Phoebe lay curled in bed, reading a novel by lamplight. It took her a moment to register the sounds she heard from her sister’s room next door.
Was that—? Could it be—?
It sounded like flesh slapping flesh. She heard her sister’s giggled protests and realized, with a start, that her lover must be spanking her. Maud had taken Lord Fenton, the notorious rake, into her bedroom for the past several nights, enjoying him whilst Lord Reddington, her odious husband, was out of town. From the sound of it, Lord Fenton had the upper hand on her at the moment.
“Go stand in the corner until you can learn not to be such a selfish cow,” she heard him order. She almost laughed herself, as her older sister was, in fact, extraordinarily self-centered. Fenton’s recognition of it raised him in her estimation. Lord Fenton was quite a prize for Maud, not that she’d keep him long, judging by his notoriety. He was the prize all the unwed ladies tried in vain to win, as he was everything in one package—boyishly handsome, charming, wealthy, titled, and single. But he never courted any lady eligible for marriage, seeming to prefer the already married or widowed for his entertainment.
Though she would never admit it to a living soul, even she had pined for him. But in her case, it wasn’t the money or the charm or the title that drew her; rather, an overheard conversation between him and his sister a few years prior. Maud and Reddington had held a Christmas ball and she’d come upon a handsome young man and woman in the corridor. At first, she thought they might be an amorous couple, looking for a moment alone, and she’d drawn back to give them privacy. Then she realized the young lady was crying.
“It’s nothing. It’s just that no one ever asks me to dance, and…”
“Shh, Wynnie. Here,” he said, producing a handkerchief. “It’s only because you don’t bat your eyelashes and say insipid things and play parlor games that have the chance of producing a scandal. And frankly, I’m all the more proud of you for it. If you acted as foolishly as those young ladies out there, I’d take you over my knee.”
“Oh, Teddy,” she said, clearly not giving his threat any credence. “What do you know about courting? You’ve never done it in earnest.”
“Come here,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “I know you are a beautiful and intelligent young woman and when the right man finds you, he will know you as the gem you are. Now come on, let’s go back there. I’ll dance with you.”
“Dancing with my brother will not improve my prospects!” the young lady exclaimed, but she was starting to laugh and it was clear her brother had lifted her mood.
He put his arm around her shoulders and directed her down the corridor. “Then I’ll send a gentleman over.”
“Please do not. I would rather not suffer your pity.”
Phoebe had stepped out and greeted them, lest they realize she’d been there all along. “Who is that?” she asked Maud when they entered the hall.
“Lord Fenton. Stay far away from him, Phoebe. His only interest in ladies is how quickly he can bed them.”
“No… that gentleman over there?” she’d asked, certain Maud was mistaken.
“Yes, the handsome one. He’s Lord Fenton,” her sister had said before she breezed away.
Phoebe had stood gaping, finding it difficult to reconcile the tender compassion she’d just witnessed with a man known for his scandalous behavior. No family member had ever shown her the warmth and affection she witnessed between Fenton and his sister. It became a fascination for her over the following two years, to imagine what sort of man Lord Fenton really was and Maud’s recent acquisition of his favors made her more jealous than she cared to admit.
The sound of a carriage outside the London house did not draw her particular attention, as they lived on a noisy street, but when she heard the front door open, she sat bolt upright in bed.
“Maud!” she hissed in the direction of her sister’s room. But she had no doubt her sister heard it too, as all voices ceased and she heard a thump as if someone had jumped from the bed. Why was Reddington home at this hour when he was not supposed to return for two nights? She scrambled out of her own bed and threw a robe over her nightdress, heading out onto the landing to provide distraction, if necessary. It was one thing to begrudge Maud her lover, it was quite another to allow her to be in real danger from her husband.
Lord Fenton slipped out of her sister’s room, his cravat hanging untied about his neck and his jacket and waistcoat off. He moved with calm efficiency, his fingers tying the knot at his throat as his eyes swept right and left for the best exit. Maud slipped out behind him, pulling her robe around her shoulders.
“That way,” she whispered, pointing toward the servants’ stairs, but it was too late.
“What’s going on?” Reddington boomed, barreling up the stairs. He had a pistol in his hand, as if he’d expected to find Maud with a lover. “Fenton,” he snarled. “I should have known it was you poaching from my bed!”
