Trial by Desire: Version 1
I wrote more versions of Trial by Desire than any of my other books. Once upon a time, there was a version of Trial by Desire that started with Ned not leaving the country. It was the first version that I sent to my editor for the initial approval of the idea. It had so many problems that I scrapped it after 30,000 words. This is not particularly edited. But in the interest of...interest, here it is.
“She isn’t coming.”
Edward Carhart stopped pacing, mid-figure-eight, on the flagstones by the altar and focused on his cousin. “What did you say?”
Newly married himself, Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, shrugged apologetically. “She’s in one of the vicar’s rooms off the side of the chapel. The door is closed. She won’t answer knocks. But her parents are in there with her and from the conversation I overheard…she isn’t coming.”
The news should have come as a blow. Instead, it was a relief. Ned took a shaky breath. For a second, the air seemed clearer. His lungs seemed larger. And his shoulders lifted higher. Thank God; Lady Kathryn Eliot had come to her senses. She wasn’t going to wed him. It took only the space of that breath for reason to assert itself. They had to wed. That first selfish, buoyant impulse crashed to the ground like a bushel of lead shot.
“Hell,” he muttered.
A corner of Gareth’s mouth lifted. “My sentiment exactly.”
Easy enough for Gareth to smile. Gareth was happily married, and to a woman Ned loved as a sister. Gareth was about to leave on a blissful six-month long honeymoon. Gareth had not been discovered alone with a woman in what appeared to be a compromising situation.
Ned started his figure eight again. His polished formal shoes, not designed for walking, pinched as he clopped on slate.
No; Ned had compromised Lady Kate. Their interactions had been innocent, but the situation—and in particular, the gossip surrounding the situation—was entirely his fault. There wasn’t a betting-book in all of London that didn’t give odds on the timing of their first child. Ironic, all things considered.
She didn’t want to marry him; he didn’t want to marry her. But if Ned had learned anything in the almost twenty-two years of his life, it was that honor was a complex beast. And honor demanded that before he let her walk away—before he let her take on a life of gossip, her virtue tarnished in the eyes of society—he make an effort.
The corridor from the chapel to the tiny cubbyhole where the vicar sometimes met with parishioners was dim and cool. By some trick of the eye, the passage seemed to stretch twice the length of the building they’d entered. As he walked to the end, Ned was all too aware that his formal shoes were beginning to squeak. He stopped just outside the door, and raised his hand to knock.
But before knuckles met wood, he was interrupted.
“Kate.” That cool woman’s voice, grating in its cool complacence, was her mother, the Duchess of Ware. “You must marry him. You must keep up appearances. Think of the family name—”
“To hell with the family name.” That was the Duke of Ware. “Poppet, you don’t have to do anything you want to. If anyone slights you, I will slay them and roast their giblets for tea.”
“I don’t want to marry him.” And that was their daughter—Lady Kathryn Eliot. Ned could imagine her pose. She had a temper, and she’d have her hands on her hips.
His hand was still raised, awkwardly, and now he didn’t dare alert her to his presence. This was the point where she would malign him. She would list his myriad faults. He’s so tall and ungainly. He trapped me into marriage. His jokes aren’t amusing.
But when she spoke, he had to stretch to hear her words through the thick black door. “I can’t marry just to keep appearances up.”
“Kate.” The duchess again. Her tone of voice was reproving, and Ned braced himself for a lecture. But what she said was, “Don’t end sentences with prepositions.”
His fiance made an incoherent noise of protest.
“And don’t discount the value of appearance in marriage.” Her voice took on a bit of a venomous tinge. “After all,” she added, “in the vast majority of marriages, appearance is all you’ll get.”
Ned bit his lip and slowly lowered his hand. There was nothing more awkward than eavesdropping on a family squabble.
And then there was a scrabbling sound, right at the door, and he realized that he was wrong. The only thing more awkward than eavesdropping on a family argument was getting caught at it.
In the next instant, the door flew open. Kate—Ned’s fiance—flew through. She was dressed all in white. The skirt trailed out, hiding all hint of her hips. Her eyes flashed silver. Her head tossed, sending ringlets of platinum curls, adorned with clusters of violets, cascading across her bare shoulders. The swells of her breast, visible above an enchantingly low neckline, shivered as she took a deep breath.
If Ned had set out to trap a bride on purpose, he could not have chosen anyone lovelier.
