White Regency 03 - White Knight (8 page)

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
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Grace walked in silence behind the butler
along the darkened corridors she had just come through. The only light came
from the single candlestick Ambrose carried before him. In his company, the
house had grown even gloomier than before, like a lowering stormcloud on an
already overcast day. He said nothing to her except to give a warning to her to
watch her step once as they turned. Even then he seemed to have spoken more out
of custom than any concern for her. When they reached the stairs to descend to
the lower floor, Grace finally spoke out.

“Ambrose, a moment if you will.”

He stopped, turning to regard her.

“I hope you will not fault Mrs. Stone
for my curiosity earlier. It was I who initiated the conversation you
overheard, not she.”

The butler’s face took on a ghoulish
quality in the light from his candle, the sharp angles of his face more
pronounced. “I am aware of that, madam, and I see no reason to discuss the
matter further with Mrs. Stone. However, in the future, should you have any
questions that concern either the marquess or the members of his family, I feel
certain that his lordship would prefer that you direct them to him rather than
the servants. We of the household are not privy to anything more than
conjecture about the events of the past.”

“Indeed, Ambrose. However, may I
remind you that his lordship’s family is now also my family as well?”

The butler looked at her a long moment.
Finally he said, “Of course, my lady.” He then turned without another
word and continued down the shadowed stairwell.

They walked for some time, past suits of
armor and ancient objects of weaponry that glimmered with a sinister cast in
the candlelight. Hoping to ease the direction of her thoughts, Grace found
herself wondering wryly how many heads had been lopped off by the various
instruments of torture they passed—and if any of them had been newly wedded
Westover brides.

They arrived at an arched double doorway
and the butler stepped aside, allowing her to precede him. Grace found herself
at the entrance to a vast chamber set with a long polished table that stretched
across its center. The table would easily seat thirty and when filled would
hold enough to feed the entire village of Ledysthorpe. At the far end of it,
nearest the blazing hearth, sat Lord Knighton, looking rather like the king at
his court. Only there weren’t any courtiers present, no performing troubadours,
just the empty chair to his right that had been set with a service obviously
meant for her.

“Good evening, my lord,” she
said at her approach, leaving Ambrose to stand at the door.

Christian rose from his seat. “Good
evening, my lady. I trust you found the ducal chambers to your liking?”

Grace took her seat. “What little I
saw of them before Ambrose arrived to escort me to dinner was most
agreeable.”

“My apologies. I had thought to give
you more time to ready yourself for dinner, but the cook had been awaiting our
arrival. The food was already prepared.”

Grace wondered that he had abandoned his
pressing business to share the meal with her, but kept that thought to herself.
She unfolded the linen napkin, placing it in her lap. Two footmen came forward
from the nethershadows to serve them, ladling out steaming turtle soup into
each bowl.

“I was wondering, my lord,”
Grace said after taking a sip of her claret, “why is it we are only
staying here at Westover Hall one night? If you have business to attend to, we
could certainly stay longer.”

Christian didn’t look at her, but instead
took up his soup spoon. “There are more urgent matters in London that
require my being there. It will not take long for me to see to what needs
attending here. We will leave for town on the morrow as planned.”

He began eating, as if to say the
conversation was at an end. Grace, however, couldn’t help her curiosity.
“But if we are to leave on the morrow, wouldn’t it have been a more prudent
choice to simply pass the night someplace between Little Biddlington and
London, or perhaps even just return to the city rather than travel nearly a
day’s ride west?”

Christian laid down his spoon. He looked
at her squarely. “Yes, my lady, it would have been a more prudent idea,
and had I a choice in the matter, that is precisely what we would have done.
But there is a tradition among the Westovers, one of which you are unaware.
Call it one of your ‘rules,’ if you will. You see, all new brides must spend
their wedding night in the Westover ducal bed—more precisely, they must lose
their virginity in it. It is believed that doing so ensures the next male
heir.”

And at that, Grace’s mouth fell open. A
moment later, her soup spoon clattered to the floor.

Chapter Eight

When Grace returned abovestairs after
dinner, she found a copper bathtub awaiting her in the withdrawing room set off
from the main ducal bedchamber. The water was strewn with soft-colored rose
petals and it steamed invitingly, as a freshly stoked fire crackled in the
marble hearth nearby. Mrs. Stone had set out everything Grace might need—soap
that was stamped with the Westover coat of arms, a washcloth, towels, and a
thick robe. She had even placed Grace’s nightshift and hairbrush on the dressing
table with a note that she should call with the bell pull for assistance in
dressing afterward.

