Authors: Wicked Delights of a Bridal Bed
Tracy Anne Warren
Wicked Delights of a Bridal Bed
Seated in the elegantly comfortable surroundings of her bedchamber, Lady…
Mallory was in the process of deciding whether to read…
A few minutes past six o’clock that evening, Adam stood…
“Have another spoonful of the cheese soufflé,” Adam encouraged Mallory,…
Ever so slowly, Mallory came awake.
Perhaps I’m not dealing with Mallory as well as Edward…
In spite of Mallory’s statement that she and Adam wouldn’t…
A few hours later, Mallory rose from the card table,…
Mallory was still humming the melody of the waltz under…
Adam knew he should let her go.
Zachary George Byron made his entrance into the world just…
Mallory stared, aware that her eyes must have grown large…
Mallory spent the rest of the day wondering exactly what…
The next two weeks sped past in a flurry of…
The next morning, Adam stood at the altar of the…
In spite of Adam’s warning, Mallory found the inside of…
Adam stared, his eyes growing wide as he peered around…
Mallory opened her eyes several hours later to find Adam…
Over the month that followed, each day slid one into…
To Adam’s express pleasure and relief, Mallory adored her new…
“What would you say about a trip to London?” Adam…
Mallory swayed on her feet, a noise like a thousand…
Adam spoke barely a word that evening, causing dinner to…
Adam awakened early the next morning, sliding quietly from Mallory’s…
Mallory and Adam returned to Gresham Park soon after Twelfth…
Adam stared, a mix of shock, panic and pain tightening…
The weather began to moderate as February slipped into March,…
“I’ve brought your dinner, your lordship,” Mrs. Daylily announced as she…
eated in the elegantly comfortable surroundings of her bedchamber, Lady Mallory Byron stroked idle fingers over the cat in her lap, his soft, inky fur a nearly perfect match for the solemn black of her gown. Charlemagne, a pampered housecat, who had started life as a kitten in a quiet corner of the Braebourne stables, purred with clear contentment, his green eyes slitted with undisguised pleasure.
If only I could be so at peace,
If only my existence could be as ordinary and untroubled as his.
But try as she might, nothing had been right in her life since the devastating morning she’d received word that her beloved fiancé, Major Michael Hargreaves, had been killed in battle.
Her throat squeezed tight at the memory, but her eyes remained dry. After more than a year, she’d become inured enough to the loss that she no longer cried, certainly not as she had during those first anguished weeks when she would be abruptly overcome with bouts of uncontrollable weeping and despair.
Only in her dreams did she still experience those same sorrowful depths: vivid nightmares that crept upon her without warning to bring her awake on a strangled gasp, tears flowing in a hot, damp wash over her cheeks.
Intellectually, she knew it was time to put aside her grief and get on with the task of living—as her well-intentioned family gently kept urging her to do. But emotionally she felt numb, unable to find a path back to the carefree, lighthearted girl she’d once been. It was as if she had no heart at all now, her world veiled in a shadowy fog that held the worst of the pain at bay but kept out the pleasure and vibrancy as well.
Sighing, she continued stroking the cat’s soft fur while she stared out the window at the magnificent, precisely maintained grounds of her brother Edward’s estate. Home to the Dukes of Clybourne for more than two centuries, Braebourne was one of the finest aristocratic houses in England, a property of rare beauty and grace. But she appreciated none of it. Nor did she pay more than scant attention to the activities of her maid, as the girl bustled around in the room behind her.
“The guests are startin’ to arrive fer the festivities, miss,” Penny said in a pointedly cheerful voice. “The house is fairly swarming with noise and goings-on. Shall I go ahead now and lay out yer evening frock for tonight? Which one would you prefer? There’s the pink silk with the fancy lace on the bodice? You always look so pretty in that color, what with your dark hair and rosy complexion. It’s certain sure you’d be the belle of the evening dressed in that.”
The girl paused, obviously hoping to receive a response. When Mallory offered none, Penny continued. “Or maybe you’d like the blue one instead? Her Grace, your mother, was telling me just the other day that she can’t think of any lady who wears that shade so well and how perfectly it complements your aquamarine eyes. Then, of course, you’re beautiful in any color you wear. So which shall it be, miss? Pink or blue or something else?”
