Authors: Lily Maxton
Tags: #historical romance, #England, #regency romance, #Entangled Scandalous, #Regency Era, #regency, #opposites attract, #London, #bet
“Why hasn’t he called on us yet?” Anne’s mother asked the next day, swooning about on her favorite chaise longue in the morning room. “Lord Thornhill
a gentleman,” she said weakly. It sounded as if she were trying to convince herself.
“It doesn’t matter,” Anne said for the fifth time. “I would really prefer not to marry.”
Her mother lifted her hand from her forehead and glared at her like a baleful cat.
But it was Anne’s father who spoke. He set his copy of the
on the side table next to his armchair with a soft rustle. “If he offers, you
“And if he doesn’t offer?”
“Then I’ll demand satisfaction.”
Anne gaped at him. “You can’t mean that.”
“Of course I can. The scoundrel has ruined my daughter.” And then he picked up his paper and left the room, as calmly as if he hadn’t said a word.
Her fingers clenched, the nails digging into her palms. Her throat tightened with helpless fury.
“Shall we walk on the shore?” Elizabeth asked, setting her embroidery aside. “The morning air will do us good.”
Olivia closed the novel she was reading with a loud thud. “Yes, that sounds lovely.”
So Anne allowed her sisters to fetch her bonnet and gloves and sweep her away from the town house. It was as though she was adrift on the sea and they were the waves that pulled her along in their wake.
“Miss Middleton!” a footman called, just as they’d descended the steps. He walked toward them with quick strides. “A note for you, Miss.”
He bowed and placed the letter in her hand, then was on his way again.
Her pulse quickened as she unfolded the parchment and saw the familiar scrawl.
I know I made a promise, but circumstances have changed. I’ll be calling today to ask your father for your hand in marriage. I hope you won’t be angry with me. I don’t think I could live with myself if I ruined a woman and didn’t offer to marry her. Please try to understand.
I fully expect you to reject my offer. However, I don’t think you should. My other request is that you take time to think things through before you refuse.
“Very succinct,” she muttered drily.
“Is it from Thornhill?” Elizabeth asked.
Anne handed her the note and they continued walking. There was nothing personal in it to embarrass her. No declarations of love or heartfelt pleas. No references to their intimacy. They could have been friendly acquaintances for all the feeling that was in that letter.
Elizabeth pursed her lips. “What promise?”
“I made him promise he wouldn’t ask me to marry him.”
Lizzie handed the note to Olivia. After a moment, she said, “I agree with Thornhill. You should think about the consequences of your refusal.”
“I’ll think about it,” Anne said. “It doesn’t mean I’ll change my mind.”
“He signed it, ‘Yours Always,’” Olivia pointed out.
Anne lifted her shoulders. “I don’t think that was intentional.”
Or was it? He’d never signed any of their letters that way before. She pressed her palms against her forehead. She felt like stamping her feet, but she wasn’t quite forgone enough to resort to such childish theatrics.
Elizabeth wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist. “He would be a good husband.”
“To you he might’ve been,” she said, her voice growing thick. She swallowed, mortified.
Her sister shook her head with a soft sigh. “You are too stubborn for your own good.”
Wordlessly, they went to the edge of the water, and Anne stared at a calm, gray sea that reflected the heavy sky above. It stretched on endlessly, then blurred into the horizon. She couldn’t tell where the ocean ended and the sky began.
She and her sisters spent the morning watching bathing machines roll women to the colorless water. There, they were helped by the sea dippers. They disappeared under the surface and seconds later emerged shivering with their wet bathing clothes plastered to their bodies.
Supposedly, it was good for one’s health, but no one looked very happy afterward.
When she, Elizabeth, and Olivia arrived back at the rented house, they stood in the entrance hall as they untied their bonnets to give to the waiting footman. Anne heard masculine voices filter down from the drawing room—her father’s and another one that had grown quite familiar to her in a short time.
Her first reaction was to bolt, but Olivia and Elizabeth blocked the exit like an impenetrable brick wall.
“I think I left something,” Anne said desperately.
“Are you going to refuse his proposal without even talking to him?” Elizabeth asked. “Have you no regard for him or his feelings?”
Anne stared at her, dumbfounded, shame making her chest burn. Elizabeth had been more of a mother to them than their real mother—and Anne, for all her flouting of society’s rules, found that the disappointment of one person could cut deep.
