Wicked Delights of a Bridal BedBy: Tracy Anne Warren
Seated in the elegantly comfortable surroundings of her bedchamber, Lady Mallory Byron stroked idle fingers over the cat in her lap, his soft, inky fur a nearly perfect match for the solemn black of her gown. Charlemagne, a pampered housecat, who had started life as a kitten in a quiet corner of the Braebourne stables, purred with clear contentment, his green eyes slitted with undisguised pleasure.
If only I could be so at peace, Mallory thought. If only my existence could be as ordinary and untroubled as his.
But try as she might, nothing had been right in her life since the devastating morning she’d received word that her beloved fiancé, Major Michael Hargreaves, had been killed in battle.
Her throat squeezed tight at the memory, but her eyes remained dry. After more than a year, she’d become inured enough to the loss that she no longer cried, certainly not as she had during those first anguished weeks when she would be abruptly overcome with bouts of uncontrollable weeping and despair.
Only in her dreams did she still experience those same sorrowful depths: vivid nightmares that crept upon her without warning to bring her awake on a strangled gasp, tears flowing in a hot, damp wash over her cheeks.
Intellectually, she knew it was time to put aside her grief and get on with the task of living—as her well-intentioned family gently kept urging her to do. But emotionally she felt numb, unable to find a path back to the carefree, lighthearted girl she’d once been. It was as if she had no heart at all now, her world veiled in a shadowy fog that held the worst of the pain at bay but kept out the pleasure and vibrancy as well.
Sighing, she continued stroking the cat’s soft fur while she stared out the window at the magnificent, precisely maintained grounds of her brother Edward’s estate. Home to the Dukes of Clybourne for more than two centuries, Braebourne was one of the finest aristocratic houses in England, a property of rare beauty and grace. But she appreciated none of it. Nor did she pay more than scant attention to the activities of her maid, as the girl bustled around in the room behind her.
“The guests are startin’ to arrive fer the festivities, miss,” Penny said in a pointedly cheerful voice. “The house is fairly swarming with noise and goings-on. Shall I go ahead now and lay out yer evening frock for tonight? Which one would you prefer? There’s the pink silk with the fancy lace on the bodice? You always look so pretty in that color, what with your dark hair and rosy complexion. It’s certain sure you’d be the belle of the evening dressed in that.”
The girl paused, obviously hoping to receive a response. When Mallory offered none, Penny continued. “Or maybe you’d like the blue one instead? Her Grace, your mother, was telling me just the other day that she can’t think of any lady who wears that shade so well and how perfectly it complements your aquamarine eyes. Then, of course, you’re beautiful in any color you wear. So which shall it be, miss? Pink or blue or something else?”
Mallory knew she should make some reply, even if it was only to give a noncommittal shrug. Instead, she stayed silent, taking comfort in Charlemagne’s small, un-demanding presence as she moved her hand slowly over his velvety coat.
He wasn’t the only animal in the room; at least a couple of the multitude of Byron family pets were in the habit of wandering in each day for a visit. A tabby cat named Elizabeth—short for Queen Elizabeth—was asleep in a tight curl in the center of her bed, while Henry, a brindle spaniel, lay stretched out atop the plush Aubusson carpet near the unlighted fireplace hearth.
The trio of animals had her little sister Esme to thank for their regal names. They’d all been added to the fold the year Esme had been studying the lives of great rulers. And although she might only remember a portion of those lessons now, the pet names continued on. Recently, Esme had taken to naming new animals after famous composers. The latest additions so far were a cat named Mozart and two dogs she’d dubbed Haydn and Handel. Esme might be a rather indifferent musician, Mallory thought, but one couldn’t help but be amused by the whimsical and irreverent nature of her imagination.
A faint smile curved Mallory’s lips at the thought, her gaze wandering toward “King” Henry where he lay across the room. As if sensing her regard, the dog raised his head and thumped his tail twice before returning to his nap.
“Which gown shall it be then?” Penny persisted. “You have only to say, and I’ll see it pressed and ready.”
Mallory drew a breath and prepared to answer. As she did, she heard the sound of voices carrying from somewhere in the corridor beyond.