Authors: Pamela Labud
“Please,” Caro whimpered.
She was poised at the peak of sensual delight, a mere breath away from unimaginable pleasure and blessed releaseâ¦
Her mindless and utterly sensual joy was shattered by the high, shrill sound of a woman's scream.
Their moment of passion popped like a soap bubble, and the room filled with the sounds of excited voices, a mixture of panic, amusement, and shocked surprise.
Blinking, Caro looked over Ash's shoulder to see the doorway filled with three people, and several dozen crowding in behind them from the hall.
“Ashton, what in blazes are you doing?” came a shrill woman's voice over the gasps of the gathering crowd.
A petite, older woman stood in the doorway, a look of sheer panic on her face, her mouth covered with white-lace-gloved hands. Eyes as wide as saucers, her light brown hair piled high on her head, she was dressed in a beautiful gold gown that denoted her high nobility. Her throat was adorned with dazzling sapphires that shone with a brilliance matched only by her sparkling azure eyes. She was clearly someone to be reckoned with.
“Excellent choice, Your Grace!” another man's voice cried out in an exuberant tone.
Unfortunately, the general consensus of the other attendees was not as jovial, but rather a low, growling, grumbling cacophony of disapproval.
Panic rose in Caro's throat, building up to full-out hysteria. What would happen now?
Recriminations that would follow her to the grave?
Without a doubt.
Ash must have shared her distress, because she heard him hiss.
Caro started to pull away from him but he tightened his grasp. “Be still,” he ordered.
Not knowing what else to do, she obeyed, though fervently wishing she could turn to mist if it could help her escape his strong hands holding her. On the other hand, she was quite astonished how the heated pleasure of his touch so quickly turned to humiliation's burn with her sudden embarrassment.
If only this were some horrid dream and she'd nothing to do but wake up!
Unfortunately, any thought of escaping her fate utterly disappeared with the sound of her sister's screaming amidst the crowd.
“Take your bloody hands off my sister!”
“Lightskirt!” one woman shouted from the crowd.
“Harlot!” came another.
A younger girl cried out. “Mama, she's compromising our duke!”
Anger flashed through Caro like a lit taper. She wanted to shout, to rail at those who accused her, but caught between shame, desire, and fury, she'd lost the ability to form words.
Instead, she decided to attack the one person responsible for the evening's disastrous outcome. Fists clenched, fury building like a storm, she was on the verge of letting loose her anger.
Then she saw him.
Ash, his cravat hanging loose about his neck, his buttons open and revealing an expanse of wide chestâthe mere vision of him took her breath away. By the gods, he was even more striking than before. She meant to push him away, but she was as trapped by his burning gaze as she was by his weight upon her.
In that single moment, his fiery expression pinning her to her spot, she saw something dark and dangerous cross his eyes.
Whatever decision he'd come to, it surely wouldn't bode well for her. A feeling of dread settled into Caro's belly.
“Your Grace?” She barely breathed. “What are you thinking?”
“Not to worry, all will be well.” He leaned down again and captured her mouth with his, drinking in her kiss like a man dying of thirst.
Shrieks, curses, and shouts of disbelief filled the room around them, but Caro could barely hear any of itâshe knew only the powerful man who held her so close that he had her breathless and trembling with anxious anticipation.
Deep within her, alarm bells started ringing. What the devil was happening to her now?
“How dare you!” she started to shout at him, but her new wave of anger was quickly crushed by his mouth upon hers, as he literally kissed her into silence.
When he drew away, fear, confusion, anger, and disbelief swirled like a dervish in her brain.
“I don't understand,” she started, but left the thought unfinished.
“You will,” he said, nodding and pointedly looking down at their attire. “There is no choice about it,” he started.
Suddenly, Caro realized just what he meant to do. By the heavens! She was trapped as surely as a fox held fast by the hound. Her humiliation would be complete. For the second time in her life she'd be ruined. The only difference? She was at least partly to blame.
She could have stopped him.
She should have stopped him.
Anger and fear lit a fire in her belly as Caro followed his gaze. She gasped when she saw the state of her clothes. Her gown had been destroyed, torn in half; her corset, flung to the side, now hung askew on the arm of the settee.
Seconds passed and it seemed as if time stopped. Barely a breath could be heard. Not knowing what else to do, Caro tried to scramble from his grasp, but her efforts were rewarded by more of her clothing falling away.
To her embarrassment, the room filled with voices againâthe ribald jokes, appalled gasps, and bursts of laughter nearly deafened her. It seemed that all of London society filled the hall outside the parlor.
“Stay still,” he whispered in a harsh tone, as he eased away from her and pulled his trousers up.
Caro shot him an angry expression, her face burning with embarrassment, hot tears springing from her eyes. Surely she would die on the spot.
How could she have been so ninny-headed?