“She’s right,” Olivia added. “You should at least speak with him.”
Now she stared in astonishment at her younger sister. The shy one. The one who liked to avoid conflict instead of putting herself in the midst of it. “
And by that point it was too late. Their father appeared on the stair landing above them, saw that Anne had returned, and sent her a hard look. “Come. Lord Thornhill is waiting.”
They all scurried up the stairs and then piled into the drawing room at the same time, but Thornhill sought her first. His eyes swept over her. His face was smooth, expressionless, and he held his hands behind his back. He looked much calmer than she felt. She couldn’t begin to guess what he was thinking.
He bowed formally to them, and she watched his first exchange with Elizabeth carefully. He politely inquired after her well-being, then turned his attention to Olivia.
And that was it.
Anne had expected at least
awareness of her sister from Thornhill. Some tension. A lingering over her hand, or a warmth to his words. A spark. An appreciative glance. A charged smile. There was nothing. At least nothing Anne could detect.
He didn’t seem any more aware of Elizabeth than he would a sister.
Her hands balled into fists, Anne breathed deeply, then released them. He caught the gesture and looked at her again, and for a moment it seemed they were the only ones in the yellow-papered room.
And suddenly, they
the only ones in the room.
She spun around with an incoherent noise when the door shut, trapping her with him, alone.
“Traitors, all of them,” she muttered under her breath.
“What?” Thornhill asked, tilting his head inquiringly.
She squared her shoulders and faced him. “It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” she said with forced brightness.
He glanced toward the window, where a heavy rain rattled the panes and wind whistled through the cracks. “
,” he uttered noncommittally.
“It wasn’t raining a moment ago,” she said, slightly embarrassed.
“I’ve thought of a way to keep my promise.”
She clasped her hands together in front of her, not certain what to do with them. If she sat down she wouldn’t feel so conspicuous, but her feet were rooted to the Persian carpet. “How?”
Michael leaned against an armchair, his gaze never leaving her face. She was grateful for the few feet of space separating them. It allowed her to think more clearly. “I won’t ask you to marry me.”
She blinked. “But you already have.”
“No, I asked your father for his permission to ask you.”
“How very clever,” she said, her hands tightening. “So what does this mean? We’re simply going to stare at each other until you decide to leave?”
“I had a wager, of a sort, in mind.”
“What is it?” she asked suspiciously. She’d lost the last one. She didn’t intend to be bested again by her own impetuous nature. Although one might say she already had.
“I have one question to ask you. If you answer it truthfully, I’ll leave you as you wish.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then we marry,” he said simply.
Her knuckles turned white. “How will you know if I’m being truthful?”
“I won’t, but
will. You’ll have to be honest—I’m trusting you to be honest.”
She hesitated only briefly. “Agreed.” She wondered what sort of game he was playing. It seemed too easy for her to win. She folded her arms across her chest and waited.
“Do you love me?” The question was quiet, but firm. He watched her face intently in the silence that followed.
A stunned inhale strangled in her throat. Her fingers flew up instinctively to touch the hollow at the center of her collarbone—perhaps to check that she could still draw breath. It was a shock, a horrible, sweet shock to hear that word from his lips. They hadn’t once discussed love.
The only sound in the room was the rain slamming against the window.
“I…I don’t know,” she finally murmured.
“Is that your answer?” His voice was carefully level.
“And it’s a truthful answer?”
She nodded again, too dumbfounded to speak. It actually was the truth. Or…
“Very well.” He executed a perfect bow and left the room before she could ponder her confusion.
She stared at the empty space where he’d stood, her heart pounding against her ribs. He was gone. Simply gone. It was like he’d never been there. And she somehow knew he was serious about the wager. He’d meant exactly what he’d said, because he was a man of honor. She knew it. She’d always known it.
He would leave her alone now.
It should have been what she wanted. But—would she ever see him again?
She pressed her knuckles to her lips, stifling a sudden sob as pain pierced her chest.
Would he eventually marry someone else? Start a family with someone else?
Would she ever read another of his funny, dry letters? Would she ever dance with him again? Laugh with him again? Kiss him again? Would she ever relive the searing, wonderful passion she’d found with him?
In her mind, the years stretched out ahead of her, desolate as the gray Brighton sea…because Michael wasn’t in them. Somehow he’d become the light that swept aside the clouds, the cup of tea at the end of a wearisome day, the hot, scented bath in the dead of winter.