Phoebe felt a wave of dizziness. Reddington was going to shoot Fenton, and God only knew what he would do to Maud.
Thinking quickly, she grasped Fenton’s arm possessively. “No one was poaching from your bed, my lord. He was with me!” she gasped.
Reddington’s eyes bulged and, if possible, he appeared even angrier. She knew he considered her a possession as much as he did her sister. Perhaps even more, since he had attempted to force himself upon her every time he could connive to be alone with her. “You?” he intoned incredulously. “No,” he shook his head. “Not you.”
“Yes,” she whispered, trembling so badly her thighs tapped together on their own volition. Fenton must have felt it, because he wrapped his arm about her waist and drew her close. It was an entirely new and satisfying feeling to have a man hold her protectively.
If he had not, Reddington’s slap would certainly have knocked her to the floor. Her vision went dark as pain exploded on the side of her face and a strong arm caught and righted her. When the dark spots in front of her eyes cleared, she saw the two men scrambling about on the floor, with Fenton appearing to have the advantage, despite Reddington’s pistol. He struck Reddington’s wrist against the floor, causing the pistol to fly loose, and then straddled her brother-in-law, slamming his fist into the man’s face.
Vindicated by Fenton’s assault on Reddington, she considered the implications of claiming him as her lover. Reddington would certainly throw her out and her reputation would be ruined. If Fenton would not provide for her—and she doubted a man of his rakish reputation would be so scrupulous—her life now meant nothing. She snatched up the pistol and pointed it at the two men. “Stop it! Both of you.”
Neither listened. She lunged forward, waving the muzzle of the gun between their heads so they’d see it. “Stop or I’ll shoot you both!”
Her hands shook so violently, she feared she might discharge the heavy firearm by accident. Fenton slowly stood up from his crouch, palms out. “Easy, sweetheart. Give me the pistol,” he soothed, holding out his hand.
When she didn’t move, he reached out and grasped the barrel of the gun, tugging gently. She resisted at first, then allowed him to slide it out of her sweaty grasp, surprised to find herself drawn against him in another pleasing embrace.
“I demand satisfaction,” Reddington huffed. He had also righted himself and now stood, red-faced and bug-eyed.
“He is going to marry me,” she heard herself say, her voice sounding shaky and far away. It was her only chance. She would ask nothing of him—only his name—but without it, she was utterly ruined. She dared a glance at Fenton, who must surely be horrified at the thought of marrying someone he didn’t even know.
He met her gaze and held it. There was no fear or anger in it. In fact, she found only compassion there, reminding her of the way he’d been with his sister. “Yes. Quite right. I mean to marry her,” he said, picking up her cue.
She swallowed, unable to look away from the warm brown eyes locked on her own.
“I plan to post the banns tomorrow.”
She could feel Maud’s horrified expression, and realized the title of Lady Fenton was coveted by nearly every female in London—single, wed, or widowed—both for the wealth and the man who came with it, though she’d had none of that in mind when she’d forced his hand. She could see Maud seething with jealousy, and perversely, it heartened her. For once in her life, she would have something Maud did not. But more than that, more than anything, she wished to be out of Reddington’s house, forever. Surely marriage to Lord Fenton could be no worse than what she had suffered there.
“I sincerely doubt that,” Reddington sneered.
“Oh?” Fenton gave a rakish grin and shocked her with a kiss full on the mouth, pulling her waist against his body so she arched into him. Never having been kissed before, she froze, then remembered to put on a show and looped an arm behind his neck.
His lips were surprisingly supple for a man’s and they opened, repositioned, and kissed a second time at a different angle. His kiss was confident, refined. He was a man who had kissed a thousand women, probably, but for that one moment, she pretended it was just for her. She breathed in the scent of him—spiced soap and wool, with a touch of Maud’s perfume around the edges.
“Enough!” Reddington exploded and Fenton drew his head away with a satisfied smirk, underscoring what she already had known—that the kiss was for Reddington’s benefit, not hers. But he still held her possessively against his body, the firm muscle of his thigh meeting her belly, his protection lending her strength.
Fenton lifted the pistol with a gracefully straight arm and pointed it steadily at Reddington’s head, causing the man to still. “If you touch her again while she’s under this roof—in any way at all—I will kill you.”
