Last week, she’d been the bookkeeper for the dour religious sect her parents belonged to. Today, she’d married a man she’d met for the first time seven days prior. One look at his golden hair and muscular physique and her heart had melted like ice in the summer sun.
After fifteen minutes in her company, the Earl of Deanswood had proposed, and she’d accepted. Why he’d married a nonentity like her was beyond her. Her dowry was nonexistent. She had no experience of London life, and she had no society connections.
She’d spent the last week training her successor to take over as Romchurch fishing village’s bookkeeper. That had meant letting her mother arrange her trousseau. It was the worst mistake Alethea had ever made.
One look and her stomach had sunk like a fishing boat in a storm. Even her wedding gown was a disaster of baggy beige.
“Serviceable,” her mother, Ruth had called it.
The last thing Alethea wanted was a serviceable wedding dress. To her, brides should look so beautiful they dazzled their future husband. Instead, she looked like his poor relation. On second thought, she looked like the poor relation’s badly turned-out housekeeper.
Elder George and her mother—aka the church council—had accused her of giving in to worldly temptations. At least they hadn’t ordered her to do public penance for the sin of marrying an earl. Her father had been beaming ever since she’d agreed to the match.
For all Alethea had a husband to please, she hadn’t a clue what went on in the marriage bed. Asking her mother had been a waste of time. She’d narrowed her eyes and snapped, “Lie there and endure it. That’s what we all do. Tell him once a month and that he has to make it quick.”
Alethea hoped for excitement, affection, and scorching hot sex in her wedding bed. Whatever happened tonight, she’d be an eager participant.
After the ceremony, Deanswood’s mother had arranged a lavish wedding breakfast. Ruth Allerton had folded her arms, tutted, and scowled her disapproval. When the string quartet played a lively dance tune, she’d disapproved of them too. Her attitude hadn’t helped Alethea win any new friends.
With a smile that made her heart turn flip-flops, Deanswood led her toward the dancefloor. He tempered his powerful stride to match hers. “Shall we, my dear?”
She’d felt her cheeks heat and dropped her gaze. “I’d like to, but I don’t… I can’t… I never learned. The Brotherhood doesn’t approve of dancing or music.”
He put one arm around her waist. “Relax and follow my lead.”
The way he held her and the strength in his arms made her feel precious and cared for. His fresh essence made her think of wild, open spaces and freshwater lakes. It was a pleasant change from the dead fish and seaweed smell of Romchurch’s fisher folk.
Naturally graceful, she flowed through complex waltz steps. She loved the tenderness in his gaze. If he looked at her like that when he joined her in the marriage bed, her day would be perfect.
His smile crinkled around his eyes. It set her pulse racing. He gave her waist a squeeze. “I’m sorry about the overdone reception. I’d rather have shared a meal with family and then spent time alone with you. I’m looking forward to later, but don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”
Her cheeks overheated, but her breasts ached for his touch. “I trust you, my lord, although I don’t know much about bedroom games.”
He twirled her through complex turns. “I look forward to teaching you, then.”
Alethea smiled so wide her cheeks ached. Her husband was magnificent and yet so gentle. She couldn’t have loved him more if she’d tried.
Across the room, her father danced with the dowager countess. Ruth Allerton curled her lip and pitched her voice to carry over the orchestra. “Disgusting. Only a harlot would let a man hold her like that. In public, too.”
The music stopped. People stared. Alethea paled and missed her step when her mother made her terrible pronouncement. In front of Deanswood’s family and friends, too.
Deanswood’s gaze turned glacial. “Do you find our dance disgusting?”
Waltzing in her husband’s arms was a sensual delight that left her yearning for their wedding night. “It’s exciting and wonderful. I never wanted our dance to end.”
He shrugged and gestured for the musicians to continue playing. Their tender moment evaporated into stiff spines and strained smiles. As the music drew to halt, a fashionable beauty in a high-waisted gown swept into the room.
If her neckline plunged any lower, her nipples would be on display to the world. The woman’s skirts clung to her thighs, outlining her curves. Looking at her, Alethea wondered if the newcomer had forgotten to don her petticoats.
The smile she flashed Deanswood brimmed with temptation and sin. Hips swaying, she made her lugubrious way toward him. She didn’t spare Alethea a glance.
