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Take a rousing romp through 1790s England with this fourth and final book in the Properly Spanked series...
A duke as wealthy and powerful as the Duke of Arlington requires, by matter of course, an elegant, perfectly pedigreed bride. Unfortunately, he must settle for the king’s choice: Miss Guinevere Vaughn, the rough-edged daughter of a border baron. She’s pretty enough for a Welsh hellion, but she hasn’t the necessary polish to succeed in London society. When Aidan explains that she’ll need to improve her manners—and her disposition—he finds himself locked in a vexing battle of wills.
Gwen never asked to wed a duke. Her new husband is haughty, inflexible, and demanding, and makes no secret of his disdain for her upbringing. No matter how hard she tries to please him, she’s never good enough. He disciplines her with an iron hand, and then expects her to submit to his vile whims in bed. Not that his whims are...completely...vile...all of the time. It’s only that her husband doesn’t love her, and she wants him to love her.
If only her feelings were not so complicated.
If only life was not so difficult Under A Duke’s Hand...
This 74K word novel contains acts of punishment and domestic discipline, anal play, sado- masochism, and other sensual practices.
Chapter One: A Handsome Stranger
“I don’t think this is a good idea.” Her cousin Tilda tucked a bit of ebony hair beneath Gwen’s weathered bonnet. “If your father sees you sneaking out in these dreadful clothes, he’ll lock you in your room.”
“They’re not dreadful clothes. They’re riding clothes, my most comfortable ones.” Gwen twitched at her faded skirts. “And Papa can’t lock me in my room if I’m to be married the day after tomorrow. I’m just taking Effie for one last ride around the village.”
“And how will you get home when that ragged old nag keels over dead?”
“Don’t say such things, not when I’ll miss her so. You promised you’d come feed her apples at least twice a week.”
Her cousin’s eyes softened. “I will, I promise.”
“Even when you aren’t sweet on Drustan anymore?” Tilda’s love interest looked after the horses on Gwen’s father’s estate.
“Even when Dru and I are married,” said Tilda with a grin. “I swear to you, old Effie shall have all the apples she desires.”
Gwen pulled at her gown’s ill-fitting bodice. Since her betrothal to the Duke of Arlington, all Papa’s money had gone to wedding and court finery, and she dared not wear those sorts of clothes while she rode along dusty paths. “Thanks for helping me steal away, Tilly. If I must be given in marriage to some horrid English aristocrat I’ve never laid eyes on, I would like one last afternoon all to myself.” She thought a moment. “Perhaps, while I’m away, a handsome stranger will befriend me and fall deeply in love with me, and secret me to his hilltop castle so I needn’t marry the duke after all.”
Tilda giggled. “You and your romantic dreams.” She turned Gwen around to adjust her stays. “You’d better not run off with any strangers, or Uncle Alwyn will have my head for abetting you. I wish you’d take at least one other person along. Drustan will escort you if you ask.”
“Drustan would rather stay behind with you.”
Her buxom cousin blushed a furious shade of red, and her eyes got that glazed, enamored look.
“Why, the two of you intend to steal away for the afternoon,” Gwen accused. “And here you’ve been scolding me for going out to ride.”
“Drustan’s officially courting me, you realize. Papa allows us to spend time together.”
Gwen was so jealous of her cousin. Drustan was a kind, brawny man, with twinkling eyes and a great laugh. When he looked at Tilda, anyone could see that he adored her. “Does he kiss you when you’re together?” Gwen asked shyly.
“You’re a silly girl.”
“Silly girl? I’m older than you.”
“And far more innocent. As you should be, since you’re a fine lady, and I’m only a common relation.” Tilda squeezed her hands. “Goodness, you’re going to marry a duke in two days. How can you stand the anticipation? What shall you do until it’s time?”
“I’m going to ride Effie to some pretty meadow and smell the flowers, and enjoy my last afternoon of freedom. I’m sure once I’m wed, the ghastly duke will expect me to sit about in his ghastly castle and act like a ghastly duchess in a ghastly ruffled gown.”
Tilda, who loved ghastly ruffled gowns, sighed and hugged herself. “Becoming a duchess is so exciting though, isn’t it?”
“Would you like to do it? Marry some stranger you’ve never met, and go with him to London where it’s crowded and dirty, and everyone speaks with a funny accent?” A wave of nerves fluttered in Gwen’s stomach. “Papa says I may have to attend an audience with the king.”
