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Authors: Pamela Labud

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BOOK: To Catch a Lady
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—

Ash settled in beside Caroline, close enough to keep from sliding off the edge of the bed, but not touching her. For some odd reason, he felt crowded by her presence, although she barely even made a dent in the mattress or a lump under the blankets.

He did his best not to move, knowing that any restlessness on his part would likely increase her discomfort. So he struggled to remain still. Maddeningly still, in fact. In all his life, he'd never thought that he would so badly want to be close to a woman—or that being this close to one would make him so damned uncomfortable.

Ash sighed. It had turned out that his plans of securing a wife had trapped him as surely as they had his bride. He'd given no thought to what he would do once they were wed. His only imperative had been getting her through the vows and then all the way to Slyddon Castle. Now here he was, his first night in his home with his new bride, and he was as clueless as a youth on a carriage ride with his first love.

It didn't help that Caroline was already edging her way into his affections. Of course, he'd never been one to be led by lust. It was true that Caroline was the most attractive woman he'd ever met and that his body was tied in a knot whenever she was nearby. If the erection he carried whenever he was in the same room with her was any indication, it was going to be a most enjoyable time when they made love. And a most uncomfortable distraction until then.

To make matters even worse, not only did his treacherous body ache for her every moment they were together, but for Ash, his own enjoyment was not enough. He had always been a man who obtained his most desirable pleasure when his partner was satisfied as well.

And Ash wasn't sure whether she held any affection for him at all. She seemed cordial enough, proper, even when they were alone.

The question was whether she would accept him as her lover as reluctantly as she had accepted him as her husband. Would she cringe when he made love to her? Would she draw away, or even cry?

Ash sighed. He'd heard the stories, no matter if he sat in gaming hells or even at White's. Some women were like that, his peers told him, even ones who hadn't been forced into marriage to a despicable cad like him.

The very idea that she might reject him even after their lovemaking kept him awake late into the night. His biggest fear was that he might break the fragile bridge they'd built their first day together.

Slyddon Castle had been the only comfort he'd known since he'd returned from Spain, and now the gentle lullaby of the early birds beginning their song finally eased his discomfort. The distant sound of the lake's gentle lapping against the shore reassured him that though life often spun out of control, in this place he could still find peace.

He prayed it would be so for Caroline, as well. Deep in his heart, he knew that it might be the one chance they'd have of making it through the tumultuous life they'd build together.

—

The night stretched out and, despite her exhaustion, Caro was unable to fall asleep. Her husband lay beside her, stone-still, and yet it was as if he were lightning contained in a bottle. She could feel the vibration of his thoughts on the pillow next to her, like a hive of bees.

Caro tried to remain still, but her husband was heavier than she was, and the mattress sank with his weight. Before long she found herself slowly sliding down toward him. Rolling onto her left side, she managed to keep her distance. Minutes passed slowly, but after an hour she finally heard him begin to snore softly.

At last, she could take her rest. Yawning, Caro attempted to relax. But her thoughts would not settle, spinning around in her head like butterflies in a hurricane.

How could she possibly manage her new life as a duchess? She knew nothing of the requirements of such a lofty position. Plus, she still had her mother and sister to care for. She'd always had the job of guarding their interests, seeing to their health and well-being, but in their new surroundings, with so many others who might interfere, how could she possibly manage? In addition, she now had to run an estate, schedule formal engagements, and perform whatever other duties her new family would impose upon her. All of that while avoiding her new husband.

Especially difficult now that she'd been exposed to such unexpected marital delights, the likes of which would cause anyone who'd never allowed even her most serious suitor no more than a kiss to completely lose control.

When had her life become so unmanageable?

She finally let loose her worries, gave in to her fatigue, and drifted off to sleep. Her final thought, as the last clouds of consciousness started to dissipate, was that this was an impossible situation.

Impossible to say whether it was a result of her long days of travel, her first tryst with her new husband, or the warm cocoon of clean silk sheets and a soft quilt, but her mind started spinning dreams. Faces of her past, her mother and sister when she was a girl, her first country dance when she was but fourteen and her father had taken them to a modest party, and finally the day she'd learned of her father's passing and that they were leaving their beautiful town house to live in the much smaller and more affordable cottage.

