In which I accidentally marry and am very nearly seduced by the wrong man
I married the wrong man.
And by this I do not mean, as people so often do, any of the more cryptic things that you might imagine: That I awoke one morning to the realization that my husband and I had grown apart. That I discovered something about my spouse that caused me to doubt that we were well-suited. Nor, even, that I had met by chance an old love in Bond Street. And as I shopped for reticules and he carried an armload of packages for his wife, our eyes met and it was as though the intervening years in which we had both found others had never been.
What I do mean is that yesterday I stood up in St. George's, Hanover Square, and before some three hundred witnesses promised to love, honor, and obey the wrong man.
Put that way, even I must confess that it contrives to make me sound rather, well, like a fool. A complete and utter idiot. It is not as simple a case as it appears at first glance, however, and I would beg that you bear with me while I explain. I will also say that simply marrying him was not the worst of it, that before the day was done, things had got much, much worse, indeed.
I'd been at the time in the suite bespoke by my new husband at the Clarendon Hotel. We had made our arrival a short time previous, and in a rush of high spirits had laughingly discarded bonnets, hats, and gloves, and I with a great deal of relief, my new slippers, which I had been duly assured looked stunning, but pinched rather horribly. We were awaiting the light supper that Milburn had ordered. The table in front of the fire in the sitting room sparkled with crystal and white linen. We were awkwardly silent at the moment, the reprieve offered by the nervous giddiness of our arrival having faded.
Milburn had drawn back the heavy silk draperies. He stood now in his shirtsleeves, looking out into the falling darkness, his face reflected in the window. And, he was of a sudden looking alarmingly pensive. I stood some distance behind him. The carpet felt almost wickedly plush through my stockings, and as I wiggled my newly liberated toes, I debated whether to speak, or approach him, or simply leave him to his thoughts. As I looked at his reflection, it hit me suddenly, and with particular force, that I had married an uncommonly beautiful man. And with that thought came the considerably less welcome one that, in truth, I barely knew him.
Just as I was deciding to leave him to his thoughts, he looked up and caught sight in the glass, of me, standing irresolute behind him. He turned and smiled at me then, and held out his hand, saying simply, "Gwen."
I went to him, almost without thought, and he took my hand. "Forgive me," he said, "for abandoning you for my thoughts. It was ill-done of me."
"Yes. Now that you are leg-shackled you shall never again have license to be alone in your thoughts." I was attempting to lighten the moment. But oddly, as I stood beside him and looked out at the street, I felt I could sense something of his mood of a moment ago. Darkness was falling over the busy streets. It was that time of early evening when the sky is dark blue and the lamps are being lit, both inside and out, which can bring on that curious melancholy of a dying day. Behind us, the fire crackled, pleasantly emphasizing the contrast between the peacefulness of our luxurious rooms with the bustle of Mayfair outside.
The atmosphere of intimacy in the room made me very much aware that I had never been so alone with him before, even when I had been alone with him. And the feel of his hand on mine -- ungloved -- was sparking the oddest sensations. It was the first time in my adult life that my hand had touched a man's without at least one pair of gloves between us, and I was entranced by the way his felt. It was firm and warm and pleasantly rough against my palm and around my fingers. He moved his thumb, slightly, and something flickered inside me. Not unlike the way the wick of a candle sputters momentarily before it lights fully.
"Odd, is it not?" Milburn said at last, still looking out the window.
It seemed we were of one mind on that, at least. "Prodigiously," I replied, distracted from contemplation of his hand. My gaze sliding to him, I watched a dimple appear in his left cheek.
He turned toward me then, and smiled, but still with a somber, reflective air. "But not bad, I would hope?"
"No," I said, also quite seriously. "Only strange. After all this time to be...here..." I trailed off with a little lift of my shoulders.
He put his hands on my shoulders then, very lightly, but still I could feel the warmth of his skin through the fabric of my gown, and said, "I know. S'truth, Gwendolyn. I never thought to be standing here with you. On our wedding day."