“A duke is practically a king,” said Tilda. “And you’ll be married to him. I wonder what he’ll be like.”
“I’m certain he’ll be intolerably haughty and probably very ugly. He’ll have crooked teeth and a big belly pouring over the front of his trousers. All those old aristocrats do.”
“Not all, Gwennie. None of your brothers look like that.”
“They aren’t that old.” Elrick was the eldest of the seven, and he had no belly at all. “Maybe the duke won’t have a belly. I don’t know. But something will be wrong with him.” She sat to pull on her scuffed riding boots. “Otherwise he could have taken some wife in England, some fine lady with a royal pedigree.”
“It’s because of your father,” Tilda reminded her. “He asked the king to...”
To order some poor man to marry you. It stung her pride, that it had come to that. Gwen was twenty-two, long past an age to be married, but she had never managed to attract any acceptable candidates. Not one suitor had asked for her hand.
And the Duke of Arlington hadn’t either.
“He’s probably no more excited to marry me,” she said. “What a disaster for everyone.”
She walked with Tilda toward the stables, wondering why she was so repellent to men. She was tall, it was true, but not shockingly so. She had a bit of a temper, but she mostly kept it in check. She did not whine, or wilt, or put on airs like some of the other gentry’s daughters. Perhaps it was her unusual green eyes that unsettled them. But she’d inherited those pale eyes from her mother, who was considered a great beauty before the fever took her.
If only Mama was still here. She would never have allowed her daughter to be married to an Englishman, and a stranger. “I’m terrified the duke won’t be kind,” Gwen said. “That’s my greatest fear.”
Her cousin took her hand. “I’m sure he’s a very kind man. In a couple of days you’ll be on your way to a grand adventure, experiencing all sorts of majestic things.”
Gwen and Tilda parted as Drustan sauntered over to greet his beloved. Gwen bid them farewell and climbed onto Effie’s swayed back. It was a beautiful October day, warm and bright, with barely a chill in the air. Gwen skirted around the village, leading Effie through the open field beyond the miller’s property. The leaves were turning orange, brown, and gold, and rustled underfoot as they plodded along the path. They cut through a copse of trees and around an overgrown hedge, and followed a crumbling stone wall until it opened into a half-shaded clearing. The nag took up her usual spot in the shade, and immediately set to grazing.
Gwen climbed down from the saddle and walked into the meadow with a sigh. If this wasn’t the most picturesque, bewitching place in the world, she’d like to see its better. She couldn’t remember when she’d first found this place. She’d stumbled upon it in her wanderings and been struck at once by its beauty. It was private and fragrant with wildflowers, bordered by a shady spot of lake. There was a peaceful feeling here, like one was in a dream or fairy tale.
I’ve come to say goodbye to this meadow , she thought. Just as I must say goodbye to everything else.
She pulled off her bonnet and turned her face to the sun. Her hair tumbled down her back, blowing in the breeze. She’d miss the Welsh countryside, even if she was only moving a couple days’ journey east. She’d be leaving her entire life, her father and brothers and sisters-in-law, and nieces and nephews and cousins.
Gwen had always wished to be married, so she ought to be happy, but she hadn’t expected to be married quite like this. Elrick and Papa had argued for some time about the betrothal. Elrick shouted that Papa was using her as a pawn, but in the end, it was her father’s choice. It was her father’s war heroics that had earned this opportunity from the king, and he chose to sign the contracts which sealed her fate.
Aidan Francis Samuel Drake, His Grace the Duke of Arlington. Gwen felt misgivings about marrying a stranger with ten words in his name. She had no idea if she would make him a good wife, or how she would cope with the intimacies of marriage. Unlike Tilda, Gwen knew nothing of love. She’d never been courted or kissed. Now it appeared her first kiss would come from some aged blueblood with the longest name in Christendom. Maybe the duke wouldn’t even kiss her. Perhaps he would think a Welsh baron’s daughter too common, too far beneath him. He’d certainly think so if he saw her now, in her faded riding gown.
