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Authors: Mary Balogh

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Grandmama was afraid the fuss of a large wedding would be beyond the duke’s strength. More important, Ralph suspected, was her fear that he would die before the wedding could be solemnized and thus force its postponement just at a time when the need for Ralph’s marrying would be more urgent than ever.

Ralph had purchased the license and suggested today as the wedding day merely because he wanted to get it over with before he could think of excuses for procrastinating. But his grandfather’s episode yesterday had convinced him it was the best course.

And Miss Muirhead? What were
her
thoughts and feelings?

If this were a normal wedding, he would be in the chapel now, anxiously awaiting her arrival, and she would approach him from the door on her father’s arm while admiring family and friends looked on. Some people even believed it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding. But they were walking to the chapel together. At least, he was walking with his grandfather on his arm while she provided the like service for his grandmother.

She was looking neat and composed. She was dressed
with understated elegance in a dress that flattered her slender figure. Her bonnet—yes, she was wearing one today—was pretty though simple of design. Her bright hair was elaborately curled at her neck.

It was impossible to know what she thought or how she felt. And he was not really curious to know. He had spoken the truth to her yesterday when he had pledged always to treat her with respect. He would, of course, inevitably get to know her better during the course of their marriage, but he had no desire to
know
her. He would take her at her word and believe that she wished for no emotional tie with him. He wanted none with her.

His grandfather did not make any conversation. Ralph suspected he needed all his breath and all his energy just to walk the short distance from the house to the chapel. Ralph would nonetheless have welcomed some kind of chitchat. He was remembering two other weddings he had attended this year, though it was still only May, and two he had attended last year—each of them for one of his fellow Survivors. Only Ben and Vincent had missed Hugo’s last year and Ben had also missed Vincent’s. Only Vincent had missed Ben’s in faraway Wales this past January. All of them had been at Flavian’s wedding at Middlebury Park just a few weeks ago. Ralph was to be the first of them to marry without even one of the others in attendance. It caused him a surprising pang of regret and loneliness.

But at least he had his grandparents here. Miss Muirhead had no one. He would
not
pursue that thought, however. She wished to be married. And she had agreed upon today. He was not going to allow the barrenness of
this wedding to place yet another burden of guilt on his shoulders.

They reached the open doors of the chapel, and Ralph was aware of candlelight flickering within. The vicar was here, then, and ready for them.

And suddenly he wished . . .

For what? His mind would never take him to the conclusion of these unexpected yearnings. He could never see what it was he longed for. But such moments always left him with a faint ache of near despair.

They changed partners, and the duke led Her Grace inside to the padded front pew. Ralph looked at his bride, and she looked back, her eyes calm and unreadable. He knew a twinge of something that might have been panic before inclining his head and offering his arm, formally, as he would to a dancing partner, a stranger, at a ball. She set her gloved fingers half on his hand, half on his wrist, and he led her inside to be married.

There was no music. There was no long nave to be processed along slowly while the solemnity of the coming nuptials built into pleasurable anticipation. And the marriage service itself, stripped of all its pomp, was brief and dispassionate. He had remembered to buy a ring—he had had to guess her size. He spoke his vows and she spoke hers. He slid the ring onto her finger. He had guessed well enough, though perhaps the ring was one size too large. And then the vicar was pronouncing them man and wife and leading them into the tiny cupboard of a vestry to sign the register while his grandparents came along more slowly behind to sign as witnesses.

Stone buildings were always cold inside, especially
when they had been built among trees and very little sunlight ever penetrated their small windows. And especially when it was a cloudy day in May. But surely the chapel was colder than other stone buildings of its kind, though he had not noticed it before. He felt chilled through to the very heart.

