Home > Her First Desire(5)

Her First Desire(5)
Author: Cathy Maxwell

“Perhaps it would have been better if I had been born male. Then I could have had the opportunities you had.”

She was right.

Clarissa nodded, knowing he understood. “I regret that you have to marry me. It is a burden—”

“It is not—”

She placed her gloved fingers up to his mouth to stifle his dissent. “Please, Ned, let us be honest—”

That is when he kissed her. Ned did know how to kiss and he made this a good one.

Did he feel any great passion? No.

However, she did. Her lips were unschooled and earnest. She leaned in as if hungry for someone, or something.

Ned didn’t take the kiss deeper and she wasn’t looking for it. She didn’t know enough to ask.

His last lover, Emily, a widow in Cambridge, had accused him of being manipulative. The suggestion had upset him. His mother was manipulative. He was just a man with a need, and he’d thought she’d felt the same. Their liaison had started off as a simple arrangement, and then she’d begun prodding him for more.

But what of emotions? she’d asked. God gave you a handsome face and yet you have a stone heart.

Ned hadn’t understood what she was talking about. Intercourse was a biological necessity. Why should the heart be involved?

Besides, emotions called for trust and there were only two people in this world Ned had learned he could trust—Marsden and Balfour. He’d also been honest with Emily from the start. He’d wanted nothing from her, save the comfort of her body. There wasn’t a female on the planet he trusted enough to let down his guard, not even Clarissa—and he liked her more than any others he knew.

Clarissa broke the kiss. Her lovely eyes were closed as if she’d savored every second. Her body leaned against his, her breasts on his chest. She drew in a deep breath. “You smell of the wind and storm clouds. I could wallow in it.”

He laughed. She was being fanciful. Sometimes, she wore a scent with a hint of roses or violet. It was nice enough but he had no desire to wallow in it, and he wouldn’t tell someone if he did—

Suddenly, he realized what Emily had actually been saying. He was cold.

Like his mother?

Never once had he wanted to fold himself into a woman because of the way she smelled. Not completely true, his medically trained mind argued. He was stirred by a whiff of female, as any man would be.

“You truly don’t mind marrying me?” Clarissa asked. She pulled back slightly. In the depths of her eyes he saw her fears, her doubts—and it was his role to reassure her.

“I’m actually honored,” he lied.

The tension left her. She smiled and leaned against him again. Ned willed himself to stand firm.

“When?” she whispered. “When will we marry?”

Damn it all, more questions.

Correctly reading his hesitation, she prodded softly, “Ned, I can’t keep living off the Nelsons’ Christian charity for much longer.”

“I know.” He took a step away. He needed his own space. “A decision should be made, but I can’t make it right now.” What a relief to say those words! “Our time today is almost up. I can’t hash it out in this moment. I must be on my way. The Widow Smethers twisted her ankle yesterday, or, at least, I hope that is what she did. It could be a break. Her ankle was too swollen for me to diagnose. I suspect that a night’s rest will make the matter clearer.

“Then,” he continued, before Clarissa could make more demands, “I must stop by the Balfours’.” He started toward the house where his horse, Hippocrates, was being walked by one of the squire’s stable lads.

Disappointment crossed Clarissa’s face. However, she followed him, asking politely, “How is Mrs. Balfour? How is the baby?” Kate Balfour was pregnant.

“Good, although I don’t understand why Balfour insists I do the delivery. Midwifery is not my usual line of work but they are very good friends. Kate says I need to listen—”

He broke off, his words coming to a halt as a realization struck him. Ned was not always perceptive, but there were times when he’d have insight. Kate had warned him early in her pregnancy that he must listen to her better, something that was a challenge for him. He was a busy man. He preferred to diagnose and move on to other patients. Practicing patience and listening to Kate had helped their friendship—as well as his understanding of where her pregnancy was.

Now, he realized he needed to force himself to listen to Clarissa, too. She was right when she said she could not live with Squire Nelson forever and they needed to settle on a marriage date.

Ned reached a decision. “We shall marry after the Frost lecture,” he said.

Her response was a frown. “Why wait so long?”

“Clarissa, when do I have time before then? I could be called out for the Balfours’ baby at any moment.” That wasn’t completely true. There was a good month left before Kate Balfour delivered. “Then, there is the Cotillion.” The dance celebrated the beginning of summer. It was the highlight of Maidenshop’s social calendar. Ned abhorred it, although now it provided a plausible excuse.

“And even then,” he continued, “my mind up till then will be completely occupied by the Frost lecture.” Which happened the day after the dance. “So we really can’t marry before then.” Even as he finished the last word, a weight settled upon him, a sense that this was wrong. His gut urged him to retract the statement.

And yet, he was a gentleman. He’d made the offer to her. Any man of honor stood by his word. Two years was enough waiting.

Clarissa’s face lit with understanding acceptance and obvious relief—as if she’d feared he was fobbing her off and now thought better. “Yes, I see. Thank you, sir. Thank you. I shall be the best wife ever. You’ll have no regrets.”

He already did.

She began chattering about how happy the Nelsons would be. He nodded woodenly, moving steadily for his horse.

Of course, he couldn’t just escape. When they reached the drive, Squire Nelson was coming out of the house. Clarissa told her guardian the happy news that a date had been set. He shouted into the house for his wife and daughters to come hear the happy news. There were congratulations all around.

And Ned’s smile felt tighter and tighter.

He couldn’t wait to take his leave. He was also thankful his patients didn’t require much from him. The Widow Smethers’s ankle was very bruised, but the swelling had abated somewhat and he decided it was not broken, merely sprained. Kate Balfour’s baby was simmering along nicely. All was good.

That didn’t mean that, try as he might, he was able to ease his mind about marriage. The idea dogged him.

Finally, at the end of his day, he knew he couldn’t go home to a solitary supper prepared by his man, Royce. Instead, he headed to The Garland. He hadn’t been there in some time.

Last spring, as a way to drum up support for his first lecture, he’d started recruiting new members. A fair number of the village lads had joined. They gathered at The Garland almost every night. The matrons and others complained about the drinking, but men needed a place to enjoy their own company without the intrusion of women, and tonight Ned certainly needed that. He was growing increasingly horrified over the enormity of what he’d agreed to do.

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