Which I took to be a reference to war and its vagaries. And I was struck yet again by how different he was now as a man than the boy I remembered. By how much more gravity he possessed. Before I could summon a suitable reply, though, he took me by surprise, lowering his head to mine, and very slowly brushing his thumb over my lower lip. And then, without leaving me a moment to examine the startling effects of that action, he kissed me. Actually, he didn't so much kiss me as brush his closed lips across my mouth before lifting his head from mine. I looked up at him.
"Gwen," he said, a slow smile beginning.
My toes seemed to curl deeper into the carpet and my stays, to tighten. I nodded awkwardly, uncertain what he was expecting of me.
He was still smiling, looking somewhat rueful as he repeated my name. "Gwen." His voice sounded rough, not smooth and mellow as it had, and something almost like fear, and yet pleasurably not quite like fear, shot through me. His gaze was locked on my face. "You are so beautiful," he said.
Now, I had heard that from many gentlemen in my life. My friend Cecy and I even had a joke between us that the phrase was actually a botched translation from ancient Greek, meaning, "I do believe I am in love with your dowry. I have heard it's enormous." But Milburn, as of this morning, already had possession of my dowry, and had no need to flatter me.
While I have never precisely shuddered at my own appearance, it is hardly remarkable. My hair is dark, and so straight and slippery that I had long ago given up trying to get it to agree to conform to the current fashion of ringlets. My eyes are dark, too, and sort of almond-shaped. My nose is straight and neither too large nor too small, and my mouth is generous, but nothing out of the ordinary way. My teeth are rather fine -- I have always considered them one of my better attributes -- straight and white, my neck is graceful enough to show to advantage in the current fashions. And I have that typically English fairness that shows to advantage when I am in high spirits and good health.
But never before had a husband told me I was beautiful. And suddenly, I wanted, in an unaccountably desperate fashion, to believe that he meant his words. "I am?" I said.
He smiled. "Yes," he said, leaning closer. He brushed his lips over my cheekbone. And then he pulled me to him and kissed me. Really kissed me this time, with an unhurried thoroughness. My body, of its own volition, seemed to sway toward him. And, as though in response, he took my lower lip and teased it lightly between his teeth for the barest instant. The flicker jolted into a flame. And then, he stopped.
"I go too fast," he said. "And surely the food must be here at any moment."
He was waiting -- for a reply? -- an encouraging smile on his face. But my knees were shaky, my stomach felt odd, and my mind was decidedly sluggish. I looked at him again, and his brow was slightly raised. He had said something, I knew. But what, exactly? Food! He had said the food must be here at any moment. "I should think," I managed to say, sounding credibly clearheaded.
"A pity," he said. But I must still have been looking blank, because he added, as he took my hand, "About the imminent arrival. Of the food."
"Er, yes," I managed. "I suppose." I tried not to look down at our hands joined together.
"Of course," he said, stepping closer again, taking my other hand, and lacing his fingers through mine, "we could send the supper away. Tell them to bring it back later."
I swallowed. This was my chance. I could say no, that I was hungry, and I would have the reprieve I should want. "Yes," I said, without any cooperation from my mind. "We could."
"But then" -- he leaned closer still, his voice pitched low -- "perhaps we should simply seize the moment." He pulled me nearer and, despite my nerves, I felt not one iota of desire to push him away.
Words seemed to have deserted me entirely, as did any part of me that didn't want this. I nodded, unable to tear my gaze from his hypnotic eyes.
He took me in his arms then, and I was startled by the sensation of a man's body actually against my own; it certainly surpassed an ungloved hand, which I had thought pretty marvelous just a few moments ago. He was firm and warm through the linen of his shirt. Heat seemed to radiate from his body. And his pulse, to my surprise, matched my own. Without thinking, I put my hand between us, resting it over his heart. "It's beating so fast," I said, after a moment.
He laughed. "I'm nervous as hell, Gwen," he said, flatly.
"You?" I declined to take him to task for his language, instead looking up and watching with fascination as the dimple reappeared. "You are nervous?"