He’d become what she looked forward to the most in her life.
And if that wasn’t love…
Her feet moved before she could even spur them to. They sprinted for the hallway, taking her past an angry set of parents and two bewildered sisters, and straight out into the rain.
The black carriage with the Thornhill crest was already moving. It was three houses past theirs and picking up speed. She ran after it, nearly sobbing in relief when it rolled to a stop and the door opened.
She didn’t wait for the outrider. She dived into the carriage, collapsing against Michael, whose arms closed around her in a tight embrace, despite her sogginess. “I lied,” she gasped. “I lied. I do love you.”
He kissed her forehead. When he pushed her wet hair away from her face, his hands trembled. “Thank God. You had me terrified.” He pulled back to look down at her, and smiled ruefully.
“I don’t understand how you could love Elizabeth and still want me,” she told him, her voice straining with confused emotions. “We’re so very different. Surely, you can see that? I don’t want to be the novel wife who amuses you for only a few months before you grow tired of me and wish you’d selected someone better suited.”
“There is no one better suited. Not for me,” he said softly. “I told you I couldn’t have made Elizabeth happy…but now I doubt that she could have made me happy. Since I started corresponding with you, I’ve felt more—” He laughed, a bit self-consciously. “More
. Alive, at peace, happy, satisfied. I love you.
, Anne, as you are. No one else. It’s not something that will fade in a few months, or even a few years. I highly suspect it’s a lifelong affliction.”
She looked into his green eyes, and it was all there for her to see—his emotions, stripped down and unguarded, shining like a beacon of love. Maybe they’d been there all along and she’d refused to acknowledge it.
She had to swallow before she could speak. “You really do want me, then?” Her voice came out faint. Her heart was aching as though it had just been sent through a wringer.
“Of course I do,” he said emphatically, but with a warm smile. “I didn’t know you needed convincing. I thought it was rather obvious I adore you.”
His words lifted her, washed over her, eased her. And she felt rather like he’d just described. More everything. More alive. Calmer. Happier than she’d ever been. Contradictions that somehow existed together harmoniously. Her worries faded, until she wasn’t even certain why she’d been so anxious in the first place.
“I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner,” she said. “And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth.”
“Why is that?”
“Because now you must marry me, darling Anne,” he answered, sounding thoroughly satisfied. “For I’ve won the wager.”
She laughed and closed the distance between them. She pressed her mouth to his in an impulsive, eager kiss that had her thinking about their night on the shore, their interrupted encounter at the soiree, and all the other things she wanted to explore with him.
Oh, yes. She wanted to be quite thoroughly ruined.
But there was no hurry—the future stretched ahead, no longer gray and desolate, but filled with precious hope and an abundance of love and laughter.
She drew back from him just far enough to speak, her voice sounding a little breathless. “Hmm. I would say we’ve both won.”
He grinned. “Argumentative as ever.” His arms tightened around her, and she snuggled into the warmth and safety of his embrace as the rain pattered against the roof of the carriage. “And I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
Michael had always thought of himself as a patient man, but the wedding breakfast that morning had consumed all of his self-restraint. The sycophantic mutterings of Lady Middleton, who’d been seated at his right hand, had lasted nearly the entire two hours, and he’d been hard-pressed not to tell his new mother-in-law to shut up.
It would not have been an auspicious start to the marriage, by any means.
And Anne, his delightful, wonderful, maddening Anne, was sitting too far away from him to touch. She looked lovely in a blue dress with small white flowers dotting her upswept hair. He’d been utterly fixated as she’d slowly peeled off her long white gloves so she could select a plum cake from the heap of food on the table. Fixated again when he’d spied the ring glinting on her finger. A gold wedding band. The ring he’d given her as he pledged his body and his love. The ring that bound them together, always.
And as he’d listened to Lady Middleton rattle on about all the parties they should host as newlyweds, Anne had met his gaze and smirked as if she’d known exactly how tattered the threads of his patience were growing.
It had taken every ounce of willpower not to throw his damned plate at the wall and order everyone to leave. He should have swept his betrothed away that first night and eloped to Scotland. But even though they’d married somewhat hastily by special license, she had wanted her sisters at her wedding, and he would have done anything to make his bride happy.
He managed to wait at least two hours before starting to usher out their guests, one by one. He noted as the Camerons said their farewells that Elizabeth did appear happy with her new husband, and he was glad for her—thankful even, because he realized her refusal had allowed them both to find true joy in their lives.
