Authors: Lauren Royal
Tags: #Historical Romance
She'd been shocked speechless when the priest concluded the ceremony, shook hands all around, and walked through the front door of the chapel, all without her brothers bursting into laughter. Just yesterday she'd been an innocent girl, fantasizing about a man she barely knew, and now it looked like tonight she'd be his woman, body and soul.
But this couldn't be what it looked like.
Apparently the script called for the farce to go on a little longer. Yet she was willing to wager that before night fell, her brothers would be sending her up to her old bedchamber, congratulating themselves on the success of their practical joke.
"Aren't you going to cut the cake, Kendra?"
Startled, she looked to Amy. Her sister-in-law was grinning widely and holding out a knife. Dominating the center of the table, the bride cake was double frosted, sugar over almond icing. Despite her churning stomach, Kendra's mouth watered; she loved sweets.
Very well, then. If her brothers wished to continue the charade, she'd play her part.
Rising and taking the knife, she reached to cut the confection and felt Trick's hand envelop hers. She turned her head, raising astonished eyes to find him leaning over her, bracing himself with one hand on the table. "We've yet to feast,
." He nodded toward the servants still carrying in platters.
"Ah, Trick," Jason said, a trace of laughter in his voice. "It's obvious you don't know your wife. She always eats dessert first."
Colin nodded. "And she's taught Amy her unfortunate habit."
"Cake!" baby Jewel crowed gleefully, banging her spoon on the table.
"Second word she learned," Colin informed them dryly. "Right after Mama and before Papa."
"We've other nasty habits, I'm afraid," Ford added with a snort. "Perhaps you moved too quickly in aligning yourself with the Chases, my friend."
Beneath his tousled hair, Trick's eyes narrowed. "
moved too quickly?"
His hand was still on Kendra's, and she stiffened at his words. He seemed to be taking this seriously. Could it be he wasn't in on the joke? Or...
Could it be this was no joke?
Suddenly unsure, she looked around the table at her brothers' faces. Their expressions told her nothing.
When she saw Colin with Amy and Jewel, and Jason together with Cait, she couldn't help but wish for a family of her own like those her brothers were creating. A whole family, like the one she'd been cheated of growing up parentless during the Civil War and Commonwealth years. But a romantic marriage with any of the suitors her brothers had presented would be as likely as Zeus descending from the sky.
This was her
they were toying with. She bit the inside of her cheek. Caithren caught her gaze and returned it with heart-wrenching sympathy.
When Trick moved to pull back the knife, she held steady. He laughed suddenly, then shot her a broad, rakish smile. Noticing the tiny chip on his front tooth, she licked her lips, wishing her tongue were tasting that beautiful mouth instead. And she stopped breathing, shocked at her thoughts.
She'd never put her tongue in a man's mouth—never even thought of such a thing. Wherever had
idea come from? Besides, he'd probably bite it off. If this was no joke, he was due a pound of Chase flesh, and she knew it.
But instead of turning the knife on her, he slipped her a wink. "Come, we'll cut it together."
The man was an enigma, to be sure. Kendra drew a calming breath as they sliced the cake, his hand warm over hers. She placed a piece on Amy's plate, then one on her own.
All the while, Trick remained standing beside her. She could feel his gaze, feel him shifting, but before she had time to react, he'd reached and plucked the veil from her head.
"What!" She turned and snatched it from his hands.
"I wanted to see your...hair," he finished lamely, blinking at her in seeming bemusement. "What the hell did you do to it?"
"Do to it?"
"The..." He waved a finger, drawing spirals in the air. "The..."
"Curls?" Kendra supplied helpfully. She couldn't help but grin at his expression. "Jane worked on it for an hour. Do you like it?"
"No," he said flatly. "I liked it before." He leaned close, whispering to her alone. "Wild, streaming down your back."
"Oh." She felt a blush heat her face. "After this, I'll take it down."
take it down."
The wispy lace fluttered from her fingers to the soft blue Oriental carpet. Feeling more confused by the moment, she plopped back onto her chair.
"Mmm...porcupine," Trick said, reseating himself with a satisfied smile. "At least I've married into a family that appreciates good food."
