London, England—June 1819
The silken curtains around the bed fluttered from the summer breeze that blew through the open windows
of the duke’s bedchamber on number 31 St. James Square. Candlelight flickered across the room, a place she had only passed by while living here with him, peeking inside, won- dering at the depths of his private chambers. The light of the candles made wavy shadows against the creamy paneled walls and Alexandria, the new Duchess of St. Easton, tried to ignore Clarissa’s incessant chatter as the maid helped her out of layer after layer of her wedding costume.
Alex tried to look anywhere but at the bed, and yet she couldn’t tear her gaze from it—the royal blue counterpane trimmed in gold, the massive four posts of carved wood draped with dark curtains, the piles of pillows. She swallowed against the knot in her throat and turned, lifting her arms and follow- ing the nudges of the maid.
“Great heavens, Your Grace, sit down before you faint. You’re as white as a ghost, you are.”
Alex obeyed, relieved to sit and rest her wobbly knees. She stared in the mirror at her reflection and watched as Clarissa took out the spiderweb-thin, diamond tiara from her hair, which Gabriel’s mother had given her as a wedding gift, and brushed out Alex’s long, dark hair. A suspended feeling of dread and terror surrounded her.
He would come in at any moment.
He would come in and find out about everything.
The fact that she wasn’t exactly sure what it was he would find didn’t help at all.
Clarissa clucked and shook her head as she plucked at the delicate chemise, her last article of clothing. “I don’t know why they let a bride wear white on a night like this. It only makes it worse if there’s any bleeding. Saints a mercy, somebody should think of dark bedding and clothing on a night like this.”
“Blood?” Alex whipped her face around toward Clarrisa’s animated frown. “Does one always bleed?”
Clarissa patted her shoulder with a reassuring smile. “Only the first time, Your Grace, and some girls don’t bleed much even then. Don’t you be frettin’ now. I shouldn’t have said anything seein’ how nervous you are, but since I did,” she shook her head in an ominous way, “just know some bleedin’ is normal. It won’t last long.”
Had she bled before? With John that night in Iceland when he had, well, might have violated her body while she was drugged from the cup of tea he had given her? Just thinking back to the details of that night made her stomach fold inside itself and a wave of nausea flooded her throat. Alex closed her eyes and tried to remember as she had so many times since that fateful evening. She didn’t remember any blood. Not on the bed or on her clothing, but she’d been so shocked, so hurt and confused that she hadn’t really looked either. There may have been a little and she just hadn’t seen it.
Father in heaven, help me get through this!
The sound of the door opening made her start. She turned, saw him—saw his beautiful, fierce, and beloved face—which made her heart hammer like the pounding of a horse at full gal- lop. Clarissa bowed, quiet for once, and crept away. Alex stood but took a step back until the backs of her knees pressed against the bench at the dressing table. She tried for a wobbly smile and failed.
Gabriel Ravenwood, the Duke of St. Easton, and now her husband, stepped out from the shadows of the room and walked toward her. Instinctively Alex reared back, her gaze locked with his. Gabriel continued toward her and when close enough gave her that smile that always made her knees turn to mush. One side of his mouth quirked up a little higher than the other, as if he knew his effect on her, his eyes intense with depths of emerald green. His steps held the stealthy grace of the animal people often compared him to—the panther. Dark, lethal, green-eyed enchantment.
She held her breath. Excitement and terror warred within her as he came right up to her and stopped, so close she could see the dark, shadowy beard that had grown across his face over the course of the day and the thick, black eyelashes that were almost too pretty on a man.
“You’re not frightened, are you?” His hand came up to lift her chin so she had to look into his eyes for him to see the truth or lie in her answer.
“No.” A bad lie, but she hoped he hadn’t been able to hear the squeak in her voice.
His hand moved from her chin to trace along the curve of her jaw with a mere brush of his fingertips. “I like your hair this way,” he murmured, taking another step closer, his fingers coursing through her hair, the weight of his hand making her head fall back, her throat exposed. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are, Alexandria?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head, turning away. How could she be beautiful after what John had done to her? And not telling Gabriel before they married that she was quite possibly not a virgin? There wasn’t anything beautiful about that.
But he didn’t know all of that yet. She stood beneath his exploring fingertips on her face, trembling like a leaf about to give way and drop to the ground. With one forefinger he traced the arcs of her eyebrows, her cheeks, and then the curve of her mouth. She opened her lips to let out the rush of breath. Her head fell back in submission to his touch as his lips finally came down on hers.
Her arms crept up to wrap around his wide shoulders. Love for him, an intermingling of welling emotions, rose to her throat in an aching pulse, pushing aside her dread and fear. She wanted to laugh and weep at the same time, but mostly she wanted to give him everything, all of her.
She was finally his.
Gabriel immersed himself in the feel of her—her petal- soft skin, her quivering lips, her lashes against his face. With his hearing gone, he reached internally for her reactions, reading vibrations from her throat and the thudding of her heart pressed against his chest. She didn’t seem afraid now, not like when he’d walked into the room and seen her pale face. No, now she seemed pliant and eager to be in his arms.
When the back of her legs came up against the feather mattress, he leaned over her, kissing her more deeply, bending her back toward the blue counterpane, the heavy folds of the
bed curtains creating a secret space of flickering twilight. She blinked, opened her eyes as he lifted her and laid her on the blue silken surface. Standing, he saw the questions return to her eyes.
He said nothing. There was no need for words with Alexandria much of the time. They communicated with a look, a touch, their own special body language of signs and signals and long-locked gazes. It had started with letters . . . and become so much more.
Dear God, I love her.
She scrambled underneath the counterpane and he blew out the bedside candle, flooding the room with darkness. He slid in beside her. “Come here, Alexandria.”
Without sound and now little sight, the feel of her in his arms roared through him, making her seem soul-deep close to him. Fragile . . . sweet, delicate, woman . . . wife. His hands roamed over her body, branding her and making her his in truth. She tensed and, he thought, cried out, whimpering against his shoulder. He held her close, running his hand over her hair and murmuring words of comfort. He hoped the worst was over.
Afterward, he pulled her back against his stomach and sighed deeply into her hair. Within moments, a deep lethargy took over and he fell asleep.