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I shall be a willing and obedient wife. I shall be a willing and obedient---
Olivia---Lady Greenleigh now!---put down the boar-bristle brush that she had been absently drawing through her fair hair. There was that word again. Obedient. Drawing a deep breath, she placed both hands flat on her new mother-of-pearl-inlaid vanity and closed her eyes against her reflection in the fine gilded mirror.
The bedchamber in which Olivia waited shimmered with tasteful luxury, from the creamy silk brocade bed draperies, to the generously heaped coals in the hearth, to the very nightdress she wore, a floating confection of gauzy batiste that likely cost more than all her previous wardrobe combined.
The only thing it lacked was the presence of his lordship.
Men, Olivia decided, were rather like rain. If one needed it, it never seemed to come.
It is an honor to be chosen by such a gentleman. Her mother's voice echoed through her mind again and again. You have little to recommend you but your bloodline. If your brother had managed to marry that awful Hackerman Shipping heiress, things would be very different for us all. If Walter had lived . . .
If Walter had lived, Cheltenham would be saved, the family coffers would be full, her parents would be content, and Olivia would not be without her dear brother. She certainly would not have been constrained to accept the only offer of marriage that she had received.
Lord Greenleigh is a very handsome man. Lord Greenleigh is a very powerful man. Lord Greenleigh---
Lord Greenleigh was beginning to plague her off.
Enough. Olivia began to braid her hair for bed. She would get out of this silly, provocative nightdress as well. She may as well not have taken that second rosewater bath of the day, either. There was no point in waiting for the fellow---he obviously wasn't coming, just as he had not come to court her, just as he had not come to ask her if she wanted to marry him.
It wasn't as though she would have had the wherewithal to turn him down. She wasn't an idiot---she knew the family and all their dependents at Cheltenham had no other recourse but this marriage.
It simply would have been nice to have been asked.
Of course, Father had been no better, selling her off without the slightest thought to whether or not she even liked the man. No, Father had arranged the entire thing behind her back, like trading a recalcitrant horse.
Men were not like rain. Men were more like an outbreak of rodents. One never knew what they were doing out of sight. Just when one thought the cats were managing everything nicely, it turned out that the dratted things were plotting against one all the while.
Men were most definitely rats!
Feeling better having put that question to rest, Olivia removed her diaphanous wrapper---silly thing! It wouldn't serve a spider for its web!---and reached to untie the delicate tapes that held closed the neckline of her even more transparent nightgown.
A sound at the connecting door stopped her cold. Her indignation fled as she was forced to face anew the fears she'd been fighting for a month.
She was wife to a stranger. She was dependent on a man who could---well, who could do as he liked with her.
That could mean a great many things. She was not as sheltered as some of the young ladies she'd encountered during the last month of the Season. She'd not been governessed to bits, nor chaperoned by more than a lazy housemaid or two. As the years went by at Cheltenham, the servants had correctly assumed that Lord and Lady Cheltenham had no intentions of arranging a grand match for Lady Olivia.
Instead, her mother and father had pinned all their hopes on Walter, who was a year younger and a much better bet, being vastly more attractive and charming. Olivia could hardly blame them, for she'd been as dotty over Walt as any elder sister could be. He'd been full of life and humor yet not light-minded in the way of some spoiled young lords. She'd adored him, as had everyone who met him.
When Walt and her parents were gone from Cheltenham, which was much of the time, the entire estate seemed to go into a sort of hibernation. Most of the time, Olivia managed to occupy herself nicely with the cares and welfare of her family's dependents. The village of Cheltenham had suffered as much as the estate through the years of destitution, so Olivia did whatever she could to allay that suffering.
She was every bit as fond of her Cheltenham "family" as she was of her real one.
Which is why you wed Lord Greenleigh.
Right. Hopefully, pots of money would soon be on their way to Durham County in the north of England, earmarked for all the improvements that had been needed for so long.
Lord Greenleigh was a very generous man.
And he truly was a handsome giant. . . .
The fluttering in Olivia's middle was becoming a panicked beating of wings. She swallowed hard. I shall be a willing and obedient wife.
Unfortunately, obedience had never been one of Olivia's finest virtues. Not that she was intentionally rebellious or even especially contentious. She was more likely to be . . . accidentally disobedient.
Up until today, her mother's strictures had been the most difficult to obey: Your hair must never fall from its place. You must keep your feet hidden beneath your hem or they will think you no better than a milkmaid. You must not laugh loudly or long. Better yet, do not laugh at all. Smile, but show no teeth---you smile much too widely. Do try not to loom over the gentlemen, but do not slouch!