His grandparents were clearly delighted. In the congested confines of the vestry, while the vicar effaced himself and squeezed out through the door, his grandfather boomed out his congratulations, pumped Ralph’s hand and slapped him on the shoulder, and then folded Miss Muirhead—the Countess of Berwick—in a bear hug and planted a smacking kiss on one of her cheeks. His grandmother framed his face with both hands and, when he bent his head downward, kissed him on the lips and beamed happily. She hugged his bride tightly and complained crossly that Bunker had not had the good sense to put more than one small handkerchief into her reticule. The duke produced one from his coat pocket that looked more like the sail of a small boat and handed it to her.

Miss Muirhead—the Countess of Berwick—his
wife
, was smiling and biting her lower lip and looking suspiciously bright-eyed and . . . Well, by God she was beautiful. There was no denying it. There were two spots of warm color in her cheeks.

They walked back to the house as they had come, the duke wheezing slightly on Ralph’s arm, the duchess chirping cheerfully as she walked ahead with . . . his wife. Ralph wondered how long it would take him to get used to thinking of her as such. She was his
wife
. What would he call her? It was a foolish thought, one he had not considered until now. What would she call him? He had
never heard his grandparents call each other by their given names, though he knew they were exceedingly fond of each other. Perhaps in the privacy of their own apartments . . .

The servants all knew about the wedding, of course, though Ralph did not believe any formal announcement had been made to them. The butler and the housekeeper had every last one of them lined up on either side of the back hallway, including Ralph’s valet and the coachman who had driven his baggage coach, the menservants on one side, the maidservants on the other. They all curtsied or bowed when the small entourage stepped inside, and Weller made a stiff, pompous little speech before leading the staff in three self-conscious cheers.

The duke harrumphed, Ralph made an impromptu little speech of thanks, which he feared sounded every bit as pompous as Weller’s, the duchess looked both regal and benevolent, and the Countess of Berwick smiled and glowed and thanked everyone for their kind good wishes and for the lovely surprise of their welcome, all without sounding even the tiniest little bit pompous.

Ralph drew her hand through his arm and patted it.

The wedding breakfast, Weller announced with a bow, would be served in the dining room at the convenience of His Grace and Her Grace and his lordship and her ladyship.

The wedding breakfast?

“It may be served in half an hour’s time,” the duchess said, nodding graciously to all her servants again and leading the way to the front of the house.

Ralph looked down at his bride when they had left the back hallway and the servants behind.

“I fear,” he said, “the ring may be a little large.” It was hidden beneath her glove at the moment.

“Just a little, perhaps,” she agreed. “But it can be put right. Most things can.”

Could they?
Could
they?

“That was unplanned,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the back hall. “So, I believe, was the breakfast, though perhaps it is just Weller’s grand name for luncheon today. I hope you have not been made to feel uncomfortable.”

He
felt dashed uncomfortable for no reason he could explain to himself. Except that, good Lord, this was his
wedding
day. He had a sudden memory of Flavian and his bride driving away from the village church in Gloucestershire a few weeks ago, Flave kissing her while the guests spilling out of the church and the villagers gathered outside cheered and whistled and the church bells pealed joyfully. Ralph felt a little ashamed of the shabby apology for a wedding to which he had subjected
his
bride. He had not even offered a token kiss.

“Not at all,” she said, smiling up at him. “I was having a hard time believing in the reality of our wedding until I saw the servants waiting to greet us. But I think we really are married, my lord.”

“Ralph,” he said, frowning. “You had better call me that since, yes, we really are married.”

It was too late now to go back and do things differently.

“Then you must call me Chloe,” she said.

“Chloe.” And now what the devil? His eyes swept over her. “You will need to change?”

It struck him belatedly that he could have told her,
quite truthfully, how pretty she looked. He still could raise her hand to his lips.

“Yes,” she said, withdrawing her arm from his before he could put his thought into action. “I shall be back down within the half hour, my l— Ralph.”

He watched her climb the stairs. She looked the same as ever from behind—slim, neat, a near stranger. But within the past hour everything had changed. She was his
wife
. She was
Chloe
. And he did not have any idea how to deal with her or how to deal with married life. He did not want to have to deal with either.

