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You Only Marry Once
by Gayle Callen
Book 1 of "Secrets and Vows"
Lady Elizabeth Stanwood never thought she’d be foolish enough to be alone with a man. But after a midnight rendezvous in a garden with John Malory, she finds herself compromised and forced to marry. She cannot forget her fears that he schemed to acquire her dowry, planning to take her far from London and all she knows.
John was looking for a wife to work at his side, not a London beauty, but he’s an honorable man who’d never let a woman suffer for what they’d done together. Though her distrust is infuriating, as they travel north encountering the dangers of the road, he begins to see beneath her aristocratic mask to the woman who fears she cannot live up to being his wife. They want to change for each other, but can love overcome their misconceptions?
Note: This book was previously published as a novella in the anthology Hot and Bothered. This edition has been expanded and enhanced with photos, audio, and author notes.
"A delightful story with engaging characters. For an enjoyable read, don't miss You Only Marry Once."
"A tempting historical from Gayle Callen."
“Whom shall I flirt with?” Lady Elizabeth Stanwood murmured to herself, as she stood on tiptoes and searched the large, gilt-ceilinged room, crowded with dancing couples. She was through waiting for the eligible Lord Wyndham to ask for her hand in marriage—she was one and twenty, and it was time to do something to make it happen.
She had tried everything else: saving him the first dance at every ball, catching his eye and giving him a secret smile, showing animated interest whenever he talked about dogs. After all, she liked dogs, too. Didn’t he see they might have other things in common? She was heartened that he visited her regularly, brought her little gifts, showed an interest in gaining her father’s favor, all actions that indicated an imminent proposal. But it had yet to happen.
So Elizabeth was taking the desperate measure of finding a man to make his lordship jealous. She wasn’t certain whom she was looking for; an acquaintance would surely play along with her scheme, but a stranger might make the evening all the more interesting for her and unnerving for Lord Wyndham.
She caught a glimpse of Sir Ralph Cobham and quickly looked away. She had had to repeatedly dissuade him from asking her father for her hand in marriage. There was an underhandedness about the man that made her dislike him, so she certainly couldn’t use him to make Lord Wyndham jealous.
Then she saw a newcomer step into the room, and her eyes narrowed as she examined him. He was tall, taller than most of the men in attendance, with a breadth of shoulders which needed no padding. His clothing was years out of fashion, only a simple short tunic, belted at the waist, with a cloak thrown back over those impressive shoulders—as if it was not the hottest summer of her memory. His legs were thick and sturdy under his plain hose, and he wore a flat cap over close-cropped brown hair. His strong-jawed face was unshaven, appearing stark amidst the hall’s plenitude of curled beards.
Though woefully out of place, he didn’t appear ill at ease. Could he be someone’s idea of entertainment, a jest to enliven the party? She frowned on such arrogance by the aristocracy, but it had been known to happen.
Whatever he was, the man was perfect for Elizabeth’s plan. She gulped the last of her wine, then smiled as she slowly made her way through the crowd, dropping small, perfect curtsies to the noblemen, dipping her head modestly to the ladies, but all the while keeping her gaze on the newcomer.
It wasn’t long before he saw her. He glanced away, then his gaze returned to her with satisfying swiftness. She allowed her smile to deepen, to grow mysterious in that way that her suitors had long admired. As his gaze dropped down her body, she took a deep breath, amused when he seemed in a hurry to return to her face. Was he embarrassed to be caught ogling her? How unusual.
No one came up to greet the stranger; he stood alone, at ease, glancing about him with interest. It was as if he were put directly in Elizabeth’s path for her purposes.
She walked ever nearer, aware of the faintest thrill as his height towered ever higher above her, making her feel delicate and feminine. Surely it was her over-indulgence of wine that was inspiring her imagination.
When she finally stopped before him, the stranger’s eyes widened for a moment.
“Good evening, my lord,” she murmured, and when he didn’t deny the noble title, she relaxed ever so slightly. He was of the aristocracy, guaranteeing that Lord Wyndham would be threatened by his attention to her.
“My lady,” he responded.
His deep, gruff voice sent a shiver through her; she had always loved the rich tones of a man’s voice.
Once again his appreciative gaze dropped to her amply-revealed bosom, and she surprised herself by blushing, surely due to the warmth in the great hall. When was the last time a man’s attention had made her blush? Oh, she’d been an eligible maiden for too long.