After leading his new wife back to her seat, Deanswood rushed to the beauty’s side. Horrified whispers filled the room. Something about that woman made Alethea think of a well-fed cat.
Deanswood ushered the newcomer outside. With her perfect hair and fashionable gown, she made Alethea feel like a badly turned-out fishwife.
Ruth Allerton moved behind her daughter. “Stupid girls who make an exhibition of themselves get what they deserve. That’s your husband’s latest mistress.”
Alethea buried her fists in the folds of her gown and swallowed hard. She forced a smile for the sake of her guests, but her stiff spine and her pale complexion betrayed her distress.
Her mother’s harsh expression never softened. “What? You expected him to be faithful to a drab thing like you? Oh, you did. Better you learn your place now and avoid heartbreak later.”
Deanswood’s absence stretched into minutes, but to Alethea, it seemed as if he’d been gone hours. She felt like a kitten lost in a blizzard.
“Stay here,” her mother hissed. “I’ll see what they’re up to.”
Ruth Allerton sidled after them. Across the room, her father conversed with the dowager countess. Lost in each other, they were oblivious to Alethea’s distress. The other guests pretended nothing untoward had happened. Two country dances later and her mother still hadn’t returned. Given her stance on the dancing, Alethea could only see that as a good thing.
Her husband’s prolonged absence was another matter. That hurt. When he finally ambled back into the ballroom, his eyes were hard and unsmiling. The warm smile he’d given her earlier was replaced by a piercing, arctic blast.
Eyes hard, lips pursed, her mother appeared at her side. “Still mooning after a good-looking rake? I raised you better than to fall for a pretty face. I’d have been back sooner, but I didn’t want them to know I’d seen their dirty games. I was stuck behind a bookcase in the library until they stopped rutting like farm animals.”
Alethea’s dreams shattered. Her throat dried and she struggled to breathe. Her legs trembled, and if she didn’t sit down soon, she’d crumple. “How could he?”
Her mother harrumphed. “When your father pulls himself away from that woman, tell him I’ve returned to the hotel. Come with me, and we’ll have your ridiculous marriage annulled. If you make a public apology, you can return to your role as the Brotherhood’s bookkeeper.”
Alethea would never willingly don a thin penitent’s gown and crawl the length of Romchurch’s main street. Having her bare bottom on display would shame the depths of her soul.
The rest of the celebration passed in a miserable blur. Her new husband avoided her as he socialized with their guests. Alethea retreated to a quiet corner, a spectator at her wedding celebration. Her body ached for Deanswood’s touch. She couldn’t understand that, not when he’d betrayed her on her wedding day.
Her father slipped her a purse as he left with dowager countess. Her new mother-in-law whispered, “Don’t worry about tonight, my dear. Relax and enjoy it. I always did. It’s such fun.”
Her mother said one thing, Deanswood’s mother another. So much conflicting advice. Whatever it was, Alethea hoped it was fun.
When Deanswood had twirled her around the dance floor, that personal place between her legs had tingled and grown embarrassingly damp. Her nipples had abraded her linen shift, demanding her husband caress and stroke them. Kiss them, too.
She gave him her brightest smile, trying to recapture the tender moment they’d shared earlier. He scowled back. Quelled, she retreated to her room. Lying on the bed, she stared at the ceiling. The church council had decreed touching herself a sin. Despite that, she cupped her breasts and pinched her nipples through her thick gown. She wished it was Deanswood’s hands teasing and tormenting them. The strange sensation between her legs turned supernova. Hot cream coated her… Fishhooks! She didn’t know what to call that personal place that ached for her husband’s attention.
A knock on the door had Alethea blinking back to reality. Moving her hand from her engorged nipples, she straightened her gown. “Come in.”
A tall woman with a warm smile entered. “I’m Mary, milady. I’m to act as your maid until you hire someone of your own choosing. I’ve already unpacked your trousseau. Would you like to change before you dine?”
Alethea shook her head. “Did my mother order even one pretty gown?”
Mary’s silence said more than any words. Tears pricked the back of Alethea’s eyes, but she refused to cry on her wedding day. “I’m a dab hand with a needle and thread. Let’s see if I can improve things.”
Mary opened the door to Alethea’s dressing room. “I’ll help, my lady.”
