“That will be all Parsons, thank you.”
Nicholas March, the eighth Earl of Stortford, nodded at his valet and retied the sash of his brown silk dressing gown. He waited until Parsons left the room, and then strolled across to the internal door that connected his bedroom to the dressing area between him and his wife.
Light shone under Louisa’s closed door and he smiled. It wasn’t that late. He’d even remembered to send word to his wife to ask her if it would be convenient for him to visit. He was punctilious like that, tried to respect Louisa in ways his father had never done with his mother. She would have no cause to complain about his boorish manners or his drunken outbursts. No fears that he would openly demean her in public.
His marriage was going to be a pattern card of respectability. Nicholas found himself sighing as he tapped on the door. It was harder than he had imagined to abandon his rakish bachelor ways and treat his wife as a lady should be treated: with respect, gentleness and forbearance—especially in the marital bed. He knocked again. “My lady?”
There was no answer, and he frowned and tried the door handle. It opened easily and he stepped inside the room. The bed was empty, the tasteful silver and blue drapes he’d chosen for his new bride drawn back, the satin coverlet undisturbed. Nicholas looked around the large cozy space. His wife of almost one year sat curled up in a chair by the fireside, her bare feet tucked under her and her brown hair neatly braided for bed. A pair of spectacles balanced on the narrow bridge of her nose as she read intently from a leather bound book.
She wasn’t beautiful. Nicholas hadn’t chosen her for her looks, but she had a lovely smile and warm brown eyes the color of toffee. He’d been attracted by her quiet demeanor, her obvious intelligence and, to be perfectly frank, the size of her dowry. Her family was on the up, her father one of the new industrialists willing to pay to hoist his daughter even higher.
He’d met Louisa at one of his older sister’s interminable parties, and she’d made no effort to capture his interest. That alone had guaranteed his. It hadn’t taken him long to persuade her to marry him with both family’s avid support.
She still hadn’t noticed him. He cleared his throat. “My lady?”
She held up one finger as if he was a servant or a child interrupting her, and didn’t look up. Nicholas moved closer until his shadow blocked the candlelight. With a martyred sigh, Louisa raised her gaze to his face. He swept her a bow.
“Am I interrupting?”
She took her spectacles off and regarded him seriously for a long moment. “Yes, you are.” She gestured at the book she held. “Couldn’t you see that I was reading?”
For a moment Nicholas stiffened. She’d known he was coming. Why wasn’t she in bed waiting for him like a good wife should? His ready sense of humor resurfaced, and he found himself smiling at his own conceit.
“I’m sorry, my dear. I thought you were expecting me.”
She glanced at the clock and jumped. “Oh, my goodness! You did say you would be visiting my bed this evening didn’t you.”
Nicholas’s good humor faltered again. “You don’t sound very pleased about that.”
She bit her lip and slowly shut the book with a longing look. “It’s just that this novel I’m reading is so exciting. The pirate king has taken the heroine on his ship and is threatening to ravish her if she doesn’t reveal the secrets of her family’s hidden treasure.” She sighed and hugged the book to her bosom. “It was so diverting, I could hardly put it down.”
“It sounds like the sort of book that should be put down the drain.” He realized he sounded quite caustic. Good lord, was he jealous of a book?
“It’s a love story.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Exactly. Who reads such unrealistic drivel?”
She raised her chin at him. “I do, and I enjoy such books excessively.”
“So I can see.” He simply looked at her. A flush rose on her cheeks.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get into bed immediately.”
He waited as Louisa rose to her feet and placed the book on the small table beside her chair. She walked across to the bed with all the enthusiasm of a child going off to receive a beating. Nicholas stared after her. Was he really so unwelcome?
“I can leave if you are tired.”
She turned to look at him as she shrugged out of her dressing gown and summoned a wan smile. “No, that’s all right. You are here now; you might as well get on with it.”
He strolled toward her, aware of the thrust of her nipples beneath her simple white nightgown. “If it won’t inconvenience you too greatly.”
