looked up at the foreboding Jacobean Manor House. He strode up the long walk. The gardens were derelict and no trees, or shrubberies of any sort decorated the vast lawn. The place had an air of staleness to it, and told him that whoever lived here was cold, calculating and bereft of any kind of want to keep the house looking the way it should. There would be no Christmas festivities here, that much he could tell.
Either Caroline’s uncle the Baronet was a ve
ritable pauper—or he was a skinflint. If she were related to such a man—to such a miser, he could not understand her father’s willingness to move back to such an abode and put Caroline at the mercy of such a horrible man. Still, he had made a promise to Caroline and he would follow through. He would make his best attempts to become Benjamin Griffiths’ friend.
He was expected so that was a bit of a blessing, as he didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary in such a gloomy place.
The butler that received him looked as if he had climbed out of the grave. His eyes were hard and cold, and his nose looked like a bird’s beak.
He was taken into the Jacobean Solar. Everything inside of the house looked tired and dust floated through the air in liberal fashion. The Baronet obviously didn’t keep a staff that was worth their salt.
He finally recognized her father standing by one of the windows. The drapes he stood near were tattered and should have been changed years ago.
His hands were clasped behind his back, and his shoulders were slumped in a defeated fashion. He wore an old worn out jacket and his trousers looked as if they’d seen better days.
Curiously enough, his horrible wife was nowhere in sight. This surprised him as he’d felt certain she would have wanted to be around to accept a duke socially.
He cleared his throat loudly so Benjamin would turn around as the useless butler hadn’t announced him.
Benjamin Griffiths turned around slowly. The expression he wore on his face was both sad and severe. His eyes were listless, no emotion glittered in them, and he felt almost sorry for the man, for he cut quite a wretched profile.
One thing was for certain—he couldn’t leave him in such a state. No one deserved to live in such abysmal surroundings.
“I made absolutely nothing of myself, Your Grace. When we lived in Banbury House, we made do on the income your father left to Margaret and on the conservative income that I make by renting out a house in Wales that my father willed to me upon his death. I suppose he decided that since I hadn’t made my own way as a clergyman or as a military man that I needed something upon which to support my family. In hindsight, I should have pursued the respectable occupation of clergyman or military man. However, now that the family who lived in my house in Wales is finding alternate lodgings I shall be moving there. Gertrude will accompany me, though she deeply regrets leaving her family. She is my wife and it’s her duty to go where I go. Continuing to live here at Carleton Abbey is out of the question. My brother counts every shilling that it costs him to keep us here. Kidwelly House isn’t as grand as Banbury but it will do us quite nicely, and I’ll finally be living somewhere that doesn’t make me feel guilty every single day for being there.”
“Nonetheless, as far as I am concerned Banbury House is still Caroline’s. Lady Margaret was given the house and the surrounding land by my father and I would never spit on his grave by robbing you of what was rightfully yours.”
“Be that as it may, sir, Banbury House is as you say my daughter’s home. I only stayed on there with her because she loved it so—but that time has passed. We are no longer in each other’s orbit and I must live a life that I can have full financial dominion over. I realize now that I made errors in allowing my wife to believe that she was mistress of Banbury House, she never should have been allowed that authority, and it has led to the parting of ways between my darling Caroline and I. When you marry Caroline I expect you to bring her back into my life by allowing her to see me at Kidwelly House.”
“So you sanction our marriage?”
He sighed heavily. “I was foolish to be against it in the first place, Duke. I realized that as I listened to Gertrude going on about how horrible you are. I’ve decided that I shall like anything that Gertrude detests, although I can’t lower myself to liking this place. It’s changed so much since I was a child. My brother is a cold, hard man, and he’s sucked the life out of this house. I can’t abide being around him much longer. He’s a wicked beast to his poor wife, and if I stay here much longer I shall do something I shall regret.”
“I am glad you have come to your senses.” The female voice shocked them both. Georgia walked into the Solar. “This place looks like death,
and smells like it as well,” she pronounced, looking at it with a distasteful curl about her lips.
“What do I owe the hono
ur of this visit?” Benjamin asked, bowing to her.
“I came here because this morning I was re-reading a letter my sister wrote to me years ago after the birth of Caroline. She was so happy and while you were not her true love, you did love her deeply and you tre
ated her the way she deserved. For that reason alone, I decided to pay you a call. I was far too rash to push you out of Caroline’s life. I realize the error of my ways.”
“There is nothing for you to regret saying or doing, Georgia. I was wrong to bring Gertrude into our lives and I realized that far too late to fix the problem.”
Edward felt like the odd person out. He should leave immediately and allow them to sort their differences out.
“And what about you, Duke? Are you truly in love with Caroline?” Georgia asked.
“I will love her until my last breath,” Edward declared.