"You have no idea," he said, pulling me closer to his body. And this time, as his lips met mine, there was no hesitation there. We had tacitly agreed, and now there was something heated and dangerous openly flaming between us. But he didn't hurry, instead lingering, prolonging the moment. His lips traveled down my jaw, his motions surprisingly deliberate for a man with shaking hands. "It's my first wedding night, too," he said, his mouth finally against mine, the movement of his lips increasing the pleasurable sensation.
His breath was warm against my skin. My body, already against his, was straining to get closer. Still unhurried, he traced the top of my upper lip with the tip of his tongue, which should have been entirely shocking. I was shocked. And more than anything, I wanted him to do it again. But his lips had wandered to my earlobe, and his teeth nipped at it. Oh, I thought, as the flaming sensation took up residence in my midriff.
And then he stopped, and I almost cried out with disappointment. I desperately wanted him to continue those wondrous kisses. And, well, the nibbling, I suppose. But I was unresisting, as he turned me again to face the window.
It was darker now, and our reflections were more clearly pronounced. He stood behind me and our gazes met in the window glass. Still watching our reflection, he began, slowly, pulling the pins from my hair. Which, being my hair, was already doing its best to slip out of them of its own volition. Milburn had touched my hair before, but that was seven-and-ten years ago, and at the time he and his equally odious brother were attempting to plant a garden snail in it. Certainly I had not guessed that having his hands on me would someday be the most consuming sensation I had ever experienced. As he continued, carefully holding the pins in one hand, I was seized by the simultaneous, and conflicting, desires both to lie down and drowse, and to turn and press myself back up against the warmth of him, even closer than before. Which I found most confusing.
My hair was completely unpinned now. It fell heavily to my shoulders as I had, in a disastrously misguided move, cut it short two years ago and only now was it growing long again.
"It used to be longer, as I recall," he said, as he placed the pins on the windowsill next to us. "And, as I also recall, frequently had mud or some even less salubrious substance in it."
"I cut it," I told him, striving to find some corner of my mind that had not given in entirely to the languorous feeling that was stealing over my body, and could still converse. I should have been terrified by what was about to happen. I knew that. Instead it seemed that I was possessed of a hitherto unsuspected wanton streak, because I quite simply, shockingly, just wanted more. I only wished that I wasn't too shy to touch him as I ached to. "Two years back," I managed to say. "Because it was...ah, the fashion."
"I see," he said gravely. He pushed his hands into my hair and, starting with his fingers at the base of my scalp, lifted it onto the top of my head. He let go, slowly, and it felt as if I could feel each and every strand of hair fall. I wanted to moan aloud. And I was starting to become obsessed by the desire to touch him in return, to feel his body up against mine. He moved my hair so it hung over one shoulder, his fingers brushing the top of my spine as he did so. I shivered.
"But it's not seen mud intimately in many a year," I felt compelled to remind him. "And you, sir, are most unkind to recall it."
"I like it just this length," he said, as he bent so his lips were at the base of my neck. "Just exactly as it is. Unfashionable. With or without the mud." His breath was warm, feather-light, on the back of my neck.
My eyes were closed now. "Thank you," I managed, on a sigh.
"My pleasure." His lips moved over the place where my neck met my collarbone.
I was beginning to worry in some corner of my mind, that far from being an appropriately blushing maiden, stricken by bride nerves, I was going to prove a shockingly willing wife. Possibly, even scandalously so.
His hand strayed to my top button, at the nape of my neck. With the barest movement of his fingers, the little pearl fastening slipped free. My breath caught. He was undressing me!
I should speak. Object. This was not at all the way it should be done! Not here, like this, standing in the sitting room. Surely the supper would be here soon! But no words came. And when he ran his finger lightly up and down the half inch of skin that his action had bared, I had to forcibly restrain myself from purring like a cat. I was holding my breath, halfway between fearing and anticipating the release of the next button.
"Are you afraid, Gwen?" he murmured, his lips warm against my skin.
