Secrets of the marriage bed... Heiress Adelaide Ashfield lost her trust in men years ago. She spurns the advances of society's most eligible bachelors, but time is running out. Forced to make her choice, Adelaide accepts the hand of Gabriel Hughes, Earl of Wesley. Despite his debauched reputation, Gabriel shies away from intimacy. But marriage to Adelaide awakens a desire he never thought he'd feel again. Maybe his beguiling new bride is the key to shaking off the shame which has haunted him for so long
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Georgette Heyer novels formed Sophia James’s reading tastes as a teenager. But her writing life only started when she was given a pile of Mills & Boons to read after she had had her wisdom teeth extracted! Filled with strong painkillers she imagined that she could pen one, too. Many drafts later Sophia thinks she has the perfect job writing for Harlequin Historical as well as taking art tours to Europe with her husband, who is a painter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The familiar sense of nothingness engulfed Gabriel Hughes, the fourth Earl of Wesley, taking all breath and warmth with it as he sat with a glass of fine brandy and a half-smoked cheroot.
Willing women dressed as sprites, nymphs and naiads lounged around him, the white of their scanty togas falling away from generous and naked breasts. A dozen other men had already chosen their succour for the night and had gone one by one to the chambers fanning out from the central courtyard. But here the lights were dimmed and the smoke from dying candles curled up towards the ceiling. The Temple of Aphrodite was a place of consenting lust and well-paid liaisons. It was also filled to the brim.
'I should very much like to show you my charms in bed, monsieur, the beautiful blonde next to him whispered in a French accent overlaid with a heavy, east London twang. 'I have heard your name mentioned many times before and it is said that you have a great prowess in that department.'
Had... The word echoed in Gabriel's mind and reverberated as a shot would around a steel chamber. Downing the last of the brandy, he hoped strong alcohol might coax out feelings he had long since forgotten. Memory. How he hated it. His heartbeat quickened as he swallowed down disquiet, the hollow ache of expectation not something he wanted to feel.
'I am Athena, my lord.'
'The sister of Dionysus?'
She looked puzzled by his words as she flicked the straps from milky white shoulders and the warm bounty of her bosom nudged against his arm as she leant forward. 'I do not know this sister of Diana, my lord, but I can be yours tonight. I can pleasure you well if this be your favour.'
He hadn't expected her to know anything of the Greek gods, but still disappointment bloomed—a woman of beauty and little else. Her tongue ran around pouting lips, wetting them and urging response, dilated pupils alluding to some opiate, a whore without shame or limit and one whom life had probably disappointed. Feeling some sense of kinship, Gabriel smiled.
'You are generous, Athena, but I cannot take you up on your offer.'
Already the demons were arching, coming closer, and when her fingers darted out to cup his groin, he almost jumped. 'And why is that, monsieur? The Temple of Aphrodite is the place where dreams are realised.'
Or nightmares, he thought, the past rushing in through the ether.
Screams as the fire had taken hold; the stinging surprise of burning flesh and then darkness numbing pain. The last time he had felt whole.
Gabriel hated it when these flashbacks came, unbidden, terrifying. So sudden that he had no defence against them. Standing, he hoped that Athena did not see the tremble in his fingers as he replaced his empty glass on the low-slung table. Run, his body urged even as he walked slowly across the room, past the excesses of sex, passion and craving. He hated the way he could not quite ingest the cold night air once outside as the roiling nausea in his stomach quickened and rose.
He nearly bumped into the Honourable Frank Barnsley and another man as Gabriel strode out into the gardens and he looked away, the sweat on his upper lip building. He knew he had only a matter of minutes to hide all that would come next.
There were trees to his left, thick and green, and he made for them with as much decorum as he could manage. Then he was hidden, bending, no longer quite there. It was getting worse. He was falling apart by degrees, the smell of heavy perfumes, the full and naked flesh, the tug of sex and punch of lust. All equated with another time, another place. Intense guilt surfaced, panic on the edges. His heart thumped and fear surged, the sensation of falling so great he simply sat down and placed his arms around the solid trunk of a young sapling. A touchstone. The only stable thing in his moving dizzy world.
Leaning over to one side, he threw up once and then twice more, gulping in air and trying to understand.
His life. His shame.
Coming tonight to the Temple of Aphrodite and expecting a healing had been a monumental mistake. He needed to lie down in dark and quiet. Aloneness cloaked dread as tears began to well.