Gwen picked her way through the flowers to the line of ancient boulders bordering the lake, and kicked off her boots. Her stockings went next, tossed upon the grass alongside her bonnet. She climbed atop her favorite rock and dangled her feet down into the water, and wondered how it could feel so chilly when the air was so warm. She closed her eyes and clasped her hands in her lap, and began to pray, something her mother had taught her to do when she was a young child. Ask the heavens for what your heart wants, she would say. Ask the flowers and wind and sky. You are never alone; the earth knows your prayers.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please let him be at least a little bit handsome. And patient, and gentle.” Often when she prayed like this, she pictured her mother’s face, smiling and nodding at her. It brought her comfort, even if she was whispering to nothing but the wind. “Please let him have an understanding heart, and a kind manner.” She thought a moment. “If I had to make a choice between the handsomeness and the kindness, I suppose I would prefer to have kindness, although a middling dose of both qualities would be best. And if it’s not too much to ask, I wish...perhaps...someday he might come to love me, if he’s the sort of duke who’s not too lofty to fall in love.”
“Am I in Wales, or am I in Paradise? An angel has flown into my wood.”
The deep voice drew her from her whispered prayers. Someone had discovered her secret meadow! Gwen turned to find the source of the voice, and nearly fell off her rock.
It was her handsome stranger, not twenty yards away.
The gorgeous man sat upon a stump, one leg crossed lazily over the other. He was older than her, but still fit and vital. His long, golden hair framed a starkly attractive face. Not a pretty face. He was no pretty man with those gold locks, but more like a Viking, with a strong jawline and prominent features. Just like a Viking, he was sun-bronzed and able-bodied. She could not remember knowing any man with such wide shoulders, or such a muscular chest. Despite his showy physique, he was dressed plainly in doeskins and a buff vest. He balanced a sketch book on his knee, and a smudge of charcoal sullied his cheek.
This Viking had called her an angel, which was perhaps not entirely proper of him. In fact, he gazed at her so intently her cheeks began to flush.
“You aren’t in Paradise,” she said. “You’re in Wales, a very pretty corner of it.”
“Indeed,” he replied.
He said only that one word, but the way he said it made her slide down from her rock and go for her stockings and boots. She knew she ought to leave without saying another word, but he was so appealing to look at, and his eyes seemed kind.
“Where have you come from?” she asked, which seemed a very safe and polite question to occupy him while she readied herself to go.
He made a gesture toward the north. “I’ve traveled down from Cheltenham.”
That explained his English accent. “Were you there to take the baths?”
“Yes, and then I continued in search of picturesque Welsh villages.” He held up his book. “I’m an artist, and what a lovely subject I’ve stumbled upon. Will you allow me to sketch you?”
She grimaced as she stuffed her feet into her too-small boots. “I’m sure you could find a better subject than me.” She picked up her bonnet, meaning to tuck her hair beneath it.
He leaned forward. “Don’t.”
The authority in his tone made her go still.
He smiled then, a rakish, disarming smile that was so beautiful. “I wish you wouldn’t hide your lovely face beneath that brim and run away from me. Please, let me sketch you. It will only take a short while.”
Goodness, the way he looked at her. Perhaps a handsome stranger will befriend me and fall deeply in love with me, and secret me to his hilltop castle. She wondered if this man had a hilltop castle. Why, he was so masculine and charming, she’d settle for a cabin in the woods.
Gwen decided she would let him sketch her even though it was not quite proper, because he was her handsome stranger and because she could amuse Tilda with the story later. And here, at last, was a man who seemed to find her appealing. She certainly admired his comely attributes. His steady gaze, his broad shoulders, his lips...
Guinevere Vaughn, you want him to kiss you.
Of course she would never let him, but there was something exciting about a man finally wanting to kiss her. Probably wanting to kiss her. Perhaps he only wished to draw her. He certainly made a fuss about seating her in the best light, and angling her chin just so, and arranging her hair so it fell over her shoulders in just the perfect way.
As he did this, she thrilled to his nearness and his uncommon size. He smelled wonderful, like soap and sandalwood, and his eyes were a beautiful deep blue. He met her gaze for a moment as he composed her hair. His regard was so intense that she looked away. She stared instead at his lips, pursed in concentration. My goodness, did all men have such attractive lips, or had she fallen under some spell? Perhaps he was the angel in this meadow, come down from heaven to tempt her chastity mere hours before she was to wed.
“Can you sit very still?” he asked. “And hold this pose for me?”
She wondered if he was a famous sort of artist. His clothes were common, but his sketch book looked exceedingly fine. She had heard of artists so obsessed with their craft that they cared nothing for manners or appearance, and went about looking almost as hermits, with dirty clothes and disheveled hair. Not that this man was dirty or disheveled. He was exactly the opposite, clean and attractive, and strong, and fine to look upon.
