Read Waking Up With the Duke Online

Authors: Lorraine Heath

Tags: #Historical romance, #Fiction

Waking Up With the Duke

Waking Up With the Duke

Lorraine Heath

 

Dedication

 

For Franny

When shared with you . . .

Laughter is deeper

Secrets more hushed

Good news more joyous

Sorrows less painful

Moments always, always richer

And New York is way more fun. Totally.

Thank you for including me in your life and offering me the gift of your friendship . . .

And for always knowing the best wines.

Chapter 1

 

Herndon Hall, Leicestershire

November, 1860

 

“I
’ll consider your debt paid in full if you get my wife with child.”

Ransom Seymour, the ninth Duke of Ainsley, struggled to concentrate as he sat sprawled in a comfortable armchair in the well-appointed library. He’d been downing excellent whiskey ever since his arrival at the Marquess of Walfort’s country estate for his once legendary hunt. After three hours, they were both well into their cups, so surely he’d misunderstood.

“Does your silence indicate your acceptance of the terms?” Walfort asked.

Ainsley scrutinized his cousin and longtime friend, sitting in that damned wheelchair, where he himself had placed the marquess three years earlier. Walfort had aged considerably during that time, his brown hair having gone white at the temples, his brown eyes somber enough to chase off any gaiety in the room. Ainsley released a dark chuckle. “I’ve had far too much to drink. You would not countenance what I thought you uttered.”

“Jayne wants a child. I can’t give it to her. You owe me this.”

Ainsley pushed himself out of the chair. He’d meant to do so with force. Instead, he staggered and almost lost his balance as he crossed over to the fireplace. He pressed his forearm against the stone mantel to steady himself while he studied the madly dancing flames. Within them he could almost see the night he and Walfort had been barreling wildly through the London streets, the curricle traveling at a dangerous breakneck speed—

He’d wondered but never dared ask the full extent of Walfort’s injuries. They’d seen each other seldom in the intervening years, that tragic night a guilty barrier between them. “I owe you your legs. Not my seed.”

“You owe me a bloody cock!”

Inwardly, Ainsley flinched, but he allowed none of his rioting emotions to escape his calm façade. Instead, he concentrated more intently on the fire. The flames—red, blue, yellow, orange—swirled in a macabre waltz, no doubt a preview of what his eternity would most assuredly entail. Writhing within them for his sins, his poor judgment. He’d been all of five and twenty. A cursed age for him and his brothers. Westcliffe married at twenty-five and was betrayed. Stephen marched off to war, only to return a lost man. And Ainsley, who was always so damned responsible, managed to destroy a good man’s life. And a lovely woman’s. And his own, if he was honest about it.

“Are you telling me that you can’t . . . that you—” He peered over at Walfort. He owed it to his childhood friend to at least hold his gaze when he asked. “That you can’t bed her?”

“I’ve got no feeling.” Walfort pounded his thighs, slammed a fist between his legs with enough force to make Ainsley cringe and the chair creak. “No feeling. She’s tried, bless her, she’s tried to make it work . . . but all it does is cause her to weep.”

Ainsley felt as though his heart had been scored with a thousand daggers. They’d been in London celebrating that Jayne was at long last with child, was possibly carrying Walfort’s heir.

“I feel remarkably old at twenty-eight,” Walfort, three years Ainsley’s senior, remarked. “I want to feel young again.”

So they drank and drank and drank. And although Walfort was married, they even visited the beds of a couple of lovelies. Ainsley had never understood Walfort partaking in the latter entertainment. If Jayne were his wife—

“Jayne would never agree to this mad notion of yours. She despises me.”

He hardly blamed her for her attitude toward him. In grief over her husband’s near death and debilitating injuries, she’d lost the child. Now it seemed she had no hope of ever having another. She was the sort of woman who should never be denied anything her heart desired. It was his second thought upon being introduced to her at the betrothal dinner that had been held in her and Walfort’s honor:
If you were mine, you’d never do without
. His first thought had been that he wished he’d met her before Walfort, so certain was he that he’d have been able to charm her into his arms. She was the loveliest woman upon whom he’d ever set eyes. Grace and poise mirrored her every step. When she smiled, she made a man feel as though he were all that mattered.

