Home > The Love of a Libertine (The Duke's Bastards #1)

The Love of a Libertine (The Duke's Bastards #1)
Author: Jess Michaels




Spring 1811



Running away from home in order to marry in secret had been a decision Elizabeth Margolis doubted from nearly the first moment she escaped into the night. But now, huddled before the fire in the tiny cottage, clenching and unclenching her fists before the flames, she dared to let herself believe it was a mistake.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care for Aaron Walters. She did, with every fiber of her being. She loved him, or at least she thought she did. She didn’t have much experience with such things. She’d been taught by a tutor, and her small circle of friends was as sheltered as she was. But she read a lot of books and the feelings those books described when it came to love were certainly something close to what she felt.

And she had to love him now. She had to. After all, she had given herself completely to him the night before, when they stopped for the second time along the long road to Gretna Green and the marriage that awaited them there.

“You’re being silly,” she chastised herself softly.

“Silly about what, my love?”

She pivoted to find Aaron standing in the doorway of the small adjoining dressing room where he had been readying himself for bed. She shifted at the sight of him, his shirt undone and revealing his flat stomach, with his hair mussed. He was a handsome man, there was no denying that. And when she looked at him, some of her doubts faded.

They would be happy.

“My nerves,” she explained with as bright a smile as she could manage. “I only wish we could have made it across the border tonight and to Gretna Green at last. I’m tired of this madcap escape.”

“So anxious to be my wife,” he drawled as he entered the main room of the cottage and reached out to touch her face with just his fingertips.

She forced herself to stay right where she was and allow that caress. She wasn’t quite accustomed to being touched so intimately and knew she needed to learn. Aaron didn’t like it when she hesitated, and she so wanted to make him happy.

“I am,” she said, hoping that saying those words would make the feeling clearer. “My only regret is that my brother isn’t here. That we had to deceive him.”

Walters’ face fell and his hand dropped away from her as he scowled. “We’ve been over and over this, Lizzie,” he said, his tone a bit sharper than it had been. “I grow tired of repeating it. The Duke of Brighthollow is a snob.”

“No!” Lizzie burst out. “Hugh is stern, yes, but he isn’t—”

Aaron ignored her and spoke louder. “He would never accept a common man such as myself to be linked to you forever. This is the only way we can be wed. And he will forgive you, will he not? He loves you so much, or so you tell me every day.”

She worried her lip at his suddenly hard tone. She’d upset him and she didn’t like that. So she moved toward him, hoping to placate him. His eyes lit up as she did so, tracking her movements with what felt like an almost predatory light.

“I know you’re right,” she whispered. “Hugh can be protective, but once he sees how happy we are together, he will forgive the method of our union.”

She hoped that was true. She did adore her older brother, as serious as he could be. After her parents’ untimely deaths, he had all but raised her and was more father than sibling. She missed him and his kind, steady counsel desperately.

Aaron interrupted her thoughts by reaching out to catch her hand. He drew her forward a few more halting steps, then touched it to his bare chest. Her hands shook as she wound them around his neck, and he drew her closer as he looked down at her.

“I don’t think we should talk about your dear brother anymore, my love,” he drawled. “I have far more pleasant activities to occupy our time before tomorrow, when our marriage will be complete.”

She smiled, though the expression felt false. “Will it be like last night?” she whispered. “P-Painful?”

His brow wrinkled. “Every woman experiences pain the first time, Lizzie. Something about God’s punishment for the apple or some nonsense. But it will get better as you accept it more. One day you may even come to like what we share. Crave it.”

She worried her lip again. She did like the parts that led up to the claiming. The kissing was very nice. Some of the touching felt good. But the act itself? She couldn’t imagine she would ever long for that the way he said she would. But perhaps if she had more practice…

He smiled at her and she relaxed a little, lifting up on her tiptoes to seek a kiss. He lowered his head, but before he could touch his lips to hers, there was a great crash at the door.

Lizzie couldn’t hold back a scream as she clung tighter to Aaron. They watched as the wood splintered and the lock broke, allowing her brother to tumble into the room. She stared at Hugh, unable to speak as he straightened to his full height and ran a hand through his curly, light brown hair. He stared straight back at her, standing in Aaron’s arms, her sins laid out for him to see. She dropped her stare in shame and humiliation.

Aaron, though, seemed less concerned by her brother’s unexpected arrival. He stared directly at Hugh and smiled. “Brighthollow, we did not expect you. Come to witness our wedding, have you?”

Lizzie caught her breath at his dismissive, jovial tone. It certainly didn’t fit the circumstances and she tightened her grip on his arm to try to send him that message.

“Hugh,” she whispered, blinking at the tears that flooded her vision.

Hugh’s face had been bright with anger — no not anger. Rage. But she watched him take a few breaths, master his control. And then he extended his hand and said, “Lizzie, come.”

His voice was so gentle. The same voice that had soothed her hurts and celebrated her successes over the years. The voice that always made her feel safe and loved. She leaned toward him and felt Aaron’s fingers dig hard into her arm. Hard enough to hurt. She stared down at his fingers and let out a shuddering sigh. She pulled from his grip and went to her brother. He took her hand and gently pulled her behind him. Her hands shook as she clung to his.

“She is sixteen,” Hugh said, his voice strained with upset.

Aaron arched a brow and shrugged one shoulder. “It hardly matters now.”

Lizzie cringed at the coldness of her intended’s tone. He was very angry, it seemed, at the interruption. And she supposed she ought to be upset, as well. Only she was so relieved to see her brother.

Hugh sucked in a deep breath through his nose. “Lizzie, go outside. I’ll join you in a moment.”

“No!” She tightened her grip on his hand as panic swelled in her. She needed to protect Aaron from Hugh’s outrage. To take responsibility for her own part in this terrible mistake. It was too late to go back on it, at any rate, considering what she’d already done. She had to do everything in her power to make peace between these two men who would soon be family. “Please, please, no, Hugh. Please don’t. We—we care for each other.”

Hugh jerked his gaze down at her and when he met her gaze, she saw home and peace. Tears gathered in her eyes, and one slid down her cheek.

He shook his head as he wiped it away gently. “He does not care for you,” he whispered.

She flinched because when her brother said those words, they felt…true. Certainly when she glanced at Aaron, with his arms folded and a smirk on his handsome face, she didn’t feel that he cared for her. It was like some balloon had burst, or a mask had fallen and now she questioned herself and all she had believed.

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