Beatrice rushed into the room. “Oh, Caro, dear. Let me help you!”
Gathering the remnants of Caro's clothing, she knelt beside the settee. Caro saw Beatrice daintily drop her pale yellow calling card into the duke's right suit pocket.
“You have ruined my sister,” she whispered. “There's only one thing you can do to save her now.”
The older woman stepped forward. “Michael,” she called to the tall blond man beside her, “clear the room.”
Bowing, the man began herding the crowd from the doorway.
“You heard Her Grace: Everyone please return to the ballroom,” he said, laughing as he grabbed hold of the double doors and pushed them back.
“Ruined,” Caro said, as the full weight of her predicament pressed in on her. She caught her sister's hand. “Bea, I'm so sorry! I've ruined you, too! Now you'll never be able to make a good match.”
“Here, nowâ” The duke cleared his throat. “Let's not give in to panic.”
“Panic?” Caro snapped. “It's too late for that, Your Grace. There's no way to keep our liaison a secret now, is there?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Caro huffed. “You can go back to your party, your newly chosen wife, and live a full life. My sister and I will likely end up in a workhouse. No one will dare offer us positions now.” Unable to stop, she hiccupped, “And my mother will be sent to Bedlam for sure!”
“What?” Ash sat back on his heels, quickly tucking in his shirt. “Miss Hawkins, I do believe you are babbling.” Standing up, he clapped his hands loudly. “Everyone, your attention, please.”
Michael nearly had the door closed when he stopped and turned back. All of the onlookers turned as if they were a single beast and pressed forward into the room once again.
“Ashton?” the older woman spoke, Caro's corset over one arm, the other helping Beatrice to hold the edges of Caro's gown together.
“My aunt Amelia,” he whispered to Caro, and then turned back to the gathering. “I have an announcement to make.” He turned back to the crowd. “My aunt and I have done an exhaustive review of all the young women present, and after careful consideration, I have chosen my bride.”
A collective gasp went around the crowd.
“Ashton, are you sure?” Amelia asked.
“Good show,” the man named Michael said and snorted.
Summerton winked, and Caro saw him shoot a knowing gaze toward Beatrice. “In my pocket I have a signed special license. All I need to do is to fill in the name of my intended and the wheels of matrimony will be set in motion. In the chapel down the hall a priest is waiting, and, with my aunt's blessing, we shall be married by midnight.”
“Your Graceâ” Caro started. “Please, make your announcement after I have left the room at least,” she whispered. “Haven't you humiliated me enough?”
He turned to her, his blue eyes clear and wide, a mischievous grin sprouting on his face.
“Oh, not nearly enough,” he whispered back. Then, standing, he reached into his pocket and produced a small, white calling card. “My choice of a bride isâ¦”
He glanced back down at Caro and winked.
“Oh,” Caro muttered when she realized what he meant to do. “It can't be.”
“Miss Caroline Hawkins.”
“How much longer?” Ash demanded, pacing the length of the small chapel for the hundredth time in half an hour. “Surely they have her affairs in order by now.”
“Changing your mind?” Michael asked. Wearing a smug grin, he lounged in one of the chairs that rested along the south wall of the chapel.
Ash gave him a dark expression. “Don't be ridiculous. I just want this over.”
“So you can enjoy the delights of your new bride, no doubt.”
“I want to set out for Slyddon. I've been away far too long as it is.”
Michael laughed. “You're taking your bride out into the wilderness? Aren't you the least bit concerned about dragging this poor girl out of the city and to that broken-down pile of stone and mud you call a home?”
“Pile of stone and mud?” Ashton scoffed. “If you weren't my friend, I'd call you out.”
“Take ease, old man. No one appreciates your lodge more than I do. But this is a marriage you're embarking on, not a hunting expedition. Take the girl back to Mayfair. Let her get accustomed to being a duchess before you thrust her into your world.”
Ash took a deep breath. Perhaps his friend was right. What harm would another month in London do, anyway?
“I suppose I can tolerate being in town another few weeks.”
Michael laughed. “See, that wasn't so difficult. I knew the heart of a gentleman beat in your chest, no matter what others may say.”
Before Ashton could ask exactly what it was that others did say, the doors to the chapel burst open and his new bride-to-be, her sister, and his aunt came bustling through.
“Impossible, sir!” Caroline proclaimed as she marched up to face him. For a brief moment, he imagined them together in his large featherbed, covered only with warm quilts and spending the long hours of the night making love.
Ash shook himself. It would do no good to give in to such flights of fancy, no matter how enticing the thought.
“What's impossible?” he asked, doing his level best to pull his gaze from the shimmering fabric of her gown. Cream lace edged along her bodice and a white ribbon fashioned above her waist pulled the fabric taut across her breasts. It was clear that the modiste had designed her gown solely for the purpose of driving a man mad.
