which I accidentally marry and am very nearly
seduced by the wrong man
married the wrong man.
And by this I do not mean,
as people so often do, any of the more cryptic
things that you might imagine: That I awoke one
morning to the realization that my husband and
I had grown apart. That I discovered something
about my spouse that caused me to doubt that
we were well-suited. Nor, even, that I had met
by chance an old love in Bond Street. And as
I shopped for reticules and he carried an armload
of packages for his wife, our eyes met and it
was as though the intervening years in which
we had both found others had never been.
What I do mean is that yesterday
I stood up in St. George's, Hanover Square, and
before some three hundred witnesses promised
to love, honor, and obey, the wrong man.
Put that way, even I must confess
that it contrives to make me sound rather, well,
like a fool. A complete and utter idiot. It is
not as simple a case as it appears at first glance,
however, and I would beg that you bear with me
while I explain. I will also say that simply
marrying him was not the worst of it, that before
the day was done, things had got much, much worse,
I'd been at the time in the
suite bespoke by my new husband at the Clarendon
Hotel. We had made our arrival a short time previous,
and in a rush of high spirits had laughingly
discarded bonnets, hats, and gloves, and I with
a great deal of relief, my new slippers, which
I had been duly assured looked stunning, but pinched rather horribly. We were awaiting
the light supper that Milburn had ordered. The
table in front of the fire in the sitting room
sparkled with crystal and white linen. We were
awkwardly silent at the moment, the reprieve
offered by the nervous giddiness of our arrival
Milburn had drawn back the
heavy silk draperies. He stood now in his shirtsleeves,
looking out into the falling darkness, his face
reflected in the window. And, he was of a sudden
looking alarmingly pensive. I stood some distance
behind him. The carpet felt almost wickedly plush
through my stockings, and as I wiggled my newly
liberated toes, I debated whether to speak, or
approach him, or simply leave him to his thoughts.
As I looked at his reflection, it hit me suddenly,
and with particular force, that I had married
an uncommonly beautiful man. And with that thought
came the considerably less welcome one that,
in truth, I barely knew him.
Just as I was deciding to leave
him to his thoughts, he looked up and caught
sight in the glass, of me, standing irresolute
behind him. He turned and smiled at me then,
and held out his hand, saying simply, "Gwen."
I went to him, almost without
thought, and he took my hand. "Forgive me," he
said, "for abandoning you for my thoughts.
It was ill-done of me."
"Yes. Now that you are
leg shackled you shall never again have license
to be alone in your thoughts." I was attempting
to lighten the moment. But oddly, as I stood
beside him and looked out at the street, I felt
I could sense something of his mood of a moment
ago. Darkness was falling over the busy streets.
It was that time of early evening when the sky
is dark blue and the lamps are being lit, both
inside and out, which can bring on that curious
melancholy of a dying day. Behind us, the fire
crackled, pleasantly emphasizing the contrast
between the peacefulness of our luxurious rooms
with the bustle of Mayfair outside.
The atmosphere of intimacy
in the room made me very much aware that I had
never been so alone with him before, even when I had been alone with him.
And the feel of his hand on mine-ungloved-was
sparking the oddest sensations. It was the first
time in my adult life that my hand had touched
a man's without at least one pair of gloves between
us, and I was entranced by the way his felt.
It was firm and warm and pleasantly rough against
my palm and around my fingers. He moved his thumb,
slightly, and something flickered inside me.
Not unlike the way the wick of a candle sputters
momentarily before it lights fully.
is it not?" Milburn said at last, still
looking out the window.
It seemed we were of one mind
on that, at least. "Prodigiously," I
replied, distracted from contemplation of his
hand. My gaze sliding to him, I watched a dimple
appear in his left cheek.
He turned toward me then, and
smiled, but still with a somber, reflective air. "But
not bad, I would hope?"
"No," I said, also
quite seriously. "Only strange. After all
this time to be... here..." I trailed off
with a little lift of my shoulders.
He put his hands on my shoulders
then, very lightly, but still I could feel the
warmth of his skin through the fabric of my gown,
and said, "I know. S'truth, Gwendolyn. I
never thought to be standing here with you. On
our wedding day."
