Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
“Marriage is a thing of the utmost consequence. Especially marriage to a duke.”
Along the Bath Road rolled an elegant closed carriage, attended by outriders and liveried footmen, drawn by a team of four beautifully matched grays. The well-sprung coach gleamed black with great yellow wheels. A ducal crest was blazoned on its doors. From his high seat the coachman, reins in his left hand and blackthorn whip in his right, held the spirited horses to a sedate pace. Ordinarily he would have enjoyed a gallop as much as they, but not on this steep winding road, nor with these passengers. Justin St. Clair, the Duke of Charnwood, had taken himself a bride.
The interior of the carriage was as elegant as the exterior, upholstered in crimson velvet set off with gold braid, and as comfortable as money could have it made, with locking shutters, a secret compartment for valuables, three lamps, a compass and a clock. The carriage’s owner lounged on one plush seat, long legs stretched out in front of him, broad shoulders resting against lushly upholstered squabs. Beside the duke sat his tall top hat. On the seat opposite perched his newly acquired duchess, wearing a spotted muslin carriage dress and a bonnet trimmed with ribbons and roses and lace. The lady was more slender than was strictly fashionable, her hair dark blond streaked with lighter strands, her eyes a honey brown. If no fault could be found with her complexion, a critical observer might find her lips a little too full for perfection, her nose though well-shaped a trifle long, and her strong chin suggestive that its owner might not be as docile as she seemed.
Lord Charnwood caught himself assessing the young woman as if she were a filly recently purchased at Tattersall’s. And scant wonder if he did. Theirs was a marriage entered into for the sake of duty, the duke’s duty to get himself an heir, and his bride’s duty to make a brilliant match. Not for the first time, he eyed the traveling clock.
His duchess, too, glanced at the clock. That the duke was a marital prize of the first order, she was well aware. She could hardly fail to be aware, so frequently had her mama pointed out the fact. How
Elizabeth had brought this paragon up to scratch neither she nor Maman had the faintest notion, for the duke had been one of the
most eligible gentlemen, and Elizabeth had suffered so profound a shock on discovering he’d offered for her that she hadn’t recovered from it yet.
Secretly, she had hoped to receive no offers. She especially had not hoped to receive an offer from a duke, and was appalled by the notion of spending the rest of her life acting duchess-like.
Her bridegroom was paying her no attention. Through lowered lashes, Elizabeth studied him. Lord Charnwood’s athletic figure showed to advantage in his excellently cut coat and tightly fitted breeches and highly polished boots. He was every inch the aristocrat, his dispassionate gray eyes set in a sternly handsome countenance, his chestnut hair cropped short yet still long enough to curl.
He was very handsome. And he looked supremely bored. For whatever reason the duke had chosen to wed Elizabeth, he wasn’t smitten with her charms. Thus far during their journey her bridegroom had fidgeted with his watch fob, cane, and ebony snuffbox, and was at the moment drumming his fingers on his knee.
The coach bounced and swayed, jolted over a particularly vicious bump. Elizabeth clapped her hand to her mouth and moaned, “Your Grace!”
Lord Charnwood rapped on the roof. His bride had turned an all-too-familiar shade of green.
The coach barely swayed to a stop before the duchess leapt out the door. After waiting for his footman to lower the step, the duke descended more sedately to the rough stone roadway. Hill upon lovely undulating hill, covered in green foliage, dotted about with occasional clumps of cows and sheep, stretched out as far as the eye could see.
Lord Charnwood viewed this bucolic vista with a somewhat jaundiced expression. His servants hovered awkwardly about, pretending it was commonplace for the ducal conveyance to be halted alongside a busy thoroughfare while carriages and coaches and drays rumbled and thudded by. Certainly it was not unusual today.
The duke raised an eyebrow. His coachman gestured toward the shrubbery. “I believe Her Grace is, er ...”