Mallory knew she should make some reply, even if it was only to give a noncommittal shrug. Instead, she stayed silent, taking comfort in Charlemagne’s small, un-demanding presence as she moved her hand slowly over his velvety coat.
He wasn’t the only animal in the room; at least a couple of the multitude of Byron family pets were in the habit of wandering in each day for a visit. A tabby cat named Elizabeth—short for Queen Elizabeth—was asleep in a tight curl in the center of her bed, while Henry, a brindle spaniel, lay stretched out atop the plush Aubusson carpet near the unlighted fireplace hearth.
The trio of animals had her little sister Esme to thank for their regal names. They’d all been added to the fold the year Esme had been studying the lives of great rulers. And although she might only remember a portion of those lessons now, the pet names continued on. Recently, Esme had taken to naming new animals after famous composers. The latest additions so far were a cat named Mozart and two dogs she’d dubbed Haydn and Handel. Esme might be a rather indifferent musician, Mallory thought, but one couldn’t help but be amused by the whimsical and irreverent nature of her imagination.
A faint smile curved Mallory’s lips at the thought, her gaze wandering toward “King” Henry where he lay across the room. As if sensing her regard, the dog raised his head and thumped his tail twice before returning to his nap.
“Which gown shall it be then?” Penny persisted. “You have only to say, and I’ll see it pressed and ready.”
Mallory drew a breath and prepared to answer. As she did, she heard the sound of voices carrying from somewhere in the corridor beyond.
she thought with an inner weariness.
She knew Mama and Claire meant well, but she really wished they had decided against throwing the usual late-summer house party. The annual celebration was tradition, commencing with the Glorious Twelfth and the beginning of the hunting season. But Mallory had already broken once with tradition this year by not attending the Season, and she would much rather have continued in that vein and skipped the house party as well. Instead, Braebourne would be overrun with family and friends who all wished to make merry.
Well, she wasn’t in a merry humor and didn’t relish the prospect of being put to the trouble of pretending she was. Nor did it help matters knowing how much Michael had always enjoyed this time of year. “Shaking off the city,” he used to call it, as he reveled in the slower pace and quiet surroundings of the countryside.
A heavy pang squeezed inside her. Shunting aside the emotion and the recollection, she finally answered Penny’s question. “I shan’t need a gown this evening,” she announced. “I have decided to take dinner in my room tonight and will not be joining the party.”
The maidservant’s eyes widened. “But miss—”
“Pray be so good as to convey my wishes to my sister-in-law, Her Grace. That will be all for now, thank you, Penny.”
For a moment, the girl looked as if she might argue. Instead, she lowered her gaze and dipped a respectful curtsey. “Yes, Lady Mallory.”
Her lady’s maid left the room.
Only then did Mallory let her shoulders sag, the last bit of starch going out of her spine. Bending over, she pressed her cheek to the top of Charlemagne’s head and closed her eyes.
“Welcome, my lord. May I say what a pleasure it is to have you with us again,” the butler greeted, as Adam, third Earl of Gresham, made his way into Braebourne’s grand entry hall.
“Thank you, Croft,” Adam said, passing his hat and gloves to the longtime retainer. “Good to see you again as well.”
Exactly as he had each time he visited Braebourne, Adam took a moment to appreciate the splendor and refinement of his surroundings. He could still recall his very first visit when he’d been no more than a raw, eighteen-year-old down from Oxford with his new school chum, Jack Byron.
It had been summertime then too, the entry hall flooded with the same warm, natural light that cascaded now from the windowed dome curved high overhead. On the surrounding yards of ceiling stretched a visually stunning depiction of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire—a masterwork painted alfresco. While on the far side of the large hall lay a wide, sweeping marble staircase with a set of elegant Corinthian columns that rose majestically upward on either side. The floors were fashioned of a matching marble whose variegated hues always put him in mind of cool cream and warm clover honey.
Just then, he heard a sibilant whisper of skirts off to his right and glanced across in time to see a beautiful blond woman dressed in peach silk emerge from one of the nearby drawing rooms.
“Adam, you’re here at last!” Claire, Duchess of Clybourne, proclaimed in dulcet tones, a genuinely happy smile of greeting brightening her features.
Turning, he strode to meet her, his polished black Hessians ringing quietly against the tiles. Reaching out, he clasped the young duchess’s outstretched hands, then made her a courtly bow, pausing to brush a kiss across each of her knuckles before releasing her. “Indeed, Your Grace, I have arrived despite the occasionally treacherous state of the highways.”