Which I took to be a reference
to war and its vagaries. And I was struck yet
again by how different he was now as a man than
the boy I remembered. By how much more gravity
he possessed. Before I could summon a suitable
reply, though, he took me by surprise, lowering
his head to mine, and very slowly brushing his
thumb over my lower lip. And then, without leaving
me a moment to examine the startling effects
of that action, he kissed me. Actually, he didn't
so much kiss me as brush his closed lips across
my mouth before lifting his head from mine. I
looked up at him.
"Gwen," he said,
a slow smile beginning.
My toes seemed to curl deeper
into the carpet and my stays, to tighten. I nodded
awkwardly, uncertain what he was expecting of
He was still smiling, looking
somewhat rueful as he repeated my name. "Gwen." His
voice sounded rough, not smooth and mellow as
it had, and something almost like fear, and yet
pleasurably not quite like fear shot through
me. His gaze was locked on my face. "You
are so beautiful," he said.
Now, I had heard that from
many gentlemen in my life. My friend Cecy and
I even had a joke between us that the phrase
was actually a botched translation from ancient
Greek, meaning, "I do believe I am in love
with your dowry. I have heard it's enormous." But
Milburn, as of this morning, already had possession
of my dowry, and had no need to flatter me.
While I have never precisely
shuddered at my own appearance, it is hardly
remarkable. My hair is dark, and so straight
and slippery that I had long ago given up trying
to get it to agree to conform to the current
fashion of ringlets. My eyes are dark, too, and
sort of almond shaped. My nose is straight and
neither too large nor too small, and my mouth
is generous, but nothing out of the ordinary
way. My teeth are rather fine-I have always considered
them one of my better attributes-straight and
white, my neck is graceful enough to show to
advantage in the current fashions. And I have
that typically English fairness that shows to
advantage when I am in high spirits and good
But never before had a husband
told me I was beautiful. And suddenly, I wanted,
in an unaccountably desperate fashion, to believe
that he meant his words. "I am?" I
He smiled. "Yes," he
said, leaning closer. He brushed his lips over
my cheekbone. And then he pulled me to him and
kissed me. Really kissed me this time, with an
unhurried thoroughness. My body, of its own volition,
seemed to sway toward him. And, as though in
response, he took my lower lip and teased it
lightly between his teeth for the barest instant.
The flicker jolted into a flame. And then, he
"I go too fast," he
said. "And surely the food must be here
at any moment."
He was waiting-for a reply?-an
encouraging smile on his face. But my knees were
shaky, my stomach felt odd, and my mind was decidedly
sluggish. I looked at him again, and his brow
was slightly raised. He had said something, I knew. But what, exactly? Food! He had said the
food must be here at any moment. "I should
think," I managed to say, sounding credibly
"A pity," he said.
But I must still have been looking blank, because
he added, as he took my hand, "About the
imminent arrival. Of the food."
"Er, yes," I managed. "I
suppose." I tried not to look down at our
hands joined together.
"Of course," he said,
stepping closer again, taking my other hand,
and lacing his fingers through mine, "we could send
the supper away. Tell them to bring it back later."
I swallowed. This was my chance.
I could say no, that I was hungry, and I would
have the reprieve I should want. "Yes," I
said, without any cooperation from my mind. "We
then"-he leaned closer still, his voice
pitched low-"perhaps we should simply seize
the moment." He pulled me nearer and, despite
my nerves, I felt not one iota of desire to push
Words seemed to have deserted
me entirely, as did any part of me that didn't
want this. I nodded, unable to tear my gaze from
his hypnotic eyes.
He took me in his arms then,
and I was startled by the sensation of a man's
body actually against my own; it certainly surpassed
an ungloved hand, which I had thought pretty
marvelous just a few moments ago. He was firm
and warm through the linen of his shirt. Heat
seemed to radiate from his body. And his pulse,
to my surprise, matched my own. Without thinking,
I put my hand between us, resting it over his
heart. "It's beating so fast," I said,
after a moment.
He laughed. "I'm nervous
as hell, Gwen," he said, flatly.
