Authors: Pamela Labud
“I'm a simple man, Duchess. I have no needs other than a warm bed, a good meal, and a well-oiled rifle.”
“Certainly not a wife, eh?” she said in a half-humorous fashion. For a reason she couldn't understand, she started to relax.
A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “No, not a wife. Or a dukedom, eitherâbut that's the life I've been dealt.” He paused. “And what of you? What were your plans? What have you given up to become the new Duchess of Summerton?”
“Aside from a peaceful life, you mean?” She sighed. “I still can't believe everything that's happened. My sister was a much better candidate for a wife than I.”
“So you've said.” He stretched his arms outward and rolled his shoulders.
Caro drew in a quick breath; the size of him seemed to encompass more and more of the carriage. She did her best not to squirm, but it was as if he were enveloping her just by looking at her. She couldn't decide whether it was his brilliant blue eyes, his high, well-defined cheekbones, or his strong jaw that gave him such an arresting face.
That alone was unsettling, but when you added his wide chest, long legs, and narrow waist, it was no wonder so many hopeful young women had answered his invitation. With his wealth and title, the Duke of Summerton most certainly comprised what every unmarried female and her mother would consider a perfect match.
And yet, in spite of his every advantage, he didn't act either a rake or a rogue. He treated everyone with quiet respect and she'd not yet seen him leer at any woman, whether servant or potential mistress. Of course, she couldn't rule it out, but he didn't seem the womanizer that most of his counterparts were rumored to be.
Again, a perfect husband. So, what was wrong with him? Why hadn't he already been claimed by the ton's marriage mart?
“I'm wondering how you've avoided matrimony until now.” The heat of embarrassment crept over her. “I am curious.”
He shrugged. “I prefer to be alone.”
Caro doubted very much that was the only reason why he'd avoided marriage. Still, she couldn't fault him. She'd had her own reasons for wanting to remain unwed.
“And you? You're how old? Twenty-two years, I'd bet.”
“Twenty-four,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice steady. “I've never had intentions of marrying. My mother requires a great deal of care.”
“Is that the only reason? You are a daughter of a minor peer, aren't you? I'm sure you would have made a good match if you'd tried.”
Caro swallowed. “My father, who died when I was a child, held only a minor barony, so there was no family money. As a result, my mother went into service in order to provide for us. She was hoping both of her daughters would one day find good husbands and go on to live happy lives. I imagine it's what most mothers want for their daughters.”
“But you sacrificed your youth to care for your mother and sister, didn't you?”
“I did what was necessary. I have no regrets.”
“And neither do I. See? We've found it.”
“Common ground. It's a good start to this marriage business, don't you think?”
Caro gave him a long look. “I suppose.”
“Good.” He cleared his throat. “I apologize for our earlier entanglements. I never at any time meant to upset you.”
It was Caro's turn to suppress a grin. “Oh, yes, you did. But either way, what's done is done. It's occurred to me that we must leave our rather bizarre engagement and marriage vows behind us and look toward the future.”
He nodded. “To the future then.”
And that was that. Having reached at least a cursory level of understanding with her new spouse, she was now free to concentrate on their arrival at Slyddon, meeting the staff, and all it would entail.
One thing she resolved she would not do was think about their wedding night. She would not try to imagine what it would be like to be lost in his arms, to finish what it was they'd started only hours earlier. She would not give in to the memory of his hot kisses or his gentle caresses nor the desire that burned in her blood every time she gave in to those memories.
Caro couldn't help it. She propelled her fan faster. He was watching her, and she did her best to turn away from him, though she knew it was impossible to hide from him in so small an area.
“I believe it's getting even warmer in here.”
“Most uncomfortable,” he said. “It's late afternoon, so it should be cooling down soon.” Though he spoke easily enough, Caro couldn't help but see the smug grin that hung about the corners of his mouth.
“Yes, it should.”
Unconscionable rogue, she thought. A part of her wanted nothing more than to wipe that expression off of his face.
