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The Winter Duchess by Jillian Eaton (1)

 

 

 

As Caroline stood beside the man she was about to marry, she wasn’t thinking about him. She was thinking about her mother. Specifically, what her mother would do if her only daughter suddenly turned on her heel and bolted out of the church.

She wouldn’t scream. Lady Patricia Wentworth never raised her voice. But she would no doubt deliver The Look, which was a thousand times worse than a screaming tirade, and Caroline – being the good, dutiful daughter that she was – would meekly return to the altar to pledge herself to a stranger she knew positively nothing about…except that she was terrified of him.

Unfortunately, she was also afraid of her mother. And if she had to choose between the devil she knew and the devil she didn’t, she would rather choose the one who – so far, at least – hadn’t given her any sorts of looks aside from mild disdain.

While the priest read a passage from The Book of Common Prayer, Caroline dared to sneak a quick glance at her husband-to-be. Her pale lashes flicked up and then down, skimming across the top of her cheeks upon which the smallest spattering of freckles rested.

Her mother had tried all sorts of remedies to get rid of the freckles, from lemon juice to a ginger paste that had stung horribly, but the small brown dots had been stubbornly resilient. For the wedding she’d dusted Caroline’s entire face with a powder that had made her sneeze repeatedly, much to Lady Wentworth’s general annoyance.

“Stop that,” she had said with exasperation, her long, skeletal fingers wrapping around the jutting bones of her hips as she’d met her daughter’s watery gaze in the dressing mirror. “You cannot sneeze your way through your vows! Just imagine What People Would Say.”

Lady Wentworth had always been exceedingly concerned with What People Would Say. Caroline was never quite sure what people she was referring to, but whoever they were they must have been very important.  

“Perhaps we can postpone the ceremony?” she had asked hopefully. “If we wait until spring-”

“Do not be absurd. We are not postponing anything. Now hold still, these curling tongs are hot.”

As she peeked at her husband-to-be, Caroline couldn’t help but wonder if he had powder on his face. She sincerely doubted it. He didn’t seem at all like the sort who would have something as common as freckles.

The Duke of Readington stood still and straight as a statue with his face turned slightly away, giving her a clear view of his profile. Eric was, if not a handsome man in the traditional sense, a very distinctive one with bold, slashing brows set above clear blue eyes that made her think of a frozen lake in the middle of winter. His nose was long and straight. His rigid jaw impeccably clean shaven. In fact, everything about him was rather impeccable from the sable locks swept back from his temple and set in place with a bit of pomade to the fold of his cravat and the lines of his black tailcoat. He must have had an excellent valet.

And a very brave one, Caroline thought silently. Every one of her encounters with the duke thus far had been fraught with tension and anxiety. She could not imagine the nerve it must have taken to attend to him on a daily basis.

As if he could sense she was thinking about him, his head swiveled and she found herself the unwilling recipient of his glacial stare.

He said not a word. He did not have to. The hard set of his mouth and the line between his brows spoke volumes. With a tiny squeak she directed her gaze forward, hands trembling ever-so-slightly as she adjusted her grip on the bouquet of white lilies her mother had thrust upon her before she’d entered the church.

For Caroline, the rest of the ceremony passed by in a bit of a fog. When the priest asked her to recite her vows she did so automatically; her lips and tongue forming the words that would bind her to the veritable stranger standing beside her until death did they part even as her mind remained detached, as if she were observing herself from a great distance.

She woke from her daze when the duke reached for her hand. She instinctively pulled back, her entire body leaning away from him like a sailboat caught in a stiff westerly wind. He frowned, those cold blue eyes of his narrowing to icy slivers of disapproval, and with a deep breath she forced herself to give up her limb. After all, what was one small hand when she was surrendering her entire body? 

The gold band he held poised at the tip of her left ring finger was very plain, making her wonder if it was a family heirloom. Had it belonged to his mother? Had she stood right here, in this very church, and recited the very same vows? Had she been frightened? Or elated? When it was over had she cried tears of happiness? Or wept with sorrow?

Caroline was distracted from her thoughts when Eric began to speak, his deep voice resonating from one end of the church to the other. He stared not at her, nor into her, but through her, as if she were as translucent as the gossamer coverlet draped over the front of the altar. 

“With this ring I thee wed.”

Oh dear, she thought weakly. This is it.

“With my body I thee worship.”

You’ve really stepped in it this time, Caro.

“And with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Well that bit doesn’t sound too terrible.

“In the Name of the Father,” he continued solemnly, “and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

A shiver raced down Caroline’s spine when he slowly slid the ring on to her finger, pushing it all the way back until it touched her third knuckle. It was a bit too large, which was fitting, as everything about this marriage felt a bit too large from the man holding her hand in a grip so tight it was almost painful to the title she now wore like a yoke around her neck.

In only a matter of minutes she had gone from Lady Caroline Danvers, daughter of a simple earl, to the Duchess of Readington, wife to one of the most powerful men in all of England. It felt so surreal that had her fingers not ached from the force of the duke’s grip she might have thought she was in a dream.

“You are hurting me,” she whispered.

He glanced down at their joined hands and immediately loosened his grip, but did not offer an apology, nor did she expect one. Her fingers tingled as blood rushed back into her hand and she was so distracted by the sensation that she did not realize the ceremony had ended until her new husband stepped down off the dais and held up his arm.

