Authors: Pamela Labud
The carriage that had brought most of their luggage and servants had arrived before them, so at least Ash and Caroline wouldn't have to depend on the inn's meager staff to assist them. His valet, a lady's maid, and two footmen waited just inside the inn, ready to assist them at the first opportunity.
Once Ash's carriage had stopped, the door opened and the footman appeared, helping the duke out of the cab. To his surprise, exhaustion washed over him and he found he was looking forward to a good, solid bed. He knew they would get the best rooms at the inn, although they would be well below London standards. Ash didn't care; anything but the narrow confines of the carriage would be more than sufficient.
He'd started to walk toward the entrance when he heard a rustling behind him. Turning, he saw Caroline, framed in the carriage doorway, looking uncertainly about. He supposed she appeared as any woman would after hours of travel, although he alone knew her dishevelment was caused by something else entirely.
“Here,” he said, reaching out to her.
Ash leaned closer. “Please, call me Ash, or Ashton, if you like. Anything but âYour Grace.'â”
“Your Grace,” she said again, clenching her jaw. It was clear she was not being charitable toward him.
He supposed he didn't blame her, considering how he'd just had his way with her. Even though making love to his wife was perfectly within his rights as a husband, it didn't make him feel any less the beast.
“Here, let me help you.” He held out his arms to her, and waited for her to nod and accept his help.
When she allowed him to, he lifted her, but instead of settling her on the ground, he slid one arm under her knees and held her like a young child. He thought she might protest, but instead she settled into his embrace. Without saying a word, he carried her to the inn, not setting her down even when he met the innkeeper at the door.
“Welcome to the High Road, Your Grace,” the man said, bowing deeply. “May I be among the first to congratulate you on your wedding?”
A middle-aged, balding man, he was quite rotund, so big that his shirt buttons barely stayed hooked and large gaps between them exposed bits of his pale, hairy chest and belly. It was clear that he'd spent too many nights face-deep in ale and mutton.
Ash nodded. “Thank you, Edmund. You have our rooms ready?”
“Oh, yesâ¦” He motioned to the stairs. “This way, sir. I'll have Maria bring up two bowls of stew, some ale for you, and a pot of tea for Her Grace.”
Ash nodded. “Thank you.”
He couldn't wait to get settled in their room. Bone-deep exhaustion assailed him, and judging by the simmering silence from his wife, he doubted that Caroline was in any mood for pleasantries.
The way he saw it, he had two problems. First, he must figure out how to please his wife in bed without hurting her. He'd heard of women who suffered during coupling, but he'd honestly thought himself such a skilled lover that he could pleasure any woman he chose.
The chance that he would cause his wife pain had never occurred to him.
The second thing was coaxing her to let him try again. It was too much to hope that their one time together might produce his heir. While it was possible, Ash knew that fate wouldn't likely let him off that easily.
Once they were in the room and the servants had provided them a meal of warm biscuits and oxen stew, followed by fresh water and linens for their nightly ablutions, he settled Caroline on the bed, where her maid quickly attended to her, pulling down the bed curtains, enclosing the two of them together. He could hear the rustling of soft fabrics and a few minutes later his wife was in her nightdress, hair tied back, ready for sleep.
Once the maid had gone to find her own bed, he undressed and climbed in beside his wife.
“I'm ready.” Lying on her back, she was perfectly still, her face tight with a nearly panicked expression. She held her arms tense against her sides, her fingers clutching the sheets.
“I think we've well performed our marriage duties this night. Go ahead and take your rest,” he said at the last. Turning to face the opposite direction, he closed his eyes and forced his breathing into a slow, steady rhythm. Seconds later, he heard her let out a deep breath and felt her relax beside him. It wasn't long before he could hear the gentle sounds of her soft snore.
Thank the heavens, he thought. Caroline was asleep.
Ash sighed, grateful for the few hours of solace they'd been granted. He enjoyed being a private person more than any of the roles he was forced to play. And now, in those quiet moments of the night, he was relieved that, at least until daylight, they could be themselves and leave the duke and duchess on the other side of the door.