But this time, violence was the last thing Caro had in mind, truth be told. She thought of another way to punish him, but it would have to wait until later, when they were alone in their marriage bed.
The sun had well set by the time Ash motioned the driver to pull off the main road and turn them toward the High Road Inn. Had he been alone, Ash would have traveled straight through to Slyddon. As it was, it was a matter not of fatigue but of safety. Highwaymen still haunted the roads and only a fool would travel late into the night.
He glanced at his bride and smiled. She'd managed to sit as far as she could get from him and still be inside the carriage. He had to give her credit, she was a strong one.
Her hair, once tucked neatly back into her chignon, was now barely held in place. Soft, wispy tendrils had escaped and now fluttered about her face as the carriage rolled along.
Even in sleep, Caroline sat as straight as a rod, her head tilted slightly to the left. Even in sleep, she gave no appearance of weakness.
Ash liked that about her. It meant she could stand up for herself and face down whatever threats might come. Not only that, but if his offspring turned out as wild as he and Stephen had been, she was in for a challenge, to be sure.
In spite of himself, Ash couldn't help the urge to scoot across the bench and take her into his arms.
“Mmmm?” Her eyes fluttered open, but Ash could tell she wasn't near wakefulness.
“Take ease, Caroline. Just rest against me, else you'll get a stiff neck.”
“Oh,” she said, closing her eyes. She relaxed into his arms and quickly fell back to sleep.
Ash took a deep breath. To his surprise, he found it quite comforting, holding her like this, and not at all as disconcerting as he'd thought it would be. It was also quite easy to relax while he was doing so. It felt right, the two of them together like that. Of course, he did feel that unmistakable flicker of desire that had been running through him since the moment he'd met her. He knew well that if he wasn't careful, the desire could very well turn into a raging blaze with but the slightest encouragement.
A very curious condition for a man as well traveled as he was. As a soldier and aristocrat, he'd been in the presence of many women, of every imaginable sort. None of them affected him the way Caroline Hawkins did.
Ash gently pulled her closer and delighted in the way she fit into his embrace, as though they were two parts of the same being. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the scent of her, reveled in the feel of her weight against him. Unable to resist, he placed a light kiss upon her forehead, nuzzling her gently as he worked his hands around her, pulling her up onto his lap.
She stirred then. Her sleepy eyes widened, and she started to push away. “What are you doing?”
“Making love to my wife,” he said calmly, again pulling her close. “Tell me you don't want this, Caroline. Tell me you have done nothing but think of the two of us together since we were in that parlor last night.”
“You are a most insufferable man,” she said, but she didn't push away from him. Instead, she relaxed in his embrace.
“I suppose I am at that.” Leaning down, he kissed her again, enjoying the sweet taste of her and the way she opened her mouth to him.
“My goodness,” she breathed, as he slid his hands up under her gown to cup her bottom. She tensed at first, obviously in shock at this intimate touch. Unable to stop himself, he started massaging her, and after a few seconds was rewarded when he felt her tremble in his hands. That was all the encouragement he needed.
To his delight, the new Duchess of Summerton could become a bit of a wanton.
“I'm sure,” she started, panting, “this is most improper behavior.”
He laughed as he leaned forward and settled her on the bench seat, pushing her skirts to her waist and then unbuttoning his own trousers.
“You'll soon find, Caroline, that I don't give a damn about propriety.” He settled on top of her, careful not to crush her with his weight.
It delighted him to no end when she wrapped her legs around him, using her body to urge him forward. But he would not give in to her, at least not yet.
“I suppose that it doesn't matter, since we are married,” she gasped between kisses. “Still, what will your servants think?”
He kissed her again, his hands tangling her hair. It wasn't long before his kisses trailed down to her ears, her jaw. “They will think that their master is taking his wife to bed at every opportunity.” He suckled her left ear, sweeping his tongue in and around the most delicate flesh.
Again she trembled, and it nearly drove him over the edge. He knew he couldn't put off his own need much longer, but the temptation of enjoying her body like this was just too damn enticing.