“You had no trouble on Byron lands, I trust?” she inquired.
He smiled. “None at all. His Grace maintains only the highest quality thoroughfares, as well you know. But enough of such mundane talk. I would much rather discuss how radiant you are looking, even more beautiful than I recall.”
She flashed him a pleased though self-deprecating smile. “Thinner, do you not mean?” she corrected. “When last you saw me at the holidays, I was as round and wide as a wine barrel and twice as heavy.”
“You were nothing of the sort,” he reassured. “You were in a family way and glowing with a charm only impending motherhood can bestow.”
Claire chortled and threaded her arm through his to lead him to the main staircase. “What a great load of fiddle-faddle, my lord, but you do it so well a lady can’t help but be charmed. I see you are the same as ever, acting the shameless flirt and inveterate flatterer without so much as an ounce of contrition. No wonder women swoon so easily at your feet.”
He grinned, a teasing twinkle in his eyes. “Thankfully not all of them, else I’d have a deuced difficult time wading through the mass of insensible females I would find in my path.”
Claire laughed again.
“Clearly, motherhood and marriage agree with you,” he observed on a more serious note, as the pair of them strolled up the stairs at a leisurely pace.
Her expression turned inward, her lovely blue eyes taking on a dreamy cast. “You are right, both suit me extraordinarily well.”
“And how is little Lady Hannah, the newest Byron addition?”
Claire’s smile widened with obvious pride. “She is wonderful. A true angel of a baby, bright and happy, and she hardly ever cries or fusses. Edward claims she looks just like me despite her dark hair. But she has his eyes and mouth, and when she scowls…well, there’s no telling the two of them apart.”
Adam grinned, knowing exactly the look she was describing. Although since Edward Byron’s marriage to Lady Claire last year, it was an expression that rarely appeared on the duke’s face anymore. “And where is Clybourne? Busy in his study?”
“Actually, he’s out riding the estate with his steward today. One of the tenants is having trouble with a sour well, and they’ve gone to consult on the matter. Which, of course, leaves me to greet everyone for the party.”
“A task at which you naturally excel.”
Claire sent him a little smile.
“So who, pray tell, is everyone?” he asked.
“The family, of course, including some of the cousins. A few friends and enough extra gentlemen to round out the numbers at table. Mallory’s old friends, Miss Milbank and Miss Throckly, who recently became Lady Damson, were invited most especially in hopes of pleasing Mallory. But now, I’m not so sure it was a wise idea.”
At the mention of Mallory, his mellow humor fell away. “How is she?”
“Refusing to come to dinner tonight, that is how she is. Her maid brought word only a few minutes ago that Mallory plans to dine in her room. I tried reasoning with her, but she would hear none of it.” Claire sighed and brought them to a halt as they rounded the top of the stairs. “Ava and I were so hoping that a bit of relaxed, friendly company would help cheer her spirits, but our efforts won’t do an iota of good if Mallory won’t leave her room.”
He frowned. “No, clearly not.”
His chest grew tight to hear of Mallory’s continued unhappiness. Of course, he’d known she was mourning, as she had every right to do under the circumstances. For that reason, he’d forced himself to stay away over the past few months, aware she needed the freedom to deal with her loss in her own way and time. He’d exchanged a few letters with her, unable to help but notice that her missives dealt with everyday events rather than any personal details or emotions. She hadn’t wished to share, and he hadn’t pressed her to do so.
But more than a year had passed now, and he didn’t like what Claire was telling him. Mallory was only two-and-twenty years of age, far too young to bury herself away like some ancient widow. She wasn’t a widow at all. She and Hargreaves hadn’t even been wed. They’d scarcely been engaged before the major had left to join the fighting on the Peninsula. It was time for her to move on whether she did it of her own volition or needed a helpful push.
As if sensing the direction of his thoughts, Claire gave his arm a squeeze. “I am so glad you’ve come. You and Mallory have always been such dear friends. I know seeing you will be just the thing to shake her out of her doldrums. Say you shall cheer her up, Adam,” the duchess encouraged. “Please tell me you think you can.”
He met her steadfast gaze. “Of course, I can,” he said with determined assurance. “I’ll have her in spirits again before you know it.”
And he would.
If it’s the last thing I do
, he promised himself,
I’m going to make Mallory Byron happy again.