Like a doll whose appendages were being expertly manipulated by a child, she walked with careful precision down the aisle, taking two small steps for every one of the duke’s larger ones. No one clapped as they passed between the pews, but a few did incline their heads in a gesture of respect. Not towards her, of course. She was no one. A failed debutante plucked from the shadows of obscurity for reasons she’d yet to fully understand. But they did respect her husband. Or, perhaps more accurately, they feared him.

There were more people waiting for them outside of the church. Men and women dressed in their Sunday best, all hoping to catch a glimpse of the duke and his new duchess.

“Smile and wave,” Eric ordered between clenched teeth. “You look like a frightened field mouse.”

Caroline felt like a frightened field mouse. One that had just fallen into the jaws of a surly, ill-tempered cat who hadn’t yet decided if he wanted to play with her or eat her in one satisfying gulp. But she was nothing in not obedient, and so she lifted her arm and swayed it back and forth in a motion that, if not exactly a wave, was close enough to satisfy the duke.

Women and children threw rice and flower petals at them as they descended into the crowd. Taking hold of her elbow, Eric steered her towards the gleaming black landau that would ferry them away to her new home.

The team of matching grays stood quietly while she mounted the steps and climbed inside. Struggling with the train of her dress she gave it a hard yank and nearly tumbled top over teakettle onto the floor. The duke caught her before she could fall, his withering stare telling her precisely what he thought of her clumsiness.

“Sit over there,” he said, pointing to the opposite seat, “and make yourself comfortable. It is going to be a two hour journey.”

“So long?” she whispered, paling at the thought of being trapped alone in a carriage with her husband for more than two minutes, let alone two hours.

“Speak up,” Eric said irritably. “I cannot understand you when you mumble like that. Didn’t your governess teach you how to properly enunciate?”

Her governess had, in fact, taught her how to enunciate. An adept student with a quick mind and a thirst for knowledge, Caroline could enunciate in five different languages. What her governess had failed to teach her was how to deal with a monster for a husband.

If Eric had shown her even an ounce of compassion or understanding she might have been able to keep her tears at bay. She was, by nature, a sensitive woman, but she’d never been an overly dramatic one. She usually reserved her tears for her pillow, but as the reality of her new life began to sink in there was no holding them back any longer.

“Are you – are you crying?” he asked incredulously, dark brows sweeping up towards the sharp brim of his hat when she let out a soft, sad little sniffle.

“No,” she lied miserably.

His eyes narrowed. “It certainly appears as though you are.”

“I – I’m not.”

Sniffle. Sniffle.

“Stop it at once,” he commanded, as though tears were something that could be turned off as easily as a leaky tap or a faulty spigot.

“I am trying.” And she as. Truly. But unlike her husband, she could not hide her emotions behind an icy façade of indifference. When she was happy she smiled. When she found something amusing she laughed. And when she was miserable and tired and frightened, she cried. Grabbing for her reticule, she pulled out a white handkerchief and tried to dry her cheeks, but for every tear that she managed to whisk away two more fell.

The duke’s sigh of exasperation filled the carriage. “Well at least turn your head so I do not have to look at you.”

Crumpling her handkerchief into a tiny damp ball, Caroline sniffled and looked out the window. For a little while everything was blurry, but when she finally stopped crying she found herself gazing at gently rolling fields that stretched as far as the eye could see. Fluffy white sheep dozed in the sun, soaking up what was left of a summer that had all but reached its end, and the sight of the contented livestock brought a tremulous smile to her lips despite the heaviness in her heart.

She had always loved animals. Unfortunately, Lady Wentworth despised anything with fur. Or quills or feathers, for that matter. She’d tried countless times to convince her mother to allow her just one single pet. Even a goldfish would have sufficed. But the answer had always been a firm and unyielding no.

“Who do they belong to?” she asked softly, watching as a lamb jumped to its feet and went bouncing across the field. It must have been born late to have still been so very small, and she hoped it would be brought into the barn before winter struck. Without a thick coat for protection the poor little dear would surely freeze to death in the snow and the ice.

“To what are you referring?” Eric said brusquely without bothering to glance up from the newspaper he’d unfolded across his lap. Since entering the carriage he had loosened his cravat and removed his hat, but the informal state of his attire did little to dull his hard edges.

“The – the sheep.” Caroline bit her bottom lip. She hated the nervous tightness that arose in her belly every time she spoke to the duke, and could only hope the uncomfortable sensation would fade with time. After all, she couldn’t be afraid of her husband forever.

Could she?

“They’re mine.” The newspaper rustled softly as he turned to the next page. “We entered Litchfield Park while you were blubbering into your hanky. All of these fields, and the animals within them, belong to me. If you have any further questions you may direct them to the butler, Mr. Newgate, when we reach the estate.” And with that he returned to reading, leaving Caroline to stare at him in stunned disbelief.

She had known the duke was wealthy. But she’d had no idea he owned hundreds - no, hundreds of thousands - of acres. And this was only one of his estates! Rumor had it there were at least four more, along with two houses in Grosvenor Square, a hunting lodge in Scotland, and a collection of private residences scattered throughout Europe. The magnitude of it all was overwhelming, to say the least. How could she possibly be expected to manage one household, let alone dozens? Surely there had been some mistake. She wasn’t supposed to be here, sitting across from one of the most powerful men in all of England. And yet here she was.

Giving a small, bemused shake of her head, Caroline turned back to the window. As the countryside continued to roll past she contented herself by counting the sheep and it wasn’t long before she fell into an exhausted, dreamless slumber.

 

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