Authors: The Duchesss Next Husband
Miranda returned to London about six days after he did, and she returned as the Duchess of Windmere. Gone was the brightness he’d seen in her face in the country. Gone was the spontaneity that had taken hold of her during that visit, the woman who had challenged
his friend to a game, the woman who had melted in his arms, the woman who had dared to wear trousers to go fishing. Instead, it was the dowager’s protégée who returned to Mayfair, and damn him, it was his fault.
uite a crush tonight!”
Sophie sat next to her in an area off to one side of the dance floor. Accepting a glass of wine from one of the footmen, she took one for Miranda as well.
Miranda nodded and fanned herself again. Far too many people crammed into far too little space, and then expected to dance. She’d never understood the appeal of such a gathering.
“Is Windmere still here?” Sophie looked around, but from their seats, it was impossible to see anyone past those immediately surrounding them.
“I wouldn’t know,” she replied blandly. Actually, even saying his name was difficult. Seeing him, across the room or across the table, was an excruciating reminder of her lapse in control. And of how impossible it was to put the genie back in the bottle after its release.
“I will take you to task for this. Remember that you will not behave this way without an explanation to me,” the viscountess said, with a smile so wide it must have been painful.
Sophie’s tone was playful so as not to draw attention from anyone near them, but Miranda understood it was a threat. Since her return to town, she’d taken up her schedule as though she’d never gone. Lunches, dinners, balls, shopping excursions, riding in the park, and on and on. All the time hoping that exhaustion would give her a night’s sleep without making her suffer from the memories of that night. All the time hoping that immersing herself in the life she had would erase her dreams of a life she could not have.
Not satisfied with waiting, Sophie stood and peered over the heads of those closest. “Your Grace, it would appear that the duke is still here. Our husbands approach together.”
What was this about? Miranda stood as the men broke through the throng and advanced slowly toward them. Greeting both, she forced a smile to her face as they chatted about the ball and whom they’d seen or spoken with so far. The orchestra began tuning up for a waltz when the men asked their wives to dance.
Since she and Adrian had not danced yet this evening, it would be poor form to refuse, so Miranda was trapped. At least the earlier dance given to Lord Parker had been a quadrille, where, other than a joined hand and some polite conversation, little attention was ex
pected. And if truth be told, Parker had made himself scarce as soon as the dance was completed, so there was no opportunity to speak at length to him. She suspected he was simply doing what was expected of him—dancing with the wife of his friend when present at these social gatherings.
But this—waltzing with her husband—was different.
He held out his hand and she placed hers on it, allowing him to lead her to the floor. Taking their positions, she slid her hand into his and permitted his other hand to rest at her waist. Trying to remain calm, she focused her attention on the other dancers around them.
Sophie looked far too smug, as though something was in the works. Miranda watched as Lord and Lady Allendale exchanged words and gestures of familiarity. Although too close an embrace in this dance was frowned upon, the threat did not stop them from sneaking a kiss before the music began. Her heart hurt just watching them.
“I see that the Allendales are up to their antics once more,” Adrian whispered to her.
She said nothing in reply, but waited as the violins played the opening strains. Then she followed Adrian’s lead around the dance floor.
“You have been busy since your return from the country.”
“So many things to do, with the Season in full swing, Windmere. Surely you know all about that?”
He drew her closer as they swept around the room, part of the large swirling crowd, but she held herself almost
rigid in his arms. He leaned his head closer and drew in a breath over her head. “A new fragrance, my dear?”
Why did he do this? He was the one who’d drawn the line between them and insured she would not cross it by his cruel remarks that day. In a few minutes she would be free of his attentions and she could seek the balcony outside to regain her composure. She shook her head. “Nothing new, Windmere.”
“Will I see you at dinner tomorrow evening? I have not spoken to you since your return.” His voice was soft, but it struck at her like a weapon.
“I fear not. I believe I am engaged for dinner at the Wilkinsons’.”
Another turn around the floor and it would be over. She focused on the flickering candles surrounding the room and the way they glittered in the heat.
“The next evening, then?”