Then, unbidden memories of her afternoon tryst with Ash. The scent of male musk and leather surrounded her, his hands caressing her face and her neck. His mouth gently suckling her breasts, and his body pushing between her legs.

So wrapped in her dream, Caro sighed, and oddly enough, it was the sound of her own voice that woke her. To her surprise, she was wrapped in a most provocative embrace.

“Oh, heavens!”

“Mmm, what?”

It was clear that her husband had been asleep. He shook his head and blinked at her.

“What the devil are you doing?” he asked, his voice deep and raw.

“Me? Based on the fact that you are on top of me, I would say it was you who, ah, set things in motion.”

“I most certainly did not. I was sleeping.” In spite of his words, he did glance around quickly, and then back at her. “You must have provoked me.”

“I provoked you? I was asleep. I can assure you that I do not accost people in my bed.”

“Well, neither do I.” He started to move, but his right arm slipped and he landed on top of her with an “Omph!”

“Ach! You're doing this on purpose!”

“I am not. I'm just very tired and these sheets are rather slippery.”

“Just get off of me.”

“Right.” He said no more but rolled to his right. Unfortunately, his leg was tangled in the blanket, and when he flipped onto his back, Caro landed on top of him.

“Well, what do you know.” He smiled. “It looks like you are now accosting me.”

“How dare you! You are not a gentleman, sir.”

He laughed. “Well, not to cast aspersions or anything, but it is you, sitting so primly on top of my, ah, enthusiasm”—he nodded downward—“who are not exactly a lady.”

Caro realized at that instant that she was indeed sitting, legs spread, on top of his groin, and it was that moment that something beneath her jerked.

“Oh my…” Heat flooded through her.

“Mind you, I have to say, that fellow is quite happy you're not a lady.”

She looked up to see his smirk.

“Bastard.” She started to move off of him, but he rose up, slid his arm around her back, and pulled her into a kiss.

The moment their lips touched, a shock went through her, and Caro couldn't help herself. Her body suddenly on fire, she leaned into his embrace and delighted in the touch of him against her shift. The hard planes of his body met her soft curves, and the two of them fit together in a most amazing way. Memories of their tryst of the previous day returned full force and her exhaustion evaporated. Suddenly every inch of her was awake and alive, blazing in the fury of their lovemaking.

“I am many things,” he said, increasing the fervor of his kisses. “I am many things, but a bastard is not one of them. My parents were married, I assure you.”

“Of course. It was low of me to say such a thing. Oh, my,” she breathed as he rolled her over, nuzzling her neck, biting tiny little wheals as he did so. As his hands roamed freely over her back, her bottom, her belly, she twisted and turned to meet his touch.

“You see,” he said, his voice as coarse as his newly grown whiskers, “it's your fault.”

“How dare you.” She was suddenly indignant. She meant to push him off, but the sudden movement produced a most delightful sensation. “You're insufferable.”

“I am, indeed.” He chuckled. “But you, my dear, are quite the vixen.” Again he moved over her, increasing the intensity of his lovemaking. Suddenly his hands were beneath her shift, pushing it upward. He'd angled his body so his groin was between her legs, his erection begging entry into her most sensuous place.

Heaven help her, her body cried out for him. She wanted him inside her. How could such a thing have happened?

Suddenly, he pulled away. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?” she asked, breathless.

“Stop thinking so much. You need to relax and enjoy yourself.”

“Enjoy myself?” She couldn't believe his words. “How can I do that? I mean, here I am, a hundred miles from home, my future uncertain, no longer in control of anything in my life. You have every right to my body, while I have nothing. I can't choose what I eat or drink, what I wear, where I live…” She ran out of breath.

He tightened his expression. “Is that what you really think? First of all, why would I ever want to control such things? You're my wife, but unless you behave in a fashion that would destroy my family, yourself, or our future children, you have more freedom than any other woman in England.”

Caro bit her lip. “Any freedom I have is because you've granted it.”