She suddenly remembered Lord Wyndham, and turned to see if he had noticed her. But he was deep in conversation with their host, the Marquess of Worcester. Elizabeth frowned.
“Are you waiting for someone, my lady?” the man asked softly.
“Nay.” She glanced back up as he leaned toward her. She felt the faintest touch of his breath on her cheek, and it was strangely pleasant. He was close enough now for her to smell the outdoors about him, to feel the heat of his presence. For a moment, she was slightly overwhelmed.
But no, he was only a man, with ordinary brown hair and ordinary brown eyes. Never had a man been born who could resist her charms. It was time to attract Lord Wyndham’s notice.
“My lord,” she began softly, “the dancing is about to begin. Would you partner with me?”
“Regretfully no, my lady,” he said. “I do not dance—at least not this sort of dancing.”
“What other kind is there?”
“The country dances of my home,” he answered, “but they are performed much…closer together.”
His voice had dropped, become almost husky. This time she noticed a faint accent. She thought she should ask him where he came from, but once again his gaze drifted down her body, and she had the uncanny feeling that her skin heated wherever his gaze touched.
“Perhaps some day you can show me these dances,” she found herself saying with a sudden breathlessness.
What was wrong with her? He was only a simple man from the country. She mustn’t care that his presence loomed large and rugged before her. She had to remind herself of her purpose. She glanced once more at Lord Wyndham, who finally sent her the smallest frown.
Elizabeth smiled up at the stranger. “Would you care to accompany me to the refreshment table? The wine this evening is excellent.”
She waited for him to hold his arm out to her, and when he didn’t, she wet her lips and bravely slid her arm through his, feeling deliciously warmed by the heat of his body. She was suddenly very glad her parents were not in attendance this evening, and that it had been so easy to distract her youngest brother Nicholas by urging him to flirt with a woman new to court.
Now she felt Lord Wyndham—and others—watching her. She had not done anything truly scandalous, just enough to make her feel an unusual thrill of excitement. Soon, she and the stranger both held goblets of wine, and they studied each other as they drank.
John Malory was doing his best to conceal his surprise. He’d never been to London, though he’d been told the nobility here lived a different kind of life than he did in the north. He was used to women waiting for his attention, the deference they always felt was due him. Perhaps they’d even felt a sort of fear. He’d grown larger than his parents, larger than his brother, and it bothered him that he intimidated so many. So he’d come to London to make a fresh start at finding a wife.
Oh, he had doubts that this comely woman before him had marriage on her mind. He was just the newest face, the newest amusement. But if this was how London women greeted strangers, he would be going to more parties.
She was not the kind of woman he was seeking, with her rare beauty of which she seemed very aware. Her wheat blonde hair hung in maidenly curls down her back, tumbling over her shoulders past her impressive breasts. Jewels clung to her hair, shimmering with candlelight when she but inclined her head. Her breasts were full and round, and he imagined their heavy weight would fill his hands with pleasure. She obviously wanted them looked at, because she showed much of them so readily.
But it was her secretive green eyes which held him enthralled. There was mischief in her gaze, leaving him feeling pleasantly off-guard. He might enjoy these strange London flirting customs.
He watched her mouth as she sipped the wine, let his glance linger on the curve of her throat as she swallowed. Her skin would be so soft to touch. She was a pretty thing, and he was certain some man would find her perfect as a wife.
But not him.
He gave another regretful glance at her breasts. Ah, he could think of other things he’d like to do with her. Then he chastised himself for such base thoughts.
She leaned closer to smile up at him, and he felt the first heady taste of forbidden passion.
She was dangerous, this one, and he should move on to women more suitable to be his wife. But still he stood at her side, looked his fill, and imagined her warming his bed. He was suddenly glad for the tunic which fell to his thighs and hid how she aroused him.
“How is it that I have never seen you before, my lord?”
“I am new to London, my lady.”
“New? In all of your life, you have never been here before?”
She seemed shocked and disbelieving at such a notion, and he hid a smile.
“ ’Tis at least five days’ journey from my home, my lady. I have not found it necessary to travel to London before now.”
He waited for her to ask why, imagined scaring her away by telling of his quest. But again she looked past him at someone else.
He felt a sudden stab of unease—surely it was not jealousy. He hardly expected his simple conversation to hold the attention of a sophisticated woman whose name he didn’t even know.