'I do not wish to marry anyone, Uncle.' Miss Adelaide Ashfield thought her voice sounded shrill, even to her own ears, and tried to moderate the tone. 'I am more than happy here at Northbridge and the largesse that is my inheritance can be evenly divided between your children, or their children when I die.'
Alec Ashfield, the fifth Viscount of Penbury, merely laughed. 'You are young, my dear, and that is no way to be talking. Besides, my offspring have as much as they are ever likely to need and if your father and mother were still in the land of the living, bless their poor departed souls, they would be castigating me for your belated entry into proper society.'
Adelaide shook her head. 'It was not your fault that Aunt Jean died the month before I was supposed to be presented in London for my first Season or that Aunt Eloise took ill the following summer just before the second.'
'But your insistence on an overly long mourning period was something I should have discouraged. You have reached the grand old age of three and twenty without ever having stepped a foot into civil society. You are, as such, beyond the age of a great match given that you no longer bear the full flush of youth. If we wait any longer, my love, you will be on the shelf. On the shelf and staying there. A spinster like your beloved great-aunts, watching in on the life of others for ever.'
'Jean and Eloise were happy, Uncle Alec. They enjoyed their independence.'
'They were bluestockings, my dear, without any hope of a favoured union. One had only to look at them to understand that.'
For the first time in an hour Adelaide smiled. Perhaps her aunts had been overly plain, but their brains had been quick and their lives seldom dull.
'They travelled, Uncle, and they read. They knew things about the body and healing that no other physician did. Books gave them a world far removed from the drudge of responsibility that a married woman is encumbered by.'
'Drudges like children, like love, like laughter. You cannot know what seventy years in your own company might feel like and loneliness has no balm, I can tell you that right now.'
She looked away. Uncle Alec's wife, Josephine, had been an invalid for decades, secreted away in her chamber and stitching things for people who had long since lost the need for them.
'One Season is all I ask of you, Adelaide. One Season to help you understand everything you would be missing should you simply bury yourself here in the backwaters of rural Sherborne.'
Adelaide frowned. Now this was new. He would stipulate a limited time. 'You would not harry me into a further Season if this one is a failure?'
Alec shook his head. 'If you have no one offering for you, no one of your choice, that is, then I will feel as if my duty to your parents is done and you can come home. Even if you agree to stay half of the Season I would be happy.'
'From April till June. Only that?'
'Early April to late June.' There was a tone of steel in her uncle's voice.
'Very well. Three months. Twelve weeks. Eighty-four days.'
Alec laughed. 'And not one less. You have to promise me.'
Walking to the window, Adelaide looked out over the lands of Northbridge. She did not want to leave this place. She didn't want to be out in the glare of a society she had little interest in. She wanted to stay in her gardens and her clinic, helping those about Northbridge with the many and varied complaints of the body. Her world, ordered and understood; the tinctures and ointments, the drying herbs and forest roots. Safe.
'As I would need gowns and a place to live and a chaperon, it seems like a lot of bother for nothing.'
'I have thought of all of these things and a relative of mine, Lady Imelda Harcourt, will accompany you.'
As she went to interrupt Alec stopped her. 'I realise she is a little dour and sometimes more than trying, but she is also a respectable widow with undeniably good contacts amongst the ton. I, too, will endeavour to visit London as much as I am able whilst you are there. Bertram will want to have some hand in it as well, as he has assured me his gambling habits are now well under control.'
Her heart sank further. Not only Lady Harcourt but her cousin, too? What else could go wrong?
However, Uncle Alec was not quite finished. 'I wasn't going to mention this, but now seems like the perfect time to bring it up. Mr Richard Williams from Bishop's Grove has approached me with the hopes that he might be an escort whom you would look favourably upon during your time in town. A further arrow to our bow, so to speak, for we do not want you to be bereft of suitors. One day I am sure you will be thankful for such prudence. Here you are well known, Adelaide, but in London it can be difficult to meet others and a first impression has importance.'
Adelaide was simply struck dumb. She was being saddled with three people who would hardly be good company and her uncle expected her to thank him? It was all she could do to stay in the room and hear him out.
'Men will know you have a fortune and there are some out there who could be unscrupulous in their promises. Great wealth comes with its own problems, my dear, and you will need to be most careful in your judgement. Pick a suitor who is strong in his own right, a man whose fortune might equal your own. A good man. A solid man. A man of wealth and sense. Stay well away from those who only require a rich wife to allow them back into the gambling halls, or ones whose family estates have been falling around their feet for years.'