Tonight there would be the consummation.

He strode off in the direction of the book room to make sure the exertions of the past hour had not been too much for his grandfather.

7

C
hloe sat on the side of her bed, her hands clasped in her lap. She felt restless and self-conscious, though she was still alone. She was wearing the nightgown she had made a little over a year ago before she went to London to stay with her aunt. She had appliquéd yellow-centered daisies about the hem of the fine white linen and at the edges of the sleeves. She had always liked it, but she did not suppose it was very bridelike.

She had braided her hair and wound it about her head beneath the frilled cap she had made to match the nightgown but had never worn before tonight. She had hesitated about wearing it now, and about braiding her hair and putting it up. Perhaps she ought to have left it down and uncovered. It was just that it was so very . . . well,
red
.

She felt mortifyingly skittish, as though this were a wedding night that really mattered. It
did
matter, of course, for perhaps tonight or tomorrow night or some other night soon she would conceive. Yes, tonight meant a great deal except in any personal way. It really was not important what she did with her hair or what she wore. Or how she felt.

She unclasped her hands and gazed down at her palms. She was married, yet Papa did not know, or Graham, or Lucy.
His
mother did not know or any of his sisters. Tomorrow they were going to leave here and start changing all that. They had decided they were going first to Hampshire to break the news to Papa. The Earl of Berwick—
Ralph
—would discuss the marriage settlement with him even though the nuptials had already taken place. Then they would go home to Elmwood Manor in nearby Wiltshire and write to their other relatives. So many letters to be written, so many people to be surprised. And a marriage announcement would have to be sent off to all the London papers for the information of other acquaintances and the
ton
in general.

When informed of their plans during the wedding breakfast, the duchess had expressed disappointment. In her opinion they ought to proceed to London immediately after calling upon Chloe’s papa. There they would be able to call in person upon the Dowager Countess of Berwick, Ralph’s mother; upon Lady Keilly, Ralph’s youngest sister, who was in town for the Season with Viscount Keilly, her husband; upon the Reverend Graham Muirhead and Mrs. Nelson, Chloe’s sister—all within one day. They would also be able to make a round of social appearances while the whole of the beau monde was gathered in London. They would be able to host a ball at Stockwood House in celebration of their marriage. It would be one of the grand squeezes of the Season.

“For you were the subject of gossip and speculation last spring, Chloe, before you fled London,” she had explained. “Everyone will wish to set eyes upon you now
that you have made the most brilliant match of the Season. And, fickle as the
ton
invariably is, all who looked askance at you last year will embrace you this year—
if
you have the courage to face them, that is, your head held high. You are the daughter of a baronet, remember, and the granddaughter of a viscount. You will have all the consequence of Ralph’s title behind you. And you will have all the grandeur of the ducal power behind you too on the night of the ball, for Worthingham and I will surely travel up to town for the occasion.”

She had warmed to her theme. The duke had harrumphed but not said anything to contradict her.

“And for the ball, Chloe,” she had continued, “you must wear emerald green, and special care must be taken over the dressing of your hair. It must remain uncovered since it needs no adornment. And since you cannot hide its color, which fact caused you so much embarrassment last year, then you must flaunt it instead.”

Chloe, sitting on her bed now, several hours later, rubbed the fingers of her left hand in a circle about her right palm, and then reversed hands. Was the duchess right? Was that what they ought to do? But she felt sick at the thought and was very glad that Ralph had refused his grandmother’s suggestion.

“We are not going to London, Grandmama,” he had said, “despite the good sense of your arguments. Chloe has no wish to mingle with the very society that has quite unjustly rejected her
twice
. And, frankly, I am tired of the tedium and artificiality of life in town. We are going to Elmwood. It is high time I settled there and took an active hand in the running of the estate, and it is where my wife will be most comfortable.”

