What a Gentleman Wants

You are cordially invited to the wedding of His Grace, the Duke of Exeter …

<What a Gentleman Wants>The bride wore a gown of cream silk overlaid with silver net. Her black curls had been pinned into a gleaming mass beneath a silk headdress embellished with real rosebuds, which held a fall of finest lace in place. The famous Exeter pearls hung at her ears and were fastened around her wrists. Hannah Preston turned her head from side to side, hardly able to believe it was her reflection, and so did the woman in the mirror. The woman who would marry the duke of Exeter in less than an hour's time. She had had a month to accustom herself to the idea, but it still felt strange and new.

"And now the shoes," said her sister-in-law, Sarah Braden. She carried the embroidered slippers as gingerly as if they were made of glass, and knelt to place them at Hannah's feet. Carefully Hannah lifted her silk and lace skirts, and stepped into the slippers.

"There," whispered Sarah, climbing to her feet. "You look finer than Princess Charlotte, I vow."

Hannah laughed. "I'm still the same inside, not even slightly a princess."

"Soon to be a duchess, which is the next best thing, isn't it?" Sarah smiled, pressing her shoulder. She let go at once. "Oh dear, I mustn't rumple you."

Hannah turned and embraced Sarah. "Thank you for coming. It is so good to see you again, and have you here today."

She laughed. "We wouldn't dream of missing it! Well, not once His Grace sent a pair of carriages and an invitation and—oh, my! Hannah, I cannot believe he's a real duke!" Sarah had said that at least once a day since arriving at Ainsley Park, the Exeter country estate. Somewhat to Hannah's surprise, Marcus—the duke himself—had made all the arrangements for her family to attend the wedding. It was strange to see them again; her father and four brothers, all common farmers, looked ill at ease and out of place in the sprawling, elegant mansion at Ainsley. Her sisters-in-law seemed consumed with keeping their children from running wild with Molly, as they had always done. But after a day, things had almost gone back to normal between Hannah and Sarah, who had grown up knowing each other long before Sarah married Hannah's brother.

She just smiled in response to Sarah's comment. "The carriage will be here soon. We should go downstairs."

Before Sarah could reply, there came a knock at the door. One of the maids hurried to open it, and Hannah heard a familiar voice. "Might I see the bride for a moment?"

Sarah gasped as the man peered around the door. "Oh, no! You mustn't come in! It's ill fortune to see the bride before the church." Then she gasped again, and quickly added, "Your Grace."

The man chuckled. "Fear not, I'm not the bridegroom." He stopped, looking at Hannah for the first time, and his expression changed. "Good Lord." Sarah made a shocked noise, but David didn't seem to notice. "Hannah, you look…beautiful," he said. "Ravishing."

She blushed. "Thank you, David. You remember Mrs. Braden, my sister-in-law."

He bowed. "Yes, of course. A pleasure, Mrs. Braden."

Sarah curtseyed back, although she shot a curious glance at Hannah from under her eyelashes. She alone of Hannah's family had clearly not just accepted the publicly proclaimed story that this wedding was merely a nod to tradition, that the duke of Exeter wished to have the marriage recorded in his family's chapel. Sarah obviously remembered that Hannah had gone through a wedding ceremony only a few months past, and that everyone had believed the bridegroom to be Lord David Reece. Sarah hadn't yet asked just how Hannah had become the wife of David's brother, Marcus, but she wondered. Hannah supposed she would tell Sarah, eventually, but today she wasn't quite ready.

<What a Gentleman Wants>"Have you come to tell us the carriage is waiting?" Hannah asked. "We are ready, but Celia's not brought Molly in yet."

"What?" David, still staring at her, cleared his throat and looked away. "Right. Yes. Er, no! I am not come about the carriages. I am on an errand for my brother. He bade me bring you this, and asks that you wear it today." He crossed the room and handed her a flat jewelers' box. With a puzzled frown, Hannah opened it, and then stood in speechless surprise.

There was a rustle of cloth beside her. "Oh!" Sarah breathed. "Gracious, Hannah!"