It was late afternoon when the carriage rolled to a stop just inside the outer wall of Slyddon Castle. Caro had fallen asleep once again, curled up in the corner of the cab. She'd kicked off her half boots a few hours earlier and now sat with her stocking feet tucked up under her gown.
For a few seconds when she'd awoken, she'd forgotten all that had transpired in the last few days. Panic surged through her when she saw the strange surroundings, the carriage, the foreboding castle. But when she looked to her right and saw Ash sitting there, eying her curiously, everything came rushing back into her mind.
“Oh, it's you,” she said.
He gave her a sympathetic smile. “I'm afraid so, Duchess.”
Duchess. The word sounded so strange to her, like a coat that was too large, or shoes that were too tight. She couldn't believe that events had transpired to bring her to this.
“You look like someone's forced you to drink sour milk.” Ash chuckled. “Truly, it isn't all that bad.”
She grunted. “For you, it isn't. You're used to all this,” she said, waving her hand about. “I've never been farther than two miles from my home. Here we are, in the wilds no less.”
“The wilds? I agree, it is a bit rustic here, but there have been people living on this land for generations.”
Caro looked out the window of the cab. The drive was an unkempt path, over which the surrounding trees in the area hung low. The hedges were untrimmed and the lumbering pile of stone showed cracks and crumbling areas all about it. And that wasn't all: Two goats meandered across the yard, munching and pulling out mouthfuls of grass; chickens pecked the ground in the front of the manse; and pigs rooted around the front gate.
“I can see,” she muttered.
His smile drooped. “Is that sarcasm I hear? I'll have you know this is one of the finest hunting grounds in the country.”
Caro saw by his expression that he truly believed the castle ruins were something akin to Heaven's gold-paved streets.
“Of course it is. I imagine, for someone like myself, only used to the well-manicured lawns of the city, it will take some time to absorb it all.”
There, she'd done her best to make amends. The question was, would he accept her attempt to placate him?
“Well, then, the best thing to do would be to help you acclimate yourself. Shall we meet the staff and tour the lodge?”
Once they'd dispensed with the introductions and he'd given her the most basic tour of the castle, Ash escorted his bride to their room. By the gentle sway of her gait and the way she held her arms stiffly against her sides, he could easily see the toll that the trip had taken on her.
Turning to his footman, Jacobs, he gave instructions. “We'll dine in our room tonight. Tell Cook to send up two bowls of her fine oxtail stew. Tea and biscuits would be most welcome while we wait.”
Once the door had closed, he glanced at his new bride, now sitting primly on the settee. Though it looked to be a struggle, she held herself upright, her hands crossed daintily on her lap. The perfect picture of womanly grace and innocence.
Innocence. It was something that Ash hadn't seen in a long time. Not since before his parents had died. He didn't understand why, but she reminded him of the carefree youth he'd once been.
Unbidden, the memories came. Once again he was enjoying long afternoons in his mother's parlor, drawing her pictures with coal and ashâ¦or whiling away the short summers fishing and hunting with his fatherâ¦and later on, after his parents' deaths, spending time with his uncle and his cousin.
Those were times when he hadn't known of his family's wealth. Times when there wasn't anything beyond the door of his father's library, when there was nothing at all for him to worry about, save the hours he and Stephen spent studying Latin with their tutor. There had been no regrets about his past, and he had only to look forward to the delights that the next tomorrow promised.
Even now, he marveled at how his life had changed. Though his parents were long dead and buried, the memories of the night they died still plagued him. He was certain that without his aunt's intervention, he surely would have died with them.
“It's time to leave them behind, Ashton,” she'd told him. Taking his hand in hers, she'd squeezed it tight. “We must honor their memories by continuing our lives. Your mother and father would be very hurt if you stopped living because of their loss.”
From that moment on, his aunt, the duke, and their son had taken him into their family. Not only did they give him a place to belong, they also gave him enough time to be himself. His life had never been the same, but at least it had become bearable.
