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Training Lady Townsend(5)

By:Annabel Joseph

By asking her friends for permission, he’d more or less stymied her ability to decline. She sighed and rose to take his arm. He covered her gloved hand with his and guided her past clusters of party guests, along the outer perimeter of the duke’s gardens. When she glanced over, she didn’t see his face, but rather the outline of his muscular shoulder, encased in his meticulously tailored coat. Must he tower over her? But his father was tall, and his mother too. She supposed she would bear grotesquely tall children unless she could find a way out of this engagement.

“It is a lovely day, isn’t it?” she said, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say to his daunting shoulder.

“Yes, and a lovely party, as you mentioned some moments ago. You seem to find everything lovely. What a charming quirk.”

Aurelia wished she could quirk him right between his eyes with the heel of her slipper. “I only meant to make polite conversation.”

“Ah, well. I can do that too if I apply myself. Which facile and boring topics shall we discuss? We’ve already touched on the weather, but I suppose we can revisit it.” He turned his head up to the sky. “What a beautiful day, with the clouds and the breeze, and the flowers blooming so madly.”

Aurelia refused to be baited. “I do think it’s beautiful. It was kind of His Grace to host this party in our honor.”

“His Grace likes to do kind things. He’s a very proper chap.”

“You call the duke ‘His Grace’? I heard you were close friends.”

“We’re longtime friends, and I’ve called him many things in the course of our history, but in such a lovely setting”—he emphasized her word with exaggerated mockery—“I find myself inclined to adhere to formalities.” He gave her a speculative look. “Is that what you and your friends do at your tea table? Gossip about me and Arlington?”

“No, we don’t do anything of the sort. It’s only that your name comes up in conversation, now that we’re engaged.”

“That must be a trial for you.”

Aurelia decided not to answer. In truth, it was a trial, just like everything else about this engagement. This was the third social event they’d attended in one another’s company. The opera had been easy—they’d simply sat beside one another in silence until they could leave. Riding in Hyde Park had been easy too, since the bustle of people and carriages made conversation impossible.

This garden party was far too quiet, and strolling on the Marquess of Townsend’s arm felt too intimate for her tastes.

“Out of conversation already? No more lovely topics?” he jested. “We’d suit one another better if you weren’t such a mouse.”

“I am not a mouse.”

“Look at me and say that.”

To her chagrin, she realized she’d ducked her chin practically to her chest. His closeness unsettled her, no matter how she tried to ignore it. His conspicuous maleness tied her in knots. This great, ungainly man was going to be her husband. He was going to live with her and get children on her. She’d been sheltered, but she knew how children were made. Well, for the most part.

“I am not a mouse,” she said in a firmer voice, almost managing to meet his gaze.

“They call you Lady Dormouse.”

“That’s not a very gentlemanly thing to point out.”

“Ah, but I’m not much of a gentleman. How poorly we suit each other. It’s a shame.”

“Back out of our betrothal then,” she said through tight lips. “I wish you would.”

“I wish I could. I’ve tried to think of ways to do it, but there are more powerful forces forming this union  .” He stopped and turned to her, tilting up her chin with one gloved fingertip. “Besides that, I find you too fragile and innocent to humiliate with a broken betrothal. It would weigh on my conscience.”

Even now, he mocked her. Everything about him made her cross. “I thought you abhorred my fragility and innocence.”

He chuckled. “Abhorred is a very strong word. No, Aurelia, fragility and innocence aren’t bad qualities in a wife. At least I’ll know no one has trespassed before me when I mount you on our wedding night.”

She drew in a breath as delicately as she could, when what she really needed to do was gasp for air. Of all the inappropriate and coarse things to say! She moved to pull away from him, to flee, but he grasped her hand.

“Does my forthright speech offend you?”

“You know it does,” she said. “You...you impolite blackguard.”

“Goodness, is that the best you can do? Lady Dormouse indeed. You ought to call me a bastard instead. A bleeding bastard, if you really want to make a point.”