'I am certain I shall know exactly whom to stay away from, Uncle.' Privately she hoped that every single male of the ton would want to keep their distance from her and after this she would never have to be beleaguered by such ridiculous frippery again.
The doctor's rooms were in a discreet and well-heeled part of Wigmore Street and Gabriel had had it on good authority from the books he had acquired over the past months that Dr Maxwell Harding was the foremost expert on illnesses pertaining to problems in men of a more personal nature.
He almost had not come, but the desperation and despondency caused by his condition had led him to arrive for the earliest appointment at noon.
No other people graced the waiting area and the man behind a wide desk gave the impression of disinterest. For that at least Gabriel was glad. He did toy with the thought of simply giving a false name and was about to when the door behind him opened and an older man walked out.
'It is Lord Wesley, is it not? I am Dr Maxwell Harding. I have heard your name about town, of course, but have not had the pleasure of meeting you. In my line of work you are the one many of my patients would aspire to emulate, if you take my meaning, so this is indeed a surprise.' His handshake was clammy and he brought a handkerchief from his pocket afterwards to wipe his brow in a nervous gesture. 'Please, follow me.'
For Gabriel the whole world had just turned at an alarming rate. He did not wish for this doctor to know his name or his reputation. He certainly did not want to be told of a plethora of patients with their own sexual illnesses and hardships who all earmarked him as some sort of a solution.
He suddenly felt almost as sick as he had a week ago outside the Temple of Aphrodite, but as the door behind him closed he took hold of himself. Harding was a doctor, for God's sake, pledged under the Hip-pocratic Oath to the welfare of each of his patients. It would be fine. The doctor had walked across to a cupboard now and was taking a decanter and two glasses from a shelf and filling them to the brim.
'I know why you are here, my lord,' Harding finally stated as he placed one in Gabriel's hands.
'You do?' With trepidation he took a deep swallow of the surprisingly good brandy and waited. Was it marked on his face somehow, his difficulty, or in the worry of his eyes? Was there some sort of a shared stance or particular gait in those who came through this door for help? Hopelessness, perhaps, or fear?
'You are here about the Honourable Frank Barnsley, aren't you? He said you had looked at him strangely when he met you the other day. As if you knew. He implied that you might come and talk with me. He said his father was a good friend of yours.'
'Barnsley?' Gabriel could not understand exactly where this conversation was going though he vowed to himself that after he finished the drink he would leave. This was neither the time nor the place to be baring his soul and the doctor was sweating alarmingly.
'His predilection for...men,' Harding went on. 'He said you had seen him and Andrew Carrington embracing one another in the garden at some well-heeled brothel and wondered if you might begin making enquiries...'
Anger had Gabriel placing his glass carefully down upon a nearby table. Harding was not only a gossip, but a medic with no sense of confidentiality or professionalism. Before the outburst he had had no inkling of the sexual persuasions of either man and it was none of his business anyway. He could also just imagine the hushed tones of Harding describing Gabriel's own problems to all and sundry should he have decided to trust in the doctor's honour. He was damned thankful that he had not.
He'd buy Barnsley and Carrington a drink when he saw them next in his club as a silent measure of gratitude. But for now he had one final job to do.
'Mr Frank Barnsley is a decent and honourable man. If I hear you mention any of this, to anyone at all, ever again, I will be back and I promise that afterwards no one will hear your voice again. Do I make myself clear?'
A short and frantic nod was apparent and at that Gabriel simply opened the door and walked out of the building, into the sunshine and the breeze, a feeling of escaping the gallows surging over him, one part pure relief, though the other echoed despair.
He could never tell anybody. Ever. He would have to deal with his problem alone and in privacy. He would either get better or he would not and the thought of years and years of sadness rushed in upon him with an awful truth.
His reality. His punishment. His retribution.
But today had been like a reprieve, too, a genuine and awkward evasion of what might have come to pass. He was known across the ton for his expertise with the opposite sex and if the scale of his prowess had grown with the mounting rumour he had not stopped that, either, his downfall sharpened on lies.
This is what he had come to, here and now, walking along the road to his carriage parked a good two hundred yards from the doctor's rooms to secure privacy and wishing things could be different; he could be different, his life, his secrets, his sense of honour and morality and grace.
Once he had believed in all the glorious ideals the British Service had shoved down his throat. Integrity. Loyalty. Virtue. Principle. But no more. That dream had long gone in the face of the truth.
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