Anxious for the bath, Grace quickly began
to undress herself, unfastening the buttons at her bodice and slipping her gown
from her shoulders. As she stepped from it, she looked at the silk pooled at
her feet, the gown she had worn to become a wife. She hadn’t truly thought of
it as her marriage dress, for it was not the one she had always dreamed of
wearing—the gown Nonny and her own mother had worn as brides.
If you wear
this dress,
Nonny had promised her,
your marriage will certainly be
blessed with the happiness and contentment that both I and your mother found in
our own marriages.

But with the duke’s haste for the wedding,
her grandmother’s gown had not arrived in time from Ledysthorpe. Grace had
instead worn the most comely gown she owned, the same gown she had worn to the
ball when she had fallen through the wall into • Lord Knighton’s dressing room.
After what had happened that night, she hoped the gown wasn’t ill fated.

Grace picked up the gown and draped it
carefully
across
the foot of the bed—the ducal bed—the Westover ducal bed. It was a large,
heavily carved thing set high off the ground and draped in dark rich velvet.
The words Christian had spoken to her during their dinner together that night
whispered through her thoughts.

All new brides must spend their wedding
nights in the Westover ducal bed

more
precisely, they must lose their virginity in it…

Grace was not totally naive about what
took place between a man and a woman, with the eventual result of children. She
had been raised in the country among horses and dogs and farm animals. While it
all seemed quite surreal to her, somehow she had always thought that when
that
time came in her life, she would know something more of the person with
whom she would share the experience than simply his name.

Grace turned from the bed and pulled the
pins from her hair, letting the weight of it fall to her waist. She stepped
into the tub, slipping beneath the clear water, its warmth enveloping her body
and setting her skin atingle. As she bathed, she considered the idea that this
night might bring about the conception of a child. It was the reason she had
been chosen, she knew, the reason the duke had come looking for a bride for his
grandson. It was the expectation of most every society bride—to produce an heir
and a spare. What a different mother she would be she thought—not at all like
the ladies who had come to visit her grandmother at Ledysthorpe during her
childhood.

From the time she had turned thirteen,
Nonny had allowed Grace to sit and take tea with her and her guests, despite
the disapproving looks of the other ladies. Grace had sat quietly, sipping at
her cup, listening as they talked of seeing their own children for naught but a
quarter hour every day as if it were a chore and not a privilege. How they
would proudly boast of delivering their children from nearly the moment of
their birth into the hands of a hired wet nurse and then, later, to a nursery
maid. How they would then evince astonishment when their children grew up ill-mannered
and speaking in the vernacular of their caretakers. Listening to them day in
and day out had only shown Grace that when the time came for her to have her
own children, fashionable or not, she would embrace her role as mother
faithfully. She would sing them to sleep, she would feed them at her own
breast, and she would teach them the same ideals Nonny had passed on to her.
More than anything else, Grace was determined that she should never give her
children cause to believe they had not been wanted.

Grace took up the small ewer that stood
beside the tub and leaned forward to rinse herself. As she dipped the ewer into
the tub a second time, she heard the faint sound of a door opening and closing
in the adjoining bedchamber. She went instantly still. He had come? So soon?
She waited but the only sound she heard was the nervous drumming of her heart
and the water dripping down around her.

Grace rose from the water and was just
stepping out of the tub when the door across the room suddenly swung open. She
did the only thing she could think of. She quickly grabbed the robe that had
been set out for her, shoving her arms into the sleeves as she said,
“Please allow me my privacy, my lord. I’m at my bath now.”

But it wasn’t Lord Knighton who stood
there at all. Instead it was a young maid of no more than eighteen years
bearing a tray in both hands.

She bobbed a quick curtsey. “Beggin’
pardon, my lady. I was just bringing you your tea. Lord Knighton thought you
might like a bit before retiring this e’ening.”

Feeling quite foolish, Grace took up a
towel and began rubbing the wet ends of her hair. “Yes, thank you. Please
just set it there.”

“Aye, my lady. Would you be wishing
me to help you brush out your hair and dress for bed, my lady?”

Grace looked at the maid, tempted to
accept. In the end, she decided it would be better to occupy herself as much as
possible while she waited for Lord Knighton’s arrival. “No, thank you. I
think I can manage.”