Aurelia looked around in alarm, but no one was near enough to hear this scandalous conversation. “Ladies don’t talk that way,” she said. “Gentlemen shouldn’t either.”

“And gentlemen shouldn’t speak of mounting their brides. I know. That doesn’t change the fact that it shall happen very shortly, my Aurelia.”

She considered him with a stricken expression. My Aurelia? “I’m not yours yet, Lord Townsend.”

“I’ll make it good for you, darling. Don’t worry.”

She wanted to spit at him that she wasn’t worried, but the truth was, she was terrified. Her gaze dropped to his neatly tied cravat, then down to his broad shoulders and chest. When she looked back up to meet his eyes, he wore a self-satisfied expression.

“You enjoy this,” she said. “You enjoy mocking and taunting me. That’s why you lured me into this walk.”

“In what way am I taunting you? I’m trying to reassure you.”

“By threatening to mount me?”

He made a muted sound of reproach. “It’s not a threat. It’s what’s going to happen in precisely eight days. I’ve been counting the hours until our wedding night. Such is my hunger to possess you.”

Oh, he meant to shock her, this loathsome man. She moved her hand to disengage his fingers. “I want to return to my friends.”

“Look at me and smile, then. We must convince people we are happy to marry, not trapped in some unwanted and ill-conceived betrothal.”

“But we are trapped in an unwanted and ill-conceived betrothal. You’ve made no secret of your disdain for me. None of this is my fault, you know. You shouldn’t blame me.”

“I haven’t blamed you.” He smiled at her with unnatural cheer and affection, and led her around a bed of colorful blooms with the greatest seeming concern.

She felt her face might crack from the effort of smiling back at him. She couldn’t believe anyone would be fooled by their playacted sentiments. “If you hadn’t bedeviled me in the woods at your parents’ ball, we might have found a way to convince them how unsuited we are. They might have allowed us to marry others of our station.”

“Like your precious Lord Warren? It never would have happened. Anyway, if it matters to you, I’m much better in bed. His technique is impressive, but not quite up to my—”

“No, please.” She pressed her hands over her ears, knocking her bonnet askew. “I beg you, don’t speak of such things.”

“Why not?”

“Because. You know why.” He was impossible. He refused to converse with any modicum of decency or respect. “Can we not reference anything to do with your—your bedroom skills—and what shall happen on our wedding night? Can we not discuss it any more until the hour is at hand?”

He turned her to face him and set her bonnet to rights, biting his lip in concentration. She closed her eyes rather than stare at his mouth, then opened them with a start as he brushed a few strands of hair behind her ear.

“I wonder why you have such a negative regard for the act of sexual congress. It makes me wonder if you haven’t already been mounted by some brute who didn’t know what he was about.”

“I have never been m-mounted before,” she protested, flushing hot. “I am perfectly pure.”

“Are you? Then you’re too pure to realize that being perfectly pure is a very dull state indeed.” His fingertips lingered, heating the sensitive skin beneath her lobe. He gazed at her, his lips gently curved. “Do you like the way it feels when I touch your ear?”

She set her teeth and shook her head. “No, I don’t like it.”

“What if I stroked it instead, like this?”

His fingers moved again, not just touching this time, but caressing. She suppressed a shudder, knowing he watched. She could feel his dark eyes upon her even though she averted her gaze. The strange lilt in his voice, the rasp of his words, the slowness of his caress, the nearness of his body, all of it combined to affect her in some novel, disturbing way.

“I wish you would stop.”

“No, you wish I would continue,” he said. “Don’t tell lies.”

She blinked, confused and ashamed, because she did wish it. But she also wished for him to stop. “Please, you disturb me so,” she whispered.

“Do I?” His hand went still, left her and dropped to his side. “Then perhaps there’s hope for us after all.”

What do you mean by that? she wanted to ask. But another part of her didn’t want to know what he meant. He alarmed her for so many reasons, not least of which was his direct, assessing stare. “If you continue to look at me like that,” she said, “people will...believe things.”