Lady Middleton, however, did not appear very happy to have Cale Cameron at the wedding. But Michael was the earl, and if he chose to associate with a bookseller, he knew Lady Middleton would have no choice but to follow his lead.
It seemed to take another drawn-out hour for everyone to absent themselves. Once the last guests had departed, Michael prowled the rooms of his Brighton town house as he untied his cravat, waiting for Anne to do whatever women did in preparation for their wedding night.
There was a lot of blasted waiting on one’s wedding day.
Many couples left directly after the wedding breakfast to depart on their honeymoon, but Michael had preferred to wait until the next day. He didn’t want their first hours as husband and wife spent in a carriage.
Spending them in his bed sounded like the much more attractive option.
He glanced at the clock on the mantel as he passed through the library. Another half hour had gone by since Anne disappeared from the dining room. Surely half an hour was enough time for whatever preparation needed to be done? Was she taking a leisurely bath?
He went to the door of her bedchamber and knocked. When there was no answer, he cracked the door and peered into the feminine room decorated in whites and pinks. The bed was neatly made. There was no bathtub resting on the floor, no maids hovering about. His bride was not there.
He frowned, a small part of him worrying her fears had returned and she’d fled, but he shook his head. Anne wouldn’t run from him. Not like this.
He continued down the corridor and pushed open the door to his own bedchamber.
Ah, there. There she was. A vision of white muslin and pale skin. Even though it was daylight outside, she’d stripped down to her chemise. She’d even removed her stockings and garters, as she had the night they’d raced each other in the water. His eyes roved hungrily over a body whose dips and swells were hinted at through the sheer fabric. Its splendors had been partially exposed to him before, but this time was different.
This time she was his wife. And there would be no furtive grappling on a darkened beach. Instead, he would lay her bare, inch by inch. Would unravel her and learn each of her secrets by the light of day. And he would offer his secrets, his soul, in return.
Heart thrumming, he stepped past the threshold and closed the door behind him. At the sound of the latch, she looked up and smiled impishly. For a moment, he forgot to breathe, she was so sensual and lovely.
He crossed the bedchamber to stand before her, and she tilted her head back to meet his eyes.
He realized belatedly that she had a book spread open in her hands.
When he looked down at it, she answered his unspoken question. “I’ve been reading through
and marking all of the things I would like to try with you.”
He laughed, unsurprised—delighted in fact—by her forwardness. There were plenty of things in that memoir he wanted to try with her, as well, but their first day of marriage was not the best time for the more adventuresome of them. “Perhaps we should begin with the basics,” he advised.
“That might be wise.” Her eyelids lowered before she looked back up with an expression that was almost bashful. Now, a timid wife?—
“Shy, Anne?” he asked, bemused.
“No,” she said. Her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the stillness. “Well. Only a little,” she admitted reluctantly. “We should have consummated
we married. It would take all of this frustrating pressure away.”
He grinned. “I wanted you to be my wife first.”
“That’s because you are sentimental,” she teased, but she didn’t look as though she minded.
“And I did not want you to risk conceiving before we married. What if something had happened to me?”
overly responsible.” A soft sigh escaped her lips. “But thank you. It does feel nice to know you are so protective of me.”
His fingers reached out to catch a wavy tendril of hair that was escaping its pins. He smoothed it between his fingertips, then touched her jaw lightly, enjoying the warmth and softness of her skin.
“I think before we progress any further, we must take a moment to thank Miss Richards.”
Anne’s eyebrows rose. “For being a goose?”
“For leading me straight to you,” he answered steadily.
She lifted her hand to cover his, pressing his palm lovingly against her cheek. “Yes, I can thank her, most sincerely, for that. Although the woman is still an utter goose.”
A tender smile curved his lips, and as he studied the lines of her face, raw emotion swelled in his chest, potent enough to hurt. But he welcomed the pain. Reveled in it. It was, after all, an incredibly sweet ache.
“I love you so very much,” he said quietly.
Her fingers wrapped around his. She exerted a slight but insistent tug, pulling him closer, drawing him, inexorably, to her. “Show me,” she whispered, then slanted him a glance overflowing with love and mischief. “No, let us show each other.”
He lowered his head and she lifted hers. And though they were two somewhat imperfect people, they met in the middle, with one utterly perfect kiss.