I do think Benjamin and I will have to orchestrate the perfect way for you to finally claim her hand in marriage. She loves you no matter how hard she tries to deny it. She will languish in misery of her own making, until I give her the gentle push she requires in your direction. For that reason alone, you shall come to our Christmas Ball tomorrow night. Come and whisk her off her feet and make her yours. Love her like Benjamin loved my sister, and the way that my Robbie loves me. That’s the only thing I can ask of you.”
“I shall be there,” he said
, bowing to her. With that he left the two to sort out their differences alone. He had made his peace with Benjamin and now Caroline would be happy.
* * * * *
Cleeve Hall was bursting at the seams with revelry. No expense had been spared in throwing the lavish ball and the lords and ladies in attendance would talk about it for years to come.
Caroline, however, felt too constrained. The corset she wore seemed to suck every breath out of her, and the ball gown she wore was a bit heavy for her tastes. Dressed in her favo
urite colour of green, she stood with her aunt and uncle as they greeted their guests.
When she saw Edward and his mother coming their way, she slipped out of the receiving line and tried to lose herself in the throng of people. She’d have to beg off soon to help her cousins get ready for the Pantomime they’d perform for the guests.
No matter how hard she tried to get away from him, he always found her.
She stopped. She couldn’t turn to face him, if she did, she’d probably end up running into his arms and that kind of spectacle could not happen at an event like this.
Instead, she continued to wind her way through the guests to find a quiet spot in the far corner of the Ballroom.
Of course, he hadn’t given up and found her once again.
“If you have a dance card, I’d like to fill it with my name.”
She felt nervous around him. She shouldn’t feel like this. She’d never felt like this before and yet, he was making her heart race and her mind, well, her mind couldn’t come up with a witty retort for him.
“I’ve made my peace with your father.”
Still, she was tongue-tied.
“Your aunt invited me to this Ball.”
“She did?” At this, she couldn’t keep quiet.
“Aye. She wants me to finally se
t my cap on you. They both want us to become leg-shackled.”
Her heart started to return to its normal
“Do you still want to marry me? I know we made a mull of this so I feel as if I should express myself quite clearly. My deepest desire is t
o have you as my wife, Caroline. Would you accept my offer?” he asked. “Pray, make me the happiest man in all of Christendom by accepting my offer. I never thought you’d rejected me, only your father was between us. So, will you marry me, Miss Caroline Griffiths?”
She swallowed thickly and studied the look of adoration in his eyes. If he loved her as much as he seemed to—how could she not marry him? She couldn’t keep fighting her feelings for him forever. Could she continue to deny herself the happiness she felt whenever she saw him?
She couldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. She couldn’t live out her life the way her mother had been forced to live, without the man she truly loved. She could ruin her happiness by robbing herself of that most intimate connection.
“Yes,” she said smiling. “Yes, I will marry you, Edward Rochester
, my dashingly daring Duke.”
Her declaration lit his face up. He smiled, and loo
ked as if he wanted to move in to kiss her. He pecked her quickly on the lips. The kiss was quite chaste but it was enough to send a thrilling rush throughout her. If she had any doubts before on whether or not he was the man for her, she didn’t have any now.
She loved being with him. I
t felt right having him standing so close to her. He didn’t seem satisfied with just the kiss. He lifted her up in his arms, so her legs dangled off the ground. His raw masculinity shone through as he twirled her about. “I was about ready to challenge your father to a duel. Fortunately, he wanted us to be friends.”
Their intimate moment had attracted the attention of the rest of the guests. Shocked gasps echoed through the ballroom.
“You wouldn’t have dared!” she said, laughing, as he set her back on her feet.
“Oh, I would dare anything if it meant being with you, Caroline, my sweet.”
“We should probably stop the show we’re putting on for everyone. They will think we are quite scandalous!”
them all think what they want. Damn the lot of them,” he whispered, staring at her lovingly.
Her aunt glided to them as the last quadrille came to an end. The music died out as everyone stood staring at them.
“So,” Georgia said, rubbing her hands briskly together. “Shall we plan for a Christmas Wedding?”
“I can have the special license within a few days,” Edward said.
Georgia nodded her head happily. “Then we shall plan for a Christmas Wedding. Oh, how lovely it will be! I will make sure it is remembered for years to come!”
“I don’t know about the wedding but the bride will take my breath away with her beauty,” Edward said.
Grinning, she felt a blush touch her cheeks. Life was about to get better—or maybe it was about to return to normal. It was about to go back to the way her mother would have wanted her life to be like.
“You will love the Pantomime my cousins and I are going to perform, Edward.”
“I will love anything in which you star, Caroline.”
“This one shall have a special meaning for you, for it is a fairy tale.”
“And you are my Princess.” They kissed once again, and everyone around them gave their applause.
She had been blessed with a miracle. She had been blessed with a Christmas miracle.