Five shapeless gowns hung on a rail, all in various shades of mud. Alethea held back her tears by sheer force of will. Her mother couldn’t have picked a less becoming trousseau if she’d tried. And did she have an obsession with beige? “Have we time to alter one before dinner?”
Mary blushed. “I thought you knew, ma’am. His Lordship’s dining with friends at Whites.”
Crushed, Alethea sat on the edge of the bed and blinked hard. Earlier, her husband abandoned her for his mistress. Now he spent the evening carousing with friends. The double rejection bruised her heart and left her numb inside.
She hadn’t known what to say or do when he flaunted his mistress earlier. Until then, she’d thought a rosy future spread out before them. Now she felt second-rate, ignorant, and useless. “I won’t bother with dinner.”
After selecting a Gothic novel from Deanswood’s library, she retired to her room. This wasn’t how she’d planned to spend her wedding night. She hated the baggy beige nightgown her mother had selected. It hid her slender curves and did nothing to flatter either her olive skin or russet brown hair.
The ladies at her wedding breakfast had glossy, perfectly styled hair. Some even sported a short regency crop. Alethea’s hair frizzed out like a bush, a testament to its dryness and her frequent saltwater bathing. At least it didn’t stink of fish.
As she waited, she wondered what Deanswood would demand from her when he returned. Thinking about her husband slipping into her bed made her cheeks redden, but her heart beat an excited rhythm in her chest.
Lost in her book, Alethea started when the hall clock struck midnight. Her husband wouldn’t be coming now. Disappointment crushed her. He preferred his mistress’s more ample charms to spending time with her. Slamming her book shut with a thud, she pinched out the candle and buried her head in the pillow. Finally, she let the torrent of tears she’d bottled inside pour down her cheeks.
Alethea had no idea how to seduce a man. She needed to learn all the things her mother hadn’t told her. Not that she expected to find a book entitled Seduction Tips for Ladies in her husband’s library.
What she needed was a tutor—someone who could teach her how to please her husband. Even if such a thing existed, she hadn’t a clue how to hire one.
Last night’s tears left Alethea worn out and headachy. When her maid helped her dress, Alethea forced a smile. “My parents’ hotel is in Talbot Court, off Gracechurch Street. How far is that? Can we walk there?”
Mary’s cheeks turned red, and she dropped her gaze. “You can’t go there, ma’am. It’s not respectable, see.”
Since her mother didn’t tolerate anything immoral, her maid’s reaction puzzled her. “Why not?”
Mary blushed. “Viscount Stonehurst lives there, see? The way he carries on is a real scandal.”
Confused, Alethea demanded, “Scandal? Sit down and explain.”
The maid flushed. “Rumor has it that masked couples are in and out of the viscount’s house at all hours. They hire rooms, see? They only stay for an hour or so, but everyone knows what goes on behind closed doors.”
Everyone but me, Alethea thought. If she could enlist the wicked Viscount Stonehurst’s aid, she might find a way to entice Deanswood into her bed. Hopefully, she’d found her tutor.
Alethea would give anything for her husband to join her in the breakfast parlor. Instead, she nibbled her toast in solitary splendor. The scrambled eggs and devilled kidneys she ignored, just the way her husband ignored her. His absence hardened her resolve. She would hire the unknown Viscount Stonehurst to teach her how to make her husband want her. It was the only way to make her marriage work.
She slipped back to her room but dismissed her maid. “I shall spend the morning studying fashion plates in my room. Please see I’m not disturbed.”
Her stomach clenched at the lie. Cutting up a coarse linen shift, she fashioned a fabric mask. Next, she counted the coins her father had given her. She’d never had more than a few pennies of her own. Twenty guineas made her feel as rich as a nabob. Slipping the coins into her pocket, she tiptoed out of the house.
It took her longer than she expected to reach her parents’ hotel. Once she’d spoken with her father, she’d track down the wicked viscount. Whatever her maid said, the hotel seemed as respectable as it had the night before her wedding. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the foyer. “Please tell Baron Allerton his daughter is here to see him.”
Calling her father Baron Allerton seemed strange. She’d thought him a village schoolteacher who grew vegetables in his free time. Only after her engagement did he admit that he held a baronetcy although he had no estate or fortune.
The hotelier recognized her immediately. “I’m sorry but Baroness Allerton arranged seats for herself and her husband on last night’s coach to Dover.”