But this evening it seemed important to prove to himself that he hadn’t made a mistake by coming to London. He smiled at her, and was rewarded by her full attention again. In fact, she seemed to be looking him over as much as he was looking at her.
He took her free hand in his, and when she stiffened, he rubbed his thumb over her knuckles.
The woman stared at their joined hands, then raised her wide, luminous eyes to his. He felt his breath catch in his throat and heard the most ridiculous words leave his mouth.
“This room has become overly warm, my lady. There is a full moon tonight—perhaps we could look upon it together?” He laid her trembling hand upon his chest over his racing heart.
John kept expecting her to pull away, to alert everyone with her screaming. But she only stared at her hand where it touched him and nodded.
“There is a door to the garden near here,” she said in a soft but clear voice. Then she linked her fingers with his to lead him away.
Elizabeth felt excited and warm—and terrified. Could she have consumed too much wine? She had never done anything so wild, and though somewhere in her mind she heard the word, “No!” she was powerless to listen. The need to make Lord Wyndham jealous was fast fading beneath the heated passion in this stranger’s eyes.
She pushed open the tall, lead-paned doors leading to the garden and drew the man out with her. Immediately it was like breathing in hot, wet steam. The heat of the day had not dissipated; it clung in wet droplets to the foliage and rose like a mist from the hot ground. The moon illuminated overgrown paths where stone benches peered out as if from secret hideaways.
Elizabeth let go of the stranger’s hand, keeping her back to him. Perspiration broke out on her face and chest, and she felt the strangest need to pluck her garments away from her skin.
Suddenly, he rested his hands on her shoulders. She froze, feeling his nearness at her back and the hot heaviness of his large, rough hands, half-afraid and half-excited to find out what he meant to do.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked softly.
“But you said—”
“I could teach you my dancing.”
Surely it was his voice weaving this strange languorous spell through her. “You may,” she whispered.
“I have your permission, do I?”
Was he laughing at her? She turned around and looked up into his face, shadowed by the night. He wasn’t smiling as he slipped an arm around her waist. She gasped as he brought her up against his well-muscled body, then began to turn her about the stone terrace, faster and faster.
The earth tilted away from her as he put his arm beneath her knees and swung her up into the air. With a little cry, she flung her arms around his neck. She was breathing hard, surely from fear, and he was breathing just as heavily.
“Put me down, my lord,” she commanded, but it sounded weak even to herself.
He grinned and dropped her legs, letting her slide down the length of his body. And then she felt what a man’s codpiece normally kept hidden.
For an astonished moment, Elizabeth hung suspended against him, her toes only brushing the ground, feeling a strange, tense heat blossom low in her belly. She didn’t know where to look, what to do, until finally she raised her gaze to his.
Shadows etched his face, his cheekbones high and sharp. His eyes stared at her with a passionate heat that made her forget any other sensation but this. And then she was looking at his mouth.
Suddenly, he lifted her higher and touched his lips to hers. The sweet shock of it sent a shudder through her. She’d never been kissed, had never wanted to allow a man to do such a thing to her before marriage.
But it felt wonderful. His lips were expressive, gentle, so soft as they moved against hers. She kissed him back, barely noticing that he was carrying her deeper into the garden, away from the lights of the house. He sat down on a bench with her in his lap, and she caressed his shoulders, his strong neck.
He threaded his hands through her hair then cupped her face in warmth. He tilted his head, his kisses growing more insistent, his mouth opening against hers. She didn’t understand what he wanted until his tongue rasped along her lips. She was startled as an arrow of heat lanced through her, and with a soft moan, she opened her mouth. His tongue invaded, met with hers, and danced until she tentatively responded. The party, her problems, everything retreated except for the moist heat of him. When her tongue finally entered his mouth, he groaned and clutched her tighter to him, pressing her aching breasts to his chest.
Every part of her felt alive and needy and so sensitive to his touch. He moved his hands down her back, rubbing, caressing. He pressed kisses along her cheek, blew softly in her ear until she shivered. She tilted her head back as he nuzzled at her neck and licked along her collar bone. Her fluttering hands touched his shoulders, then flattened along his chest, until he surprised her by shuddering.
When she pulled away, he groaned against her neck. “Nay, please touch me,” he whispered.
She gladly gave in to her curiosity and explored his hard, muscular chest as he pressed his mouth ever nearer to her breasts. That inspired a single moment of clarity where she knew she should stop him.