He'd adapted, learned to love what was left of his family, and grown into a strong man. Although he would always mourn the loss of his parents, at least he'd known some happiness. He'd enjoyed his time at Eton and later had been challenged by his service in the military. His life had turned out as good as it possibly could haveâat least until the day he'd been called home from Spain, the day he'd learned of his cousin's death.
Devastated by his son's loss, the duke had suffered an apoplexy and died within a week of Ash's return to England.
Ashton sighed. The time for such thoughts had passed. A new life dawned before him and he would do his best to keep from being swallowed up by the past.
Ashton turned and saw his butler, Chadwick, waiting patiently for him.
“All is as you requested. The carriage is with Mr. Weatherby and your luggage arrived about an hour ago, Your Grace.”
“I must say, we are most pleased to have you home again. Congratulations on your nuptials.”
“Thank you.” Ash glanced at his wife. She sat stone-still, eyes wide as she studied her surroundings. He leaned toward his butler and spoke in a quiet tone he hoped Caroline didn't hear. “I'm sure there will be a time of adjustment while the duchess acclimates herself to her new surroundings. Until she does, we must be patient with her.”
Chadwick bowed low. “Of course, sir. I assure you, everyone at Slyddon is most excited at having a new mistress. I shall instruct the staff accordingly.”
Minutes later their dinner arrived, and though he hadn't realized it, Ash was famished. He noticed that Caroline made a braw attempt at her meal, though she didn't eat half as much as he did.
“Ah, Mrs. Hughes, I've missed you,” Ash said as he heaped another helping of stew into his bowl. “Nothing in London can compare to this.”
“It's quite different,” Carolyn said, as she pushed the large chunks of ox meat and vegetables around her bowl. “I swear there's enough meat here to feed Beatrice and me for a week.”
“A sign of a plentiful bounty. Unlimited amounts of fresh game to be found here, too. I shall have my friend Jonathan round up some of our neighbors and we'll go on a wild boar hunt. Nothing is more delicious than fresh pig roasting on a spit, out in the openâ¦” He could have gone on, waxing poetic about the magnificent hunting in the area, but the sound of a spoon clattering on china stopped him.
Glancing up, he saw Caro quickly cover her mouth. He was surprised to see her eyes wild, her expression begging him to not speak of such things.
“Please forgive me. I forget myself. These are not things that should be spoken of in front of gentle ladies.”
“No, it's just that I'm tired, and this is all so new.”
“Of course. Perhaps after you've rested.”
Once the remains of the meal had been cleared, and the lady's maid had helped Caroline out of her traveling clothes and into a sleeping gown, he saw that she had settled onto the large bed.
“Home,” he muttered, relief flooding through him after Weatherby helped him undress as well. Now, in his nightshirt, he drank the last of his brandy and prepared himself for a good night's sleep.
“Mmmâ¦” Caroline yawned. “I suppose you want to engage in our marital duties, now.”
He looked at her, puzzled. “What sort of brute do you think I am?”
“It's just that now that we are marriedâ”
He held up his hand. “I should be bedding you at every opportunity? Hardly that. You overestimate the stamina afforded to my gender. In short, I get tired, too.”
She huffed. “I admit I don't know much about what men require. I mean, my father died when I was young, and Mother never spoke of such things.”
He let her go on speaking. The problem was, he was that sort of brute. Or, rather, he would be if he gave in to his baser nature. God, he thought, she was most beautiful when her hair was mussed and her gown rumpled. Even the puzzled expression she wore tempted him.
He turned away, lest she see the proof of his nature now visible beneath the hem of his nightshirt. “I believe the proper thing to do would be to let you rest for a day. It was a difficult and long trip.”
“You don't really want to be with me, do you?”
The sound of her voice made him turn back. She stared downward, her face reddened in shame.
“Why would you say that? Of course I want to. But in spite of what you think of me, I'm a gentleman, and since I've treated you rather coarsely, I mean to make it up to you. First, by allowing you time to get accustomed to your new surroundings.”