She climbed onto the bed giving him a glimpse of long pale legs and the rounded curves of her buttocks. “I know my duty, my lord.”
He sat on the edge of the bed until she was completely under the bedclothes. He blew out the candles around the bed and stripped off his dressing gown. Despite his reservations, his cock was erect and also ready to do its duty. With a sigh, he carefully folded back her nightgown and fitted himself between her thighs.
She didn’t protest his presence, but she didn’t seem to welcome him either. With sudden resolve, he grabbed her hands and linked them behind his neck. She could at least hold him while he made love to her, make him feel like more than a beast ravishing an innocent.
Her cold fingers settled against his skin and he nudged at the entrance to her sex with his cock. She wasn’t wet for him. Did ladies ever get wet with desire? Was that why his father had strayed? He shoved that thought out of his head as he eased his aching cock inside her tight passage. Her fingernails dug into his flesh and he tried to move more slowly. Was he hurting her? If he asked, he knew she would deny it.
With exquisite care he began to move, tried to keep his weight off her to minimize the effect of his thrusts and save her from his more aggressive instincts. He sensed her move her head to one side and opened his eyes. She was staring over at the fireplace where her book lay. He went still.
“Louisa, am I boring you?”
Her gaze flew back to his and he saw it there, saw the truth. “No, my lord, I…”
He thrust himself deep twice and came fast, the sensation almost as unsatisfying as his own hand. He stayed where he was, braced over her, and waited until she looked at him again.
“Perhaps I should apologize again for distracting you from your book. It is obviously far more important than I am.”
He probably sounded petulant, but her inattention had wounded his manly pride. She bit down on her lip and tried to shake her head.
“I’m sorry, my lord. I…”
With a groan, he eased out of her but he didn’t leave the bed. “Why is the book more interesting than I am?” he gestured at the marble covered tome. “Would you prefer the hero of your ridiculous novel to be here in your bed rather than your legal husband?”
She pushed down her nightgown and sat up, her brown eyes glinting with tears. “Perhaps I would. At least he seems to enjoy ravishing the heroine!”
Nicholas stared at her for a long moment. “You wish to be ravished?”
“I wish…” She sighed and looked down at her clenched hands. “I expected…”
“What?” He was determined to have this out now, to have perhaps, the first honest conversation of his married life. “You can tell me.”
She hunched her shoulder at him. “My mother told me I was not to bother you with my feelings or thoughts. She said that men are not interested in such matters.”
“I am interested.”
“Are you sure?”
“Indeed. Otherwise why else would I still be sitting here asking why you prefer the hero of a gothic novel to a real live man in your bed?”
“My mother also said that men’s feelings are often hurt if a woman criticizes them.”
“That is true, but I am made of sterner stuff. I am quite willing to hear your thoughts on this matter.” He found he was glaring at her, but she didn’t shrink away. “We are bound together for life; don’t you think that a little sincere communication between us might be a good thing?”
“I suppose so.”
She peeked at him from under her long eyelashes. “Are you sure that you won’t get angry?”
He sketched a cross over his chest. “I swear it. Now tell me what the problem is.”
“I thought that marriage would be more…exciting.”
“I do not excite you?”
“You are all that a gentleman should be. You are kind and pleasant and good natured, but…”
She studied him dubiously. “You sound as if you are getting annoyed. Perhaps I should stop.”
He set his jaw and forced a smile. “No, please go on.”
“I thought, I hoped, that when we were alone together we would become closer and more intimate.”
“You wish me to spend more time with you?” She nodded. “I can do that. I assumed that like most ladies of my acquaintance you wouldn’t want me around interfering with your social life.”
“It’s not just that.” She wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees and leaned back against the headboard, her long braid hung over her right shoulder. She smoothed the sheets with one hand, her slight northern accent more apparent than usual. “After the way you kissed me during our courtship I thought that being bedded by you would be wonderful.”