Alethea had never felt so alone. Her husband couldn’t speak a civil word to her, and her family had abandoned her. The sick feeling in her gut threatened to overwhelm her. Swallowing hard, she stepped outside.
A smart carriage drew up a couple of doors down the street. A masked couple jumped out and ran into one of the houses. That had to be the Viscount Stonehurst’s corrupt establishment.
Four stories high, it looked too ordinary to be scandalous. Her mind boggled at the things her maid said went on inside. Too scared to enter, she turned away. Three paces later, she stopped and retraced her steps. Again, her nerve broke, but for her marriage to work, she needed to entice Deanswood into her bed.
The basement door flew open and a stout woman marched toward her. “Do you want the job or not? I’m tired of watching you wander back and forth like a mooncalf. Come on, girl. I’m already short-staffed and I haven’t got all day. We don’t bite, you know.”
She half dragged Alethea into the kitchen and thrust a white apron at her. “Leave your bonnet on the side for now and put this on.” She shoved Alethea toward the back stairs. “Go up four flights and put these in the room at the end of the corridor.”
The cook had taken one look at Alethea’s gown and decided she was the new housemaid. Since she needed to know what the patrons got up to inside, she didn’t set the woman straight. Exploring this disreputable townhouse might teach her about the wedding bed. And sex. She needed to learn about marital sex.
She folded the apron over at the waist and wrapped the ties twice around her midsection. It still swept over the spotless kitchen floor. All the while, she prayed the real job candidate didn’t turn up.
Picking up the flowers, she climbed to the top floor. A carpeted corridor stretched before her. Halfway along, she spotted a door that wasn’t quite closed. Laughter echoed from it. Alethea peered into the room. A masked woman stood on a table, body bared. She cupped her breasts and posed for her lover. Alethea hadn’t known nipples could turn so dark a red or be so pointed.
Head back, one leg slightly bent, the woman looked as profligate as Delilah tempting Samson. Much as the pair of them fascinated her, Alethea would never dare pose like that for Deanswood but… Something carnal woke inside her, demanding that she turn slut and try it.
When the woman’s lover hooked one of her legs over his shoulder, she rested her hands on his shoulders. He grinned and put his mouth on her…
Fishhooks! Why didn’t my mother ever tell me the name of that place between the woman’s legs? The place the masked man is lapping like a starving tiger.
Moaning with pleasure, the woman buried her hands in his hair. She rotated her hips, pushing them toward her lover’s lips. He put one hand on her bottom, pulling her so close she almost fell. With his other hand, he unlaced his breeches.
The woman’s actions seemed sluttish and wanton—an illicit pleasure that shocked Alethea’s soul. Would Deanswood expect her to do that? A small, slutty voice inside her whispered, “Yes, please.”
Spying on strangers felt sinful and wrong so she moved on down the corridor. A woman’s scream rang out from one of the rooms. Alethea put the flowers on the floor and flung open a door.
A masked man had a woman over his knee, her skirts flung over her head and her bottom bared. Red handprints covered the woman’s pale flesh. She wriggled and squirmed as the man smacked her behind. She convulsed and screamed out her pain.
When the door slammed against the wall, the spanker turned to Alethea and winked. “You’re next.”
The woman gave a high-pitched yelp and sobbed harder. Alethea’s pulse beat a frantic rhythm. Lightheaded and anxious, she backed away. She’d never let anyone manhandle her like that.
Pulling the door shut, she picked up the flowers and ran down the corridor. She shot into the end room and slammed the door behind her. Putting the flowers down, she studied her surroundings.
An array of whips covered one wall. The nearest had a long narrow lash. The far one had nine tails. Seeing a spanking had horrified her, but a flogging? How could anyone submit to something as painful and demeaning as that?
When she looked up, her gaze fixed on the hook set in the ceiling. She pictured someone naked, with their hands bound and fastened over it. They’d scream, weep, and beg while their partner whipped their flesh.
Shaking her head, she spun around. That left her staring at a selection of paddles. Cheeks burning, she sank into the nearest chair and fanned her face with her hand. Deanswood couldn’t… He wouldn’t… What if he wanted her to submit to something like that?
Her husband moved like a warrior and looked like an ancient god. She craved him in her bed, but a spanking? Thinking about that made the nerves in her belly knot. And what if he used a whip?