He sighed and rolled off of her. “I see what you mean. I can't help the way things are. I can't change the laws, or make it so you are an equal to me. It will never be that way. However, what I can do is promise to allow you as much freedom as you want as long as it's safe. I can protect you, I can worship you, and I can love you. Beyond that, everything else is beyond my control.”

She looked at him then, watching his expression change from one of determination to one of tenderness. “I know it's not fair to blame you. Really, I do. I do thank you for all you have done.”

He gently kissed her forehead. “Then that will do for now.”

Chapter 10

Caro had been lost in a dream. One minute she was dressed in a beautiful gown attending a society ball, and the next she was in the arms of the most handsome and virile man she'd ever met. He was kissing her passionately and she was returning his affection with as much ardor as he'd given her.

The very next thing she knew, Caro was bouncing across untold miles, down endless roads toward an uncertain future. But the man remained at her side, and she had the feeling that he would always be beside her—if she allowed him to be, that was. Just when she thought her journey would never end, she suddenly found herself wrapped in a warm blanket heavy with the scent of a man.

Her man.

Her husband.

Lying in a cocoon of warmth, she felt the bed move beside her. “Good morning, husband,” she whispered. Rolling over to her right, she leaned forward, hoping that the duke would grace her with a kiss.

“Baaaa!”

Caro's first inclination was that her husband was playing a joke and that she would wake to find him up on hands and knees baying at her like a foolish child. Never once did it occur to her that he might not be the one making that sound, but rather a four-legged, woolly lamb.

Before she could scream something sharp jabbed her in the back, and to her surprise her attacker was not a man but a large black-and-white bearded goat. Staring at her with wide, brown eyes, it continued to chew on a lace pillow and obviously paid little heed to her presence.

“Baaaa!”
The lamb cried again. Caro was speechless. What in blazes?

Suddenly, the bedroom door burst open and a large deer came barreling into the room, its antlers swaying about in a wide arc, knocking over the vase of flowers that sat on a table by the door. Close on its heels came two large yellow hounds, barking and putting up such a fuss that Caro couldn't hear her own screams.

As if that menagerie wasn't enough, three elderly men, dressed in hunting clothes and hats and sporting large game rifles, followed the animals. The large bedroom shrank in size with the lot of them, and doing her best to try to escape the pandemonium, Caro scrambled out of the sheets and stood on tiptoe at the head of the bed, her back against the wall, clutching one of the bedposts.

The tallest of the three men ran to the window and threw open the shutters. “In here, boys! The blasted buck is in here.”

“Wait, Richard, you can't shoot him in the house!” a voice replied.

“The hell I can't! I've been chasing that beast for three weeks.”

“Gordon's right,” the shorter, rounder man declared. “It's Ashton's bedroom,” he yelled, pointing to Caro, “and there's a lady present.”

“All of you! Get out!” Caro screamed at the top of her lungs.

“We'd best do as she says, Thornton,” the third man said. “Besides, Ashton might not want us here.”

“Pah! Since when has Ash ever denied us any part of the castle?”

“Well, there was the time the east wing was on fire,” the third man noted, stoically.

“Enough!” Caro grabbed the pitcher on the bedside table. “All of you get out this minute or I shall start throwing things!” She held up the pitcher threateningly.

Caro knew she must have looked truly insane, but she didn't care. Her left arm wrapped around the bedpost and, clutching the quilt to try to hide her nightdress, her right arm wielding the ceramic, and screaming at the top of her lungs. She prayed that at least one of them would pay her heed.

To her great success, after sharing shocked expressions all around, the three men bowed respectfully and exited the room. Of course, that left behind a deer, a goat, two barking hounds, and a lamb.

“You, too! Out I say. Get out!

The deer stared at her a few moments, chewing nonchalantly, and then proceeded to leave his opinion of her demands in a steaming pile on the carpet.

“Dear God!” She gagged, nearly tripping on the edge of the blanket as she tried to find sanctuary from the aroma of deer droppings. Running for the anteroom, she was surprised to find the goat and the lamb right behind her.

“Oh, no, you don't! There's only room for one.”