For a second he struggled to find words. He was a renowned lover! Women fought over the right to share his bed or to be seen in his company. He opened his mouth and then shut it again, and finally forced out: “I beg your pardon?”
Louisa sighed. “I knew you wouldn’t want to hear that. My mother was right. Men are definitely more fragile than women.”
“What exactly were you expecting to happen in our marital bed, my lady?”
“I expected pleasure.” She raised her head and met his heated gaze. “Was I wrong to expect that?”
“And how am I supposed to give you pleasure when all your attention is fixed on that damned book?”
“That is hardly fair. I only started reading the book tonight. I hoped it would help ready me for your appearance.”
“So that you could imagine the pirate hero in my place?”
He held her gaze, his own frosty. “Am I so inadequate as a lover, then, ma’am?”
She regarded him seriously. “I don’t know. Are you?”
He got off the bed and retrieved his dressing gown, took his time putting it on and tying the sash. “Perhaps I was trying to be considerate, ma’am. Perhaps I assumed that as a young untried lady you would appreciate my restraint.”
She swallowed hard and then lifted her chin at him. “If you are suggesting it is my fault, I accept that. I do not have the experience you do, that is true. I do not know how to please a man.”
He stared at her and then bowed. “Good night, ma’am. I’ll leave you to your pirate.”
She nodded back at him, her back as straight as the queen’s and her expression just as serene. “I knew you’d react like this. My mother was right.”
He headed for the door. “And how nice for you that your mother is always right. It must be such a great comfort.”
“No.” He turned around and saw her hastily wiping away a tear “It isn’t. Good night, my lord.”
Nicholas placed his palm on the dressing room door and stared at the ornately carved panel. He was acting like a fool, running away like a cockerel that had lost a fight. Louisa was his wife. He owed it to both of them to try and resolve this issue. With a soft curse he turned back, only to see his wife resettle herself in bed with the damned book.
He wrenched open the door and allowed it to slam shut behind him. He hoped it made her jump and lose her place.
Louisa winced as the door shut with a definite bang. She should never have started that conversation. Apparently, her mother was right about men being fragile little flowers where matters of their sexual prowess were concerned. Nicholas was furious with her. But at least he’d shown her some emotion other than his usual smiling politeness. Although she’d been slightly afraid, she’d almost enjoyed the experience. She’d half-hoped that he would take her back into his arms and make love to her with all the dash and daring of the pirate hero.
But it was not to be. Louisa put her book down and pulled up the sheets. Between her thighs she was both sore and wet from Nicholas’s five minute possession of her body. She curled up into a ball. Before their marriage she’d heard so many erotic rumors about him that the prospect of being his wife had half-terrified her. She hadn’t expected to be reduced to reading gothic romance novels simply to endure his regular weekly appearances in her bed.
There had to be something more… Louisa blinked away a few tears and stared up at the silver and blue canopy above her bed. Would he stay away from her now for good, or would he display the good sense she knew he had and think about what she’d said and how to resolve it? One never knew with a man, particularly a husband. They were peculiar creatures, but she’d hoped for so much more with Nicholas.
When she’d met him, he’d seemed like the embodiment of all her dreams and longings, and he’d liked her back. Or so she had thought, until they were married and he treated her with all the warm politeness of a distant acquaintance. She knew he’d married her for her money, she wasn’t that naive, but she’d also thought there had been something between them…
Maybe Nicholas was right and she was too inexperienced to know what she wanted after all.
With a determined sigh, Louisa closed her eyes. At least she’d told him what was wrong. How he reacted to her comments was now up to him. If he chose to ignore her pleas, what would he do next? Send her away to the countryside and set up a mistress in Town?
Louisa clutched at the sheets and whispered a prayer. Surely he wouldn’t go that far. He had always treated her with the greatest of respect both in public and in private. She swallowed down a sudden urge to cry. Perhaps she was naïve but she didn’t want to be respected in bed. She wanted to be loved…