Stepping back, she sat in the room’s solitary chair. Oh, God, it has cuffs on its arms and the front legs. She leaped to her feet. Her stomach churned and her imagination ran riot. The woman down the corridor had been naked. If she let her lover fasten her to the chair, her inner core would be exposed and vulnerable.
Alethea wanted to run and never look back, but that unnamed place between her legs grew damp. Backing away, she bumped into another piece of furniture. It had two platforms, one lower than the other. Both were padded and covered with red leather. She knelt on the lower platform to better examine the top. As she leaned forward, her position thrust her buttocks in the air. Feeling foolish, she realized she’d draped herself over a spanking aid.
She shot to her feet. This scandalous house horrified her. She breathed hard and fast, and her heart fluttered. Once her stomach stopped churning, she pulled off her apron and raced down the stairs. Eyes wide, heart beating like cannon fire, she burst into the kitchen. Hurling the apron at the housekeeper, she grabbed her bonnet and shot outside.
Her brain overflowed with wicked images. Every one of them involved Deanswood. Sadly, she’d no idea how to tempt him into her bed. She needed someone to guide her through her first sexual adventures. The wicked viscount might be that man.
Terrified, but determined, Alethea turned back. Shoulders squared, she climbed the three steps outside the front door. The brass door knocker, a lion’s head with a ring in its mouth, made her think of Daniel entering the lion’s den. The couple she’d seen earlier hadn’t knocked, though.
Sliding her bonnet so far back it hung by the ties, she donned her homemade mask. Once she’d straightened her headgear, she shoved the door open and stepped inside.
The pale blue walls of the entrance hall weren’t what she expected. No salacious pictures hung on the wall. No half naked women reclined like Jezebel on velvet couches. Although, the things she’d seen upstairs…
A middle-aged man with military bearing blocked her way. “Couples only. I don’t care who you’re looking for, darlin’, you won’t find them here.”
Spine stiff, chin high, Alethea stood her ground. “I need to speak with Viscount Stonehurst. I can pay him for his time.”
The man’s accent proved he wasn’t aristocracy, but neither did he sound uneducated. “Not happening, darlin’. Be off with you, and don’t come bothering us again.”
He didn’t intimidate her, not when she’d spent her whole life dealing with greedy merchants and surly fishermen. Giving him a practiced smile, she pulled her book from her bag and sat on the floor. “I either wait here or on the pavement outside. Outside won’t be good for your trade. I have all day, and I’m not leaving until I’ve spoken with Viscount Stonehurst.”
She sat with her back to the wall and checked her skirt covered her ankles. The chill of the marble floor crept through her clothes and into her legs. The manservant towered over her, arms folded, eyes hard. Staring at her hand, she willed it not to shake as she turned a page. The butterflies in her stomach grew as big as the eagles from the Book of Ezekiel. Ignoring them, she kept her gaze on her book.
The manservant’s lips stiffened into angry lines, and she thought he meant to manhandle her outside. Finally, he shook his head and opened the parlor door. “Through here.”
She rose to her feet, straightened her skirt, and followed. The parlor had cream-colored walls and old gold-colored chairs. The man closed the door after her, leaving her alone. To settle her nerves, she studied the bookcases while she waited for the viscount.
An elegantly garbed gentleman stepped through the doorway. “Viscount Stonehurst at your service. Say what you need to say and leave.”
He looked younger than she’d expected, but he’d judged her a servant by her clothes. “You’re the wicked viscount? You don’t look debauched.”
Dark-haired and tall, he dressed as well as Deanswood, but he was more Mars—the dark God of War—to her husband’s blond Apollo. He pinned her with a cold glare, lounged in the wingback chair, his right ankle over his left knee. “I don’t interview servants, neither do I buy from hawkers. State your business and leave.”
Hard as she tried to look away, her gaze felt glued to his wooden leg. Now she’d seen his articulated ankle joint it both fascinated and horrified her.
Stonehurst followed her gaze. “A legacy of Waterloo. Pay it no heed. I don’t.”
She stood tall and met his gaze, but she felt surprised her voice didn’t shake. “First, my lord, can I trust your discretion?”
He laughed, showing his perfect white teeth. “If you couldn’t, I wouldn’t have any… visitors. You can take my discretion as a given.”