Since my eagerness to find out what would come next was positively unseemly, afraid somehow didn't seem quite the right word. My gaze met his in the window once again, and I found I could not dissemble. "Not half so afraid as I should be," I said.
He laughed aloud. "Good," he said. "A terrified bride would doubtless be the undoing of me." His lips again brushed the back of my neck, making my knees soft, as his hand came to rest on my waist. He held it there for a moment, and as I watched, he moved it slowly and deliberately upward until he was just barely touching my breast. I felt the contact with a jolt through the silk of my gown. I could see his hand, reflected in the window, big and sure over the fabric, and knowing that if I were to look down I could see the same thing in reality made my breath come faster.
His fingers moved, and when the fire crackled in the grate behind us, I felt the resulting shower of sparks in my stomach. An odd, strangled little noise came out of my throat. Our gazes met again. His eyes were dark and wild; my own looked oddly unfocused. His hair was falling over his forehead. And he was watching me watch him.
His hand cupped my breast, and this time, I moaned. He closed his eyes for a second, and I could feel him draw in a long breath. I knew it wasn't ladylike, or anything that was proper, but I was helpless not to; I leaned back against him, and let my head fall back on his chest. He shuddered, behind me.
I was behaving like the veriest wanton -- pushing my body against him, watching his hand on my breast. And I simply didn't care. I pressed back harder. He held my gaze and that hand hardly moved as we both watched it, yet its very presence seemed to make me boneless.
He turned me around then, and pulled me roughly into his arms so I was up against the heavenly, terrifying, length of him. "Oh God, Gwen," he said, and the timbre, the roughness of his voice, seemed to actually touch my skin. He covered my mouth with his, hard this time.
"Bertie," I said, against his mouth, and I could hear that my voice held the same urgency as his had.
And then he let go of me and abruptly took a step back.
I blinked, wanting to say, No! Please! Don't stop now. My arms went out instinctively, to pull him back, but something in his face made my hands fall to my sides as well.
"What did you say?" His face was taut.
I tried not to let my puzzlement show as I reached around in the recesses of my drugged mind, trying to figure out what had upset him, and to recall what I had said, even. What on earth had I said? "Bertie?" I ventured, frowning up at him. "Bertie?" Not the most original thing to say in the situation, I supposed, but it had at the time seemed a fitting enough response to Oh God, Gwen.
I tried to read the expression in his eyes. Could it be that I had been too seduced by the surprising ease between us, and by the...well, seduction? Did he prefer that I address him by his title even when we were private? That would be the usual way of things, it was true, but still, it rankled me that I had been in his arms losing myself in the most shocking manner, and he was quibbling over forms of address. The silence stretched on between us. "Do you prefer Milburn?" I asked, finally. "Or Lord Bertie?"
"Not when we are private," he said. "Of course not."
I hoped I didn't look as befuddled as I felt. Not Bertie, not Milburn. What, then? I'd had a few nicknames for him in our youth, but in our current circumstances, both Puddle-Drawers and Spawn of Satan seemed singularly unsuitable.
He took my hand, and answered my unvoiced question. "When it's us, just us -- " he gestured around at the intimate room -- "do you think you could call me Harry, or Cambourne at the least?"
Which was, well, to put it bluntly, one of the most -- no, the most -- bizarre request I'd ever heard. I disengaged my hand from his. "You would like to be called Harry," I said. "I see" -- although I did not see. "But why?"
"Gwen," he said in reasonable enough tones, "surely no man wants to be called by his brother's name in an...intimate situation?"
I took a step back as I began to absorb what he had said.
"It is necessary elsewhere, but surely not here, like this -- "
I simply could not believe what I was hearing. "You," I managed to say. "You are..." And that was as much as my mind seemed able to come up with.
"Gwen?" He looked confused as he took a step toward me.
I took a corresponding step back. "You -- You're Cambourne?" I was finally able to articulate.
He looked wary. "Yes."