Her mother's rules did not matter now, she realized. Alas, Olivia was fairly sure that her bridegroom---husband!---had rules of his own, likely even more strict than Lady Cheltenham's. Rules . . . and demands.
Demands. Oh heavens. Never one to give in to fear, Olivia decided to give in to pique instead. The beast hadn't even bothered to court her!
"Not a visit, not a single note! Nothing but jewels!"
The gifts had been frequent and costly and aloof. Olivia would have preferred a bit of actual conversation.
She'd only seen her bridegroom twice before today. The first had been that disastrous day on---or, rather, under---the bridge. From that encounter she'd gathered that he was inclined to rescue others, that he was as large as a bridge pillar, that he was vain---although perhaps deservedly so---and that he liked to look at bosoms.
This could be said of any number of men in Society.
The second time she'd seen him had been the following day when he'd asked her father for her hand in marriage. If she hadn't happened to come in at just that moment from another interminable afternoon of calls with Mother and seen the two conspirators shaking hands in the entrance hall as if they'd just concluded a horse trade, she'd likely not have found out until the wedding day itself!
Lord Greenleigh hadn't even been embarrassed. He'd simply bowed briefly over her hand and said he was happy to have received her father's consent, then had sailed out the door while she'd stared after him, openmouthed.
From that encounter and the following two weeks of luxurious neglect she'd gathered that he was arrogant, managing, and thoughtless. Again, she could be describing any number of the gentlemen her mother had forced on her since she'd been brought to London and impressed into Society like a kidnapped sailor on a foreign ship.
Today she had been dressed and prepared for him like a veiled sacrifice. She had scarcely been able to see through the ornate lace and had spent most of the ceremony concentrating on not vomiting. At the wedding breakfast, the man at her side had been congenially indifferent, instead spending his attention on the man on his other hand, a fellow that Olivia vaguely recalled as being very nearly as handsome as Lord Greenleigh, in a darker, more pensive way.
From this she had learned that Lord Greenleigh was tidy in his manners, and that despite the fact that he smelled entirely wonderful, he was inclined to be very, very rude.
That was very little to go on. Yet here she was, wed to the man for the rest of her life. Her entire future rested in his hands alone. Of course, she had noticed during the meal, which she had scarcely been able to touch, that her new husband had large, shapely hands. In fact, despite his size, he possessed a leonine grace that made it difficult to take her gaze off him.
Now, however, her fascination was quickly dissolving into panicked exasperation. Could they not simply get it over with? Surely the dread was worse than the act itself! She wrapped both arms about herself despite the heat from the fire. She could not seem to get warm.
Olivia bent her head and paced before the hearth once more. She could add another thing to her list---Lord Greenleigh was rather inclined to be late!
Thankfully, Olivia felt her ire rise once more, drowning out her fear.
Men were rats.
Dane Calwell, Lord Greenleigh, had a problem. A very large problem. Even as he stood on the other side of his bride's door, he felt the problem growing. Damn, he hadn't even touched her yet!
There was nothing to be done about his problem. There was no one to discuss it with, for it was not the sort of thing one discussed with other men, and it was certainly not the sort of thing one discussed with a respectable woman---or even an unrespectable one, at that!
Dane had consulted a physician once---and only once. The man had laughed aloud and dismissed him with a clap on the back. "That's no problem, my lord---that's an asset!"
An asset? When even the most experienced courtesans drew back from him in alarm? When he was supposed to father an heir on an innocent, virtuous girl?
Some men would force her regardless. It was his right as her husband. The law was clear. Dane shuddered, appalled that he could even think it. There was much that he would do to protect the future of Greenleigh, but never that. If there was another heir, Dane would not even have attempted to wed, preferring to die forever celibate rather than beset a woman with his . . . problem.
Yet here he was, about to enter the bridal chamber, his problem growing unabated.
He had done his best to delay this moment, even to spending most of his wedding night working in his study. Then, when the clock had chimed eleven times, he had known he could not put it off any longer.
Across the desk from him, his best friend and protégé, Marcus Ramsay, Lord Dryden, caught his grimace and shook his head at Dane. "She's not unattractive, you know."
Dane shrugged carelessly, his expression carefully neutral. "She is precisely as I wished. A truly lovely woman would be far too distracting."
Marcus tilted his head. "So what is your difficulty? Why are you here working when you ought to be in the arms of your bride?"