Her parents stood behind her, marshaled on opposite sides of the room like armed forces. Up until now, Ned had thought them harmoniously married. But they hadn’t realized they were in public yet, and the acrimony sparked. Appearances indeed.
Kate drew up short, her mouth rounding in surprise.
“Hullo, Kate,” Ned said. He gave her an apologetic wave of his hand.
She did not blush. She did not falter. She did not look away or make poor-spirited excuses for her absence. Instead, she pointed. “You,” she said. “After we were betrothed, you came to see me not once. Do you want me, or not?”
Her bosom lifted again as she spoke, and Ned felt want rising in him, an inconvenient tide lifting to a high water mark. He wanted. Perhaps not in the way she intended, but he wanted. He forced himself to look into her eyes instead. It didn’t help matters much. They were gray and flashing with anger.
He wasn’t expecting her to move at all, but she did, and swiftly. One second, she was several yards distant. The next, she was at his arm. She glanced behind her, at the scene she’d left. “I need to know,” she whispered. “I need to know I am escaping, not being trapped in another—”
Another hell, like the one she’d just left. Her parents were just beginning to hide the signs of their contempt, hiding their anger away behind unclenched hands and mouths that smiled just a bit too broadly. With a minute to prepare, they could have fooled him into believing that nothing was amiss.
But Kate looked up at him, her eyes round. “Life is too long to shackle myself into a marriage like that. I won’t marry you if you despise me. I won’t.”
Ned had ruined her life once when he compromised her and exposed her to he gossip of the ton. And he could ruin her life in truth, all so easily. If he didn’t marry her, she’d be ostracized and outcast in truth. But if she knew what Ned was, knew what he carried in his family tree, she’d be destroyed if he let her have children. Between these two untenable options, there wound a high precarious path. She could take her place in society. She could keep her friends, and placate her parents. But the first step on that road required her to marry him.
“I don’t hate you.”
He stepped closer to her, a hand’s breadth away. From here, he could smell the layered scents of her perfume—warm cinnamon and bergamot. He could see the blood pulsing in her neck. She searched his face, her brow crinkled in doubt. And like that, he knew how to convince her.
“I don’t hate you,” he repeated.
And he leaned down and kissed her.
He knew it was a mistake the instant his lips grazed hers. She was soft. She tasted like the first day of summer, warm and full of promise. She tasted like all everything that a man would dream of in the cold depths of winter. Her hand rose to his chest, shyly, and Ned wrapped his arms around her. His blood pounded furiously through his veins, beating in time to two simple words. Take her. Take her.
It was the one thing he could not do. He pulled away.
“Now you know,” he said, his voice husky, “why I’ve had to keep away from you this last week.”
He’d intended the words as one final argument, designed to convince Kate to marry him and not throw her life away. But as he said them, he realized they were far truer than he’d supposed. He wanted her. And now, more than ever, he knew why he had to keep his distance.
She glanced behind her. Her parents had united with each other in disapproval, her mother shocked at the display; her father’s arms crossed and his hands gripping his arms, as if to prevent himself from throwing a punch. She lifted her chin. Her eyes flashed. If nothing else, he could promise her civility. He could provide her with an escape, one he hadn’t known she wanted.
He could provide her with anything she wanted, except that one little thing.
“Well.” Kate started walking down the hallway. He’d mussed her coiffeur while kissing her, and the little flowers that clung to her hair trailed purple petals behind her. “It’s time to marry, then.”
He’d convinced her, and let God have mercy on his soul.
Long hours after the ceremony, Kate was carefully ensconced in her new bedroom. A new ring hugged her finger, the metal warm and unfamiliar against her skin. She sat on the edge of her new bed. She was a little bit nervous, a little shy to be sitting on what would be her marital bed. It wasn’t just the newness of the things around her, the crisp feel of freshly woven fabric that had not yet been laundered into soft compliance, that left her tingling. Tonight, everything would change. It was her wedding night. It was hard to fit inside her skin on the brink of such momentous occasion,
It was also hard to fit inside her skin when skin was essentially all she was wearing.