"But you can't be Cambourne. I would have -- " And then I stopped, and stared at him. He was watching me carefully. Would I really have known? And then, just like that, with an almost audible click of my brain, everything, the entire day, slid into place and I understood.
And I could see, reflected on his face, the exact moment that he read my thoughts. "Oh my Lord," he said, bleakly. "You didn't know! They didn't tell you."
I just stared. "No."
"You thought I was Milburn! You really thought I was Milburn?" There was something in his tone that made me understand that he thought if he said it enough times, he might believe it. One of us might believe it.
I nodded as I looked, despite myself, at the pile of discarded hairpins on the windowsill. I had behaved like a light-skirt with Milburn's brother! I closed my eyes for a moment.
And I suspect he was having much the same thought, because when I opened my eyes, he took a step back. "All this time," he said, sounding stricken, "all this time you thought I was Milburn? Bertie? When we -- "
He dropped to a chair and put his head in his hands. I stood, still rooted to the spot by the window. "I thought you knew," he said, looking down at the carpet. "I thought you had agreed."
He looked so utterly miserable that I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. But somehow the fact that I had been more or less panting in his arms a few moments ago was adding an edge of an entirely different emotion. "Agreed? Knew? That you -- that you are Cambourne?" I said.
He nodded. "That I was only pretending to be Milburn."
"But why would I -- And you believed that I would allow -- " I closed my eyes again. First of all, I was not entirely certain that I wanted to know what he believed. And quite honestly, I suppose I was hoping that when I opened them again this would turn out to be some type of delusion. He stayed silent while I tried to sort my words and wished he'd disappear. A fresh wave of humiliation washed over me. There was simply no getting around it: I had behaved like a common whore in his arms. "You certainly weren't pretending to seduce me," I said, at last.
"No." His voice was quiet. He was extremely still. "Forgive me. At the time it had not occurred to me that you were unwilling."
I laughed. I was bordering on hysterics, and I knew it. "Yes, I can see that," I said, disliking the way my own voice was rising. "Because under the impression that you were my husband and this was my wedding night, I behaved far too willingly?" And then, I started to cry. I wiped the tears away on the back of my hand.
He stood, and put out a hand. "Gwen," he said, in let's-be-reasonable tones, but I was having none of it. I was starting to sob in earnest.
I could see my reflection mirrored in the window. Tears were running unchecked down my face. My skin was blotchy. My eyes were red, my nose, redder. I turned and faced him. His dark hair was still disarranged, falling across his arrogant forehead. His improbably blue eyes were dark under straight brows, and his jaw was very square at the moment. He looked every inch the duke that he would some day be. And it hit me with the force of a blow: How on earth had I ever thought he was Milburn? How stupid could a person be?
I suppose it would be reasonable, at this point, were you to wonder how I could have ended up being quite so stupid. But understanding the situation requires going back a little way.
This was never, you must know, a love match. Milburn and I had been promised to each other likely since the week I was born. Milburn, who is Lord Bertie, and Harry, who is, as I have mentioned, the Earl of Cambourne and future Duke of Winfell, grew up at Marshfields, principal seat to the Dukes of Winfell since the days of Queen Elizabeth. Give or take a year. And I was raised next door at Hildcote.
As my hapless brothers, Richard and James, ran tame with Milburn and Cambourne, so did I. Lord knows, over the years I'd seen a vast succession of nursemaids and governesses, and then later tutors and schoolmasters bamboozled by their tricks -- among which, switching identities held pride of place. But for most of my life, I had possessed the unfailing ability to tell them apart. A lot of good this lifelong ability had done me, however, since it had obviously failed me at that crucial moment when I had stood at the altar and sworn faithfully in front of God and some three hundred witnesses to love, honor, and obey the wrong man.
And now, a new, even worse thought hit me. "Does Milburn know about this?" I demanded.
He moved a step closer, almost as you would approach a horse you were trying to gentle.
"Don't touch me! This is a joke, isn't it? One of your vile little twin practical jokes. Seduce your brother's wife? Oh God."