It was a necklace. Hannah had wondered why there had been no necklace among her jewels, only earbobs and bracelets. This was why; Marcus must have specially commissioned this piece. There were pearls—probably some of the Exeter pearls—but in the center of the otherwise simple strand hung a spectacular sapphire pendant.

"May I?" David gestured, and Hannah nodded, unable to speak. Just when she thought she was becoming accustomed to her new husband's way of life, something happened to prove her wrong. David lifted the necklace from the box and fastened it around her neck. The sapphire hung just above the swell of her bosom. It felt heavy and cool at first, but in a moment it warmed to her skin. Hannah turned once more to the mirror, and touched the pendant lightly. It was the exact color of her eyes. It must be worth a fortune.

David loomed behind her in the mirror. "You look lovely," he murmured again.

"I'll go fetch Molly," said Sarah. Hannah shook herself and turned from the mirror.

"Thank you, Sarah." With a fleeting smile, Sarah slipped from the room. "You may go," she said to the maids. Everyone else was busy dressing and preparing, but Sarah had insisted on helping Hannah. The maids curtseyed, and one murmured, "We wish you very happy, Your Grace."

Alone with her soon-to-be brother-in-law, Hannah took his hand. "Thank you, David."

His smile was a curious twist of his mouth. "For what? Conveying a gift?"

She shook her head. "For much more than that." She went up on her toes and kissed his cheek. "I shall be delighted to be part of your family."

"We're the better for having you," he told her.

The door opened then and Molly bounded in, chattering with excitement. Celia, David's younger sister, followed, then came Sarah with her own children, and Rosalind, the dowager duchess. As the room grew crowded and noisy, David gave Hannah a rueful glance and let himself out.

"Well!" said Rosalind over the uproar of squealing children. "I see you are ready, and the carriages are here. Shall we go?" She began shooing the little ones out the door.

"Hannah, you're the most beautiful bride I've ever seen!" declared Celia. She clasped her hands in excitement. "Such a day! I couldn't possibly be happier."

"Nor I," replied Hannah, laughing.

"And such a match," went on Celia. "To marry for love…it is nothing less than sublime."

"Indeed," said Hannah, a trifle wryly. "It's not so simple as you might think."

"Nonsense! I shall settle for nothing less," she cried.

"Celia, to the carriages!" called Rosalind.

"Yes, Mama," Celia said, then turned back to Hannah. "It may not be easy, but it is worth everything, isn't it? To be so blissfully happy…" She gave a happy chirp. "It's the most romantic thing I've ever imagined!"

"Celia!" cried her mother. Beaming, Celia followed Sarah and the children out the door. "Hannah, we really must go."

"Yes," she said, touching the pendant once more and smiling at her reflection. "I'm ready."

<What a Gentleman Wants>Marcus Reece stared out the window. His windows overlooked the impressive sweep of lawn in front of the house, lush and green, edged with ancient oaks and, far off in the distance, a sparkling lake. He had devoted his life to protecting and preserving Ainsley Park, the estate that had been in his family for centuries, but this morning he didn't see any of it.

The door clicked, and he spun around at once. "Did you give it to her?" he asked. "Did she like it?"

His brother closed the door. "Yes, and yes."

"Excellent." Marcus smiled briefly, then couldn't help asking again, "She did like it? It wasn't too much?"

"No." David drew the word out, as if Marcus were dim-witted. "I think she likes it very much. By all means, ask her yourself when you see her at the church."

"Yes." Marcus took a deep breath. "Excellent."

"She looks beautiful," added David.

"She's always beautiful," Marcus snapped.

"Extraordinarily beautiful. Prepare yourself."

Marcus jerked his head in a nod. "I am. I have been. Extraordinarily, you say?" He turned back to the window and braced his hands on the window frame.

"Nervous?" David seemed determined to pester him. Marcus took another deep, controlled breath, trying to quell some of the leaping energy that seemed to be bottled up inside him. He ought not to be nervous. This wedding had been planned for over a month, plenty of time to accustom himself to everything it meant. Indeed, he had even maintained the pretense that he and Hannah were already married, and had been for months; he had given out the story that this wedding was a mere formalization of vows they had taken months ago. That was a lie, of course. It had been David, not Marcus, who had stood beside Hannah before, and who had signed Marcus's name in the Middleborough parish register. But today Marcus would stand beside her himself, in the chapel built by his great-grandfather, and sign his own name in the register. And then Hannah would truly be his wife.