She’d been waiting, alone, dressed in all-too revealing scraps of sheer red silk. After the first shock of her betrothal, she had ordered the sheer gown that her friend Jessica had strongly, strongly suggested she purchase for the evening. Everything she knew about what was to come, she’d learned from Jessica. Jessica had explained the marital act, apologetically using terms fit for a virgin’s ears—which is to say, the explanation had been larded with agricultural metaphor. Beet-seeds planted in fertile ground. Bees wafted from flower to flower. Kate had seen more instructive statues. But Jessica had told her to order the gown, her misgivings not withstanding. And after that kiss her husband had given her today—gentle and tender—Kate was glad she’d done it.
Down the hall from Kate’s room, the clock struck nine. Night came late in the summer, and now only a faint smattering of color tinged the sky she could see from her window.
For a second, she let herself feel all the hope that she dared. Hope was a dangerous thing. It enticed, without promise of return, and when disappointed, it panged more than simple pessimism. But Kate had never seen the point of giving up hope entirely, and she gave into it now. Her husband would treasure her. Now she was out of the house and a woman in her own right, she would find a way to make her mother love her. Perhaps grandchildren would turn the trick. Kate would have a life, as full and rich and filled with adoration as she’d always hoped.
At this very minute, her husband was likely waiting in the next room. Was he as nervous as she? Were his hopes as buoyed by their marriage as hers? She imagined him, divested of the formal wear of their wedding, pacing the floor in a dressing gown. She could almost see the dark triangle of hair against his chest, almost feel the heat of his breath as he turned towards her. If he had any fears regarding the wedding at all, the see-through confection that left her body open for display ought to assuage them.
The last blood-red rays of the sun turned to indigo, and then slowly faded into indistinguishable night sky.
Finally, a knock sounded on the door. Kate sprang from her perch on the bed. Her weight had mussed the coverlets—perhaps she ought to straighten them? Or—wait—that seemed foolish, considering what would happen on those sheets in just a few minutes. But would he think her untidy? While she was frozen between unimportant options, the door that connected their rooms opened.
Her husband walked into the room. By contrast to her, he was wearing a depressing amount of clothing. He wasn’t attired as he had been for their wedding, and he’d at least stripped to shirtsleeves. But his collar was done all the way up. No chance she’d see his chest.
His jaw was frozen in that look he’d had throughout the wedding, a look of clear determination. He maintained it, even, for the few instants it took him to locate Kate where she stood by the bed.
She could not say what changed about him when he saw her. He did not move. But perhaps his lips pressed harder together, and he turned his head—not a shake, but half of one, as if he wanted to deny what he was seeing, but could not. His hands balled and pressed against his thighs. And his gaze.… It dropped down to Kate’s calves and then up, up, sliding over sheer silk. She could feel his attention wander slowly, as tangible as touch, up her thighs, over her belly. He stood three feet away, but she still imagined that the hot brush of his breath whispered against her pebbling nipples. For that fleeting second, Kate’s heart sang.
Agriculture was going to be easy.
But then he exhaled, and that fierce determination returned. It was with steely resolve that he lifted his head and fixed his eyes—in unfortunately proper fashion—on her face.
Well. Perhaps he thought their consummation should be conducted at arm’s length. Kate swallowed. She’d seen a lifetime of distant civility, punctuated by vituperative eruptions. She wasn’t going to risk it herself. “It’s Ned, is it? May I call you Ned?”
He didn’t answer.
She moved towards him. She knew the silk was rippling about her, fading into translucence where the light from the candles shone through. The material slid against her skin. She ought to have been embarrassed. After all, here was a man, looking at her secret places for the first time in her life. But she was going to make him her husband in truth, and she’d be damned if she let a little thing like shame stop her.
After his first look down, he didn’t even glance again. Instead, he faced her directly. “I had thought,” he said quietly, “to give you some time. We didn’t choose each other, and perhaps—”
“We didn’t choose,” Kate said. Her voice was calm, but inside she was beginning to panic. Where was the man who had kissed her that afternoon? Why was he keeping so far from her, addressing her so formally? “We didn’t choose,” she said, more forcefully, “but I believe in making the best of what we have.” She let her hands drift to the first of three buttons holding her insubstantial gauze of a gown in place. His gaze followed, briefly, and then snapped back to her face.
“Cease.” The command came out gravelly, almost a growl. He stopped and cleared his throat. “I had imagined we would have this conversation weeks from now.”