"Gwen," he said, very quietly, "I realize that you've had a shock, but surely you cannot believe what you just said?"
"I don't know what to believe," I whispered.
"Perhaps, then, I can enlighten you."
"No!" It might have been childish, but I had no desire to hear him. "Please leave me."
"I can't do that."
"Oh yes, you can."
"I see." He studied me unhurriedly. "I had thought better of you," he said lightly, and I was stung.
"But...Milburn..." Does he care? was what I badly wanted to ask, but was afraid to hear the answer. At the thought that he very well might not, my tears started afresh. "Where is he?"
He stood for a moment, his back still to me, and took a breath. "I do not know," he said, as he turned to me. His face was carefully neutral.
I eyed him. How could he not know? "But we -- us -- I am truly married to you?"
"Yes," he said, with no trace of hesitation.
"Not to Milburn."
"But how could that be? It is not as though you have the same name, after all, for all that they are similar...." I stared at him, and he was silent, I suppose allowing me to work it out. "It was your name!" I said, almost lost in wonder at my own stupidity. "Reverend Twigge said your name and I never even noticed?"
"Edmund Harold Bertram is you," I said, more to myself than to him. "And Edward Henry Bernard is Milburn, and still, they called him Bertie. I knew that, of course. But somehow I just..." I trailed off and looked at him. "Didn't notice, I suppose. And you thought -- you thought I had agreed to this?"
He nodded. "I'm afraid so, Gwen," he said, very quietly.
"We can have it annulled, though?" I asked, and understood all too well the meaning when he hesitated. "Leave," I said to him. "I only want you to leave."
Don't misunderstand. I knew I was being unreasonable. I also knew that I had larger problems, but at the moment I simply could not get over my humiliation, both at his deception and my own behavior. My practically flinging myself at a man might have been excusable, if slightly overwarm, for my wedding night. My doing the same with the wrong man, was not.
"Gwen -- " he began, and I cut him off.
"Not tonight. Just leave."
"Are you certain that's what you want?"
I nodded, despite the fact that I wasn't.
He looked at me, and I was uncomfortably aware of a hard-edged will beneath the surface. He seemed to me, though, to have decided to keep it submerged, because he took a deep breath and capitulated. "Right," he said, beginning to move toward the door with obvious reluctance.
And now, here we are, at my lowest moment: As he started to walk away, it occurred to me. My dress was unbuttoned. I had no maid and there was no question of me being able to button it myself. I had no choice. "Cambourne?"
"Yes?" He turned from the door.
"My, um..." I gestured at my back. "I cannot."
He crossed back to me. I could not for the life of me understand why the Earl of Cambourne, future Duke of Winfell, would have married me under false pretenses. But I also was too humiliated and too stubborn to allow him to explain himself. Unattractive, I know, but regrettably true. As his nimble fingers closed my buttons, I began to sob again. "Were you pretending to want me, too?" I shouldn't have asked, but I couldn't stop myself.
His hands still lingered on the last button as he turned me toward him. "No," he said, and then he kissed me. Hard.
There was no question at this point but that I was not going to be seduced by his kiss. Not even a little. But -- and here is the absolute nadir of the humiliation part -- my body wanted him still. And enough, even, to overrule my mind. As his mouth closed on mine, my knees seemed to disintegrate along with my will, and that hot, shaking excitement in my stomach that had so recently been stirred within me for the first time, started again. My arms, of their own volition, went to him.
After a moment, though, he lifted his head and stood looking down at me. I thought he might say something.
I waited a moment and hoped I wasn't panting. He didn't speak. But then, he hardly needed to. My response to his kiss had said plenty. "How could you?" I asked, trying to banish the light-headedness in favor of righteous indignation.
But his tone was equable. "Perhaps you'd best ask your parents. In the meantime, I'll have a maid sent up to help you." And then he left, striding out of our suite and closing the door very deliberately behind him in a manner that led me to believe that he was restraining himself from giving it a really good, satisfying kick.
Copyright ©2004 by Jessica Benson