"Of course not," he said, answering David's question. "Why would you think so?"

"I never thought I'd see the day." David sounded amused.

"I'm not," Marcus repeated through his teeth.

"And yet you're all but twitching."

He turned from the window, abandoning his pose. "Perhaps a little. Shall we go ahead to the church?"

David nodded, still grinning, and fell in step beside him. They walked through the house, past servants rushing here and there in a flurry of last minute preparations. There was a burst of noise from the direction of the duchess's suite, and Marcus quickened his step. She was coming, and suddenly he wasn't ready to see her. Let it be in the church, when he wouldn't have to wait any longer.

He didn't remember a minute of the journey to the chapel. He took his place next to the vicar, David beside him. The bridal party had been close behind them, so he didn't have long to wait—only a few more minutes—and then—

She stepped into the church in a halo of light then, and the tension inside him eased. He hadn't been nervous, not really. It was more that he had hardly seen her in the last fortnight. Between the wedding preparations and the arrival of her family from Middleborough, Hannah had been just as busy as he had been, and he had missed her company. But now she was here, and as always that set things to rights in his world. She was, as David had said, extraordinarily beautiful, as luminous as a pearl in her ivory gown. Her eyes were fixed on him as she came forward to join him, and Marcus took her hand to lead her the last few steps. Her glowing smile only grew wider.

"Thank you," she whispered. "For the necklace."

He leaned his head closer to hers. "Not at all. Your pleasure is mine."

<What a Gentleman Wants>The vicar cleared his throat. Marcus gave her a slow smile. They turned to face the vicar, and in a short time were man and wife.

After the ceremony, they went to sign their names in the register, and finally the duke and his duchess had a moment alone. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "Good morning, dearest wife."

Hannah smiled softly, letting him turn her hand over and press his lips to her wrist. "Good morning, beloved husband."

Marcus held her palm against his cheek a moment. "Do you like the ring?"

"Hmm. Oh. What? The ring?" Flustered, Hannah pulled free of his hold and looked at the wide gold ring he had placed on her finger. She hadn't noticed anything about it earlier, but now she saw the Exeter crest engraved on it, and some words in elaborate script encircling the ring. "What does it say?"

"It is my family crest," he said, turning the ring gently around her finger as he spoke. "The words say, 'vous et nul autre,' French for 'you and no other.'" Hannah blinked rapidly. "All that I am, and all that I have, I pledge to thee."

"And I, mine to thee," she whispered.

Marcus grinned. "I look forward to enjoying it at the first possible opportunity."

Hannah gave him a stern look even as she blushed. "You ought not to have planned such a celebration, then. We shall be overrun with guests until midnight."

"Ainsley Park shall be overrun," he corrected her. "We can slip away much sooner. No one will miss us."

She laughed, glancing past him to the wedding guests. Her family still looked uncomfortable amid the ducal estate, but less so than when they had arrived. Rosalind was at her most gracious and welcoming—Hannah knew that was for her sake, out of Rosalind's affection for her—and Celia was simply too filled with exuberant joy to be anything other than warm and friendly. They would be enjoying the celebration, and wouldn't miss the bride or groom.

But David… She caught sight of him standing in the shadows near the chapel door. His expression was so melancholy as he watched the other guests that Hannah's heart went out to him.

When she looked at her husband, she saw he had followed her gaze. Without a word he transferred his attention back to her hand, examining each fingertip with great care. "Have you made peace with David? He looks so grim."

He linked his fingers through hers. "Of a sort."

"What sort?"

Marcus sighed. "I have forgotten it. I was at fault as well. The matter has been dealt with, and it is behind us."

"But David," she said gently, glancing again at his brother's somber face. "Has he forgotten?"

For a moment he said nothing. "If I ask him, he'll have no choice but to think of it."

"Yes," she admitted. "But don't you think he will—?"