She nearly swooned. Reddington’s lip curled in a snarl, but he did not answer.
“That is a promise.”
* * *
Teddy took Lord Reddington’s pistol with him when he left, not because he had any rights to it, but because he didn’t trust the man with a weapon in hand. Reddington had been apoplectic when he struck Maud’s younger sister and it made him uneasy to leave her with him. In fact, he wondered if he could not pull some strings with the magistrate to wed her without the delay of posting the banns.
It had been incredibly brave of her to take responsibility for his and her sister’s misdeed. She had saved his life, possibly Maud’s as well. Though it had never been his intention to marry—he’d seen the folly of it through his parents’ miserable union—he realized the necessity of offering his hand to his little rescuer. He wasn’t about to ruin an innocent young lady’s reputation.
At home, his valet helped him to disrobe and he climbed into his bed, thinking of his young bride. He did not even know her name. She was lovely—even lovelier than her sister. She had the same wavy blond hair, which had cascaded over her shoulders like a mantle of pale silk. Her eyes were wide-set and a different shade of blue than Maud’s— cornflower, with violet rims. There had been intelligence there—not the calculating sort of intelligence of her sister, but rather, an innocent, unworldly sort. She’d brought out the protector in him, which was not a role he often played with women.
He sent a message to the magistrate first thing in the morning and sat down to breakfast with Wynn, his younger sister.
“Good morning,” she said cheerfully. She made no comment on the lateness of the hour he’d arrived home, well used to his habits by now.
“Well, I’m happy to inform you that you will soon have a sister with whom to do your dress shopping.”
“What?” Wynn cried, her face lighting up. “Who? Wait…” Her look of delight changed to one of confusion as she surely realized he had not been courting anyone, unless one counted the married women with whom he dallied. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve done a terrible thing, Wynnie,” he admitted, though his tone remained cheerful.
Her face grew serious. “Is she pregnant? Is she married? Who is it?”
“It’s worse than that, actually.” He looked into Wynn’s anxious face, realizing how much he’d be relying on her support to make his wife comfortable. It would be a reversal of roles for them. Six years her elder, he’d been her guardian and chaperone when she came for the London seasons. But marriage… marriage was something he was not sure he was capable of managing on his own. He was suddenly grateful she was here with him, to help ease the awkwardness of bringing home a bride he didn’t know.
“I’ve never even been with her. I honestly don’t even know her name.”
Wynn put down her fork, her eyes round. “Is this a jest? What happened, Teddy? Do tell me, before I go mad!”
“You may recall I’ve been seeing Lady Reddington?” At her nod, he continued, “Well, last night saw an unfortunate incident at her home. Lord Reddington discovered me there.”
“Teddy, no!” she gasped.
“Yes. He was waving a pistol and appeared prepared to kill me on the spot.”
“Oh, Teddy!” Her tone had an ‘I told you so’ reproach in it.
“But as it happened, Lady Reddington’s young sister was also on the landing where he discovered us, and also in a dressing gown and robe. She saved us both by swearing I had been with her, instead.”
“I see. So now you must marry her,” Wynn said softly, her face pale and serious.
“Miss Fletcher. Phoebe Fletcher is her name. I met her once. She is ‘out,’ but she seldom attends any balls—my impression was that Lady Reddington is none too eager to share the attention.”
“Phoebe,” he said, enjoying the way the name rolled around his tongue. It suited her. “Yes, she far surpasses her sister in beauty, does she not?” he asked.
Wynn narrowed her eyes at him. “Perhaps you will grow to love her?” she asked doubtfully. She knew he had inherited their father’s wandering eye, never content with any woman for longer than a few months. It was the reason he had never married—he did not believe he could be faithful to one lady, and he would never put a lady through the life their mother had led.
A pang of guilt tightened his chest. “Perhaps she will grow to love me,” he said lightly, to cover it.
“They all love you—that is hardly the problem, is it?” Wynn said drily.
He rubbed his sideburns. “I will do my very best to make her happy.”
Wynn nodded and picked her fork back up, then froze. “Teddy… you don’t think they planned it, do you? I mean, tricked you into marrying Phoebe? Maybe the three of them were all in on it, together—the Fenton fortune is coveted by more than a few.”