The maid bobbed again before leaving,
closing the door behind her.

Grace walked to the tea tray, dropping
into the chair in her favorite way with her feet tucked up beneath her as she
took up the teapot and poured herself a cup. It
had been thoughtful of
him, she mused, to send the tea to her. Grace took a sip and instantly coughed.
Her eyes watered and her throat burned. The tea was laced with something quite
strong, spirits more potent than the occasional bit of claret she was accustomed
to. She very nearly abandoned the tea, except that after a few seconds, it
began to fill her belly with a most pleasant warmth.

Grace took up the cup and drew another
sip, wishing that Lord Knighton had thought to have the maid include a biscuit
along with the tea. She realized now she was quite hungry. Dinner, while fine,
hadn’t tempted her beyond a sparse few bites. In truth, she hadn’t been able to
eat much of anything after hearing Lord Knighton’s comments about the
traditions of the ducal bed. Grace took another sip of the tea, peering into
the pot that was yet two thirds full. Taking up the tray, she headed for the
ducal bedchamber, thinking she would just have another cup while she changed
into her nightclothes and brushed out her hair and waited for Lord Knighton to
come.

When next Grace noticed the time, it was
nearing midnight. She had emptied both the cup and the teapot. She had even
fashioned a ribbon in her hair, tying it in a pretty bow atop her head. She
wore her favorite nightdress, the white linen one with the small pearl buttons
along the front. She had read three chapters further in her novel. Still there
came no sign of Lord Knighton.

Grace yawned, sinking back against the
thick, goose-down pillows on the ridiculously large ducal bed. She wiggled her
toes, which did not even reach halfway to the other end of the mattress, and
decided that the bed could easily sleep herself, Lord Knighton, and Ambrose and
Mrs. Stone too. Perhaps even the footmen who had served them their dinner.
Grace giggled at the image that presented itself, that of sacrificing her
innocence on the great Westover ducal bed while the unflappable Ambrose glared
at her from the other side of the mattress.

She stared at the huge tree-trunk-sized
posters and wondered why the figures carved in the dark gleaming wood suddenly
appeared to be dancing. She thought of the other virginal Westover brides who
had lain on this
same
spot before her. Had the figures danced for them as well? Perhaps that was part
of the tradition. She glanced over the side of the mattress, looking for the
floor, but she couldn’t see it. No doubt the bed had been chosen for this
particular tradition because it was so high, leaving frightened young maidens
less willing to flee for fear of a broken neck.

The clock struck half past twelve and
still Grace was alone. Perhaps Lord Knighton had perceived her dismay at
dinner—surely the sound of her soup spoon dropping to the floor and the sight
of her mouth hanging open had given him some indication. Perhaps he had decided
to forgo the tradition of this bed and this night. The candle on the table
beside her was guttering low; the others had long since gone out. The fire in
the hearth was burning more slowly with each turn of the clock.

Grace’s vigilance in watching the door
started to falter as she fought to keep her eyes open. She touched a hand to
the side of her face. The tea and whatever had accompanied it had brought a
flush to her cheeks, warming her throughout. She kicked at the coverlet. It was
growing very late. She closed her eyes, thinking that Lord Knighton must surely
have decided to retire for the evening after all, but to another bedchamber, in
another part of this gloomy, spooky house. Yes, that must be it…

In what seemed the very next moment, there
came a click from across the room, echoing strangely to her ears. Grace opened
her eyes with some effort—and even then only managed to pry them halfway—to see
a figure hovering at the edge of the wavering shadows given off by the ebbing
fire. It was the maid again, she mused on a half-conscious thought, and if she
was returning with more tea, Grace hoped that this time it might be with
something to eat.

” ‘Scuse me,” she measured out,
“but might I trouble you to bring me a biscuit, please?” Grace
wondered why her own voice sounded so odd and woolly to her ears.

There came no answer. Grace blinked,
watching as the figure drew closer to the bed. Funny, she thought, but the maid
appeared to have grown taller from the
last time she had come, and broader, especially across
the shoulders.

The figure emerged into the light and
Grace saw that it was not the maid after all.

It was Lord Knighton standing in the
bedchamber with her. He was wearing a dressing robe, and his feet were bare
underneath. He was watching her intently. And he was coming toward the bed.

Grace’s last thought before he reached her
was that apparently he had decided to uphold the Westover tradition after all.

BOOK: White Regency 03 - White Knight
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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