The "porcupine" was actually a stuffed breast of veal, larded all over and studded with small strips of ham, bacon, and pickled cucumber. Trick smacked his lips and added a healthy portion to his already-loaded plate.
"Leave room—we've surprise as well," Colin warned. Spearing a bite of cake, Kendra looked up as a servant set the dish called surprise on the table. A stuffed calf's head served up in its original shape, it had bunches of myrtle stuck into its eyes and looked very surprised indeed.
The steam rose off it in tantalizing swirls...and it bellowed.
Kendra screamed. A piece of cake went flying off Amy's fork, splattering on one of the diamond-paned leaded windows. Ford jumped up, his lattice-backed chair clunking to the floor behind him. Trick and Jason froze.
When the calf bellowed again, Kendra rushed from her chair to take shelter in the door frame with Cait, both poised for flight. Stopping only to snatch up baby Jewel, Amy joined them. The women all clung together, staring. Squished between their bodies, Jewel let out a wail.
The calf's head bellowed once more...
No, it croaked.
With a half-amused, half-disgusted groan, Trick dropped his fork, reached to pry the calf's mouth open wider, and lifted its heavy pink tongue. A toad hopped out and looked around, blinking its bulbous eyes, before it leapt off the table and headed toward the door.
The women broke apart to let it pass between them. Amongst gales of laughter from the men, Kendra thwacked Colin on the head as she returned to her seat. "For the love of God! Have you no sense of propriety?"
"A question of propriety from
lips, little sister?" Colin rubbed his head good-naturedly. "Was it not just yesterday we found you—"
"Hush, Colin." Amy dumped their sobbing daughter on her husband's lap. "Here. You made her cry, she's yours." She seated herself and raised her fork, but not before sending him a tolerant smile.
Jewel quieted when Colin bounced her on his knee. "Well, you've seen us at our worst now," he said to Trick around a mouthful of dressed artichoke bottoms. "Welcome to the family."
Trick shrugged noncommittally. Watching him scan the group around the table, Kendra tried to imagine what he was thinking.
It couldn't be good.
It was time to bring this charade to an end. She turned to Jason. "How will you get along without me here to direct the household?"
"We'll manage," her brother said blithely, wrapping an arm around his competent wife. His fingertips played idly in her dark-blond hair. "I set Jane to packing your things."
Trick touched Kendra's hand. "Jane is your maid, I presume? She can follow tomorrow. You'll send her along, Cainewood?"
"But—" Kendra started.
"Tomorrow," Trick repeated, cutting her off. "You won't be needing her tonight."
At the look in his eyes—the keen hunger—Kendra's spoon clattered to her plate. He was acting as though they were really married, talking of maids and spending the night together.
Did highwaymen even have servants? She certainly hadn't seen any at the cottage. Was she really married to this man? Fingering the bracelet around her wrist, she recalled what little she knew of him.
It wasn't much, and it wasn't good.
"But you're—" Something in his warm eyes made her falter. "—a highwayman," she finished weakly.
Jason reached for the bread. "Yes, we need to talk about that."
Trick tore his gaze from Kendra. "Aye?"
"It has got to stop."
Trick chewed thoughtfully, then sipped some wine. The silence stretched between him and Jason, almost as though it were a palpable barrier.
"I mean it, Trick. You don't need the money."
"Aye? You think not?" A corner of Trick's wide mouth turned up, and Kendra would swear he was about to start laughing.
Did he really not need the money? Had he enough put aside, then? Could highway robbery be
There was something missing here. But she couldn't seem to think straight in his presence; it had been that way since she'd first laid eyes on him. She felt all hot and bothered, and her brain refused to work.
"Why do you do it?" Ford asked.
With a shake of his head, Trick tossed the hair from his eyes and looked straight at her twin. "Maybe it's a pleasant amusement."
"You're finished, Trick." Jason's voice brooked no nonsense. He set down his fork. "Find your pleasure somewhere else."
The golden gaze settled on Kendra again and burned into hers. "Aye," Trick said slowly, softly. "That I will."