He considered, then shook his head. “No,” he said, remembering Reddington’s vicious attack on Phoebe and the way the young lady had trembled against his body. “No, it was real.”
He stood up from the table. “I’m going to see if I can bring her home today.”
“Today? Before the wedding? But that’s not proper, Teddy!”
“I’m going to wed her at the magistrate’s, if I can.”
“But Teddy, it will be a scandal!”
“Scandal has always been chasing me, hasn’t it?” he said with a wry grin. When she frowned, he said, “It cannot be avoided, Wynn. A hasty marriage is a hasty marriage, but at least there will not be a pregnancy to cause gossip.”
“Well, I’m coming along, too, then,” Wynn declared with a lift of her chin.
He smiled gratefully. “Of course you are.”
When he received an affirmative answer from the magistrate, he and Wynn took the carriage to Reddington’s. He half expected the butler to turn him away, but they were admitted and Lady Reddington and Miss Fletcher entered. He was struck anew at the younger lady’s beauty. She was exquisite—her complexion flawless, her features perfectly shaped and proportioned. Her eyes looked almost violet. She dipped into a curtsy, inadvertently providing him with the tantalizing view of her cleavage. Maud stepped directly in front of her sister, holding out her hand. “Lord Fenton,” she gushed. “How good of you to call.”
He paused before he took her hand, wondering how he could have stood the ill-mannered woman at all. If he’d had any doubt the sisters had plotted together for this marriage, it was now erased. Maud was clearly jealous rather than grateful to her sister for risking her entire future to prevent Reddington from discovering her own infidelity.
He dropped Maud’s hand and looked past her. “Phoebe, I’ve come to take you to the magistrate today, unless you’ve changed your mind.”
Phoebe recovered swiftly from her surprise. “I have not changed my mind. I will go and pack my things.”
“You’ll pack nothing,” Reddington clipped from where he loomed in the doorway. “Nothing you’ve acquired under my guardianship.”
Phoebe’s jaw tightened, but she dropped a curtsy. “As you say, my lord.”
“Never mind, Phoebe. I can provide anything you might desire,” he said, leveling a challenging look at Reddington, whose eyes narrowed.
“Thank you, my lord,” Phoebe said with a deep curtsy. “I will return presently.” She drew herself up to walk past her brother-in-law.
It was a full half-hour before Phoebe returned, her maid carrying a few small bags behind her, which appeared to be mostly books.
“I’m ready,” she said, her face pale and pinched. Maud made a big show of crying as she kissed her goodbye, but he noticed Phoebe did not shed any tears, though she did not appear happy, either.
When they climbed in the carriage, he picked up her little gloved hand. “That was a very gallant thing you did last night. It’s quite possible you saved my life.”
* * *
Phoebe ducked her head, feeling a flush creep up her chest and spread to her neck. She could think of no suitable reply. Fenton put a finger under her chin and turned her face to the side, examining the bruise left where Reddington had struck her. Her belly tightened as his face turned dark, but he said nothing, instead lightening the mood by teasing, “Did you forget it’s the knight who rescues the damsel in distress, and not the other way around?” He gave her a lopsided grin. “I’m utterly mortified,” he claimed, though she doubted he’d ever been mortified by anything in this entire life. He was the most self-possessed, cocksure man she’d ever met, a fact which she unfortunately found extremely attractive.
She took a deep breath to launch into the speech she’d been practicing all morning. “My lord. Thank you for agreeing to marry me. Considering it is a marriage neither of us wanted or intended, I have a proposal to make.”
He arched his eyebrows, not allowing her to retrieve her hand from his grasp when she tried.
“I—er… It is well-known you have a very active, ah…” She stopped, her face flushing. This was not the way she’d rehearsed it. For some reason, all words had left her. Fenton turned her hand palm up and absently massaged the heel of it with his thumbs, scattering her thoughts and sending a prickle of warmth across her skin. Miss Fenton looked pointedly out the carriage window, as if to give them privacy.
“You may speak frankly, Miss Fletcher,” he prompted.
“I know you see a lot of women,” she blurted, inwardly cursing at how three years of finishing school charm seemed to have left her. “And I do not wish to stop you from your… er, activities. So I propose a marriage in name only—with separate bedrooms, you know.” Her cheeks were flaming now, but Fenton appeared completely unruffled.