But then he licked between her breasts, and she had to bite her lip to keep from crying out at the pleasure of it. He suddenly lifted her until she was straddling him, and although her skirts were bunched between them, he cupped her buttocks and pulled her hard toward his hips. The pressure there, between her legs, felt like nothing she’d ever imagined—hot and throbbing and so forbidden. For a wild moment, she wished there were no garments between them.
Smoothing his hands down over her shoulders, he slid his fingers beneath her neckline. She held his head to her, her breath coming in panting gasps as she watched what he did to her. With only a twist of his hands, her breasts spilled free.
Neither of them moved for an endless moment. Before she could feel embarrassed, he cupped her breasts in his hands and looked into her face.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered hoarsely.
When he rubbed his thumbs across her nipples, she gasped and clung to his shoulders. He watched her face while he caressed her, and she couldn’t look away from him. Every movement of his fingers sent a pulse of desire through her, and it all seemed to be centered between her legs.
Then he bent his head and took her breast in his mouth, and the endless possibilities of passion stretched out before her. He moved back and forth between her breasts; every tug of his mouth made the pressure and wanting build up inside her. She didn’t know what she wanted, only that he never stop making her feel this alive.
She felt his hands beneath her skirts, sliding up her legs, caressing her skin. How much longer could she bear this wanting, this needing? With a groan, she pressed her hips harder to his. His thumbs formed little circles on the inside of her thighs. She suddenly felt a rush of warm air, and realized he’d pressed her skirts back. She was truly naked to him now, except for her gown bunched at her waist. But the thought only aroused her as she pressed her breasts against his mouth, and let his hands explore her.
And then he touched her in a most private place, where she’d never imagined a man wanting to touch.
And it was paradise.
He frantically kissed her mouth, her breasts, but his fingers moved at such a slow, taunting pace she wanted to urge him faster. She was mindless with the new and overwhelming sensations. So this was why men and women were drawn together; this was why they risked their very reputations to—
The male voice whispering her name from far away brought her first sense of unease.
“Please, my lord,” she began breathlessly, then groaned. She was actually wet down there, and she tried to tighten her thighs in embarrassment. His fingers started circling on her flesh, finding a new, secret place that made every part of her body shake.
But her unease was growing, and she looked around, but saw no one. From farther away, she heard her name called again. She knew she had to stop this before the worst happened, and she was compromised. What could she have hoped to accomplish with this insane plan?
“My lord, you must stop!” her voice was louder now, stronger. She caught his hands and pulled them away from her, while scooting back toward his knees. Her body was bereft, aching with the need for something now out of reach, something only he knew how to give her, and she quickly got to her feet, her skirts spilling down around her. Between her thighs, she felt swollen, aching.
He tilted his head back, and in the moonlight he looked severe with pain. Did he feel it too, even though she hadn’t touched him as he’d done to her?
“You’re right,” he murmured hoarsely.
His voice was enough to make her want to collapse against him in surrender.
“We shouldn’t have come out here,” he continued. “I shouldn’t have—”
He broke off as he looked at her again. Elizabeth realized her breasts were still bared, white in the moonlight, and she quickly tucked them back into her bodice, suffused by a hot feeling of shame. She desperately wished she could pull the neckline higher, but her attempts only made him wince.
“Tell me your name,” he whispered. “Let me come to visit you.”
“Oh, no, you mustn’t! There’s a man—”
“You’re married!” he said, too loudly.
“Shh!” She looked back over her shoulder, and her panic only increased at how foolish it was to be out here alone with a man. And now she knew the reason why. She would be lucky if it was only her brother who found them. “Nay, I’m not married, but I never should have done this. There’s a man inside who wants to marry me.”
He surged to his feet to tower over her. “He is in there now? You deliberately brought me out here, hoping he was watching us?”
“Nay, I—I forgot about him,” she insisted, beginning to back away from this stranger who fascinated her, yet frightened her. What could she have been thinking? She knew nothing about him. And though she’d originally wanted Lord Wyndham to notice her, this was not what she had wanted him to see.
“You used me to make him jealous, when he damn well could have come out here and found us together!”
“I—I never thought—”
“That is very obvious, my lady. You don’t think much, do you?”
She stiffened in anger. “There is no need for insults! It was your idea to be alone with me.”
“And your quick suggestion where we could go. You even took my hand and led me, by God, so don’t play the innocent with me.” He advanced on her. “Do you do this every evening, pick the most gullible man and taunt him with your beauty, then deny him that which you promised?”