Alethea took a deep breath. “Yesterday was my wedding day. It doesn’t matter who my husband is, but I need to know about the…”
The gentleman’s smile turned mocking. “Not keen on the wedding bed, sweetheart?”
She blushed and tried to gather her thoughts. “I don’t know. I mean, I think I might be, but my husband didn’t… I mean… This is embarrassing. He never came to my bedchamber. I don’t know how to make him want me. I need an experienced man to tutor me and I am willing to pay you five guineas per lesson.”
He rose to his feet and limped to the window, but she thought he struggled to keep his face straight. “I rent out my rooms, not my body. However, I know someone who could both tutor you and cover the costs. I’ll send a note around to Deanswood House with the details. A word of advice, sweetheart. If the answer’s no, don’t ask anyone else. They won’t be as understanding as my friend.”
With her mask firmly in place, she’d thought to keep her identity secret. If the ton got wind of her scheme, her reputation would be in tatters. Deanswood would never want her then. “How did you know?”
He opened the door for her to leave. “You’re obviously a lady and the only member of the ton to marry yesterday was Deanswood. But, like I said, I know how to be discreet.”
Alethea’s feet felt glued to the floor as her plans disintegrated around her. Despite her dry mouth, she again met his gaze. “I have to trust you, but this will only work if I stay masked. Tell my tutor anonymity is key. If he tries to remove my mask, I will leave.”
There. She’d done it. She’d made an assignation with a man who wasn’t her husband. She needed information, but driving this bargain made her feel like a slut.
Deanswood sat in Whites, nursing a brandy as he studied his broadsheet. Two years ago, he’d come through the battle of Waterloo unscathed. Many of his friends hadn’t, but he refused to think about that. On the morning of the battle, his father and older brother had set out on a fishing trip on the Medway.
At the time, he’d pictured them sat at home worrying about him. Instead, they’d gone on a bloody pleasure trip. A fierce squall had blown up, capsizing their yacht and drowning the family he loved. He’d never gotten over their loss.
He used to swim with his brother, splashing and laughing in Deanswood Court’s lake. Now he avoided open water and rivers where possible. As a younger son, he’d never expected to step into his father’s shoes.
Once he’d become an earl, he’d ignored his grief and sold out the army. By day, he worked alongside his tenants. By night, he studied estate management. He’d taken his seat in parliament and spoken up for the soldiers injured at Waterloo, too. His life ran like clockwork, with him determined to control every aspect of it.
Then his mother dropped her bombshell.
She wanted grandchildren.
She still grieved for her husband and eldest son, but Deanswood hadn’t time to deal with painful emotions. They’d cripple him as much as effectively as any war injury if he let them. Better to keep them caged inside and ignore them.
Coolly logical, he’d listed the qualities he looked for in his bride. He prized a ready wit and common sense over beauty. Facing a giggling debutante over the breakfast table was his idea of hell.
For his mother’s sake, he’d met so many society beauties his jaw ached from smiling. They bored him senseless. Life was short, and he refused to spend his with a woman who irritated him.
Frustrated, he’d asked his mother if she knew any suitable candidates. She’d suggested Lady Alethea, daughter of one of her old friends. “Her father wrote to me when I came out of mourning, asking me to launch her into society. I wasn’t up to it, though.”
He’d patted her hand and pretended he understood the way she wallowed in grief.
Comforted, she smiled. “Do you remember my friend, Cecily? Like me, she thought the world of Edward Allerton. She left her small Kent property, The Cottages, to his daughter, Alethea. I always thought it provided a good income. Apparently not, since the poor girl has no dowry.”
After a moment’s consideration, Deanswood nodded. “Common sense matters more than a dowry.”
His mother beamed. “Then you’re in luck. Alethea’s the bookkeeper for some godforsaken fishing village run by religious zealots. Her father said she was down to earth and sensible, so she might make you a suitable bride.”
Within a fortnight, he’d tracked Alethea Allerton down, proposed, and wed her by special license. Her brain was sharp, as proven by the role she’d carved for herself in the Brotherhood’s village. Her hips were wide enough for childbearing. Her figure, although disguised in a shapeless gown, was pleasing. Silently, he cheered his mother for sending him to meet a woman who met all the requirements he needed in a wife.
He’d planned to bed his wife, impregnate her, and pack her off to Deanswood Court—his country estate. Only, Alethea wanted nothing to do with the wedding bed. Frustration made his fists curl and his gut churn. He needed to punch something, or he’d explode.
