“She’s a beautiful girl, Colin. No one could ever deny that.”
Viscount Colin Wharton smiled as his cousin motioned across the crowded ballroom to Colin’s new bride. Jane stood at the edge of the fray, surrounded by friends offering well wishes on their union, which was only a few hours old now.
When she noticed his stare, it was obvious. Her cheeks filled with a pink blush and she slowly let her gaze move to him. His smile broadened because the crowd did not know the secret they shared. No one else knew that he hadn’t been able to wait and had already made her his bride in body as well as spirit earlier in the afternoon, before their wedding ball had even begun.
Her soft cries and passionate moans were a reward well-earned after months of erotic tension during their courtship. Although the match had been arranged, Colin had high hopes it would be a happy one. Jane was not just beautiful, but also witty and wise. Kind to all who met her and observant when it came to those she was close to. She was capable of softening him, taking the edges from his personality, and he couldn’t wait to escort his beautiful bride back to their marital bed and make her his over and over again.
She smiled softly as her head dipped and the little tendrils of blonde hair that framed her slender face shivered. Her blue eyes swept away from him and back to her companions.
“I’m happy you’ve found such a good match,” Arthur continued as he clapped Colin on the back. “After that mess with Cassandra, I thought you’d never recover.”
Colin stiffened at the mention of that name. Cassandra had been his first love, a woman he’d once believed he’d marry. But when it came out she was bedding not only his former best friend but also any cavalry member who gave her a side glance, his world had been shattered.
“I do not wish to speak of that today of all days, Arthur,” Colin said softly, clenching his fists at his sides.
Arthur inclined his head. “Sorry, mate, that wasn’t well done of me. Of course you wouldn’t want to think of Cassandra’s betrayal. Certainly you can fully trust Jane, can’t you?”
Colin shifted. Fully trust? Hell, he wasn’t certain he could fully trust anyone. Cassandra had taken that ability from him. He’d seriously considered never marrying at all, letting the title and all that went with it slip to Arthur or his future heirs. He might have done just that, except that his mother had gotten involved after watching him grieve for nearly a year. She’s told him to stop moping, convinced him to let her arrange a union. A few months courting Jane, and here he was.
He let his gaze move to his wife again. She certainly seemed trustworthy, and there was no doubt she’d been an innocent when he claimed her earlier in the day. A passionate innocent, yes. He’d never seen someone so passionate.
“Didn’t she have another suitor before your mother intervened?” Arthur pushed.
Colin folded his arms with a deeper frown. “Yes. Some rich, untitled fop. Martin, his name was. Her parents were happy to see them part, I think, in trade for a higher ranked match.”
But now that Arthur had placed the thought in his head, Colin began to wonder…was Jane equally as pleased to end the flirtation? She’d never spoken of the man, nor seemed overly upset at their parting. She’d always seemed happy to spend time with Colin, as well, and her behavior today made him believe she cared for him…wanted him.
Yet there was a niggle of doubt in his mind, an egg waiting to hatch. He scowled.
“I’m certain it will all work out, old man,” Arthur said, apparently oblivious to the uncertainty he’d placed in his cousin’s head. He slapped a hand against Colin’s arm and squeezed. “Now I’m off to dance with the lovely Lady Amanda. She’s been making eyes at me all night.”
Colin forced a smile as his cousin strode off through the crowd toward the lady in question. He remained in his place, watching Jane, but whereas before he had stared at her through eyes of excitement and anticipation, now it was with apprehension.
Had he made a mistake? Could he truly trust this woman?
As if in answer to his question, he watched as a man approached Jane. Colin’s eyes went wide. The man was one he recognized, the very one he’d just been describing to his cousin: Jane’s former suitor, Mr. Martin.
Tall and handsome, the gentleman sidled up to her as her companions drifted away. Jane’s face read surprise for a moment, but she didn’t look unhappy to see the man she had once allowed to court her. She didn’t push him away, certainly. They spoke for a moment, then Jane nodded and allowed the other man to take her arm and lead her to the terrace doors. They exited, leaving Colin staring after them, his hands shaking at his sides.
What was Martin doing here? Had Jane invited him? Was this a planned encounter? The very idea of it turned Colin’s stomach and pulled a veil of red anger over his eyes.
He had to know. In that moment, he had to know what her intentions were, where her heart was. So he slipped from the ballroom and around to a parlor that also exited to the large terrace that wrapped around the entire back side of the house. He shut the door quietly behind him and stepped forward across the stone. There was a little bend in the terrace that offered him some protection from the eyes of those already outside, and he flattened against the wall as he peered around the corner and found his new wife and her former suitor standing at the wall, looking up at the full moon overhead.