The shrubbery was thick with thorns. Lord Charnwood pushed his way through the prickles until he came upon his bride bent over a stone wall, her trim blue-clad derriere inelegantly upthrust. A glimpse of elegant ankles, a hint of shapely legs encased in white silk— Justin found himself suddenly curious about the body hidden by that demure carriage dress.
Ungentlemanly of him, but the lady
his wife. Who was now wiping her face with her handkerchief and muttering to a nearby bush. He moved toward her. A twig snapped beneath his boot.
The duchess abruptly straightened. The back of her head collided painfully with the duke’s face. “Damnation!” she gasped, and clapped her hands to her mouth.
Biting back his own curse, Justin clasped his wounded nose. “There you are,” he said, somewhat indistinctly. “If you are through, ah, taking your constitutional, perhaps we might continue on our way.”
The wretched man was bleeding. Elizabeth fumbled for her wilted handkerchief, and wished that she might give his injured nose a tweak. She did not dislike her bridegroom, but she didn’t like him either, and blamed him for the butterflies that had taken up residence in her interior. “I am so sorry. I did not mean to damage you, Your Grace.”
Justin stood stoically while his bride ministered to him, trying not to mind the bedraggled condition of the handkerchief being applied none too gently to his nose. They shouldn’t have stopped at that inn for refreshment. The squab pie had been a mistake.
The duke led the way back through the shrubbery. His duchess trailed behind. The coachman watched them approach. Begad, was that
on the handkerchief the master held to his face? His poor lady looked as if she hoped the earth would open and swallow her right up.
Justin ignored his startled servants. His bride was still a sickly shade. “Take deep breaths,” he advised her. “Relish the fresh air. Lord knows we’re surrounded by enough of it. You should have told me that you suffered from
mal de mer.
Elizabeth was tall for a woman. As she stood by her bridegroom’s side, her eyes were on a level with his chin. She stared at that elegant and somewhat imperious article as she obediently inhaled. “I wasn’t aware
I grew travel-sick. Maman does not approve of jaunting about. I have never before ridden so far in a coach. I assure you, I feel much better now.”
Her appearance was noticeably improving, her cheeks growing less green than pink. Justin handed his lady back into the carriage, then beckoned his coachman. “It has been brought to my attention that, on roads such as this, even the best-sprung of carriages must sway. Therefore, we will proceed onward at a snail’s pace. Consider yourself challenged to set a record for the longest time ever taken to arrive in Bath.” The coachman touched his hat in acknowledgement of the command, and swung up onto his perch.
Elizabeth settled herself in the carriage, praying her stomach would behave. Maman would scold dreadfully when she learned her daughter hadn’t even got to Bath before disgracing herself. Elizabeth would cut out her own tongue before she provided Maman with the details of this journey, but someone inevitably would.
The coach rocked as the duke climbed in, arranged himself on the opposite seat. “You’re still bleeding,” Elizabeth observed. “We need some ice. Lean your head back. Yes, like that. I daresay you are uncomfortable, but no one has ever bled to death from a bloody nose, Your Grace. Although we may not be so optimistic about your poor cravat.”
Justin dabbed gently at his injured nose. His bride was exhibiting an almost ghoulish pleasure at the sight of his blood. At least she wasn’t missish. “I have other cravats.”
“Several, I should imagine,” Elizabeth murmured. “No, don’t look at me! Keep your head tilted back so that the bleeding will let up.”
The chit knew her bloody noses. Maybe she went about assaulting all her beaux
Not that Justin was a beau. He knew next to nothing about his new duchess, other than that her bloodlines were unexceptionable, and her dowry handsome. The future mother of his children, or so he had been promised, was a good biddable girl with a proper way of thinking, who would be easily trained to suit; who would behave just as she should, and cause her husband not a moment’s unease.
Damage to his person had not been mentioned. Cautiously, Justin lowered his head. His bride’s dress was rumpled, her bonnet askew. She dropped her gaze to the little reticule she held in her lap.
