"It will be," she promised.
Dexter's teeth closed about her lower lip, biting gently, his tongue teasing the corner of her mouth. Slowly, hesitantly, she parted her lips against his and he kissed her sweetly, almost reverently.
"I cannot be the pattern card wife you wanted," she whispered when he let her go. Her cheeks were wet with tears. "I am as I am, Dexter-wild and reckless and all the things you used to deplore."
"That is what I love about you," Dexter said softly. He kissed her again, smoothing a gentle hand over her hair. "I love you because you are so committed and pa.s.sionate and because you feel things so strongly. I could no more try to force you to change than I could leave you, Laura. I realize that now."
Laura pulled him to down to lie beside her on the bed. "Are we really going to make love in an alehouse?" she asked, tracing the line of his jaw with loving fingers. She found that she could not stop smiling.
"Why not?" Dexter said. His hands moved to the fastenings of her gown. Laura gave a little voluptuous shiver.
"Perhaps I am more like Hester than I thought I was," she said. "I did not realize how wanton I was-until I met you."
Dexter's hands roamed over her body, stroking, exploring. "And whenever I made love to you," he said, "I threw sense and reason to the four winds and lost myself utterly in you. I should have realized then that I was fighting a losing battle and one I did not, in my heart of hearts, want to win." He kissed her softly. "I was so afraid to let the emotions in," he said. "Forgive me, Laura, please?"
"I forgive you," Laura said, smiling radiantly, pulling his head down again to meet her kiss. "I love you."
"This could be very, very bad, you know," Dexter said after a moment.
"Bad? With you?" Laura gasped as he let his lips drift over the vulnerable skin of her throat. "How so?"
"Because I love you," Dexter said. "And you love me. And at last both of us are openly and freely admitting it with no secrets and no reservations. You complained because it was good before when we did not trust one another totally-"
Laura arched against him. "I was not exactly complaining, Dexter." She raised a hand to his cheek, reveling in the rough stubble against her palm. "But it is good to know that this time it is with love," she whispered.
"It always was, though I was not honest enough with either of us to admit it," Dexter said. "But now I do. I will love you forever."
His mouth covered hers completely. He drew her close and worshipped her every line and every curve with his lips and his hands and his body, and she cried a little at the end, but this time with happiness, and she thought that he almost did, too.
Hours later, Laura was drawn from a deep and untroubled sleep by a pounding at the door. She could hear the roar of people in the taproom below and knew the alehouse was full with a rowdy crowd, the night well advanced and the champagne probably much appreciated, regardless of what Sir Montague had thought of the populace of Fortune's Folly.
"The militia are here, madam," Josie shouted through the door. "They have come to arrest both of you for stealing Sir Montague's champagne and Mr. Anstruther on the additional charge of highway robbery and abduction."
Laura rolled over in Dexter's arms, skin against his skin, registering the warmth, the sense of rightness, the completeness.
"Please tell them there has been a misunderstanding," she said. "Tell them that I will sort matters out with Sir Montague." She shifted a little as Dexter came awake and started to nibble very gently at her bare shoulder. "Tell them," Laura added, "that I'll shoot them myself if they try to arrest Dexter."
"Right you are, madam," Josie said.
"Oh, and please tell everyone," Laura finished, "that I am paying for the drink tonight. Thank you, Josie."
She rolled over in Dexter's arms, a movement that placed her breast where her shoulder had been. Dexter moved to take advantage but Laura laughingly held him off.
"We should go home," she said. "Much as I have enjoyed my stay here I would rather be at home with you."
Dexter reached a little regretfully for his clothes. "Very well," he said, "but only if we may be wild and disorderly and reckless again very soon."
Laura smiled, too, as he wrapped her up in the black cloak and swung her up into his arms. "We could be all those things again very soon indeed," she whispered. "Hester once confided in me that she had made love in the carriage all the way home."
She saw an answering smile curve Dexter's mouth and he bent his head to brush his lips against hers.
"Well, then," he said. "What are we waiting for?"
"I FIND IT QUITE incomprehensible," Faye Cole said disagreeably, over the breakfast table at Cole Court a couple of weeks later, "that Laura styles herself Mrs. Anstruther these days. Why, one would think she was actually proud of having married a nonent.i.ty like Dexter Anstruther. She who was once d.u.c.h.ess of Cole!"
"Perhaps it is incomprehensible to you, Mama," Lydia said, pushing her plate of toast away untouched, an expression of revulsion on her pale face. "I can quite imagine that you would not understand such a thing at all."
Her mother looked at her without affection. "Your views on marriage are hardly the most reliable, are they, Lyddy? Had you forgotten that you were prepared to throw yourself away on a man who is a criminal?"
"I am not likely to be allowed to forget it," Lydia said steadfastly. She took a sip of tea but put her cup down quickly and seemed to turn an even more pasty shade of white. Neither of her parents noticed. The duke was engrossed in his newspaper and the d.u.c.h.ess was busy scouring the marmalade pot.