Chloe had glanced at him with silent gratitude. One thing that had taken her completely by surprise during the day was her own happiness. It was a quite inappropriate mood under the circumstances and was likely to cause her pain if she did not check it. It would certainly bring her embarrassment if her husband should suspect. Though it was not as though it were the happiness of love or the expectation of romance. It was just . . .

Well, it was just that she was
married
.

It had been the strangest, most subdued of wedding days. It ought to have felt dreary and anticlimactic and anything but happy. Who, after all, would want a quiet wedding in a tiny chapel to a man who had no personal feelings for her and for whom she had almost none? It ought to have chilled her to the bone, despite the touching scene with the servants when they arrived back at the house and the festive little wedding breakfast, complete with flowers and ribbons and candles and even a small wedding cake, all of which the servants had planned and prepared without even Her Grace’s knowledge. Chloe ought to have been outraged or at least upset when her new husband chose to spend the evening alone with the duke while she sat in the drawing room with the duchess.

She ought to be feeling as flat as the flattest of pancakes now. Instead, apart from a certain nervousness, she was
happy
. She was a
married lady
. Her new title was unimportant to her, for she would be just as happy to be plain Mrs. Stockwood. The fact that she was married meant everything.

She clasped her hands again and consciously stopped herself from twiddling her thumbs. But despite her restlessness—what was it going to
feel
like?—she waited
in happy anticipation of the arrival of her bridegroom and the consummation of her marriage. Soon she would be a married lady in every sense of the word. What a blessing it was that her courses had finished just two days ago.

She wondered if she would stay happy. There was not necessarily a link between happiness and love, was there? One did not have to be in love with one’s husband in order to be happy with him, did one?

Would
she be happy with the Earl of Berwick? He had once wanted to be dead. He had even tried to kill himself. He had been taken to Cornwall to heal and recuperate, but even now he was a man who could not love, a man with cold, empty eyes. He was very different from the boy he had been. Even the duchess said so. It was as though a large part of him, all that was brightest and best, really had died. Chloe shut her eyes tightly and bent her head forward. How would she be able to live with him . . .

There was a firm knock on the door of her bedchamber. She lifted her head sharply and looked toward the door, but it did not open.

“Come in,” she called.

He was wearing a long dressing robe of dark blue satin. It might have looked almost effeminate, but it somehow emphasized both his muscularity and his masculinity. Or perhaps it seemed that way merely because he was in her bedchamber and he had come to assert his marital rights.

She ought to have prepared something to say, she thought too late. She said nothing and tried not to clutch her hands too tightly. He closed the door behind his back, and she could see his eyes take in the bed turned
down on both sides for the night, the branch of candles burning on the dressing table, her bare feet, her modest nightgown, her cap. His eyes paused on that last item.

“I hope I have not kept you waiting,” he said.

“No.”

There was a brief silence, and she felt her breath quicken.

“I shall try not to hurt you,” he told her. “After tonight you should find it more comfortable.”

It.

“Yes.”

His voice and manner were quite matter-of-fact, even brisk. He appeared to share none of her embarrassment.

Now what? Too late it occurred to her that she might have had some wine brought up. She could have poured them each a glass now and begun some easy, relaxed conversation about . . . well, about something. Instead, she was as skittish as a young girl. Perhaps more so. Her age and inexperience embarrassed her.

He came toward her and held out a hand for one of hers.

“Come,” he said. “Pain or not, I believe you will be more comfortable
afterward,
will you not?”

“Oh.” She allowed him to draw her to her feet. “Yes, I believe I will. I am so sorry. I am nervous. I do not know quite what to . . . do.”

“It would be strange if you did,” he said, “since you have admitted to never having done this before. Lie down while I extinguish the candles.”

