Two murder attempts, a volatile matter to handle for his superiors, and now a problematic wedding night.
No wonder he hadn’t managed more than a half doze for a few hours.
His former sergeant had an uncanny ability to read his mind. “What are you going to tell her, if I might ask, my lord?” The form of address still came awkwardly. Fitzhugh was used to calling him
and frequently lapsed out of sheer habit.
“I’m not sure.” He finished tying his cravat and turned around. “I thought of saying I fell from my horse, but I fear, even to an inexperienced eye, it looks like what it is—a knife wound. Eventually the bandage will come off and the scar would prove me a liar. Not an auspicious way to start a marriage.”
There was a small, inelegant snort. “The lovely young lady had better get used to half truths, with the business you dabble your toes in.”
He ignored the comment. “I have to come up with something else.”
Fitzhugh picked up his discarded robe and bustled off to the dressing room to hang it up. It was a warm morning and brilliant sunshine lit the bedroom with golden light. Michael hadn’t taken Harry’s suite of rooms—it felt like the worst kind of betrayal to take anything more that had once belonged to his brother. He’d already inher ited his title, his fortune, and his fiancée, so moving into his apartments was out of the question. The furnishings in his suite were a bit austere, the same as before he left for Spain. Plain dark blue hangings on the carved bed, a simple cream rug on the polished floor, matching cur tains at the long windows. He’d been twenty one when he’d boarded the ship to sail away to war, and decorat ing had hardly been a top priority in his life at that time. It still wasn’t. Maybe Julianne would care to redo their portion of the Mayfair mansion, but then again, maybe she wouldn’t. He knew very little about her, really.
Too little. And the distance was deliberate and en tirely his fault.
It doesn’t matter what she might be like,
he reminded himself. He was going to marry her regardless, for his parents mourned his brother with acute grief.
He’d been startled and off guard when they had asked him to please honor the arranged marriage and take Harry’s place. Though he wasn’t at all sure that years of war and intrigue hadn’t hardened him to a frighten ing degree, there still must have been some vestige of sentiment left, for he hadn’t been able to refuse. He’d come home, assumed his brother’s position as the heir, and now was going to appropriate the young woman destined to be his wife.
It would make him feel much less guilty if Harry hadn’t been so enamored of her and looking forward to the union.
The dutiful letters from home had, at first, only hinted of it. His older brother had mentioned how beautiful she was becoming as she matured, how intelligent and good humored, how charming and gracious. The final letter, which hadn’t reached Michael until Harry was gone and in his grave, had explained how fortunate he was to be pledged to a woman who would not only grace his arm in public and his bed in private, but also enrich his life.
Did Michael feel undeserving?
A resounding affirmative to that question,
he thought as he sighed and ran his hand through his neatly combed hair, ruffling the thick strands. He was nothing like Harry. There wasn’t an easygoing bone in his body and his mind worked in circles, rather than in straight lines. He’d seen enough horror that he’d come to understand it, and that was frightening in itself, and all the scars he bore were not just skin deep. He told his valet, “My mar riage will be a matter of convenience.”
“Yours or hers?” Fitzhugh was as blunt as always. “You conveniently go about your business and she conveniently doesn’t notice stab wounds, long absences, and late-night comings and goings. Is that how it will work?”
“How the devil do I know how it will work? I have never been married before, but most aristocratic unions—especially those arranged by parents—involve a certain level of detachment. Besides, she’s very young. Not even twenty.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Fitzhugh furrowed his brow. “She’s got eyes, hasn’t she? A very pretty pair of them, at that. Now, I say you’d better come up with a good excuse for your current state of incapacitation, Colonel, or there will be all hell to pay from the beginning. I’m guessing, from the looks of that wicked gash, you’re not going to be in top form tomorrow night to claim your husbandly rights. Young or not, that bonny lass will wonder why you didn’t enjoy taking her, or worse yet, why
didn’t enjoy it.”
“I can’t imagine she’d know the difference between a good performance or a poor one on a sexual level,” he said dryly. “And thanks for your confidence in my masculine prowess.”
A flicker of humor washed over the other man’s broad face. “I imagine you’ll get the job done.”
“Thank you. Ah, at last, some flicker of faith.”
“My faith is in her allure doing the trick, Colonel.” Fitzhugh grinned. “There’s no denying she’s a beautiful girl. It wouldn’t be like you not to notice.”
“I’ve noticed.” Michael turned and restlessly moved across the room.
Yes, he had. The unusual rich color of her glossy hair, like mahogany silk, warm and soft, framed a face that was fine-boned and elegant. Her figure was slender yet nicely shaped in the strategic places. And Fitzhugh was right: the long-lashed beauty of her dark blue eyes was striking. Julianne was a little quiet for his tastes, but then again, he hadn’t really ever attempted much conversa tion with her either.
In his mind, she still belonged to Harry. Unfortunately, he got the sense she also held the same preconception.
It seemed like the worst treachery ever to contem plate bedding the woman his brother had wanted for himself. On the other side of the coin, his parents had set aside their acute grief in celebration of this mar riage. His mother, especially, had thrown herself into the preparations for the wedding with almost frantic joy, and it was hardly a secret that in her opinion the sooner a grandchild arrived, the better.
Michael was in one devil of a dilemma because of the murderous assault, and that was discounting the mys tery of just who had bloodthirsty designs on his person.
“I suppose I could just tell her the truth. That on my way home from an appointment, someone attacked me. I have no idea why, or who he was, but I managed to defend myself, and he ran off. I kept it secret so as not to put a damper on the celebration or worry my mother in her current state of happiness. What do you think?”
“The truth usually isn’t your first choice.” Fitzhugh looked both dubious and amused.
“It usually isn’t an
at all,” Michael pointed out cynically. “As for my mother, that is true enough. She has had little joy since my brother’s death. Julianne might understand my motivation in keeping such an event to myself to protect my parents. I’m sure she still mourns Harry also and knows how important this wedding is to them.”
“ ’Tis natural she would. So you do mourn him, sir, or you wouldn’t be marrying the girl.”
Did he? Maybe. He’d never given himself time to think about it. Sometimes Fitzhugh was too damned in sightful for comfort.
Michael gave a philosophical shrug, and then gri maced as pain shot through his side. “I would have to marry someday, so why not her? It’s expected.”
expected, sir. You usually go your own way.”
That was true. He said neutrally, “She’s lovely and seems even tempered and not as spoiled as some of the petulant young society ladies I’ve had the misfortune to meet. At least now I won’t be besieged by eager mamas parading their daughters in front of me at every event. All my good friends have married.”
For love. Both Alex St. James and Luke Daudet, his comrades and brothers in arms, had found the women who completed them—the women they had to have de spite familial and social obstacles.
Not everyone was so lucky. So he would wed out of duty. As he’d just said, Julianne was perfectly accept able.
He added succinctly, “It’s time, and there’s freedom in being a married man.”
His valet chuckled, the sound rumbling out into the sunny room. “Freedom? Let me know if you still feel that way in a few months, Colonel.”