They were alone. No one else was on the terrace. Jane faced the other man, and in the moonlight, Colin examined him. Martin was handsome enough, he supposed. The kind of man some women wouldn’t refuse.
They were talking, though Colin couldn’t make out the words on the breeze. Just Jane’s low voice murmuring softly and then Martin answering, his deeper voice obscuring hers. What he did know for certain was that they were standing too close together, and Colin’s blood began to boil.
And then, slowly, Martin reached out and gripped Jane’s bare upper arm. He pulled her forward, dipped his head and kissed her.
Colin caught his breath, staggering back into the darkness in shock. The last thing he saw before he spun away was Jane lifting her hands to embrace the other man.
The egg his cousin had placed in his mind hatched in a terrible instant. Jane was betraying him. On their wedding night. A mere few hours after she had surrendered herself to him as his bride. She might look the part of a virtuous miss, she may have even kept her virginity intact, but clearly she was not innocent. Not if she would tryst so brazenly with a former suitor.
He stumbled into the house, but didn’t return to the ballroom with the others. He careened down the long hallway to his offices, where he threw himself inside and slammed his hands down on the sideboard.
He froze at the sound of Arthur’s concerned voice behind him. “Not now,” he croaked past a suddenly thick throat.
Arthur stepped inside and closed the door. “I was looking for you on your mother’s behest. What is wrong?”
Colin looked up at him, hardly seeing his cousin’s face through the fog of betrayal and disappointment and humiliation. “A short while ago, you asked if I could trust Jane…well, it turns out I cannot.”
Arthur arched a brow. “What are you talking about?”
Slowly, Colin choked out what he’d seen on the terrace, watching as Arthur’s eyes grew wide and his expression grave. “Great God, Colin,” he said, shaking his head when Colin had sunk into a chair, covering his face with his hands. “I feel terrible that I brought up anything tonight about Jane’s trueness when this was to follow.”
“Don’t be,” Colin whispered. “After all, without that doubt being named, I might not have followed her and it would have been Cassandra all over again.”
Arthur nodded slowly. “It is better to know the truth, I suppose. But what will you do now?”
“I have no idea,” Colin said. “I cannot end the marriage. It was…consummated.”
Arthur drew back in obvious surprise. “Was it?”
Colin felt heat rush to his cheeks. “Yes,” he said softly. “But what do I do? Confront her and her lover?”
Arthur paced away. “It might be tempting to do so, I suppose, but what good would come of it? Perhaps there is a better solution.”
“And that is?” Colin asked.
“Send her to the country,” Arthur said.
“Banish her,” Colin said, his tone flat and dull, even to his own ears. “That seems abominably cruel.”
Arthur shook his head. “More cruel than what she did tonight, with no thought to how it would make you feel? How it would look were she discovered with her lover?”
How it looked. Colin’s stomach turned. Others had known about Cassandra. Those whispers of her lack of fidelity had hurt him as much as the actual act had. And here Jane had been, still dressed in her wedding frock.
His stomach turned and he lifted a hand to his lips as he tried not to cast up his accounts. “Send her away,” he repeated, the idea gaining merit with each moment he pondered it.
“Your country estate is secluded enough,” Arthur encouraged gently. “If you were worried about her taking a lover there, you could have your servants report on her movements. It would allow you to move on with your life.”
Colin winced. His life. The life outside of his marriage. He did have duties to perform, and he’d always taken them seriously. He served the House of Lords to his highest ability and he’d always planned on providing an heir if he married. But Cassandra had made him question that plan.
Tonight, Jane had destroyed it entirely, and his old desire to lock himself away, body, heart and soul, returned with even greater urgency.
He cleared his throat. “Sending Jane away is certainly far more palatable than listening to her lie to my face about what she was doing on the terrace tonight. Perhaps some time apart will help clear my head so I don’t respond in rage and do something foolish.”
“Yes,” Arthur encouraged him. “It doesn’t have to be forever, does it? Just until you decide what to do. How to handle her terrible betrayal.”
Colin drew in a long breath and nodded. This was the right decision. “Will you fetch her?” he asked softly.
Arthur straightened his jacket. “Of course. I’ll get her right away.”
His cousin left the room and Colin paced the length of the chamber, his hands shaking and his blood pumping hard. He had to gather himself, as to not show Jane his emotions. He had to be cold and calculating, he had to shove feelings aside and simply do this duty.
This duty to send Jane away and with her, the pain that her betrayal had caused. Pain that exposed a weakness he had sworn he would never allow again.
Now he wouldn’t. Now he had finally learned his lesson. And that lesson was that no woman was to be trusted. Not with his name, not with his future, certainly not with even a fraction of his heart.