Dane sighed and shoved himself out of his chair with both arms. "I'm off to her now. Are you satisfied?"
Marcus grinned, a flash of mischievous youth crossing his usually serious features. "I don't think I'm the one who is to be satisfied tonight."
Not likely, but he couldn't very well tell Marcus why. Dane frowned. "This is my lady wife we are discussing."
Marcus raised both hands against Dane's glare. "My apologies. Now, begone. I'll take these documents to the Prime Minister myself tonight. With Napoleon's spymaster still on the loose, I'd rather not trust these to a courier."
Dane nodded. The Chimera was not to be underestimated. The Royal Four had made that mistake already. For the better part of a year, the mysterious leader of the French espionage in London had avoided identification by the Liar's Club, the band of elite spies who acted at the command of the Royal Four. Only in the last weeks had it been discovered that the Chimera was a master of disguise who had walked among them as a petulant young servant they had all dismissed as harmless.
Denny---not his real name, surely, but all they knew to call him---had passed from Liar to Liar when his disagreeable attitude had made him impossible to keep around. Now Dane wondered if that had not been another part of the Chimera's plan. Passing through the households of several spies was bound to be more useful than remaining solely in the service of former spymaster Simon Raines, who had now retired.
The Chimera knew far too much about the Liar's Club---but how much did he know about the Royal Four? Only the Prime Minister and the Prince Regent himself knew the entire truth about the Four, and the current spymaster of the Liar's Club, Dalton Montmorency, Lord Etheridge, who had once been one of them.
Pondering the issue, Dane slowly climbed the stairs toward where his bride awaited him. If the Chimera learned the truth---if anyone on the other side knew of the power the Four wielded, power over the throne itself!---if the Four were exposed, the entire government of England would be ripped asunder. Especially when it was learned that it was the Royal Four who had declared King George mad and secreted him away, appointing Prince George IV as Regent of all Britain. The Cobra, the Lion, the Fox, and the Falcon had committed the highest treason, all in the deepest loyalty.
Although that particular decision had been made by Dane's predecessor and mentor, the previous Lion, as the current Lion, Dane upheld that decision with all his being. One man, king or no, could not be allowed to bring down England. Not even Dane himself, one of the four most powerful men in the land, could be permitted to put anyone or anything before his own duty.
Dane's own weak and traitorous father had taught him that lesson well. A woman had come between Henry Calwell and his duty, a beautiful Frenchwoman who had led Dane's father down a path of obsession and betrayal.
No breath of mistrust had ever reached Dane himself, but he knew perfectly well that if his father's betrayal had been known before Dane's appointment to the Lion's seat, Dane would never have been selected.
Blood will tell. No one so much as whispered the words, but Dane could feel the scrutiny of the other members of the Four like a breath on the back of his neck. He would always have to try harder---always be stricter in his observance of his vows---forever be prepared to sacrifice his own welfare for the sake of the Crown. Sometimes he almost envied what Nate Stonewell, the Cobra, had gone through when he'd been forced to take on the public role of traitor to hide a royal indiscretion. Dane had no such visible badge of honor to substantiate his loyalty. All he had was the shadow of his father's weakness.
Blood will tell.
Hence the selection of Lady Olivia for his bride. Not a woman to fall madly in love with. Not a woman to twist his thoughts and his soul into knots.
Not a woman to lead him to betrayal.
Now, Dane stood in his bedchamber and eyed the connecting doorway with disquiet. He had chosen Cheltenham's daughter with utmost care. Her mother had assured Dane that Olivia was the soul of discretion and virtue, that she was well schooled in all things ladylike, and he had seen for himself that she possessed a surprising fortitude for one so sheltered in life.
Fortitude she was going to need if she was to be his wife in truth. He'd not been able to bear the thought that some other man might snatch up such a prize, and with his usual decisiveness, he'd acted to secure her.
It occurred to him now, too late, of course, that perhaps he ought to have courted the girl a bit. It was going to be difficult enough to win her affections. He knew from experience that if he was not very careful, he would never be able to secure her willingness long enough to gain an heir. He'd be damned if he would leave Greenleigh to some distant relation who'd never set foot on it.
Dane was forced to admit that he'd intentionally avoided his bride. Coward. Of course, he'd been occupied with much more important matters in the past two weeks, he told himself, but he could have sent a flowery, romantic note or three.
It was too late now. There was nothing left but to face her.
Copyright © 2005 by Celeste Bradley