Gwen, you goose. You’re to meet your betrothed on the morrow. She couldn’t lose her head over this handsome stranger. He was not really going to fall in love with her, and he was not going to take her to his hilltop castle, as sweet as the fantasy was.
“How pretty you are,” he said, as his charcoal scratched over the paper. “You have remarkable eyes.”
“They are like my mother’s.”
“She must be a beautiful woman.”
“She is...beautiful.” Gwen had almost said she was dead, but then she thought, there is no need for truth here. If he was only traveling through the area, he couldn’t know she was Miss Guinevere Vaughn, daughter of a Welsh baron, especially with the way she was dressed. She could be a village girl who could be named anything, and who could have a beautiful mother who still lived. “What is your name?” she asked, partly because she wished to know the name of this handsomest of all men, and partly so she could make up a name of her own.
“I’m called Jack,” he said. “And you?”
“Rose,” she said proudly. She had always loved simple flower names, probably because she’d been named Guinevere, which was long and cumbersome.
“Ah, a fitting name for a lady in bloom. It’s very nice to meet you, Rose,” said the man. “Please sit still.”
Again, she heard that resonance of authority in his voice. She supposed he must be very serious about his art. She studied him as he went back to scritching and scratching at his book. He drew very confidently, as if it were easy for him to do it. It felt strange to be scrutinized so closely by someone—especially someone so blatantly virile. She tried not to blush and flutter when their eyes met.
“Have you a sweetheart, Rose?” he asked the next time he looked up from his book. “I imagine a pretty girl like you has many suitors. Or perhaps...” He paused in his sketching. “You are already wed to some fortunate fellow?”
“No,” she said, feeling embarrassed that she had neither suitor nor husband. Then she remembered, No need for truth. “I’m not yet wed, but I am being courted by a wonderful young man named...Thomas.” It was as good a name as any.
“Lucky chap. Will you be married soon?”
“I don’t know. Yes. Perhaps. We have become ever so fond of one another. We’re so much in love that I call him Tommy instead of Thomas.” She was painfully aware that she must sound like an idiot.
“And what does he call you?”
Gwen blinked. It was a consuming task to make up all these lies. “I... I would rather not say.”
“It must be something scandalous then. Precious, or darling, or honeycake.”
Honeycake? This talk of marriage and suitors was growing uncomfortable. His charcoal pencil had gone still on the page.
“Are you almost finished with your sketch?” she asked.
“For the most part.” He leaned back and examined his work. “Why don’t you come have a look?”
When she arrived in his vicinity, he pulled her right down on his lap. She knew she ought to protest, but he wasn’t being rude or rough. On the contrary, his arms encircled her very gently as he held the book before them. His cheek touched hers. He was so large, so warm.
She tried to concentrate on his sketch, which was quite impressive for the short amount of time he’d taken to draw it. It was mainly her face and shoulders, and breasts. Oh, she didn’t know why she should feel this sketch was all about her breasts, except that her nipples had gone alarmingly taut now that he was near. Was this how Tilda felt when Drustan held her? When Drustan kissed her?
“Do you like it?” Jack asked. His soft hair brushed against her cheek. “It’s only a quick study. I could draw you for hours and not capture all your bewitching charm.”
Such flattery, and his gaze was so intense. He must be falling in love with her, to look at her that way. She wished Tilda had come with her, because Tilda would have known how to flirt and play along with this man.
“Would you like to see some other things I’ve drawn?” he asked, as she gawked at him like a hooked fish.
“Yes, that would be lovely.”
He shifted her in his arms. Shifted her closer, she noted, as he flipped back through some of the pages. She did not know much about art, but she knew the drawings had some boldness that made them attractive to her. He’d sketched elegant horses and great city buildings, and a variety of persons, both ladies and gentlemen. In the middle of the book, he skipped past a few pages. Gwen thought she saw a flash of large, round breasts and naked legs, but she wasn’t sure.
“I’m especially proud of this.” He showed her a sketch that covered two pages, a detailed rendering of a huge manor and courtyard, and a fountain with water spraying from the middle. It brought to mind King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake.
“How beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never seen a real fountain. Not like that.”
“Haven’t you? Many grand houses and parks in England have them.” His arm eased closer about her waist. “They’re pretty to look at, aren’t they? Like you.”
She turned to him with a shy smile, and he chuckled.
“You’re blushing pink as a rose, Rose. How modest you are, for a wild meadow nymph.”
“Oh, I am not a nymph.”