"I am not at all sure how we are to get you off our hands now that your reputation is so tarnished, Lyddy," she said. "I suppose we could pay someone but I suspect that your dowry will certainly not be enough, even though Mr. Anstruther has returned the money that your father tried to settle on Laura." She shot the duke a venomous look. "Which in itself is quite extraordinary, now I come to think of it."
"Fellah said that he loved her for herself alone," Henry Cole grunted. "d.a.m.ned fool!"
"Anyway, Lyddy, you look so sickly these days," the d.u.c.h.ess continued, returning to her main target. "Really, it is small wonder that no other man has taken a fancy to you. Lyddy?" She stared as her daughter pressed a hand to her mouth, pushed her chair back violently from the table and rushed out of the room. "Lyddy!"
The door slammed.
The d.u.c.h.ess looked at her husband. "I do not know what is wrong with the girl these days," she said. "Really, Henry, it is a complete mystery."
IT WAS SNOWING in Fortune's Folly, with huge white flakes floating down from a gray sky. Hattie had run outside, squeaking with excitement, to build a snowman with Rachel. Laura was curled up in the window seat watching.
"I will go out and join them presently," she said, "for it looks prodigious fun, but I wanted to know what was in your letters first."
Dexter broke the seal on the first of the letters and sat back to read it.
The most marvelous news! His sister Annabelle had written, her dashing handwriting even more wild than ever because of her excitement. Mama is to remarry! She has met an old flame, a gentleman who was an admirer of hers before she married Papa (at the least, I think it was before, but it might have been during, as well.) Anyway, he is a military man and has offered to buy Charlie a commission in his old regiment, the Royal Horse Guards. And Roly has gained a scholarship to Oxford, so his fees will not be too prohibitive. Caro has met up with an old school friend and they plan to open a teaching establishment together. I had no notion she wished to work and think it most odd in her, but she a.s.sures me that she will feel much happier with something other than marriage to keep her occupied!
Which just leaves me, dearest Dexter, and I am sure that if you give me the most extravagant and exciting come-out ball imaginable then I will be off your hands in no time at all. I do not scruple to admit that some gentlemen have already been very attentive to me when I have been out and about with Mama in Town. It is no surprise to me because, of course, I am very pretty, so I imagine I will have no trouble in catching a husband...
There was a great deal more in the same vein and Dexter put the letter down with a rueful smile on his lips.
Caro's letter was briefer and much more to the point. Dear Dexter, you will have heard from Belle that your mama is to wed. Mr. Sandforth seems a pleasant enough man, I suppose, a little short on intellect and far too doting on your mama, but neither of those are necessarily bad things. She will likely ruin him in a month, though that is his problem. Fortunately he is very rich.
I do not antic.i.p.ate it being very long before Belle follows Mrs. Anstruther to the altar. She would like a come-out ball, but you will have to be quick as she is so romantically inclined that she will likely elope to Gretna before long. On second thoughts, if you wish to save money I would simply let nature take its course. As for me, I shall be very happy running a school. It suits my managing nature...
The third letter was from Lord Liverpool, the writing spiky and black, blotched with irritable ink stains. Anstruther, I demand that you return to London at once. Disturbing news has reached my ears of you abducting your own wife. Whilst not illegal, this sort of behavior is most reprehensible and not at all what I expect of you. The other charges of highway robbery and theft I can only a.s.sume were an unfortunate misunderstanding.
And whilst we are on the subject of your marriage it seems that you have made the most regrettable hash of things. I warned you against being distracted, Anstruther. You had a simple task to perform yet I hear you have somehow managed to wed a widow with no money, a dowager, no less, with a daughter of her own, which will be one more mouth to feed. This is quite inexplicable and totally incompetent and if it were not for the fact that the lady in question is one whom I admire very much, I would dismiss you from my service immediately...
Dexter dropped the letter, put his head in his hands and started to laugh. Laura put a hand on his shoulder and he looked up and met her eyes. She was smiling at him.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
"Nothing at all," Dexter said, pa.s.sing his sisters' letters to her. He laughed again. "None of the things that I feared have come to pa.s.s and no one needs my money anymore."
"One more mouth to feed," Laura said softly, angling her head to read Liverpool's letter as it lay on the table. "Oh dear, I fear Lord Liverpool is going to be apoplectic when he hears that there is going to be yet another Anstruther to feed, and so soon after the wedding."
Dexter looked at her, the light blazing in his eyes. "You mean..."
Laura's face was vivid with happiness. "Our family is expanding, Dexter, and so shall I be soon." A shade of anxiety touched her eyes. "Is that reckless of us when we have no money now that you have given my dowry back?"
"Very probably," Dexter said, kissing her, "but at least I still have a job thanks to you. As you see, Lord Liverpool admires you very much."
"Then he may be G.o.dfather to our baby," Laura said. She grabbed his hand. "Let us go and tell Hattie she is to have a brother or sister. I am sure she will be delighted."
And they went out together into the snow.
THE CONFESSIONS OF A d.u.c.h.eSS.
Copyright 2009 by Nicola Cornick.
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