(A new Brides of Bath novel)
By Cheryl Bolen
"Now we're stuck in this room together," Mr. Steffington said. "Why could you not have been my sister as we were at the Duke's Arms last night?"
"But you are mistaken, Airy. I wasn't actually your sister at Duke's Arms."
"You know what I mean." Her gave her an I'd-like-to-gag-your-mouth-with-a-used-handkerchief look.
Catherine attempted to out stare him.
Mumbling something incoherent beneath his breath, he looked away. Her gaze then followed his to the bed, where more silken draperies hung from the big four-poster.
"Of course, I shall sleep on the floor," he said.
"Of course." She shrugged. "It does look softer than most floors. And I shall insist you take the counterpane to fold into a little mattress."
"Will you be warm enough without it?"
"Oh, yes. I shall have the bed curtains closed to hold in the warmth."
"I suppose they shall also give you privacy."
"True. I shouldn't like you to see me sleeping. I mean, what if my mouth gapes open like a moron—meaning no disparagement to those poor afflicted souls."
"I cannot imagine you ever looking anything but ladylike."
"Oh, Airy, that is so kind of you." That he was incapable of staying angry with her, endeared him to her. The girl who would one day capture his heart would be very fortunate. Very fortunate, indeed.
As she directed a smile at him, his lashes lowered. She was certain his compliment now embarrassed him. He was not the smooth-talking, bed hopper she'd wager his twin brother was. She rather pitied the girl who married that twin. Reflecting over her own smooth-talking, bed-hopping late husband, she was now happy that he'd been possessed of those traits. Otherwise, his demise would have been too, too painful.
She sighed. Yes, the girl who married Mr. Steffington would be most fortunate.
"You must allow me to make your bed," she said. "I am ever so experienced. Whenever my little nephews visit me in Bath, I make them a pallet on the floor of my bedchamber." She set about to remove the quilt from the bed, fold it lengthwise, and place it on the floor beside her own bed.
Then her gaze traveled over him from head to toe. "I fear you may be too tall."
"My feet won't mind hanging off."
She started to giggle.
He cracked a smile. "Allow me to guess. You are now imagining my feet talking."
Still giggling, she nodded.
"You are possessed of the silliest sense of humor." He eyed the pallet. "Perhaps you shouldn’t put it so close to your bed. What if I snore?"
"I am accustomed to men snoring." Her hand clapped around her mouth. "I didn’t mean to imply I've slept with multiple men. Only one, actually."
His dark eyes flashed with mirth.
And they both laughed.
"Why did you not warm to Lord Seacrest?" she asked. "I thought he was charming."
Mr. Steffington frowned. "You would. He shamelessly flirted with a married woman!"
"Well. . .I'm not actually a married woman."
"He doesn't know that!"
Mr. Steffington's deep sense of morality touched her. She gave him a puzzled look. "I hadn't noticed Lord Seacrest flirting. He was merely being friendly."
"Only to you. He was jealous of me."
"Why would he be jealous of you?"
"Because I had the good fortune to marry you." He shrugged. "At least, that's what the man thinks."
"Oh, Airy, that is so sweet that you think being married to me is a good thing."
"I didn't say that."
Seconds later, she feigned a yawn. "I suppose I am rather tired."
His glance flicked to her valise, then to his beside it. He cleared his throat. She was coming to learn that he cleared his throat every time he was about to say something that he thought might be construed as too intimate. "Would you like me to leave the room whilst you dress for bed?" He was unable to meet her gaze.
"You don't have to leave the room."
His gaze absently lowered to her bodice, then whipped away. "Then I vow to turn my back and close and my eyes whilst you . . . ah, remove your. . . well, you know."
"You don't have to close your eyes."
Those dark eyes of his rounded. "Oh, but I must. You're a lady, and I'm a gentleman."
She stood. "That won't be necessary. I'll pull the curtains around my bed and then disrobe."
"Capital idea!" He looked exceedingly relieved.
She went to her valise, removed her night shift, then crossed the room and climbed on top the big bed.
"Here," he said. "I'll close the bed curtains for you." It was much easier for him because of his height.
When he finished, she sat on that left side of the bed and listened to his footsteps move away. "Thank you, Airy. Good night, sleep tight—"
"And don't let the bedbugs bite," he finished.
Once she had changed into her night shift and got beneath the covers she called out to him. "I'm decent now, but I find I don't like the dark. If you weren't in the chamber with me, I would be terrified."
"Should you like for me to crack open your bed curtains?"
"I, ah, shall need to restore my shirt first."
How she would love to see him without his shirt. "Don't bother. I'll close my eyes."
"Are you sure?"
He needn't know if she peeked. After all, it was quite dark within the cubicle of her bed. "Certainly!"
"Forgive me. I didn’t mean to imply. . ."
"Of course you wouldn’t."
He quietly moved across the carpet. "Where should you like the sliver of light?"
"The foot of the bed will do nicely, thank you." And would afford a glimpse of him.
Seconds later, a buttery vertical light striped the foot of her bed, and she stealthily watched as he moved back to his pallet with the powerful majesty of a panther. Firelight glanced along the tawny length of his long, lean, and wonderfully bare torso.
Yes, she thought to herself, her breath a bit ragged, the girl who snared dear Mr. Steffington would indeed be fortunate.