She looked back at his drawings, trying—and failing—to ignore the subtle caress of his thumb beneath her breast. The blush in her cheeks seemed to be spreading to other parts of her body. “I can’t believe how talented you are,” she blathered, to fill the silence. “You made a lovely likeness of me in such a short time. Really, you are a commendable artist.”
“It’s easy to make art when one is inspired.” He shifted her on his lap, so she was turned more toward him, and then he tilted up her chin. “I suppose it is shocking to say, but I would like to kiss you.”
Goodness, he meant it. As much as she had craved to be kissed, she knew it wouldn’t be proper to allow it. “You shouldn’t, sir.”
“Why not?” Their lips were almost touching. His eyes were so blue. “Call me Jack, won’t you? We’re friends, you know, sitting here together in this pretty meadow on a sun-filled day. Why not have a little kiss? Especially when you’ve been flirting so shamelessly.”
She opened her mouth to protest this accusation, and that was the moment he took advantage, brushing his lips across hers. She went very still, shocked by the whispery warmth of contact. He made a low sound of encouragement and cupped her face before she could pull away.
Oh my. He was not just kissing her once, but many times. His lips tensed and molded to hers as his fingers wove into her hair. She’d dreamed of being kissed on countless occasions, but her dreams had never approached this heady reality. He grasped her face between his thumbs and flicked his tongue inside her mouth, at the corner and along her lip. After a moment of flailing, she tried to respond and kiss him back in the same sensual fashion. And she thought,take me away to your castle, dear sir. Thank you, flowers and trees. Thank you, heaven and earth, and Jack, for granting me this last adventure before my wedding to the duke.
He moved her again on his lap, setting her off balance so she was obliged to open her hands upon his chest. How hard he felt, how very solid. Her palms slid up to his shoulders as he deepened their kiss. She ought not to grope this stranger, and she certainly shouldn’t allow him to kiss her this way, but she couldn’t find the power to stop him. Every aspect of him compelled her, from his wild artist’s hair to his manly chest, to the firm, muscled thighs that supported her. He opened a hand over her breast, and she didn’t even think of telling him no. His thumb brushed across her nipple through the coarse wool of her dress, a teasing pleasure that resonated all the way down to the private place between her legs.
She should tell him not to do such a thing. She knew it was wicked, but it felt so good. He whispered something to her, some endearment, but all she could think was how excited and full her middle felt. She gave a needful little sigh, her lips trembling against his. His hand traveled down and molded around her bottom, caressing and squeezing as boldly as she’d squeezed his shoulders. She pushed back from him.
“Please, sir,” she said. “You should not.”
He was handsome, yes, and maybe falling in love with her, but the castle was a fantasy. Too soon, she would have to leave this meadow, and return home to prepare for her wedding to the Duke of Arlington.
Jack released her, though he did not put her off his lap. His gaze burned hot as ever as he took her hand. “I apologize if I offended you. I forgot myself for a moment.”
“So did I. It’s this meadow, I suppose, and the fact that you are...” She ducked her head, touching her lips. “That you are very handsome.”
“Ah, Rose. There you go, flirting with me again. What a naughty girl you are, when you have a young man named Tommy in love with you. How unfaithful you’ve been.”
She looked up sharply. “No, sir. Not unfaithful.” She stared over his shoulder, thinking how to keep up the fiction and still explain how she’d lost herself in his arms. “I... I know I said he was my fellow, but the truth is... Tommy and I are only...mostly...friends.”
Jack gave a gentle tsk. “Then you lied to me about having a beau. If you were my lady, I believe I’d spank you for such behavior.”
It was impossible to tell if he was joking, or serious, or bemused, or actually, truly disappointed in her. “You wouldn’t really?” she said. “You wouldn’t spank a grown woman?”
“I have and I would. Some naughty misses require an occasional bottom-reddening to keep them in line. Nothing vicious, you understand. Just enough sting to make them feel remorseful for their misdeeds.”
He moved his hand over her knee, the movement animating the muscles in his chest. A spanking? Rose, the village girl, felt her breath come faster with a squalid sort of excitement. Gwen, on the other hand, was scandalized. “I can hardly...believe...”
“Don’t men spank their women in Wales, then?” he asked in surprise. “Have you never been spanked, Rose?”
She shook her head quickly. “No, never. Not since I was a child.”
He tightened his hands on her waist and pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of her lips. “Do you wonder what it would feel like if I spanked you?”
Yes. No. God save me. “I suppose... Well. I wonder if I ought to go check on my horse.”