In no hurry to marry, Ainsley had avoided the soirees of Seasons past whenever possible. Thus he’d missed the opportunity to meet and court Lady Jayne Spencer. Although to hear Walfort tell it, he snagged her heart during their initial dance.

“You have a reputation for charming the ladies. Apply your talents to my wife,” Walfort said now, each word biting, clipped, as though forced between clenched teeth.

“You want me to seduce her?”

“I want you to give her what I cannot.”

“This is ludicrous.” Ainsley shoved himself away from the fireplace, dropped back into the chair, which had suddenly become unbearably uncomfortable, rose and stalked to the window. Unsettled, he refused to acknowledge how often he’d dreamed of Jayne, but he’d never acted upon his interest. He lived his life by a code of chivalry passed down from his ancestors who had fought alongside Richard the Lionheart during the crusades. He did not take women who belonged to others. “Does she consent to this preposterous scheme of yours?”

“I’ve not yet discussed it with her. I wanted to ensure you were in agreement with it before I did.”

He faced a man he no longer knew. Had Walfort’s affliction driven him mad? “I can predict her answer with unerring accuracy. She’ll laugh, she’ll slap my face, and then she’ll weep. Not to mention the legal ramifications. If she gives birth to a boy, he will inherit. Even if all of England knows you are not his sire, you will be legally bound—”

“You and I are not only friends, but cousins. We both carry the Seymour blood. It would not be such an offense.”

“The cousin who is next in line for your title might disagree.”

“Syphilis is causing him to lose his mind. Besides, do you honestly believe that every prince who sat upon the throne and became king was truly his father’s son? I doubt it. And I do not care about blood as much as I care about Jayne and seeing that she is happy.”

But what of himself? Ainsley wondered. To have a son or daughter whom he could never acknowledge? Did he owe his cousin such a sacrifice? Although his recollections were a blur, he knew he’d been driving the curricle. When it toppled, he was thrown clear, his only souvenir from the incident a thin scar that bisected the left side of his chin. Walfort had somehow managed to get caught up in the rigging. When everything finally came to a thundering halt, he’d been broken. Ghastly. Irrevocably. Broken.

With so much liquor coursing through their veins, neither of them remembered the infinite details. They knew only that Ainsley walked away with one small scratch and Walfort never walked again.

“If I decline your invitation to bed your lovely wife?” Ainsley asked quietly, the abhorrence of being placed in this position tautening his gut. He’d never taken a married woman to his bed. Even the thought was repugnant. He believed in having a jolly good time with any willing woman—as long as she possessed no husband to whom she owed her loyalty. He was a man who honored duty and vows. He held others to his high standard.

“I’ll simply ask someone else. And my wife could very well have a miserable night of it. But you, you’ve always had a reputation for being a remarkable lover. You could provide her with a night to remember.”

“She would not welcome my touch.”

“I’ve no doubt you could change her mind on that score.”

“You seem to have discounted the importance of her not fancying me.”

“Not at all. I consider it to our advantage that she doesn’t think well of you. It would reduce the encounter to a transaction. Unemotional. Detached. But knowing you, you would find a way to give her pleasure—and that would be my gift to her as well. She’s had three years of celibacy. She’s never complained, bless her, but she was all of twenty-two when joy was brutally stolen from her because of our poor choices. Why should she continue to suffer and pay the price for our sins? A night in the arms of London’s most reputed lover? Nine months later a babe suckling at her breast.”

“You give my reputation too much credit. Even I cannot guarantee conception with only one encounter.”

Walfort shrugged haplessly. Shoulders that had once been sturdy seemed lost within his finely cut jacket. “A month, then. Someplace quiet, discreet.”

The answers came much too quickly, without hesitation, as though they’d previously engaged in the argument. “You’ve given this considerable thought.”

“It’s all I think about. How to bring happiness to my wife. You owe me this, Ainsley. You owe
her
.”

“She’ll never agree to it.”

“But if she does?”

Before he could respond, the library door opened and the lady in question strolled in. The first time he saw her, she’d been smiling, her blue eyes alight with joy, her beauty transcendent. Now it was as though a shadow had fallen over her. She was small and delicate, much too delicate for the burdens she presently carried.