"You?" I declined
to take him to task for his language, instead
looking up and watching with fascination as the
dimple reappeared. "You are
"You have no idea," he
said, pulling me closer to his body. And this
time, as his lips met mine, there was no hesitation
there. We had tacitly agreed, and now there was
something heated and dangerous openly flaming
between us. But he didn't hurry, instead lingering,
prolonging the moment. His lips traveled down
my jaw, his motions surprisingly deliberate for
a man with shaking hands. "It's my first
wedding night, too," he said, his mouth
finally against mine, the movement of his lips
increasing the pleasurable sensation.
His breath was warm against
my skin. My body, already against his, was straining
to get closer. Still unhurried, he traced the
top of my upper lip with the tip of his tongue,
which should have been entirely shocking. I was shocked. And more than anything, I wanted him to do
it again. But his lips had wandered to my earlobe,
and his teeth nipped at it. Oh, I thought, as the flaming sensation took up residence
in my midriff.
And then he stopped, and I
almost cried out with disappointment. I desperately
wanted him to continue those wondrous kisses.
And, well, the nibbling, I suppose. But I was
unresisting, as he turned me again to face the
It was darker now, and our
reflections were more clearly pronounced. He
stood behind me and our gazes met in the window
glass. Still watching our reflection, he began,
slowly, pulling the pins from my hair. Which,
being my hair, was already doing its best to
slip out of them of its own volition. Milburn
had touched my hair before, but that was seven-and-ten
years ago, and at the time he and his equally
odious brother were attempting to plant a garden
snail in it. Certainly I had not guessed that
having his hands on me would someday be the most
consuming sensation I had ever experienced. As
he continued, carefully holding the pins in one
hand, I was seized by the simultaneous, and conflicting,
desires both to lie down and drowse, and to turn
and press myself back up against the warmth of
him, even closer than before. Which I found most
My hair was completely unpinned
now. It fell heavily to my shoulders as I had,
in a disastrously misguided move, cut it short
two years ago and only now was it growing long
"It used to be longer,
as I recall," he said, as he placed the
pins on the windowsill next to us. "And,
as I also recall, frequently had mud or some
even less salubrious substance in it."
"I cut it," I told
him, striving to find some corner of my mind
that had not given in entirely to the languorous
feeling that was stealing over my body, and could
still converse. I should have been terrified
by what was about to happen. I knew that. Instead
it seemed that I was possessed of a hitherto
unsuspected wanton streak, because I quite simply,
shockingly, just wanted more. I only wished that
I wasn't too shy to touch him as I ached to. "Two
years back," I managed to say. "Because
it was...ah, the fashion."
"I see," he said
gravely. He pushed his hands into my hair and,
starting with his fingers at the base of my scalp,
lifted it onto the top of my head. He let go,
slowly, and it felt as if I could feel each and
every strand of hair fall. I wanted to moan aloud.
And I was starting to become obsessed by the
desire to touch him in return, to feel his body
up against mine. He moved my hair so it hung
over one shoulder, his fingers brushing the top
of my spine as he did so. I shivered.
"But it's not seen mud
intimately in many a year," I felt compelled
to remind him. "And you, sir, are most unkind
to recall it."
"I like it just this length," he
said, as he bent so his lips were at the base
of my neck. "Just exactly as it is. Unfashionable.
With or without the mud." His breath was
warm, feather light, on the back of my neck.
eyes were closed now. "Thank you," I
managed, on a sigh.
"My pleasure." His
lips moved over the place where my neck met my
I was beginning to worry in
some corner of my mind, that far from being an
appropriately blushing maiden, stricken by bride
nerves, I was going to prove a shockingly willing
wife. Possibly, even scandalously so.
His hand strayed to my top
button, at the nape of my neck. With the barest
movement of his fingers, the little pearl fastening
slipped free. My breath caught. He was undressing
I should speak. Object. This
was not at all the way it should be done! Not
here, like this, standing in
the sitting room. Surely the supper would be
here soon! But no words came. And when he ran
his finger lightly up and down the half inch
of skin that his action had bared, I had to forcibly
restrain myself from purring like a cat. I was
holding my breath, halfway between fearing and
anticipating the release of the next button.