“Your horse is perfectly well.” He gazed at her in that authoritative manner that made her stomach flutter. “Shall I give your bottom a smack or two, since you’ve been naughty? Then you would know what it feels like, and head home to your Tommy duly punished, with an unburdened conscience.”
Gwen couldn’t imagine why she didn’t run off at that point, except that his eyes and his lips held her with some invisible pull. She felt captured in a spell, so that when he lifted her and rearranged her across his lap, she didn’t protest or even struggle.
“There we are,” he said, as if this were some normal interaction, as if he was merely posing her for art. “I’m sure you’re the type to take a spanking very bravely, with nary a complaint.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said with an edge of panic.
He turned up her skirts in the same casual fashion, leaving her shift down to cover her bottom. A small mercy for a foolish girl who had definitely let things go too far. “Please, sir, I’m sure this isn’t proper.”
“You’re probably right,” he agreed, stroking his palm over her shift. She wondered how his touch would feel against her bare skin. No. You mustn’t wonder such things, Guinevere. You ought to break from him and run away home.
He began to spank her before she could find the needed words to protest further. The impact startled her, and she squirmed beneath the powerful sting of his palm. How shocking, that he would handle her with such familiarity. How shocking, that the painful spanks made her feel rather...stimulated. She gasped when she realized this. What sort of woman was she, to become aroused at this treatment?
What sort of man was he, to do this to her in the first place?
He had said “a smack or two” but he spanked her six times, firm, resonating blows atop her linen shift. “Well,” she said as he raised his hand for yet another. “I believe I know what it feels like now.” Even if I don’t understand my reaction.
When she tried to get up, he stopped her with a hand pressed to her back. “Do you feel punished enough?”
She looked up and made a conflicted sound of entreaty. She dared not speak the truth to him, and admit that she had never felt so excited and agitated in her life.
“If you don’t feel entirely expiated, perhaps a bare-bottomed spanking is in order after all.” He brushed up her shift, and she did nothing to impede him. “That is the most effective way to get a message across.”
What message was she getting across to him? That she was a wanton village girl who enjoyed this sort of dalliance? From the start, she had realized this was an exercise in seduction, not discipline, and yet she had let him do as he willed. Now he was spanking her steadily, warming her bare, naked cheeks all over. She looked up at him over her shoulder, her emotions in a tangle of confusion. He finally left off and rested his palm beneath the curve of her bottom. “Do you feel punished now?” he asked again.
“Oh, yes, sir. Please, no more.”
He gave a soft chuckle, a raw, enticing sound. As he held her gaze, he slid his palm lower, and used his fingers to part the folds of her quim.
And that went far past any dalliance she could allow.
She jerked and reached back to stay his caresses. “Oh, no. You mustn’t. I’m a good girl, sir.”
He stopped at once, as if he had never meant to do it in the first place. She counted herself fortunate, for she had played a dangerous game.
“Now you’re a good girl,” he teased, helping her up. “Now that you’ve learned not to flirt with strange men in hidden meadows.”
“Yes, sir.” Once she’d straightened her skirts, she bobbed a clumsy curtsy. She was sure her cheeks must be as red and hot as her spanked bottom. “I suppose I really ought to...to be getting back to the village.”
“To see Tommy, I suppose.”
“Yes, and to do my work. I’m not allowed much leisure time.”
“None of us are, my dear. Life is a busy business. But I was happy to make your acquaintance this fine afternoon. I don’t suppose you’ll give me one last kiss?”
She took a step back, and another. “I don’t think that would be wise. I must bid you goodbye.”
She was afraid to look at him, afraid of her weakness, afraid of what he might see. But Gwen forced herself to meet his gaze anyway, because she knew with absolute certainty that she would never see him again. She was getting married in a couple of days to some duke she didn’t know, and that duke was going to take her away to England. Jack would have his sketch of her as a memory, if he even cared. It seemed to her now that he might not. It seemed to her now that he was a commonplace rogue, the type of rogue who might have kissed a thousand women, and pretended they needed spankings.
Gwen felt embarrassed and terribly ashamed, but she forced herself to smile for Jack because he’d given her her first kiss, and done a commendable job of it. He’d made her feel soft and warm and...womanly. It had been good, and bad, and confusing, and really, very embarrassing and sad. All in all, a complicated memory to keep, and she didn’t even have a sketch to remember him by.