She didn’t want to converse; she wanted to be held. She wanted to be claimed. She wanted to belong to someone, for the first time in her life. And so Kate undid a second button. Her hands were shaking, and she was beginning to feel just a little tawdry. But if tawdry worked—
“Stop,” he said again. “Stop undoing your buttons. It’s not—oh, hell. There is no easy way to say this. Kate, I’m not going to consummate the marriage.”
The words simply did not make sense. He was a man. He’d looked at her. He’d kissed her. And he’d not seemed repelled—far from it. Jessica told her men were wild for the marital act. A willing wife was the key to a happy marriage. And for a happy marriage, Kate would be more than willing.
“You’re not going to consummate the marriage tonight.” Perhaps he’d had too much to drink. Perhaps, in a few days, she could obtain a—a better gown. Lace? It was itchy, but then, if it did its job, it would be off soon enough.
“I’m not going to consummate the marriage, ever.”
For a moment, Kate was too shocked to respond. Her skin prickled. Ever was a long time—decades long. But his jaw was set. He couldn’t even look at her. He offered no explanation for his behavior. And had he known this afternoon, when he was kissing her, that he’d suggest such a thing? She looked in his face. He raised his chin defiantly.
He’d known it then. He’d lied—not with words, perhaps, but with deeds. He’d lied, and now they were married.
“I’ll get it annulled.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You can only annul a marriage if I can’t consummate it. And I can.”
“You just won’t.”
He nodded, once, as if everything that needed to be said had passed between them. As if his insane proclamation had resolved all future nights, and this was all she would ever have to look forward to—this facade and farce of a marriage, two people living in one cold and sterile home. And then he turned to go. He walked to the door surely, as if his little speech had clarified everything between them. As if she were a dressing-gown that he could drape over a hook and ignore for the rest of his life. She was just another thing in his life, and apparently, a dreadfully inconvenient one as well.
“Wait!” She almost didn’t expect him to notice her.
But he turned.
“Is that all that we’re going to do? Keep up appearances?” She felt that familiar, sick want in her, and she raised her chin in defiance. “I mean, keep appearances up?”
Her husband didn’t seem to notice her grammatical bait. “No. No. It’s not like that. You can have anything else you’d like.”
Kate wasn’t an infant, to be comforted and cossetted with a new toy. What she wanted was…agriculture. She wanted a family, a real family, one where affection ran deeper than appearance.
She raised her chin. “Which appearances shall we keep, then? Are we happily married? Are we the bored, but familiar couple? Or shall we erect a facade of polite estrangement? I must know, after all, if I am to play the proper role.”
He shook his head, almost sadly. “Kate, my dear,” he said. His words stung all the more, for their gentleness. “You may have any appearance you want.” And with that, he stepped outside her room. The door closed soundlessly behind him. In his wake, she shivered, the room dark and cold.
Kate stared at the door between them, her stomach a sick, cold pit of dread. Was this what she had in front of her? A lifetime of indulgent rejection? Decades more, spent keeping up appearances, instead of building a life of trust and affection?
Was there some flaw in her, that drove others away? She paused and conducted a brief internal inventory. The only flaw she found was her own desperate desire to fit in somewhere, with someone. Oh, her pride was badly stung by her husband’s words. In the depths of her heart, she felt sick—weary, more like, with her hopes temporarily dashed from their dizzying heights.
But—there was that word.
As in, impermanent and therefore changeable.
Hope, the obstinate unreachable creature that it was, beat on mottled magpie wings.
He’d looked, and then he’d looked away. He’d kept his distance—physically and otherwise. What would he do if those distances were reduced to nothing?
He’d promised her any appearance that she wanted. No doubt he imagined he’d granted her free rein to repaper his sitting room, or to have a modiste make up any dress in any fabric. Perhaps he would accompany her to the opera, and hand her into and out of carriages for all her life. Undoubtedly he supposed those limited concessions would leave her satisfied.
Well, he’d judged her wrong.
Ten minutes ago, she had yearned to discover what limited agricultural improvements her husband deemed appropriate, an initial payment, as it were, on a lifetime of marriage. Now, it was simply a matter of pride. She was going to demand the whole damned farm.
If Mr. Edward Carhart thought he could trap Kate into marriage and then not consummate the affair, he was about to experience the most unpleasant awakening of his life. She was going to bring him to his knees. He was going to beg.
He’d granted her any appearance she wanted. Well, her husband was about to discover just how far appearances could go.