He looked up as an old army friend joined him. “They haven’t blackballed you yet, then?”
Unperturbed, Stonehurst grinned. “These old fogies? They wouldn’t dare. Too many of them visit my establishment. I hear you got caught in the parson’s mousetrap yesterday.”
Deanswood took a swig of his brandy. “My mother went over the top with celebrations. Then Babs Kensington turned up waving the invitation my wife had sent her. I threw her out, of course.”
Stonehurst’s eyes shone with mischief. “Your wife came to my establishment earlier. She offered me five guineas to fuck her.”
Deanswood spluttered and almost spat out his brandy. “She did what?”
Stonehurst leaned back and savored a second sip of his wine. “Do you want me to repeat it? After you’ve drawn everyone’s gaze? I didn’t take her money or screw her, of course. Let’s find somewhere to talk.”
Anger turned Deanswood’s features haughty and harsh. Fists curled, he glowered at his friend. Make that former friend. He’d rather beat Stonehurst senseless than talk. “You keep your bloody hands off her.”
All Deanswood had wanted was an heir and a spare. Instead, his wife barred him from her bed—unless a quick screw with no foreplay or kisses once a month counted. He’d rather have stayed single.
He’d dreamed of a wife with a warm smile and sweet nature. Curves that made his mouth water and his palms twitch would be a bonus. Leg-shackling himself to Alethea Allerton was the biggest mistake he’d ever made.
He should have made it clear that he expected to bear his children and submit to the occasional spanking. In return, he’d teach her about passion, bondage, and obedience. Until his mother-in-law collared him in the library, he’d been looking forward to his wedding night. His mother-in-law’s words had kyboshed that.
Stonehurst struggled to contain his laughter. “So, what really happened on your wedding night?”
“It’s none of your business,” Deanswood snapped.
Unabashed, Stonehurst grinned. “Your wife made it my business. Her dress sense is shocking. Is that why you couldn’t perform last night?”
Stonehurst was right. Alethea had involved him in the tangled mess of her marriage. “Did Alethea say I couldn’t… Of course, I could… Damn it, I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“It might help to talk about it,” Stonehurst suggested.
Deanswood sighed. “Nothing else seems to. After I’d thrown Lady Babs out, my new mother-in-law collared me in the library. She read me an endless lecture on the sins of marital sex. I’d rather take a dressing down from Wellington than endure that again.”
Inwardly, Deanswood fumed. Why the hell had his wife waited until after the ceremony to send her mother to tell him she didn’t want sex? He supposed she was eager to get her grasping hands on his fortune.
When he learned his wife planned to cuckold him, his eyes narrowed and lips thinned in anger. A trip to Gentleman Jackson’s boxing salon beckoned. Going a few rounds with the champion might calm his soul.
Stonehurst’s teasing manner vanished, and he held up both hands, palm out. “I never touched her. We’re attracting too much attention. Walk with me.”
Deanswood had fought alongside Stonehurst in the Peninsular War and again at Waterloo. They’d shared too much to fall out over a woman. That said, Stonehurst enjoyed the earl’s discomfort far too much.
Antagonism crackled between them. Other members gave them curious stares and a wide berth. Deanswood needed to contain his temper or gossip would run rife.
Stonehurst headed for the door, leaving Deanswood no option but to follow. Exercise and fresh air cleared his thoughts, but he didn’t know what the hell his wife was thinking. Her harridan of a mother had spewed out a tale about Alethea, sex, and sin. His wife’s visit to Stonehurst’s House of Fun didn’t make sense.
The viscount linked his arm through Deanswood’s. “Your bride arrived midmorning—masked and alone.”
Deanswood growled. “Where the hell was her maid?”
Shaking his head, Stonehurst told him, “She didn’t bring one. Your inability to perform is none of my business, but your wife seemed unhappy that you didn’t visit her last night. In fact, she asked me to find her a tutor to teach her about sex and seduction.”
Deanswood blanched. “Over my dead body. Tell her there’s no such thing. Oh, God”—he ground his teeth in frustration—“if you do she might turn to someone else.”
Stonehurst smirked. “Better to bed her and get it over with.”