She brushed a hand over her skirts to be sure they were modestly arranged, and then turned and hurried to mount her old horse. The last view of her precious meadow was hazy and unfocused because of her rising tears.
You ought to cry , she chided herself. You behaved like an utter strumpet. But she was really crying because she felt silly and used, and because it was so hard to say goodbye.
Chapter Two: First Impressions
Aidan proceeded from the village inn to Lisburne Manor in full ducal splendor, ensconced in his best traveling coach. Not that he’d traveled here in that traveling coach. He’d come from Oxfordshire by horseback, and directed the coaches, baggage carts, and servants to trail behind for his new duchess to utilize afterward, on the journey home. He’d brought a newly hired French maid to attend her, and his favorite valet, of course. He employed four valets altogether, to manage his vast wardrobe and state uniforms, and coronets, and jewels, and all the other nonsense he had to drape himself in because he’d been born the first son of a duke.
Now he would marry this Guinevere and make children on her, and his firstborn son would be a future duke, with an abundance of wealth and property and social connections and duty and headaches to look forward to. What was the point of any of it, except to uphold tradition? He’d been bred to tradition from the cradle. Honor, title, legacy. As soon as things settled down, Aidan would hire an artist to paint their portrait in rich and formal tones: The Eleventh Duke and Duchess of Arlington.
Because as much as he resisted the idea of marriage, he had always looked forward to joining the parade of ancestors in the East Salon, had even practiced regal poses in a mirror, when he was not observed, of course. Taking a wife was a damned nuisance, but somewhere inside, he also craved the civilized dignity of a state marriage and family.
To that end, he had kept himself respectable, waiting for the king to recommend the most appropriate and advantageous match. At social functions, he’d often pondered which high-born daughters might suit him best as a wife. The pool of candidates, in his mind, had been small and exclusive. He and Lady Aurelia might have made an excellent pair, if she had not been promised as an infant to his friend the Marquess of Townsend. Other prospects: Lady Caroline, who was well-bred and refined, and intelligent Lady Hester, upon whom he lavished attention whenever they crossed paths. Lady Frances and Lady Arabella were both dukes’ daughters, and either young lady would have made him a suitable bride.
He sighed, gazing out the window as the dark, squat Lisburne homestead rose into view. His actual bride was not an English aristocrat, or even a titled lady. She was a plain old Miss, being daughter to a common-born baron who was also, unfortunately, Welsh. Aidan tried to think of positives. She would doubtless be heathenish, if not an outright hellion. Plenty of opportunity to discipline her, a pastime he very much enjoyed. Furthermore, he imagined she would be of hardy, peasant-like stock. She’d breed well, birth lots of strong children, and bring new vigor to the Arlington line. Best of all, she would be grateful to wed him, being naturally in awe of him as a much more distinguished person.
And he must act like a distinguished person, now that he was marrying. No more dalliances with ebony-haired village girls in quiet meadows. When it came to carnal pleasures, he preferred a skilled courtesan, but there had been something so tempting about that young woman yesterday afternoon. He’d wanted her from the moment she’d drifted into the clearing and taken off her bonnet, and shaken her black hair down her back like some wild fairy queen.
Rose, his fairy queen. He thought of her this morning while his valet shaved him and dressed him in a deep bronze coat with gold embroidery, and tied his cravat just so, until Aidan could barely move his neck. It might have been a noose, the perfect metaphor for marriage. He stuck a finger inside the linen knot but then lowered his hand without loosening it.
Instead he drew on his gloves and checked to be sure his long, thick hair was tamed into its queue at the back of his neck. He often wore it down about his shoulders, his one foible of hedonism in his otherwise dutiful world.
But not today. First impressions were everything, whether one was greeting a scion of English society, or a lowborn Welsh bride.
* * * * *
Gwen almost tripped on her way downstairs to gather with the rest of her family. That would have wreaked havoc on everyone’s agendas, having the pawn, er, bride break her neck in a fall. She stepped more carefully after that, and tried to pull her scattered thoughts together.
She’d wanted one last adventure before the bonds of marriage closed in on her, and she had gotten one. Jack: artist, Viking, traveling Englishman. Flirt. Scoundrel. He had smiled at her and drawn her close, and awakened a new awareness within her, a yearning and need she recognized as desire.