“I thoughtâ¦” She flashed him a furtive expression. “Never mind. Thank you for your consideration, Your Graceâ¦um, Ash. I am very tired.”
He shrugged. “I had thought as much.”
She looked as if about to say something but thought better of it.
“Will you be sleeping in here as well?”
He smiled. She was a quick study. “What would the staff say if we slept in separate rooms?”
“I hadn't thought of that.”
“Don't worry. I shall sleep on the chaise and you may have the bed.”
He watched as she let out what he was sure was a breath of relief.
“Thank you,” she said, when she looked up at him again. “I know this is difficult for you, too.”
In the corner of the room, the light from a half-melted candle wavered. On the opposite side, Caro saw her husband busily spreading out the blanket on the lounge. Although he'd insisted she take the bed, she felt guilty about keeping him from a good night's rest.
Too tired to sleep, Caro rose from the bed and walked to the window. In all her life, she hadn't felt as alone as she did at that moment. Opening the shutters, she peered outside. It was a dark, moonless night.
“How am I ever to do this?”
“You'll be fine,” Ash said from across the room.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. “Yes, of course.”
Was she ever going to get used to his presence? Before she knew what was happening, she felt him standing behind her. Very close behind her. So close that his warm breath tickled the back of her neck.
Without hesitation, he wrapped his arms around her. “You're tired. Why don't you finish your tea and try to get some sleep.”
She stiffened. “Why are you being this way? I mean, you don't have to be so nice. I'm your property, after all.”
His arms loosened slightly. “You're my wife. I'm probably one of the few men alive who don't consider women chattel. Not only that, but my mother would die a second death if she knew I treated you badly.” He chuckled. “Not to mention what my aunt would do to me.”
“She does seem quite formidable.”
Ashton laughed. “You have no idea.”
The tension of the day's travel and her own misgivings combined to drain the last bit of her energy. “I'd best get to bed,” she said, turning toward him. “Thank you for yourâ¦” She paused. It was as if she was seeing him for the very first time. Standing awash in the dim candlelight, his form half hidden in the flickering shadows, he no longer looked like just a man, but rather like a mythical creature not yet fully formed.
“You've no need to thank me.” He spoke in a low, sultry tone that raised the hairs on her neck.
“Yes, I do. You did rescue my reputation, and made it so that my mother and sister will be well cared for, and now you are being most kind.”
“It's the least I could do, considering it was I who, in spite of my best intentions, put your virtue in jeopardy in the first place. Good night, then.”
“Of course.” Caro turned to the bed once again.
Before taking her rest, she stole a glimpse of her new husband. He'd stretched out on the chaise and had turned respectfully on his side, facing away from her.
Feeling like a beast for denying him a comfortable rest, she tiptoed over to the four-poster bed. An impossibly thick feather mattress, soft quilts, and several large, plump pillows awaited her.
Behind her, Ashton sighed. For such a quiet sound, it filled the room around them.
“Your Grace, it is an awfully big bed. I'm sure there is room enough for the both of us.”
He sent her a glance over his shoulder. “It is. But while I am a gentleman, Caroline, even the most staunch of my gender can give in to temptation, especially when they are road-weary and lying beside a beautiful woman.”
“Yes, it does cause concern, but as I said, it is very large bed, and perhaps if you were to lie atop the blankets and I beneath them, there'd be no chance of us bumping into each other during the night.”
He paused, obviously giving her suggestion due thought. “I suppose it would be all right. We are married, after all.” He held up his hand. “Rest assured, I shall do my best not to âbump' into you.”
“I'm sure you will.”
Silence fell between them as Caro chewed her lip and silently cursed her luck. Not only was he a man of good morals and strong reputation, but he'd proven again and again he had a kind heart, always putting the needs and concerns of others before his own.
The devil take him, she thought. He was set on making it far too easy for her to fall under his spell. Fortunately, she was an expert at resisting temptation. Even the skillful attentions of a too handsome, too charming, and too dangerous man.