"Hannah, I don't know." He shook his head. "He is his own man. Should I make his decisions for him?"

<What a Gentleman Wants>"You're right," she said after a pause. "Of course you're right. But perhaps…if he had something to do…"

Marcus exhaled through his nose. "Perhaps."

She put her free hand on top of his, still wrapped around hers, and laid her cheek against his knuckles. His mouth softened. "I shall need someone to keep an eye on the estate while we're gone, after all."

"Gone? Gone where?"

"To Italy. To France. To Spain." He smiled as her lips parted in surprise and her blue eyes widened. "A wedding trip," he explained.

"Oh. Oh! But—Molly," she protested. He touched his finger to her lips.

"Rosalind and Celia are prepared to indulge her outrageously while we are gone. They shall stay here, at Ainsley Park."

"But we should be gone a very long time," she said. "Can you be away for so long?"

"I shall manage, if you will contrive to distract me from thinking of it." He gave her a simmering look, and for a moment Hannah completely forgot where they were.

Rosalind approached them. "The guests are waiting, Marcus," she said in affectionate reproof. "You shall have her for years and years."

"Indeed I shall," he said, tucking Hannah's hand around his arm. "To my ever-lasting pleasure."

They led the way out of the church after greeting their families, then back to the main house. The wedding had been small and private, but the celebration that was to follow was far larger. The grounds had been thrown open to all the tenants and local residents for a fair and a feast of unprecedented scale. It was necessary, Marcus had explained to Hannah when she raised her eyebrows over his plans, to provide proof positive that their marriage was real, and so happy as to be completely unworthy of scandalous gossip. So she agreed, and traveling players, various performers, and musicians had been hired. After a lavish breakfast, the servants were dismissed, the bride set aside some of her wedding finery, and then the duke and his new duchess went out to mingle with the farmers and squires and maids.

David Reece felt like the lone black cloud in a summer sky.

His brother—his insufferably perfect brother—was married. Marcus, who had been reputed to have ice water in his veins and no heart to speak of, had fallen madly in love and was behaving quite out of character. The man had clearly lost his mind, planning not only a festival worthy of an old May Day celebration on the precisely trimmed lawns and formal gardens of Ainsley Park, but now a long trip abroad with his new wife, far away from all the estate business that normally consumed him. His stepmother had told him the newly wedded couple would be away for almost three months. David was happy for both of them, especially for Marcus, but a small part of him was also a bit…there was no other word for it…glum.

<What a Gentleman Wants>Every time he looked at his new sister-in-law, a tiny voice in his brain asked if maybe she wouldn't have looked at him that way, if he hadn't been such an irresponsible coward. He had once been all set to marry her, but had lost his nerve at the last moment, signing Marcus's name instead of his own to the marriage register. In doing so he had thrown Marcus and Hannah together, with this wedding the eventual happy result. But he had also given himself a serious alarm. What if things hadn't turned out so happily? What if David's actions had caused irreparable harm to Hannah and her daughter, Molly? That hadn't been his intent, of course, but David knew it could have happened, all too easily.

He didn't know what to make of it. He had enjoyed his life so far—a little too much at times, perhaps. Unburdened by property or responsibility, David had gone from pleasure to pleasure, with the rough patches in between smoothed over by charm, a little money, or Marcus's intervention. Usually there had been very little unpleasantness to himself, and he had been able to go about his merry way. But he didn't think he had ever been as happy, even for a day, as Marcus had been for the last month.

"Oh, David, have you seen Molly?" Celia dashed up beside him. She had a lopsided garland of daisies in her hair, and grass stains on the hem of her dress.

"No. Has she gone missing?" he asked, instantly concerned.

Celia nodded, scanning the crowd. "She was with me just a little while ago, and then she wasn't. I'm certain she's only wandered into the crowd, but I would feel better if I knew where she is. Would you help me look?"

"Of course." David put down his glass of wine. "Check the house. She may have gone inside. I'll head toward the lake." His sister nodded and hurried toward the house. With no less urgency, David strode down the graveled drive. Since most of the guests were only at Ainsley Park for the day, the drive was crowded with carriages and wagons, and swarming with children playing tag and blind man's bluff. He picked his way through them, keeping a keen eye out for Molly's golden curls.