“Are you daft, sir? To marry in this fashion is muddle-brained.” She crossed her arms. “I demand that you release me from this ridiculous contract immediately!”
What a bold little chit she was! She dared to enter a chapelâhis chapel, in factâ voicing her opinions, flashing her lovely green eyes about, clenching her tiny fists, and shouting at him? Especially after he'd come to her rescue? Ash's sympathy for the woman fled.
“Madam, do you ever enter a room without demanding, screaming, or causing some other such violence?” He crossed his arms over his chest, mimicking her posture.
Anger and embarrassment reddened her face. Taking a step closer, she ground her jaw and spoke just above a whisper.
“You are truly a beast, sir. You have humiliated me to the utmost and now you berate me?”
“I was merely asking a question. Have you ever come into the presence of others when you weren't wreaking havoc?” he asked in mock innocence.
The color of her face deepened to the most lovely shade of crimson he'd ever seen. Ashton didn't know why, but her standing before him like this, her eyes burning bright enough to sear a hole right through him, somehow made his bride-to-be all the more attractive.
“Curious,” he said, laboring to stay calm while doing his best to see just how far he could rile her.
“Curious? Is that all you have to say?”
Of course, Ash knew deep down that it wasn't the polite thing to do, but sparking her temper was a temptation he just couldn't refuse. For the life of him, he couldn't help the urge to push her even more.
“I find your tone quite surprising. Are you angry because I did as you asked and attempted to make love to you? It wasn't my fault that half the ton pushed down doors and caught us in a state of near
“You are a most horrible man,” she growled at him.
Unaffected, Ash continued. “I disagree, of course. Perhaps you're upset because you agreed to marry me as the price for attending my party and that I had the audacity to expect you to honor that promise and become my wife.”
“I'm telling you, this marriage will not work. We don't suit, you dolt.”
“Really? And pray tell, why is that? Have you a third eye or some such reason to not be a suitable wife?”
“Of course, I'm a suitable wife.” She lowered her voice to barely above a whisper. “We already discussed my reasons.” She paused, an expression of regret darkening her eyes, but she quickly put it away.
Ash once again batted down the urge to dig up the old corpse that had caused her such pain and throttle him once again.
When his bride managed to speak again, it was with the tone one uses to correct an errant child. “It makes no sense that you should choose me, Your Grace. Not with an entire ballroom full of beautiful, cultured, eligible women. Why on earth would you choose me?”
How odd? Did she not think that she stood up with every other female at the party? Of course, her figure was more ample than the other young misses'. It only demonstrated to Ashton that she took her survival seriously. No pushing away perfectly good fare to keep herself thin and wan. By all the gods, this woman had substance! Her color was not pale and she didn't have that weak essence about her. A man with any sense at all could tell that she was both strong and capable.
While her hair was a bit too straight and, yes, perhaps her bottom was too round, Ash thought that if one put all the parts of her together, she was more than pretty, she was beautiful, desirable, and, by all the gods, interesting. But more than all that, Caroline Hawkins was a puzzle, and he simply couldn't resist the chance to figure her out.
Ash leaned forward. “In the light of the situation that you and I were caught in, I did the only rational thing.”
Mesmerized, Ash watched as she took a slow, deep breath, and then another. “Marriage, Your Grace, is not about rationality.”
“It isn't? Well, it very well should be. It's nothing but a contract, after all.”
Obviously appalled, she stepped back from him. “You are the most wooden-headed man I've ever met.”
She started to turn away, but at the last second Ash grabbed her wrist. “Am I mistaken that you came to my home tonight with a false promise of marriage?”
“What?” She stood stone-still, mouth agape.
“Are you hard of hearing? Did you not come to my home this evening with the intention of becoming my bride? I have here”âhe held up her calling card and showed it for all to seeâ“a document that clearly states you have freely agreed to the terms of marriage.”
“Then you don't plan on honoring your agreement.” He paused. “It would seem that you, Miss Hawkins, are a liar and a terrible tease.”
Rage, pure and white-hot, flashed across her face.
He'd done it, now. He'd thrown down the gauntlet.
Fascinated, Ash watched as the realization of her fate sank in. He was sure that if looks alone could maim, he'd be a man missing several vital parts.
When she spoke again, Caroline's voice trembled ever so slightly. “Since I am a woman who always honors her word, Your Grace, I will marry you. I stand behind my offer, even though you are a despicable cur who has no compunction about taking advantage of a difficult situation.”
“Do you mean to prove otherwise?”
Ha! Now she, too, had thrown down the glove. Caroline would be a worthy opponent, indeed. It was all Ash could do to keep from grinning.
When he spoke next, it was in a quiet, cautious tone.
“I can tell that this ordeal greatly bothers you. I will release you from your obligation, miss.”
The fury of her anger started to dissipate. “Thank you, Your Grace.” She turned to leave.