“If you have Webb speak with my secretary, I am certain they can find a mutually acceptable date, Windmere.” Almost there, the strains of the music reached the crescendo and started to wind down.
“I will speak to you later and we can come to an agreement,” he said.
“Later, Windmere? Whatever do you mean?” He could not. He would not.
“I had planned to visit you this evening, my dear. If you have no objections?”
Miranda tripped over her feet and, if not for his grip on her hand and his strength, she would have taken
them both down. As it was, she lost her footing and took several steps to regain it. She was shaking by the time she stopped. Looking at him in disbelief, she loosened his grasp on her hand and stepped away.
“I—I am suddenly feeling indisposed,” she stuttered. “I fear tonight would not be a good night for…” she searched for a polite way of saying something that they should not even be discussing “…a
The Allendales joined them then and the conversation changed topics. “Are you quite well, Your Grace? I saw you nearly take a nasty spill,” Sophie exclaimed.
Grateful for the way out given to her by her friend, Miranda shook her head. “I think the strap of my slipper may have torn. Can you help me see to its repair?”
Within a minute, Sophie had snatched her from Adrian’s grasp and they were heading not to the retiring room, but to the Allendale coach. Sophie also sent a note back to her husband informing him of the change, and letting him know that she would meet him back at home.
A while later, as the coach made its way through the streets of London, and they were sitting alone once more, Miranda knew she owed some explanation to her friend. But where to begin and what to say? Or did she even want to drag her misery out in front of someone so very happy with her husband and her life?
“What did he do to you, Miranda?”
“I simply tripped over my own feet and stumbled.” She purposely ignored the true question.
A period of silence followed, broken only by the clatter of the horses and carriage moving over the stone streets.
“He informed me that he wished to visit my bed this evening and I refused.” She sighed.
“I know that I am the cause of whatever has gone badly between the two of you and I am heartily sorry,” Sophie said mournfully. “I seem to get carried away, thinking that everyone can be as happy as John and I are. He’s chided me about getting involved and I think he must be correct in this.”
“You cannot blame yourself for my errors in judgment, Sophie. I should have known better than to allow foolish dreams or hopes to cloud my responsibilities.”
“And so that is the end of it? You walk through life as the Duchess of Windmere with nothing left over for yourself.”
Tears filled Miranda’s eyes and she nodded at her friend. “I will have so many things to do, I have so many things to do now, that there will be no time left over for anything but my duties.”
She paused and looked out the carriage window as the city passed by. “I should be pleased that so much has been given to me, the daughter of a gentleman. I should be grateful that fate or God has seen fit to allow my husband to inherit such titles and lands and power. I should…not wish that his brother had never died.”
“I know that you should not have any cause to do so, but would you listen to a suggestion I have to make?”
Sophie reached over and took Miranda’s gloved hand in hers. Miranda nodded.
“The longer you stay away or keep him away, the worse it will be. If there is no other way, then treat his visit to your chambers as you do your visits to the dowager—a necessary thing you must tolerate.” Sophie shuddered now, ruining the effect she was trying to make.
“In other words, return to how it was between us before this escapade of folly?”
“Can you, Miranda? I sense a certain brittleness in you now and it scares me. I worry that something will happen to you if you are not able to put this all back in the perspective you used to have of it.”
Brittle? Yes, that’s exactly how she felt. As though the wrong move or word or sound or person would happen and the facade she’d erected over her bruised heart would crack into a million pieces. Miranda was not certain if she could make the pain go away. But Sophie’s face, filled with concern and guilt, made her nod.
“It is just what I will do, and actually have been doing, except, of course, for the duke’s personal attentions.”
The coach pulled up in front of Warfield Place and Sophie squeezed her hand again. The groom opened the door, flipped down the steps and helped Miranda out. The front door was already opening and so she left Sophie without another word.
Reaching her chambers, she had Fisk prepare her for bed, for Adrian would never be so impolite as to visit when she’d expressed her objection to it.
The woman, a wealthy widow who seemed to be on many of the best guest lists, pressed against his arm, allowing her well-endowed bosom to rub against him now for the third time. With the daringly low neckline of her dress, Adrian suspected he might be holding her breasts in his hands soon if she continued. He’d comprehended the real message long ago, but apparently was not responding as he should.