“If that is your wish, I will oblige,” he said easily. “You sacrificed your freedom to ensure my safety. I am indebted to you, little dove.”
His gratitude came as a surprise, and she lifted her eyes to meet his.
“I intend to give you the best life I possibly can.”
She stared at him, doubting he was sincere. This must be part of his charm. He could not be sincere, because in her experience, people did not look after anyone’s lives but their own. She blinked rapidly, unsure how to reply and he lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her fingers and causing a riotous quiver between her legs. Dear Lord. She remembered the overheard conversation with his sister, a shadow of confusion creeping into her mind. Could it be Fenton was not shallow and self-absorbed as most believed him? Or was he so well-practiced with his charm that such assurances simply rolled off his tongue?
* * *
After marrying before the magistrate, he took the ladies to tea at a little café and then to the Bond Street Bazaar to purchase Phoebe’s trousseau. They stopped first for gloves and hosiery, where he took active part in the discussion with the ladies about which were the best.
“You don’t have a say, Teddy, even if you are a dandy,” Wynn scolded.
“I most certainly do. I’m buying them, and they will be worn by my wife, so I should think I have even more of a say than you, dear sister.” He held up a beautiful pair of pink silk hose for their examination.
“Oh!” Wynn exclaimed at the color.
“I didn’t know they made them in colors,” Phoebe breathed, the look of longing on her face making him want to buy her one hundred pair.
He took an appraising glance at her long legs, imagining them bared to him. She caught his look and turned as pink as the hose, which only furthered the rise of heat under his collar. Appreciating her blush, he gave a slow smile, holding her blue-eyed gaze and watching the rapid movement of her lifted breasts as she struggled to breathe. Her rosebud lips parted, but no sound emerged. He waited a moment before having mercy and releasing her from the gaze with a wink. She turned even more pink, blinking rapidly as she drew herself up and squared her shoulders.
“We’ll take two pair of these,” he said to the salesman, holding up the pink hose, “and whichever pair of gloves the lady chooses.”
He continued to torment his young bride, insisting on choosing her hat at the milliner, and the color of her ball gown (a deep violet, to bring out her eyes), making a show out of sizing up her features for the best choice. As uncomfortable as he made her, he could also tell she was growing giddy with the large amount of money he was spending on her, confirming his suspicion that Reddington had not allowed her much freedom. The best part of the afternoon was seeing the way her face lit up when he took the ladies to Lackington Allen & Co at Finsbury Square. It was a large, multi-storied bookstore, filled with every sort of book imaginable.
“The books here are quite affordable, so choose as many as you like,” he told her.
Her jaw dropped as her face shone with rapture. “As many as I like? You will buy them? To own? I mean, it’s not a subscription library?”
He smiled at her excitement. “I will buy them. Just let me see them first, because Wynn and I have already amassed a large collection at home.”
She smiled. It was the first genuine smile he had seen from her, and it caused an unnerving sensation in the center of his chest—a curious fluttering, along with a warmth and a sense of expansion. It was not the beauty of the smile itself, which was admittedly lovely, but rather the joy behind it, as if he were given a glimpse right into her soul where she hid a passion brighter than the sun.
And she belonged to him now. It was a stunning thought—one he never thought he would appreciate.
He had originally thought her proposal of a marriage in name only was ideal. He would be careful not to embarrass her with gossip about his mistresses, and she could not be hurt when she’d given her explicit permission. They would grow comfortable with one another in a platonic way, much like he had with his sister, or his childhood friend, Kitty Westerfield. Now, though, the idea irked him. Try as he might, he could not seem to put Phoebe into the same category as Kitty and Wynn. He wanted her in his bedroom, to feel the touch of her velvet skin beneath his hands, the slope of her shoulder beneath his lips, the curve of her waist beneath his hands. He wanted that brilliant smile in his bedroom, directed at him on a nightly basis.
After a late supper at home that evening, he entered his bedroom with a sigh, removing his jacket and waistcoat and dismissing his valet. He must face the nagging issue of consummation. Whether they intended to keep separate bedrooms or not, a marriage was not legal until the couple had lain together as husband and wife. And as beautiful as he found his bride, he had a hard rule against taking an unwilling woman to his bed. In fact, there was nothing more distasteful to him.