Slamming the door behind her, she huddled in the darkness. Surely her husband would come to her rescue? And what did those men mean that he had given them the run of the estate? He was a duke, after all. They all looked like vagabonds. How dare they presume on his good nature!

“Bloody hell!” Her husband's voice boomed on the other side of the door. “What in the nine levels of Hell happened in here?”

“Your room's been invaded, that's what. Intruders and wild animals,” she called out to him from the other side of the door.

She heard a loud crashing sound, followed by her husband's cursing.

Suddenly the door swung open and Ashton stood staring down at her. He presented an odd picture, arms laden with tea and cakes and right foot hanging perilously in the air while he stood teetering on the left. Looking down, she saw the reason for his grimace.

“Oh. You found the deer droppings,” she said.

“I did,” he said in an annoyed but strained patience. “I had thought to sneak out and return with some refreshments. I didn't realize that Lord Harmon's hunting party would be about this late in the day. It seems their chase has been ongoing for several hours and they opted to continue in the castle rather than out in the countryside.”

“How very thoughtless of them,” Caro said, reaching out for the tray. Over her arm she also held a serviceable gown and a bag with other clothing.

“Yes,” he said, once the food was out of his hands. Then, leaning down, he very carefully examined his boot. “But in their defense, I'd sent word to the staff only that I'd be coming home so soon from town. I need to post a new rule. Henceforth, there will be no deer hunting, dogs, or goats in my bedroom.”

“And sheep.”

“What?”

“Sheep.” Setting down the tray, Caro pointed to the other side of the bed. “There was also a lamb.”

“Really?”

Caro nodded.

“Very well. There will be no sheep—” he started.

“Sheep, chickens, or animals of any sort, domestic or not,” she finished for him.

“Yes. Right.”

“Thank you. Now, if you would be so kind, I think I will make my way to the nearest room not defiled by nature or hunting parties. When you've dispensed with this”—she nodded to his soiled boot and carpet—“you can join me in the dining room.” She paused for a moment. “Wherever that might be.”

Doing her best to avoid the terrible mess and utter destruction of the chamber, she headed out of the room. Once she reached the door, she turned back to her husband. “Perhaps we might discuss our living arrangements, then.”

“Living arrangements?”

Caro smiled sweetly and left him alone, closing the door behind her. From the other side, she heard his voice once more.

“Bloody hell.”

—

Ash watched his wife leave the room. For a few seconds, he intended to go after her—until he remembered what was on his boot. He'd likely not win his wife's favor by tracking deer droppings through the house and into the dining room. He hopped one-footed to the closest chair and removed the boot. It would need a proper cleaning before he could wear it in the house again. Bending down, he removed the other one as well.

At that moment his longtime friend, Duncan Albright, the Earl of Applegate, appeared at the door. Though he was younger than Ashton, he'd been gentry since birth, and he was far better at managing his social duties than the duke. Although not one who revered the wilderness as Ashton did, Albright was literally hiding out at Slyddon because his mother had insisted on taking control of his marriage plans. The girl Albright had chosen was of questionable family, and his mother demanded that he wait a year before betrothing himself to her. This, of course, gave his mother time to find a more acceptable bride for him. After all, she wasn't about to let her son ruin his life by marrying the “wrong” woman.

“What in blazes happened in here?” he asked, surveying the damage and holding his nose. “Did a herd of deer pass through here while I was sleeping?”

“You would think so.” Ash sighed. “No, just Harmon, Danby, and the others traipsing through the house wreaking havoc while trying to take down Old Walter.”

“You're jesting. Old Walt was in the house again? How did he manage to climb the stairs?” Albright pulled his kerchief from his pocket and held it over his nose. “I can't believe they haven't shot him yet. Good thing we don't have to depend on their hunting skills to survive. We'd all starve to death.”

Ash laughed. “I think they're just being sentimental about it. To be honest, I've not seen a one of them take aim at anything, save a heaping plate of my roast mutton.”

“You have to admit, the place would be a great deal less lively without them.”

“Too true.” Ash retrieved his boots and headed for the door. “At any rate, it doesn't mean they can scare the life out of my wife. I'll have to talk to them about it.”