"Are you afraid, Gwen?" he
murmured, his lips warm against my skin.
Since my eagerness to find
out what would come next was positively unseemly,
afraid somehow didn't seem quite the right word.
My gaze met his in the window once again, and
I found I could not dissemble. "Not half
so afraid as I should be," I said.
He laughed aloud. "Good," he
said. "A terrified bride would doubtless
be the undoing of me." His lips again brushed
the back of my neck, making my knees soft, as
his hand came to rest on my waist. He held it
there for a moment, and as I watched, he moved
it slowly and deliberately upward until he was
just barely touching my breast. I felt the contact
with a jolt through the silk of my gown. I could
see his hand, reflected in the window, big and
sure over the fabric, and knowing that if I were
to look down I could see the same thing in reality
made my breath come faster.
His fingers moved, and when
the fire crackled in the grate behind us, I felt
the resulting shower of sparks in my stomach.
An odd, strangled little noise came out of my
throat. Our gazes met again. His eyes were dark
and wild; my own looked oddly unfocused. His
hair was falling over his forehead. And he was
watching me watch him.
His hand cupped my breast,
and this time, I moaned. He closed his eyes for
a second, and I could feel him draw in a long
breath. I knew it wasn't ladylike, or anything
that was proper, but I was helpless not to; I
leaned back against him, and let my head fall
back on his chest. He shuddered, behind me.
I was behaving like the veriest
wanton-pushing my body against him, watching
his hand on my breast. And I simply didn't care.
I pressed back harder. He held my gaze and that
hand hardly moved as we both watched it, yet
its very presence seemed to make me boneless.
He turned me around then, and
pulled me roughly into his arms so I was up against
the heavenly, terrifying, length of him. "Oh
God, Gwen," he said, and the timbre, the
roughness of his voice, seemed to actually touch my skin. He covered my mouth with his, hard this time.
"Bertie," I said,
against his mouth, and I could hear that my voice
held the same urgency as his had.
And then he let go of me and
abruptly took a step back.
I blinked, wanting to say, No!
Please! Don't stop now. My
arms went out instinctively, to pull him back,
but something in his face made my hands fall
to my sides as well.
"What did you say?" His
face was taut.
I tried not to let my puzzlement
show as I reached around in the recesses of my
drugged mind, trying to figure out what had upset
him, and to recall what I had said, even. What
on earth had
I said? "Bertie?" I ventured, frowning
up at him. "Bertie?" Not the most original
thing to say in the situation, I supposed, but
it had at the time seemed a fitting enough response
to Oh God, Gwen.
I tried to read the expression
in his eyes. Could it be that I had been too
seduced by the surprising ease between us, and
by the...well, seduction? Did he prefer that
I address him by his title even when we were
private? That would be the usual way of things,
it was true, but still, it rankled that I had
been in his arms losing myself in the most shocking
manner, and he was quibbling over forms of address.
The silence stretched on between us. "Do
you prefer Milburn?" I asked, finally. "Or
"Not when we are private," he
said. "Of course not."
I hoped I didn't look as befuddled
as I felt. Not Bertie, not Milburn. What, then?
I'd had a few nicknames for him in our youth,
but in our current circumstances, both Puddle-Drawers
and Spawn of Satan seemed singularly unsuitable.
He took my hand, and answered
my unvoiced question. "When it's us, just
us-" he gestured around at the intimate
room- "do you think you could call me Harry,
or Cambourne at the least?"
Which was, well, to put it
bluntly, one of the most-no, the most-bizarre request I'd ever heard. I disengaged my hand from his. "You
would like to be called Harry," I said. "I
see"-although I did not see. "But why?"
said in reasonable enough tones, "surely no man
wants to be called by his brother's name in an...
I took a step back as I began
to absorb what he had said.
"It is necessary elsewhere,
but surely not here, like this-"
I simply could not believe
what I was hearing. "You," I managed
to say. "You are..." And that was as
much as my mind seemed able to come up with.
"Gwen?" He looked
confused as he took a step toward me.
I took a corresponding step
back. "You-You're Cambourne?" I was finally able to articulate.
He looked wary. "Yes."