“I promised nothing!” she cried, shaking with her fury—and her rising fright. “I never meant any of this to happen, and I certainly have never done such a thing before!”
“Maybe you’d be married by now, if you’d chosen to arouse that other man you’re so anxious to please.”
They glared at each other, both breathing hard.
She winced, hearing Nicholas’s voice a moment before she saw him. Her brother, just coming into manhood and thinner than the stranger, swept past a tree and into view, then halted with his mouth dropping open.
“Elizabeth?” His spoke her name in confusion and growing worry.
The stranger looked over his shoulder at Nicholas, his body stiff.
“My brother,” she murmured. “I have to go. I’m sorry that I—that this—”
The tall, imposing stranger caught her arm when she tried to go past him, and spoke in a low voice. “You’re not sorry. I’m only surprised you didn’t wait for your own pleasure before you denied me mine.”
She shook her head, confused by what he meant.
“Unhand her!” said Nicholas, striding toward them, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Oh God, what had she done? She put up a placating hand toward her brother. “ ’Tis fine, we were simply speaking. I’ll come with you.”
But Nicholas was grimly looking up at the much taller man, who let her arm go. “What do you think you are doing with my sister?”
“Nothing!” Elizabeth insisted before the stranger could speak.
Nicholas looked the man up and down. “I know not where you’re from, sir, but here you do not force a woman to be alone with you!”
The stranger arched a dark brow at her, and Elizabeth felt herself blush. There’d been no forcing involved, and they both knew it.
“Nicholas, please, do not make a scene. This kind man will tell no one about our discussion, will you?” She gave the stranger a pointed look.
For a moment, he said nothing, and her heart skipped a beat. She didn’t know him, knew nothing about him. He could be a scoundrel. What if this had been some sort of plan, and she’d fallen into his trap?
The stranger bowed from the waist before saying, “I apologize for my thoughtlessness. I will say nothing.”
Her brittle smile was full of relief. “There, Nicholas, cease your insults and escort me back inside. Help me make up for my silly mistake. We were just talking, I promise.”
She yanked her brother’s arm hard and he reluctantly allowed her to pull him back toward the terrace. But he stopped when they reached the tall glass doors. There was no one else on the terrace, and she tried to take her first relaxed breath. It wasn’t easy.
Nicholas put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. “Elizabeth, this foolishness has to stop.”
“Foolishness?” she echoed, widening her eyes with innocence.
“You cannot make Lord Wyndham ask for your hand in such a ridiculous and risky way.”
“I was not trying to make—”
“Then what were you trying to do?”
She bit her lip, then reluctantly admitted, “Trying to get him to notice me. I wanted to flirt, to show him that many men found me attractive, and that he shouldn’t wait too long.”
Nicholas groaned and briefly closed his eyes. “You have more sense than this, regardless of what our parents keep telling you.”
She winced at the memories of her parents telling her over and over that it was fortunate that she was beautiful and wealthy because she had nothing else to offer a man.
“They’re wrong,” Nicholas said softly. “You’re clever.”
She gave him a bitter smile. “Really? Would you still say that after tonight?”
She slipped into the open doors to the great hall and disappeared into the anonymity of the crowd.
Elizabeth awoke late the next morning and stared blindly up at the canopy over her four-poster bed, feeling damp and overly warm from the oppressing heat. She had had a difficult time falling asleep, and even then slept fitfully, with dreams of the stranger haunting her, kissing her, caressing her, making her feel somehow unfulfilled.
She rolled over and covered her head with the pillow. How could she have been so foolish? She knew her father believed her less than intelligent, and now she’d proven it. She thought of the words she’d once overheard between her parents, how they’d told each other to emphasize Elizabeth’s beauty, because it was all she had besides a dowry to entice a man.
Well, it had worked, she thought bitterly. The stranger had certainly not been enticed by her clever conversation. She felt the tears start again, but she conquered them before they could fall. She would not cry over her stupidity. Her mistake was finished, and luckily no one had seen them out…groping in the garden.
When her maid came to help her dress, the girl seemed particularly wary, and wouldn’t meet Elizabeth’s eyes.
Elizabeth finally touched her arm. “Matilda, is something wrong?”
The girl shook her head, her little linen cap dipping to cover her eyes. Then suddenly she twisted her hands together, took a deep breath and looked Elizabeth in the face.