“Oh dear,” she moaned, when he nibbled down her neck, placing tiny bites until he made it to the top of her bodice, where he then proceeded to indulge shamelessly into the glory of her most delectable bosom.
“Mmm, you taste like sweet wine,” he breathed after suckling her left breast quite thoroughly. He then turned his attention to the right.
“Please,” she begged when he raised up to see the effects of his labor. “Bloody man, don't stop now!”
He'd managed to get the neckline of her blouse down to reveal two perfectly erect breasts, the rosy tips glowing in the moonlight.
But he well knew that his job was far from completed. “As you wish, dear Caroline.”
Knowing exactly what was needed, he scooted farther down and leaned close so that he was but inches from the dark, moist curls between her legs. Without a word, he started by peppering kisses along her inner thighs.
“Oh!” Caroline started to wiggle in his grasp, attempting to lift her hips and push herself against him. He held her firm. He was a man who'd started on a mission, and, like the good soldier he was, nothing would keep him from his objective.
“This,” he said as he suckled her in the most intimate of places, “is âthe gentleman's kiss,' my dear. It's been rumored to drive women mad.”
“What are you doing?” she squeaked, the pitch of her voice betraying her alarm and delight.
“I'm taking you to the very edge of passion, my wife.” He nuzzled her again. “And when I give you permission, you will take flight from that edge, but not before. Do you understand?”
She trembled harder. When she spoke, it was between loud, rasping breaths. “You dare to command me?”
He blew a hot breath across her curls. “I do, and more.”
A cry escaped her, and he knew that though she hated herself for it, she would do as he asked.
“All right, Your Grace.” She huffed. “Do what you must.”
Ash couldn't help the broad grin that lit his face. This was a woman he could truly enjoy. One that was his match for everything. Well, almost everything.
He dove in for the last time, suckling her hard, his hands gripping her buttocks, his fingers squeezing them like plump, firm tomatoes.
That's when he felt the orgasm overtaking her. It started in her center, and seconds later he felt the throbbing her to her core. Tightening, tightening, tightening until like a wave washing across the shore, she relaxed in his arms.
In the next instant, he slid up, his erection resting just at her opening.
“I'm going to enter you,” he said, his own need near to exploding, “first with my fingers, and then with my cock.”
With that he proceeded, massaging her opening gently, his fingers sliding in and out until she moaned with pleasure. After seconds passed he moved upward, placing himself just at her center, his erection throbbing, his body hungering to be inside her.
“Easy, old man,” he told his eager member. “We are but seconds away.”
“Nothing my love. Nearly there.” He nuzzled her neck again, while placing himself on one side, coaxing her left leg over his hip. All he needed was a little push, and he'd be at Heaven's gate.
“Now, I'm going inside you. It'll be painful at first, but once I'm through, I promise you, that will be the worst of it. Are you ready?”
There it was. The one question that would determine their future. Was his Caroline strong enough to cross this last bridge? He was sure she was not like the other weakling women he'd known from the ton. Young women bred to gentle, weak bodies that were more delicate than eggshells.
But his Caroline was made of better things. It was with that thought that he pushed ahead.
As he'd suspected, she tensed at first, but he gently rocked on top of her, pushing her open, widening the circle with each thrust, until at long last he was through.
God, she fit him like a glove. Like a glorious, pliant leather sheath, and she felt so damn good.
He pulled out and thrust in again, this time quicker because in truth he had reached the end of his control.
Ash would have continued on, oblivious to everything but his own release, except that by the third thrust he realized Caroline was holding herself still, stiffening by the minute as he held her.
What the devil?
He opened one eye and saw her jaw clench, her teeth biting down on her bottom lip.
“Are you finished?” she asked, strain evident in her voice.
“Uhâ¦almost,” he said, hot shame washing over him. What the devil? Was he still hurting her? “Just a bit more,” he said, wanting more than anything else to ease her pain.
She didn't answer but gave him a sharp nod.
“Just try to relaxâopen your legs wider, if you can.”
She nodded quickly and did as he asked.