"But you can't be Cambourne. I would have-" And then I stopped,
and stared at him. He was watching me carefully.
Would I really have known? And then, just like
that, with an almost audible click of my brain,
everything, the entire day, slid into place
and I understood.
And I could see, reflected
on his face, the exact moment that he read my
thoughts. "Oh my Lord," he said, bleakly. "You
didn't know! They didn't tell you."
I just stared. "No."
"You thought I was Milburn!
You really thought
I was Milburn?" There was something in his
tone that made me understand that he thought
if he said it enough times, he might believe
it. One of us might believe it.
I nodded as I looked, despite
myself, at the pile of discarded hairpins on
the window sill. I had behaved like a lightskirt
with Milburn's brother! I closed my eyes for a moment.
And I suspect he was having
much the same thought, because when I opened
my eyes, he took a step back. "All this
time," he said, sounding stricken, "all
this time you thought I was Milburn? Bertie?
He dropped to a chair and put
his head in his hands. I stood, still rooted
to the spot by the window. "I thought you
knew," he said, looking down at the carpet. "I
thought you had agreed."
He looked so utterly miserable
that I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. But
somehow the fact that I had been more or less
panting in his arms a few moments ago was adding
an edge of an entirely different emotion. "Agreed?
Knew? That you-that you are Cambourne?" I said.
He nodded. "That I was
only pretending to be Milburn."
"But why would I- And
you believed that I would allow-" I closed
my eyes again. First of all, I was not entirely
certain that I wanted to know what he believed.
And quite honestly, I suppose I was hoping that
when I opened them again this would turn out
to be some type of delusion. He stayed silent
while I tried to sort my words and wished he'd
disappear. A fresh wave of humiliation washed
over me. There was simply no getting around it:
I had behaved like a common whore in his arms. "You
certainly weren't pretending to
seduce me," I said, at last.
"No." His voice was
quiet. He was extremely still. "Forgive
me. At the time it had not occurred to me that
you were unwilling."
I laughed. I was bordering
on hysterics, and I knew it. "Yes, I can
see that," I said, disliking the way my
own voice was rising. "Because under the
impression that you were my husband and
this was my wedding night, I behaved far too
willingly?" And then, I started to cry.
I wiped the tears away on the back of my hand.
He stood, and put out a hand. "Gwen," he
said, in let's-be-reasonable tones, but I was having none of it. I was starting
to sob in earnest.
I could see my reflection mirrored
in the window. Tears were running unchecked down
my face. My skin was blotchy. My eyes were red,
my nose, redder. I turned and faced him. His
dark hair was still disarranged, falling across
his arrogant forehead. His improbably blue eyes
were dark under straight brows, and his jaw was
very square at the moment. He looked every inch
the duke that he would some day be. And it hit
me with the force of a blow: How on earth had
I ever thought he was Milburn? How stupid could a person
I suppose it would be reasonable,
at this point, were you to wonder how I could
have ended up being quite so stupid. But understanding
the situation requires going back a little way.
This was never, you must know,
a love match. Milburn and I had been promised
to each other likely since the week I was born.
Milburn, who is Lord Bertie, and Harry, who is,
as I have mentioned, the Earl of Cambourne and
future Duke of Winfell, grew up at Marshfields,
principal seat to the Dukes of Winfell since
the days of Queen Elizabeth. Give or take a year.
And I was raised next door at Hildcote.
As my hapless brothers, Richard
and James, ran tame with Milburn and Cambourne,
so did I. Lord knows, over the years I'd seen
a vast succession of nursemaids and governesses,
and then later tutors and schoolmasters bamboozled
by their tricks-among which, switching identities
held pride of place. But for most of my life,
I had possessed the unfailing ability to tell
A lot of good this lifelong
ability had done me, however, since it had obviously
failed me at that crucial moment when I had stood
at the altar and sworn faithfully in front of
God and some three hundred witnesses to love,
honor, and obey the wrong man.
now, a new, even worse thought hit me. "Does
Milburn know about this?" I demanded.
He moved a step closer, almost
as you would approach a horse you were trying
"Don't touch me! This
is a joke, isn't it? One of your vile little
twin practical jokes. Seduce your brother's wife?