She avoided looking at Ainsley as she approached her husband. Her black hair was upswept. Flowing back and tucked neatly into place was the river of white she’d acquired near her temple three years ago as she dealt with the loss of her babe and her husband’s mobility. Her violet gown outlined her slender frame to perfection, and Ainsley had an unconscionable—and unforgivable—vision of easing that gown off her shoulders and skimming his mouth over her creamy skin. She would not consent. He knew she would not consent. He was a blackguard to give even a second’s thought to how he would carry her into a sensual realm where only pleasure existed.

She was his friend’s wife, for God’s sake, and Walfort, wallowing in that damned wheelchair, simply was not thinking properly. Jayne would set him straight right quick, and then she would no doubt hold Ainsley responsible for her husband’s ludicrous suggestion.

Smiling softly, she bent at the waist and pressed a light kiss to Walfort’s cheek. “Hello, darling.”

When she straightened, she gazed at Ainsley as though he were a bit of excrement she’d recently scraped off the bottom of her shoe. “Your Grace.”

He bowed slightly. “Lady Walfort. May I say that you look lovely?”

“You may say whatever you wish.”

For him, she had no smile, no soft eyes, and no gentle tone. Walfort had indeed lost his mind if he thought his wife was going to welcome any sort of intimacy from Ainsley. He suspected she would derive more pleasure from ramming a dagger through his heart than from experiencing his practiced touch.

“Dinner awaits, gentlemen.”

“Good. I’m quite famished,” Walfort announced. “Ainsley, will you escort my wife into dinner?”

“I don’t need an escort,” she said quickly. “However, Randall is not presently available, so perhaps His Grace would be kind enough to assist you.”

Her eyes as they met Ainsley’s held a challenge and more. He knew she wanted to remind him of what his foolishness had wrought—as though he could ever forget it.

“It would be my honor,” he responded succinctly, striding toward Walfort.

As he pushed the chair forward, he was surprised to discover how much lighter it was than he remembered. His friend was frailer than he’d realized. Knowing he was responsible, the guilt gnawed at him like a ravenous dog with a bone.

His guilt increased when he found himself enticed by the lure of Jayne’s hips gently swaying as she preceded them from the room. He didn’t want to contemplate the hell that awaited him if she consented to her husband’s insane notion to get her with child.

S
itting at her vanity several hours later, Jayne Seymour, Marchioness of Walfort, brushed her hair, marveling that she’d managed to sit through dinner without making any nasty comments to Ainsley. She’d not been pleased when Walfort told her that he invited the duke to arrive a day earlier than the rest of their guests so they might have some private time together. That he still saw the man at all astounded her. She couldn’t forgive Ainsley for the careless disregard with which he lived his life.

Each time she first set eyes upon him, it was like receiving a solid blow to the chest, nearly crippling her with its force. Her stomach cramped with the reminder of what she’d lost due to his selfish actions and his penchant for indulging in all sinful pleasures. Her babe and the man whom her husband had been.

She’d never deluded herself into believing it was anything other than her sizable dowry that had first attracted Walfort to her. His coffers were quite empty when he began to court her, but it had not taken long for him to win her heart as well as her hand in marriage. Theirs had been a comfortable arrangement. She was fortunate. They were compatible. They cared for each other. They enjoyed each other’s company. They never argued. She managed his household. He visited his clubs. Life had been calm, pleasant.

Four years into their marriage, she found herself with child. She’d been nearly three months along when she finally told Walfort, who promptly went off to boast about it to his longtime friend and cousin, the Duke of Ainsley. She was unfamiliar with the particulars of what followed. She knew only that both men had celebrated the good news with far too much drink and a dash through the London streets that cost her husband his legs and his ability to sire another child. The grief of his injuries, the strain of caring for him, the emotional turmoil of accepting how their lives were affected, had all been too much. She lost the child. His one hope for an heir. Her one hope to be a mother.

Other books

Blood and Sympathy by Clark, Lori L.
Fraser's Line by Monica Carly
To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner
Crossroads by K. M. Liss
Made to Love by DL Kopp
The Secret by Julie Garwood
False Pretenses by Tressie Lockwood
Out of This World by Graham Swift