The carriage hit a bump in the road, jolted roughly side to side. Lord and Lady Charnwood held their collective breath.
After a tense moment, Elizabeth relaxed. “Not this time!” she said, and, smiling, met her bridegroom’s gaze.
Justin blinked. Her eyes were not a simple brown, but flecked with gold; her eyelashes amazingly thick and long. And as for that smile—
Even as the duke was digesting the startling revelation that his bride was more attractive than he had previously realized, she looked away from him. “You must tell me if you begin to feel unwell again,” Justin said, awkwardly.
What a poor thing he must find her. Elizabeth gripped her reticule. “I doubt there will be any further upsets. I must surely be too empty to, uh—” She couldn’t come up with a properly duchess-like turn of phrase. “Your nose has stopped bleeding, Your Grace.”
Justin removed the blood-soaked handkerchief from his face and viewed it with disfavor. What did one do with such a thing? He could hardly return it to its owner. Nor did he care to put it in his pocket. The duke solved his dilemma by dropping the handkerchief on the carriage floor. “I perfectly take your meaning. The phrase is, ‘cast up your accounts.’ You need not be so formal. My friends call me St. Clair. Why are you on pins and needles? I am hardly an ogre.”
He thought she thought him an ogre? This was not a good thing. Elizabeth had been warned—countless times—that her bridegroom was high in the instep and she must therefore strive hard not to give offense. “I’m not on pins and needles, really. But things happened so fast. You must not think that I am sorry for it! Maman was the one who longed for St. George’s, Hanover Square.”
Justin had expected his bride would try to reassure him that he was no ogre. He had
expected that her tone of voice would make him question that she had wanted the marriage ceremony to take place at all. “Has your mother been lecturing you?” he asked.
The duke was frowning. Elizabeth wondered what she had done wrong now. “Maman has made sure I understood perfectly how I am to go on. I promise I will cause you no embarrassment.” Oh, blast. Now she had admitted to this highest of sticklers that her character was so lacking that she needed instruction in such things.
His bride was very young, thought Justin, for so eighteen must seem to a man of thirty-two. “Indulge my curiosity. What
your mother tell you?”
Which of the many things that Maman had said would bear repeating? Elizabeth gripped her reticule. “I am to be amiable and accomplished. To demonstrate dignity and gentle seriousness and a modest reserve. I am
to display unbecoming levity, or bother you with nonsensical notions, but to be at all times sunny-tempered, and exhibit great good sense. I’m probably also not to repeat this sort of thing to you, but that wasn’t mentioned. You look astonished, Your Grace. But you
“I’d no idea I wed such a paragon.” This was a blatant taradiddle, but Justin sought to set his bride at ease. “Must remind you that I am your family now? You need answer to no one but me.”
Silently, Elizabeth pondered this remarkable suggestion. She didn’t imagine her new husband would be any easier than Maman to please.
Justin studied his bride’s averted features. There had been no kisses during their courtship, or poetry, or billets-doux. He had never seen or spoken with Elizabeth outside the presence of a chaperone. The duke must seem a perfect stranger to the disheveled young woman in the opposite seat.
He leaned forward and touched her hand. She shrank back. Even through her gloves, her fingers felt ice cold. “Elizabeth!” he said, so sternly that she started. “Were you forced into this match?”
Would Lord Charnwood consider being locked in her bedchamber as coercion? “No, Your Grace.”
She looked like she longed to leap out the window. Justin couldn’t imagine what monstrous misapprehensions so young a chit might cherish about the realities of married life. How best to soothe her maidenly terrors? He patted the hand that he still held. “You need have no fear of me. I promise I shan’t misuse you in any way.”
Elizabeth didn’t expect her bridegroom meant to feed her on bread and water, or lock her in her room. And if he did, what of it? It wasn’t as if she’d never been locked in her room before. There were other things a husband could do, however. Unpleasant things, the precise nature of which she could barely guess. “I am glad to hear it, Your Grace.”