The sun was setting, painting the sky in muted tones as they made their way to Trick's home in the impressive two-seater caleche he'd driven to Cainewood. Borrowed, most likely, Kendra thought, along with the matched bay horses...at least she fervently hoped he hadn't stolen them.
A furtive glance to the rear convinced her they weren't being followed—she wasn't being rescued—by any of her brothers. "I cannot believe it," she said.
Trick gave her a long, considered look before responding in that characteristic unhurried way of his. "You cannot believe what?"
"I cannot believe I'm married. It happened so fast."
He raked a hand through his shining hair. "Why did you go through with it?"
"I never thought it was real. Even now, I'm half-expecting one of my brothers to ride up laughing at their masterful joke."
"They're not coming," Trick said.
"I know." And she knew as well that some tiny part of her had wondered if the wedding might be real all along, and even—maybe—hoped that it was. Trick was the only man with whom she'd ever felt a sort of magic.
But that didn't stop her from wanting to sink her claws into her too-clever brothers.
How dare they scheme like this, marrying her to a known outlaw? He could be a murderer, for all she knew! The hard length of his rapier rode in the sword belt on his right. Her brothers carried weapons as well, of course, but they didn't draw and use them on a daily basis.
Her teeth ached from clenching them. Consciously relaxing her jaw, she took a deep breath. "I know they're not coming. I'm so furious with them, I swear I won't speak to them for weeks. But I still cannot believe it. All along, I was certain this was a prank." That desperate conviction had helped her cope all the day, and it was frightening to let go of it. "I thought they were trying to teach me a lesson."
Trick turned to her, a hint of a smile on his wide mouth. "Are you due to be taught a lesson?"
"No!" Why did his tone make her so flustered? "They refused to tell me whether you're titled. Are you?
"I'm your husband," he said carefully. "And I agree with your brothers that that's all you need to know for now."
She glared at him through the growing dark. He was as obstinate as her brothers. Whatever had made her believe, even for a fleeting second, that the magic she'd felt in his arms could be enough to sustain a relationship? "I can vow not to talk to you as well, you know."
"What makes you think I'm interested in talking tonight?"
The question was uttered in a voice so silky smooth, it robbed her of breath. "They manipulated you, too," she said, hugging herself to hide the attack of nerves. "Aren't you angry?"
"Aye, a bit perhaps." He guided the caleche off the main road, onto a less-traveled path. "But not overmuch. And not at you. I know this isn't your fault." When she offered him a tremulous smile, his gaze softened, and his words took on the lilt of his homeland. "It's not such a bad bargain I've made, aye?"
Kendra blushed wildly, thankful for the cover of darkness. A fair bargain, was she? She couldn't think of anything to say in return to such a statement, so she remained silent, tightening her arms about her middle.
Perhaps thinking she was cold, Trick wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She should be terrified, she thought vaguely. She knew nothing of men in an intimate way, and he was a virtual stranger.
But his warmth was oddly comforting. She scooted closer, and when his long fingers rubbed up and down her arm, she melted against him, thinking about when she first saw him and how she'd wanted him to notice her. Remembering yesterday in the cottage, and how much she'd craved his kiss.
And then today, their first kiss in the chapel. Spellbinding it had been, his mouth gentle and demanding at the same time. That single indelible kiss had been everything she'd imagined and more. It had ignited a fire in her blood, making her wonder what might come next.
She'd barely become accustomed to his nearness when the caleche bumped off the path and over a grassy knoll, following a faint trail that led to the cottage. Windows glowed in the distance, the lamps inside already lit.
The cottage looked warm and welcoming, but as they rolled to a stop, she tensed. Too soon he would expect her to become his wife in more than just name, and, despite her curiosity, she wasn't sure she could go through with it.
He helped her down and guided her inside with a hand at the small of her back, touching her where she wasn't used to being touched. Shutting the door behind them, he eased her back against it.
Close. Entirely too close. His gaze locked on hers, his warmth penetrating the small space between them. She could smell the soap-fresh masculine scent of him—sandalwood, if she wasn't mistaken. She wouldn't expect a highwayman to use imported soap, but then, little about any of this had matched her expectations.