It frightened her, the lingering strength of that desire. She was passionate about many things: horses, birds, weather, gardening, most things to do with nature, but she had not realized her own earthy nature until her handsome stranger had taken her in his arms. He’d elicited powerful responses in her body, tightenings and dampness and urges that made her cry into her pillow when her maid finally left her alone. He’d overcome her reason, at the same time appealing to her basest instincts. She had let him spank her, and it had only made her eager for more...
You’ll have nothing more , she scolded herself. The Duke of Arlington was on his way to meet her, and dine with her family and some other local gentry. She could barely breathe in the fitted constriction of her formal blue gown, and her scalp ached because her hair was so tightly braided and pinned against her head. Her lady’s maid had brushed it nearly an hour to achieve the requisite shine, then placed a slim gold coronet on top which had been her mother’s. Her father had brought her mama’s diamond-drop necklace too, although Gwen’s wrists and fingers were bare.
There was a great sense of trying to impress this duke, when they did not have the necessary affluence to do so. They’d scrimped and saved for this dinner for weeks now. The gown she wore had been procured along with four others when the marriage contract had been finalized. Shoes, gloves, fans, hats had been ordered which they could not afford. Gwen possessed these things already, in reasonable variety, but her Aunt Meredith had insisted they were not fine enough, and would humiliate them before the duke.
Because of this, Gwen had come to despise her future husband before she even met him, as she noticed her father drinking less wine, selling off horses, and quietly letting go a few servants in order to buy things fine enough to impress this kingly envoy, who would only grace their presence for a couple of days. The gown she wore this evening was the finest thing she’d ever owned, aside from her ivory and silver wedding gown, which hung upstairs for tomorrow’s ceremony. Even with the effort and sacrifice, Gwen feared the duke would look upon them and sneer.
So she waited with great trepidation beside her father and her brothers and their wives, all of them dressed in unaccustomed finery. The duke’s gilded, crested coach came gleaming down the rutted pathway to the courtyard. It was drawn by a team of four, all of them midnight black, in the same crested livery. She heard her brothers murmuring about fancy horseflesh and heard a few titters from her sisters-in-law.
Gwen stood rigid, hands clasped at her waist, wondering if she ought to smile or look serious, or run away screaming the way she wanted to. Her father would get money and land from this match, and a tenuous link to the monarchy. The duke too would be gifted lands in Wales, for future sons or daughters to inherit. This had all been explained to Gwen, that this fine and laudable match was important because it would secure the future of the Lisburne dynasty. So running away screaming was not an option, as much as she wished it were.
The carriage came to a stop, and a set of grooms jumped down in their gilded uniforms to let down the gilded stairs and open the gilded door. When the duke emerged in his gold-embroidered coat and breeches, she thought, my word, he is gilded too. The man was uncommonly tall, with formal buckled shoes and a gleaming black hat, and a gold-tipped cane. She noted these first details quickly, that he did not appear old or stooped, or fat about the belly. Finally, she summoned the courage to look at his face.
The handsome stranger of the meadow—the artist and rogue—stared back at her.
Gwen felt a flailing sense of disequilibrium. They could not be the same man. They were not dressed the same. They did not have the same hair, or clothes, or the same manner. She would not have believed they were the same man if she had not noted the shocked recognition in his gaze. He quickly shuttered his expression to one of polite hauteur.
“Lord Lisburne, I presume,” he said to her father. The men shook hands and exchanged formal greetings. All Gwen heard was the rush of panic in her ears. Were they to pretend not to know one another, then? Because this man—this duke!—had flirted with her, and kissed her, and handled her in a most inappropriate fashion. And she had let him, because he was charming and beautiful, and because she knew she must be married to some stodgy old aristocrat soon.
She could barely raise her face when he approached. His Viking hair was tied back, which granted him a more dignified appearance. She saw a muscle twitch in his jaw as her father led him over.
“I’m honored to introduce my daughter, Miss Guinevere Vaughn.”
“Miss Vaughn.” The duke bowed over her hand. “How pleased I am to make your acquaintance.”
He looked up and his eyes bored into hers. He was so close she could smell the scent of his shaving soap and starched linen, but all she could think of was the meadow, the smell of the flowers, and the lake, and his lips upon hers. She lowered her gaze and sank into a curtsy. Please, oh, please don’t say anything. Humiliation made her flush with agonizing heat.
She prayed everyone would think it nervousness, or shyness. Must he stare at her so? He was every bit as guilty as she. He was the one who had asked to sketch her, and then pulled her into his lap in that carelessly flirtatious manner. Oh yes, she was aware what sort of man he was, and he knew it.
But he knew her secrets too.