Tapping lightly on the connecting door, he did not wait for an answer before he pushed it open. The look of fear on her face as she whirled around pained him, but he entered casually, as if they were perfectly comfortable with one another. She wore the same nightdress she’d worn the night before, but this time without the robe, and he could see the curve of her breasts, which moved under the thin linen.
“Come, little wife,” he said, holding out his arm. When she did not move, he took a step and caught her hand, tugging her gently to the bed where he sat and pulled her onto his knee. He wrapped one arm around her waist and rested the other on her thigh. She sat stiffly, her fingers twisting together in an anxious knot. He covered the nervous hands, stilling them. She smelled fresh and clean with a hint of roses and he had the sense of her fitting perfectly on his lap—her legs the right length to still reach the floor with her feet, her bottom soft and wide enough to settle firmly on his thigh.
“Did you,” she began breathlessly, “intend to exercise your conjugal rights after all?” She blinked rapidly and appeared to be holding her breath. Her voice held no trace of the high pitch of youth—it was rich and throaty, somehow both sweet and worldly at the same time.
“Well, that is why I am here. But I do not intend to do anything against your wishes,” he assured her.
Her breath began again, moving her breastbone up and down in short intervals.
He picked up one of the blond waves that had fallen over her shoulder and twirled it in his fingers. It was as fine as spun silk, so much softer than he had imagined. “What I’m wondering is whether we ought to lie together—just once—to consummate the marriage.”
Her innocence showed in her blush, but the tips of her nipples protruded from under her nightdress, making his breath catch. He retracted his hand from her hair, lest he be tempted to fondle what lay below and shifted his weight on the bed to alleviate the discomfort of his rapidly hardening cock.
She swallowed and parted her lips, but no answer came forth.
“If we don’t, we leave the possibility of annulling it later, if one of us wishes to do so.”
Her eyes met his for the first time, widening. “Do you wish it?”
He grinned. “Wish what? To lie with you or to annul the marriage?”
His jest eased some of her rigidity and her eyes narrowed. “Knowing your reputation, you probably wish for both.”
He threw back his head and laughed, delighted to see the return of the courage he’d glimpsed the night before.
She softened further at his laughter.
“I’m quite sure I would enjoy the first, though I have not defiled an innocent since I was a much younger man.”
“Indeed, everyone knows your preference is for married women.”
He grinned at her. “Yes, yet this is the first time I have been faced with a lady who is both.”
Flustered, she tried to stand up. He tightened his grasp around her waist and held her fast. “Where do you think you’re going, little dove? We are not finished talking. I will not force you into my bed, but you are my wife now, so you have to mind me. I have no compunction about turning a lady over my knee.” In fact, the idea of turning his pretty wife over his knee made his heart beat erratically for a moment.
She went rigid and stared at him as if to gauge whether he was serious. He allowed one corner of his mouth to turn up and she blew out her breath and smiled. Lifting her hand, she brushed a lock of hair from his eyes and for one moment he truly felt like a married man—glimpsing how it felt to receive simple wifely endearments like straightening his collar or brushing his hair from his face. The idea surprised him with a sense of longing for something he’d not known he’d been missing.
“What do you expect of me as your wife?” she asked softly.
“Your absolute love and devotion,” he said immediately, calling forth a low laugh from her lips. He stroked up her thigh and back, admiring the firm muscle of her elegant leg and ignoring the stiffening his touch incited. “Yes, let’s discuss my expectations. First of all, you must always look pleased to be with me, no matter what you may really feel. And I want you to always be dressed in the latest fashion, with the most expensive sort of shoes. You should be a suitable chaperone for Wynn, and I’ll expect you to find her a husband by the end of the season, and… let’s see… what else do wives do?”
He touched her cheek. “I’ll tell you what I expect of you, little dove. You must speak frankly with me if we’re to somehow make the best out of this rather… unusual… situation. As much as I adore your blushes and lowered eyes, I would very much prefer we were comfortable and honest with one another. I cannot make you happy if I don’t understand you, and I’d prefer not to make guesses that might be wrong. So my question to you now is: do you, or do you not, wish to consummate this marriage?”
Phoebe’s chest heaved, the tips of her nipples protruding even farther and heat dampening his trousers where she sat upon his leg.
But her knees snapped together and her buttocks tightened upon his knee. “I do not.”