"Gwen," he said,
very quietly, "I realize that you've had
a shock, but surely you cannot believe what you
"I don't know what to
believe," I whispered.
"Perhaps, then, I can
"No!" It might have
been childish, but I had no desire to hear him. "Please
"I can't do that."
"Oh yes, you can."
"I see." He studied
me unhurriedly. "I had thought better of
you," he said lightly, and I was stung.
"But... Milburn..." Does
he care? was
what I badly wanted to ask, but was afraid
to hear the answer. At the thought that he
very well might not, my tears started afresh. "Where is he?"
He stood for a moment, his
back still to me, and took a breath. "I
do not know," he said, as he turned to me.
His face was carefully neutral.
I eyed him. How could he not
know? "But we-us- I am truly married to you?"
"Yes," he said, with
no trace of hesitation.
"Not to Milburn."
"But how could that be?
It is not as though you have the same name, after
all, for all that they are similar..." I
stared at him, and he was silent, I suppose allowing
me to work it out. "It was your name!" I
said, almost lost in wonder at my own stupidity. "Reverend
Twigge said your name and I never even noticed?"
Harold Bertram is you," I said, more to
myself than to him. "And Edward Henry Bernard
is Milburn, and still, they called him Bertie.
I knew that, of course. But somehow I just..." I
trailed off and looked at him. "Didn't notice,
I suppose. And you thought-you thought I had agreed to
He nodded. "I'm afraid
so, Gwen," he said, very quietly.
"We can have it annulled,
though?" I asked, and understood all too
well the meaning when he hesitated. "Leave," I
said to him. "I only want you to leave."
Don't misunderstand. I knew
I was being unreasonable. I also knew that I
had larger problems, but at the moment I simply
could not get over my humiliation, both at his
deception and my own behavior. My practically
flinging myself at a man might have been excusable,
if slightly overwarm, for my wedding night. My
doing the same with the wrong man,
"Gwen-" he began,
and I cut him off.
"Not tonight. Just leave."
"Are you certain that's
what you want?"
I nodded, despite the fact
that I wasn't.
He looked at me, and I was
uncomfortably aware of a hard-edged will beneath
the surface. He seemed to me, though, to have
decided to keep it submerged, because he took
a deep breath and capitulated. "Right," he
said, beginning to move toward the door with
And now, here we are, at my
lowest moment: As he started to walk away, it
occurred to me. My dress was unbuttoned. I had
no maid and there was no question of me being
able to button it myself. I had no choice. "Cambourne?"
"Yes?" He turned
from the door.
"My, um..." I gestured
at my back. "I cannot."
He crossed back to me. I could
not for the life of me understand why the Earl
of Cambourne, future Duke of Winfell, would have
married me under false pretenses. But I also
was too humiliated and too stubborn to allow
him to explain himself. Unattractive, I know,
but regrettably true. As his nimble fingers closed
my buttons, I began to sob again. "Were
you pretending to want me, too?" I shouldn't have asked, but
I couldn't stop myself.
His hands still lingered on
the last button as he turned me toward him. "No," he
said, and then he kissed me. Hard.
There was no question at this
point but that I was not going to be seduced
by his kiss. Not even a little. But-and here
is the absolute nadir of the humiliation part-my
body wanted him still. And enough, even, to overrule
my mind. As his mouth closed on mine, my knees
seemed to disintegrate along with my will, and
that hot, shaking excitement in my stomach that
had so recently been stirred within me for the
first time, started again. My arms, of their
own volition, went to him.
After a moment, though, he
lifted his head and stood looking down at me.
I thought he might say something.
waited a moment and hoped I wasn't panting. He
didn't speak. But then, he hardly needed to.
My response to his kiss had said plenty. "How
could you?" I asked, trying to banish the
lightheadedness in favor of righteous indignation.
But his tone was equable. "Perhaps
you'd best ask your parents. In the meantime,
I'll have a maid sent up to help you." And
then he left, striding out of our suite and closing
the door very deliberately behind him in a manner
that led me to believe that he was restraining
himself from giving it a really good, satisfying