“Of course, you will have to admit that it was you who has defaulted on the contract.”
Ash could swear he heard a crackling in the air.
Miss Hawkins spun back around to face him, her gown whirling about furiously.
“Me? But I never really consented to marry you in the first place. I only came here because my sister needed an escort.”
“Yes, well, so far as I can tell, you've done a superb job of that. No doubt she will be leaving here in complete shame, disgraced at your antics. Her chances for a good match now are practically nonexistent. What will you do next? Tie a stone around her ankle and toss her into a well?”
The refined and beautiful Miss Hawkins lunged at him. Only her younger sister thrusting herself between them kept her from launching a full-out assault on Ash.
“Caro! What on earth are you doing?” cried the younger sister.
“I'm only doing what's right,” she shot back. “No woman should ever be shackled to this cur.”
“A cur, am I? Well, if you ask me, being equally bound in marriage to an unwieldy harridan is not a bright and shining prospect, either.”
That was the line, and he had well and truly crossed it. The next instant, Caroline pulled back her tiny, delicate hand to slap him. And it would have been a magnificent slap, for all the power of her form was behind it. However quick she was, though, he proved much quicker and caught her wrist in mid-strike.
“Please,” his aunt Amelia said. “Both of you, I implore you to stop this nonsense immediately. The license is signed; the priest is in attendance. Both of you need to act according to your station and finish the ceremony.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “For Heaven's sake, the entire staff is watching!”
Miss Hawkins suddenly yanked her wrist out of his grasp and threw him a glare. “Again. I demand you release me from this ridiculous contract.”
Ash considered her request for a moment. He could and probably should release her. But a single thought nagged at him: Caroline Hawkins was a strong, opinionated woman. She was used to managing her own life and, no doubt, the lives of those around her. And she wasn't the least bit inclined to stand down from a fight.
Although it was a damned annoying thing, he was beginning to like her. He was more than certain that, in spite of his interest in her, he would never love Caroline Hawkins. He would never follow her about like a saggy-eared puppy, or cling to her skirts like a lost child, or, worst of all, ever expect her to love him back.
In his mind, it was a simple equation: No love meant no pain. If they hated each other from the start, then there was no way they would ever descend to that perfect level of misery his parents had sunk to.
Drawing a deep breath, he leaned forward. “Miss Hawkins, we are basing our incompatibility on merely emotional grounds. If we consider things rationally, you and I are two very different people, who are very much used to having our own way of things, are we not?”
Crossing her arms, Caroline gave him a curt nod. “Go on,” she said.
“Good. Then might I suggest we compromise? A marriage, for all the silly trappings and traditions, is basically an agreement between two people. In exchange for shelter and protection, you will agree to give me an heir. If it's a boy, we need only try once. If it's a girl, I would expect that we should at least try a second time.”
“You could make this arrangement with anyone. My sister, for instance.”
“What sort of blackguard would I be if I ruined one sister and then married the other? That's not an option.”
“Besides,” he said, softening his tone, “think of the opportunities for a good match she'll have as the sister-in-law to a duke.”
Now silent, Ash waited while she obviously considered her options. Her expression changed from that of a woman angered to that of one defeated. He knew what she'd intended for her sister. Just by looking at the girl, it was easy to see that she would make a very suitable wife.
And a “suitable” wife was the last thing on earth that Ash wanted or needed. He required a woman who was his match, one who would be a challenge. His gut told him that Caroline Hawkins definitely fit the ticket.
“We both have needs,” he told her, leaning forward and speaking just above a whisper. “You need a stable home for your sister and a place to care for your mother. I need to provide my aunt with a grand-nephew, as well as the peace that will fall over my life once it's known I'm no longer top prize in the marriage mart.”
“Bloody hell,” she muttered.
Caro carefully studied her groom. The ceremony had just ended; the two of them were before the altar and he was waiting for her to perform the final part of the ceremony. Once she did, the priest would announce them man and wife.
What she really wanted to do was mash his toes. Instead, she gingerly gave him her hands. To her surprise, he gave them a quick and gentle squeeze.
“To a perfect marriageâ¦” Her groom leaned forward and kissed her. Shockingly, his warm, firm kiss, and the all-encompassing embrace that followed it, nearly unhinged her senses. Once again her body responded to his touch. Her breath quickened and her nerves set to trembling uncontrollably.
What was it about him that caused her to react so strongly? After all, this was a most unbearable situation, was it not? Though her stubborn nature certainly wanted no part of a union with this unconscionable beast, her traitorous body folded into his embrace as though she belonged there. And when his hands slid down the length of her back, a shiver passed over her.
“I don't understand,” she muttered, feeling as if the ground had just fallen out from beneath her.
A myriad of emotions washed over her, and suddenly, her body was wanting, needing, and crying out for the very thing that she was sure would be her undoing.