In spite of the mean words he’d spoken to Miranda on the issue, he had no intentions of engaging another mistress. Between facing his mortality and discovering the warm and willing woman that lived within his wife, he did not want another woman. He wanted her.
“Mrs. Dobbs, I see my friend Lord Parker coming. If you will excuse me, we have another engagement to make.”
He stepped back but she followed. He waved to Parker to make him hurry. “Here now, Parker. I know I am holding us up,” he said as he reached out to shake his hand and to force the avid Mrs. Dobbs away from him.
“Your Grace.” Parker nodded. “Your carriage is waiting outside for you, as you requested.”
“Ah, my thanks. Lord Parker, may I make you known to Mrs. Dobbs? Mrs. Dobbs, Lord Parker.” The “lady” curtsied and then stretched out her hand to Parker.
“Charmed, ma’am,” he said politely as he took it.
The necessary introduction accomplished, Adrian
turned to his friend and nodded. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, Mrs. Dobbs.”
“Dorothea, Your Grace.” She smiled and dipped into another curtsy that gave him another glimpse of her ill-disguised offering.
Unable to respond, Adrian backed away several paces, turned and walked toward the path that led around the house to the front entranceway, where his coach would be. He did not wait for Parker to follow, though he knew he would. As soon as they made it to the portico, his groom spotted him and brought the coach closer.
“To my club.” He nodded to the driver as he climbed in. Parker sat down, the door was closed and they moved off, slowly at first, as his driver battled the crowds to get access to the street.
“Another friend of Caro’s?” Parker asked, once the coach was moving.
“Yes, although ‘friend’ may be a bit kind.”
Several of Caro’s acquaintances had approached him to let him know of their availability now that he and Caro had parted ways. Word spread quickly when a man of his influence and wealth was looking, but in this case word was spreading even though he was not.
“I am not in the market for a new paramour, Parker.”
“Then things are better between you and the duchess? I danced with her earlier and she seemed very distant in her addresses to me. Almost as though she was not there.”
“I’ve made no headway concerning the duchess. As
a matter of fact, I have yet to get her alone to speak with her at all.” Adrian smiled at his friend. “That will change tonight.”
“And the rest of it? Will you tell her the truth? About what the physicians said?” Parker lowered his voice. “It doesn’t seem right somehow to keep it from her.”
“I do not want her to know. Not now. Not until I’ve made arrangements for her so that she’ll have nothing to worry over.”
“Worry over? She’s the duchess. Isn’t that enough?”
“Not without producing a child, it is not. An heir would enable her to live as she does now, even contribute her guidance to his upbringing. But without one, she is left with less than what she brought to our marriage.”
“You would do that to her? I never thought it possible!”
“Not me, Will. The way the entail and letters of patent are written is unchangeable. But over the last few weeks, I have decided to set her up on her own so that she has no worries after I pass.”
“What do you mean?” Parker looked at him with suspicion in his gaze. “Are you going to separate?”
“Actually, since producing an heir remains the priority of a man in my situation, separation is not an option,” he began. Until he became incapacitated or cocked up his toes completely, begetting an heir was the most important thing he could do—both for the dukedom and now for Miranda. “If I can buy Caro a small mansion in a fashionable part of town, why can I not do the same for the duchess?”
“You don’t plan on telling her this, either, do you?”
Adrian shook his head. “If the doctors are incorrect, then she would have worried needlessly. She’s been a dutiful wife, Parker. Put up with the dowager. Always carried out her part of the marriage and even saved most of our property with the dowry she brought. The least I can do is make these arrangements.”
Parker settled back in his seat and nodded. “So, do you think the physicians could be wrong? Do you need to see another? Was there some treatment they recommended that you did not do?”
“Any one of them could be wrong, certainly, but all three in consultation? I have been seeing Penworthy for a number of years. He suggested the others when my condition worsened and he could come up with nothing new or different. No, Parker, I fear that I’ve seen all the doctors I need to about this.”