Unable to stop his body's relentless rush to release, he rode the crest of his orgasm, pushing, pushing, pushing, until at long last he, too, gave in to the blissful waves of pleasure.
But like most things in life, the experience was short-lived. He felt it die when he opened his eyes and saw his bride, her face damp with sweat and still etched in the lines of pain that he'd caused her.
At that moment, Ash felt like the vilest of beasts that ever crawled across the earth, the most terrible, unforgivable wretch to ever draw a breath. He hadn't meant to, but he'd hurt her. In all of his life, the women he'd bedded and left behind had never complained; they'd never accused or berated him. He'd never thought that he'd caused them such terrible pain.
“Are you finished?” she asked again, her voice quiet, trembling, and small.
Ash cleared his throat. “Yes.” He eased himself off of her and helped her to sit up, but the moment she was upright, she slid away from him. He watched silently as she put herself back together, straightening her clothes, fussing with her hair. He knew to his gut she was trying to erase every sign of their lovemaking.
Trying to remove any evidence of what they'd done. Of what he'd done.
She shot him a nervous look, but he couldn't face her. He wanted to apologize, but a man on his wedding night could never do that. He'd done what was expected of him, and damn him if he hadn't enjoyed it, too.
But he never meant to hurt her in the process. And judging by the tight way she held her expression, that was exactly what he'd done.
Caroline had done her very best to keep her emotions in check. The last thing she needed was to become a ninny-headed sloshy-eyed trollop. From the moment she'd awoken in his arms, he'd taken control of her senses and reduced her to a muddleheaded mess of jumbling emotion. In fact, it had been appalling how quickly he'd had her mewling and pawing like a hungry kitten.
Her mother's words came back to her, instructions from her girlhood.
“When a woman is bedded by a man, she must take care not to lose herself during his attentions. She must remain still and yet biddable, soft and yet determined to allow him to have his way, no matter how disturbing or odd it might seemâ¦”
Odd indeed! He'd fairly ravished every inch of her. Such a blackguard, he'd nipped and kissed and sucked every inch of her skin from her head down to the calves of her legs.
And if that wasn't enough, he'd trailed kisses inside her thighs to her most private place. What happened next was the worst of all. He'd commanded her body to give in to his base demands, and give in she did.
Her body sang to his touch, trembled mercilessly when he blew his breath upon her. She throbbed and convulsed with wave after wave of pleasure, the depths of which she'd never known.
But that humiliation hadn't been enough to please her husband. Oh, noâas she quickly learned, the man had yet more to his dastardly plot. Because the next she knew, he was pushing first his fingers in, and then his member, gently coaxing her to open more for him. She was certain she could not, but Ash was not having any of it. Before she could protest, he pushed himself in farther and she felt the pinch of her maidenhead give way.
That should have been the worst of her ordeal, but it was not. No, he rocked back and forth, and, despite her best efforts to refuse to give in, her retched body responded and once again she began the heart-clenching descent into indescribable sensations.
Doing her best to keep herself still, she tightened every muscle in her body and hoped that her husband had been so engaged in his own pleasure that he would not notice hers.
When he'd finished, he'd spoken in short, clipped tones, and she bit down on her anger as hard as a vise upon a strip of hot iron. She simply refused to tell him how wonderful she felt after their tryst. No. He mustn't ever know that he had given such incredible pleasure to her and that she felt about to fall to her knees and give him her soul.
She would attend to her wifely duties, as per their contract. She would allow him use of her body whenever he demanded it. She would bear his children, and not once would she ever deny him.
But he would never know how much she yearned for his kisses, how much she burned for his touch and ached for his sweet words as he made love to her. Damn him, she thought. He might have her body and soul, but he would never get her heart.
Ten minutes later they arrived at the inn. A few miles off the beaten path, the establishment was comprised of four small cottages, a single main two-story building, a stable, and a bathhouse. The place had clearly seen better days, judging by the faded paint and worn carpets. Although not frequented often by the aristocracy, Ash knew the owner and trusted him to keep them safe.