“Milady, yer father just seems…upset. He had a visitor early this morn, and now the man is back. I brought them ale, and they barely stopped their arguin’ ’til I was gone.”
Elizabeth felt a cold shiver of dread. “Is the stranger a…tall, broad man, dressed plainly?” Even now she could remember the width of his shoulders beneath her exploring hands, and she cursed her good memory—not an asset her parents could brag about.
“Nay, milady, he’s rather…short, on the puny side, even.”
Elizabeth gripped the back of a chair and tried not to sway with relief. She was so worried that the stranger would find her and tell her parents what a sinful woman she was. My God, he could even try to blackmail her into further intimacies. How much more proof was necessary before she realized she truly was a foolish woman?
With Matilda’s help, Elizabeth dressed in a sedate blue gown with a square neckline above which her delicate chemise reached to her throat. It was difficult to feel decently covered. She could still vividly remember the stranger’s hands on her breasts, his fingers stroking between her thighs.
Her face flushed, Elizabeth said, “Thank you, Matilda. I’ll be down to break my fast shortly.”
Just as the maid opened the door, they heard the earl’s loud voice. “Elizabeth! Come down here at once.”
She blanched as she realized how her father’s voice carried up the marble staircase from the front hall. He had never before shouted at her like that. Her heavy gown clung to her damp skin and choked her neck. When her knees almost buckled, she held the door frame for support, nodding into Matilda’s terrified face.
“You go on about your day, Matilda. ’Tis me he wants to see.”
The girl bobbed a curtsy and fled toward the back staircase. Elizabeth gazed after her wistfully, wishing she too could escape. Even though the stranger had not come for her, she had a horrible, sinking feeling of dread.
When she stepped into her father’s withdrawing room, she was startled to see Sir Ralph Cobham sitting in the seat of honor before the hearth. The look he shot her was malevolent, triumphant—had he convinced her father to accept a marriage proposal?
She warily faced the Earl of Chelmsford, only to find his dignified face cold and remote, as if she were a stranger.
“Father, you wanted to see me?” Her voice sounded high-pitched, not like her own.
He didn’t invite her to sit down, so she stood with her hands fisted in her skirts, as if waiting for her executioner.
“Earlier this morn, Sir Ralph told me a tale that I could not easily dismiss.”
For a moment, she felt confused. This wasn’t a marriage proposal?
“What went on at the party last night, the one your mother and I couldn’t attend?” Every word grew colder and colder, as if icicles should be dangling from his lips.
She dug her fingernails into her palms, and her stomach quivered with nausea. “I danced, I talked to people, I—”
“Did you go into the garden with a strange man?”
“I—” She shot a wild glance at Sir Ralph, who sat back and folded his arms over his narrow chest, as if waiting for an enjoyable play to commence.
“Did you go into the garden with a strange man!”
Her father barked out the words so furiously that Elizabeth stumbled back a step from his disgust.
“We just walked!” she cried, and the first embarrassing tear slipped down her cheek. The lie almost choked her, but she had no choice. Had Sir Ralph followed them—stood in the shadows and watched? She felt like retching.
“Sir Ralph,” her father said, in a calmer voice, “what did you see?”
Some of Sir Ralph’s triumph faded. “I was dancing with Mistress Penelope, my lord. I only know that your daughter was gone a long time, and when she returned—alone—her face was flushed and her clothing disheveled.”
Before her father could speak, she demanded, “How was my clothing ‘disheveled’? The wind had—”
“There was no wind, Elizabeth,” her father said in a low voice.
“Father, do you believe the things he is implying? He holds a grudge against me because I do not return his affections. He would enjoy seeing me humiliated!”
“It is easy to know the truth,” her father answered. “I have sent for the man in question.”
“How did you find him? He had only just arrived in London.” Elizabeth tried to tell herself this was a good thing, that all the stranger had to do was repeat her denial, and there would be no proof.
“Sir Ralph told me that he is a distant cousin to your host. I sent my men to learn what they could of him.” He paused, and eyed her almost contemptuously. “Do you even know his name?”
She felt her face flame with embarrassment. “No,” she finally said, lifting her chin.
“John Malory.” He sat down at his desk and they all remained silent, waiting.
John Malory, she thought to herself, sitting as far away from Sir Ralph as she could. John. A plain name for a plainly dressed man, a man who now held her fate in his hands. And she’d given him that power over her.