He drew the covers farther back on the near side of the bed so that she could lie down, but he turned away before she actually did so. She was thankful for that. She
lay down on her back and closed her eyes. Then, against her eyelids, she saw sudden darkness. She could hear him coming around the foot of the bed to the other side. There was a coolness as he drew the covers farther back, and then she felt the mattress beside her depress beneath his weight.

Tomorrow night, she thought, and the next night and the night after that this would be a growingly familiar ritual, without embarrassment or awkwardness. Perhaps it would be something to which she would look forward. She hoped so. There had been those nameless and unladylike yearnings that had often plagued her through the last ten years or so, and she hoped it was
this
for which she had yearned, that it would live up to her hopes.

It was one of those nights that was almost as bright as twilight. She could see as well as feel that he had turned onto his side and raised himself on one elbow to lean over her. His hand moved flat down her side from her waist to her hips and on down the outside of her leg until he reached even lower and grasped the hem of her nightgown and drew it upward. She had to half lift herself until it was bunched about her waist.

He came on top of her then and she realized in some shock that he had shed his robe and was wearing nothing beneath it. His legs pressed between hers and pushed them wide, and his hands slid beneath her buttocks to lift her and tilt her. Her hands came reflexively to his shoulders, which seemed massive and hard with muscle. She was aware of the hard ridge of what must be a scar curving from the front of his right shoulder over to the back.

And then he was pressed against her and she told herself not to hold her breath but to relax and breathe
normally while he came inside her. She waited for the pain and schooled herself not to flinch. But there was only the unfamiliar feeling of being stretched and filled until, after the merest twinge of what threatened to be pain but was not, he came deeper in and she feared there would not be enough room.

He held still in her while his hands slid free and he half raised himself on his elbows. It was only then she realized how heavy he had been on her. She kept her eyes closed and slid her hands partway down his back. The scar extended downward to the edge of his shoulder blade—on the opposite side of his body from his facial scar. That particular cut must have come close to taking off half his face and his arm with half his shoulder as it slashed down across him.

He withdrew almost completely from her and pressed inward again before repeating the action, slowly at first, almost tentatively, as though he was being careful not to give her too much pain, and then with firmer, swifter strokes that had her squeezing her eyes more tightly closed and knowing that nothing in her yearnings had quite matched this.

She lay still beneath him and let it happen. He was her husband and he was making her his wife. Perhaps he was also impregnating her. There
was
some pain, a growing soreness that she guessed would remain with her for the rest of tonight and probably into tomorrow. But it was a lovely pain. And this was lovely. She was no longer embarrassed or apprehensive.

His weight descended full on her again after a while, and his hands slid beneath her again, and the thrusting of his body was harder and deeper until she felt him
releasing his breath against the side of her face on what was almost a sigh, and he held deep and she felt a gushing of heat inside.

It was absurd to feel that this was the happiest day of her life. It was a chill bargain into which they had entered today. What had just happened was merely a part of it. Even in her inexperience she could not convince herself that they had just made love. There had not been any love involved with anything that had taken place today. He had married a breeder for his heir, and she had got a husband and home so that she would not live out her life as a dependent spinster. That was all, according to their bargain.

Oh, but it
was
the happiest day of her life nonetheless.

After a minute or two, he lifted himself off her and moved to her side. He lowered her nightgown and pulled the bedcovers up over her. She wondered if he would return to his own room now, but he lay down and pulled the covers over himself too.

“Thank you, Chloe,” he said.

She turned her head his way and only just stopped herself from thanking him too.

“I hope it was not too painful for you,” he said.

“No,” she said. “No, it was not.”

“I will try to see to it,” he said, “that you do not regret today.”

“A wedding without guests or any pomp?” she said. “I rather liked our wedding.”

“I meant our marriage,” he said. “I will try to see to it that you do not regret marrying me.”

“I will not,” she assured him. “It is all I have ever
wanted, you see—a respectable marriage and a home and a family. I will not regret our marriage.”

She thought of the emptiness of his eyes and hoped she spoke the truth.

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