“You can try, but I doubt it'll have any effect. Those old geese are pretty set in their ways.”

“Hmm. You're right about that. I suppose it'll be easier for me to convince Caroline to accept their interruptions. After all, it's only for two weeks out of the year.”

“It sounds as if you've gotten yourself a most agreeable wife. If Merrilee even suspected I was to ask such a thing of her, she'd toss me out into the bushes.”

Ash gave his friend a sympathetic look. “I don't know about your lady, but my new wife is a very rational creature. I'm sure once I explain the situation, she'll accede to my wishes.”

—

Caroline pushed the eggs around her plate. She'd been waiting the better part of an hour for her husband to join her at the breakfast table, once she'd found the dining room—or what passed for a dining room in the broken-down pile of stone and wood, that was. At least the cook, Mrs. Hughes, had greeted her with a warm cup of tea and a serving table filled with poached eggs, warm biscuits, honey, and smoked ham. It would have been a marvelous meal, had her husband been there to share it with her.

But wanting to be a good wife, she'd decided to wait for the duke so that they could eat their first breakfast together. After all, isn't that what married people did? Share meals as well as a bed? And what of conversation—whatever would they talk about?

A stab of panic went through her. On the road they'd stopped only once to change horses at a small inn that had provided them with cold meats, barely cooked stew, stale bread, and weak tea. Even though she had a strong constitution, the event of her marriage and her anxiety about what her future held had tamped down on her appetite. Of course, there had been their quick coupling in the carriage. That had been two nights before and they'd not yet returned to their marital state, instead sleeping like brother and sister. Then, when they'd arrived at the lodge, or castle, she'd been exhausted and had wanted nothing more than a bit of tea and a night's sleep.

Was it possible that she'd failed the duke somehow? After all, he had yet to mention their going back into the marriage bed. She'd always believed that men were very much like beasts when it came to their women. That they would avail their husbandly duties at every opportunity.

So, either she'd married a man who took his gentlemanly behavior to extremes, or she simply wasn't what he required in a wife and he got no joy in bedding her.

That realization robbed her of the small appetite she'd been managed to muster since waking up in a bedroom infested with deer, sheep, and hunting party.

On the surface, the absence of lovemaking might prove to be an answer to her prayers. After all, if she was not a proper wife to her husband, mightn't he just either annul their contract or, worse yet, divorce her? While divorce wasn't usual, it was possible.

So why did such a possibility leave her feeling disappointed? Glancing up at the empty chair across from her, she realized that deep in her heart, once she'd agreed to this impossible scheme, she had actually been hoping it would work.

But how could it?

She was plain, and that was bad enough. But that was not the worst of it. In contrast to the tall, slender figures of most women of the ton, hers was a shorter, rounder frame. She was surely not the sort of woman that would light the flame of a man's desire.

It was no secret to anybody who had eyes that she was a bit on the plump side. Ample bosom and wide hips made her very attractive to a lot of men, but as the sort of woman they wanted to bed, not the pale, wan, thin female that men of substance would want to marry.

That's why she'd wanted more than anything for her sister to make a good match.

Pushing the eggs around her plate one more time, she told herself that if she did eat less, perhaps she would become a little less round and be a wife her husband could be proud of.

“At last,” the duke said from the doorway. Wearing a clean shirt, tall Hessian boots, and buckskin trousers, he appeared more like a villager ready to set out on a hunting trip than a titled peer about to join his wife for breakfast.

“Oh. Um, breakfast came a while ago. I can have the cook heat it, or perhaps get some fresh if you'd prefer…”

“Nonsense, nothing's wrong with a cold meal. Many's the time we ate oats soaked in cold water. Damned unappealing, but it'll fill your belly when there's nothing else around. We ate a great deal of it during the war.”

“Oh, the war. That's right. I keep forgetting. Then, cold eggs and soggy biscuits should be a veritable feast.”

“Indeed,” he said.

Caro watched as he heaped his plate full of the food from the sideboard. He took the seat across from her and he consumed his meal with the vigor of a hungry bear.

BOOK: To Catch a Lady
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