John was shown into the palatial home of the Earl of Chelmsford, and he followed the maid through an immense hall, lined with marble columns, with floor tiles laid out like vines.
He shook his head to clear it. He had no idea why he’d been sent for, what an earl could possibly want of him. John had told his cousin, the Marquess of Worcester, that he didn’t need help. Recalling his cousin’s worried look, John now wondered if that had been a mistake.
The maid showed him into a withdrawing room, which had tall rows of windows along two walls. He almost had to squint at the two men who’d risen as he entered. But as his sight adjusted, he could see that they were strangers to him.
There was another movement on his right, and he saw that it was the woman from the garden. In his mind he was suddenly in the dark, hot garden again, with her in his lap. He could see the woman’s green eyes turn sultry, just at the moment he’d bared her breasts. The frustration of their encounter hadn’t left him, and now he was facing her again. By daylight she still wore her beauty with an immense dignity, even though her face looked strained and pale as she stared at him.
“John Malory?” said one of the men.
John turned to the older man, who could only be the nobleman who’d summoned him. He wore power like his daughter wore beauty.
“Aye, my lord?” he asked, feeling a knot of tension tighten in his stomach.
“I am the Earl of Chelmsford, and this is Sir Ralph Cobham. In worry for my daughter’s reputation—”
John thought he heard a strangled sound from the woman behind him.
“—Sir Ralph wished me to know that you and my daughter Elizabeth were seen leaving the party together last night. Can you defend your actions?”
For a moment, John was stunned, then full of anger at his own stupidity. Shouldn’t he have known that liberties taken with a noblewoman would return to haunt him? Then he remembered her willingness, and wondered if she had deliberately set out to make a fool of him. By the looks of her father’s mansion, the woman did not need to marry for wealth, so what was going on?
John looked at Cobham, saw the cold pleasure he was obviously taking from the woman’s humiliation, and knew the kind of man he was. He would spread tales across London, maybe all of England, to appease this obvious hatred he had for her—for Elizabeth. The woman who’d been living in his dreams now had a name.
John turned to look at her again, and if anything, her face had grown paler. Had she led Cobham on, too, only to throw his desire back in his face?
John clenched his hands behind his back. His dreams of having a wife like his brother’s faded into the ashes of his own foolishness. He could not let the girl suffer alone for what they both had done.
“I went into the garden with your daughter, my lord, that is true.”
My God, what did the man want from him, details? “We kissed,” he said shortly.
The earl slammed his hand down on the desk in anger, Cobham practically burst with the pleasure of his revenge, and Elizabeth gave a startled cry.
“That’s not true!” she said.
He suddenly realized that she had lied to her father to protect herself. Didn’t the foolish woman know it was too late, that even if they both denied it, the rumors would ruin her?
“He must want my dowry, Father, surely you see that!”
John flinched at the insult, and turned his cold gaze on her. “I did not seek this meeting out, my lady. Nor did I force you into the garden.”
Now it was her turn to draw back as if he’d slapped her.
“You and my daughter will be married,” the earl said shortly. “We will have a special license procured quickly.”
John felt a flush creep up his neck as he saw how disappointed the man obviously was at the thought of his daughter marrying so low.
Elizabeth approached her father, who stepped away. For a brief moment, John felt sympathy for her.
“But Father, we know nothing about him! He could be a—a tradesman for all we know!”
John’s sympathy evaporated.
“He is a baron,” the earl said, “and for that, you should be thankful. Sir Ralph, you may leave us now.”
Cobham looked disappointed as he got to his feet. When the earl said nothing else, John made it a point to block the doorway and tower over the wretch.
“Lady Elizabeth is going to be my wife,” he said in a low, cold voice. “Should I hear even one unsavory rumor, I will know who started it.” He leaned close to Cobham’s pale, twitching face. “And I will hunt you down.”
Cobham darted around him and fled the room. In the heavy silence, John saw Elizabeth staring wide-eyed at him.
“I didn’t do that just for you,” he said shortly, “but also for the honor of my family.”
She flinched, and he suddenly wished he could take back the hurtful words. Their situation was not her fault alone.
In a quieter, calmer voice, John said, “Leave us now, Lady Elizabeth. Your father and I have much to discuss—and you have to pack.”
“Pack?” she whispered in a weak voice. “Where are we going?”
“Yorkshire, my home.”
That seemed to shock her more than their marriage. He caught a glimpse of her glistening eyes before she lowered her head and hurried from the room.
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