Jaw set in stern lines, Deanswood stopped dead. “This is her blasted mother’s fault. I must have looked like a clod pole, standing there with my mouth open. She insisted my new wife didn’t want me to spend more than two minutes in her bed. It’s one of the tenets of her religion or something.”
Stonehurst laughed. “Your wife is willing, believe me. I don’t understand why her mother lied, but she did.”
A tic started in Deanswood’s jaw. Fists clenched, he strode like a lion on the prowl. “Once a month, the old witch said, with no foreplay or kisses.”
The look Viscount Stonehurst gave him called him a fool.
Deanswood marched down the street, all military swagger and simmering fury. “Should I have forced my way inside her? Maybe done her physical harm? I wouldn’t treat any woman like that, especially one I’m married to. I retreated to Whites, but I only stayed a short while. I didn’t want to give the gossips fodder to chew over.”
Stonehurst shook his head. “You shouldn’t have gone at all.”
“You’re right,” Deanswood agreed. “Damn it, I never expected to spend my wedding night nursing a bottle of claret alone in my study.”
Again, Stonehurst raised an eyebrow. “Your wife’s returning to my townhouse tomorrow morning. She insists on never unmasking for whoever I pair her with. I could send her a note saying no tutor is available, I suppose. What do you want me to do?”
A devilish smile lit Deanswood’s features. “Pair her with me. I’ll teach her about sexual frustration before I give her the spanking she deserves.”
“It won’t work,” Stonehurst told him. “She’ll recognize your physique, not to mention voice.”
Deanswood thought fast. “Tell her the tutor wants to be anonymous too. Send her a special mask. One without eyeholes and say I insist she stays blindfolded when she’s with me. Make it a pretty one, trimmed with lace or something. I’ll enjoy warming her behind after I’ve bedded her.”
Caught up in Deanswood’s plans, Stonehurst nodded. “I have something suitable in my playroom.” His manner turned teasing. “Eleven o’clock, remember. If you’re late, I’ll put my principles to one side and stand in for you.”
Deanswood grabbed Stonehurst’s lapels. “Lay one finger on her and I’ll ensure the ton shuns you and your rooms. Permanently.”
Alethea nibbled a sandwich, but she didn’t taste it. Her husband hadn’t come home, and he hadn’t sent a message to say when he’d return. She couldn’t understand why Deanswood had wed her then refused to speak to her.
Putting on a brave face, she let the housekeeper show her around and she took care to memorize the servants’ names. Having discussed the week’s menus with the cook, she wandered aimlessly around Deanswood House.
When a footman brought her a package, Alethea retreated to her room and tore it open. She stared at a lace-covered blindfold. When she held it up to her eyes, it blocked her vision completely. Puzzled, she took another look inside the package and pulled out a note.
My Dear Lady Deanswood,
I have found a gentleman willing to tutor you and shoulder the costs. His only proviso is that you never remove this blindfold in his presence. It will avoid any embarrassment should you meet at any of the ton’s functions.
If that’s acceptable, return at eleven a.m. tomorrow.
Alethea’s chest tightened. She’d be vulnerable and helpless, lost in a world of darkness if she wore it. Her stomach clenched as if adrift in stormy seas. Wearing a blindfold would change everything.
Kissing an unknown gentleman sounded wanton, wicked, and wrong. Exciting, too, but she’d rather kiss Deanswood. Thinking about his lips pressing against hers made her breathe hard and fast.
The tingling sensation between her legs exploded like a firework. Her need became a physical ache in her chest. Her shoulders drooped when she realized her husband couldn’t stand to be in the same room as her. More than ever, she needed to know about sex.
As if thinking Deanswood’s name summoned him, he strolled into the parlor. He looked like an angry demon rather than the sun god of her dreams. As always, his utter masculinity made her breath catch in her throat. Her heartbeat boomed like a bass drum, and despite his fierce demeanor, she prayed he waltzed with her again soon…
She pictured his lips trailing down her neck until he laved at her breasts. Would he run his tongue over them? Or nip them between his teeth? She almost moaned at the thought.
Just because she’d fallen for her husband’s golden good looks didn’t mean he felt the same way about her. She’d dreamed of them growing old together and sharing companionship and laughter. Now she’d settle for a smile.
One look at Deanswood and she’d given him her heart. He wanted that as little as he wanted her body. She’d never imagined consummating her marriage could be so hard.