She wasn't with the other children on the lawn. She wasn't in the formal gardens behind the house. She wasn't watching the puppet show, or the play, or any of the other entertainments. David broke into a run as he neared the lake, squinting into the sun as his eyes swept the edge of the water, as far as he could see in either direction. She wasn't there.

He stopped for a second to catch his breath and to think, pressing his hand to his side where it throbbed. One of his ribs was still healing from being broken a few weeks ago. Not long ago, someone had tried to kidnap Molly, but she'd turned up safe and sound, completely unaware that anything was wrong. Hannah had been frantic with worry, though. Surely nothing like that could have happened again, not here, not on this day…

David turned. There was one place he hadn't looked, one place he knew Molly loved to go. He headed toward the stables.

The Ainsley Park stables were large and airy. David knew Molly loved animals, and so he looked into every open door. There was no sign of the little girl until he reached the second-to-last stall. There, on an upturned milk bucket, with straw in her hair and jam on her face, sat Molly Preston, petting a cat who seemed on the brink of giving birth. "Molly," said David in relief.

She glanced up at him, pursed her little mouth, and turned back to the cat.

"Does your mama know you're here?" he asked, walking up to her and going down on one knee. "Celia was frightened when she couldn't find you."

"Mama knows I had to come see Boots," she said calmly. Purring loudly, the gray cat with white feet rolled over so Molly could stroke her belly. "She's going to have kitties soon."

David looked at the cat. "I see that. But you haven't answered my question. Does your mama know you're here?"

"Why should I answer your question?" she asked, gently stroking the cat's belly. The cat's paws flexed and kneaded the air in extreme feline satisfaction. "You don't tell the truth."

David shifted his weight and cleared his throat. "No, I did not, and I am sorry for it. But your mama has forgiven me. Won't you forgive me as well?"

"No," she replied. "You're a liar. Liars are wicked."

David inhaled deeply, then let it out, looking up to the rafters. "Yes. I was. It was very wrong of me. But I shall never lie to you again."

"How do I know that is not a lie?" Her brown eyes turned on him accusingly.

David clenched his teeth and smiled. "I can only give you my word, and hope you will give me another chance."

"You made my mama cry. Aunt Celia was angry with you, too."

"But your mama is very happy now, isn't she?" he parried quickly to avoid the guilt that speared him again. Molly considered, then nodded. "And you like my brother, don't you?"

<What a Gentleman Wants>"Yes," she said. "But…why didn't you want to be my papa?"

David stared at her. Unmanned by a little girl. What next? "It's not that I didn't want to be your papa," he tried to explain. "I did. But… Sometimes people try to do things they can't, Molly. I knew, too late to explain, that I would not be a good papa, nor good for your mama. So I tried to do the best thing I could, for both of you."

Her forehead creased in suspicion. "I think you ran away."

He rubbed one hand over his face. Damn, why hadn't he brought the wine with him? "I did," he admitted softly. "And I am very, very sorry I made you and your mama cry—"

"I didn't cry," she declared.

"Your mama and Aunt Celia," David amended wryly. "I apologized to them both already."

She nodded. "That's good."

"And I apologized to my brother. But Molly, he's so happy with you and your mama. He'll be a much better papa to you than I could have been."

She thought for a moment. "I know. I like Extera better than you, anyway."

David's eyebrows shot up. "Do you?"

She nodded, getting to her feet with one final pat on the cat's head. "Yes. He listens to me, and he keeps his promises. He said I could dig in the garden, and then he gave me my own shovel and pail. Only I have to ask Mr. Griggs first, but wherever Mr. Griggs says I may, Extera will let me dig."

How charming. Marcus had bought his stepdaughter's affection with a garden trowel. David shoved himself to his feet, wincing as he straightened his bad leg. "Let's go back to the house, shall we?"

Molly put her nose in the air. "I shall go back. You may come, too, if you like."

She turned and paraded away, as dignified as a little queen. David stared after her, his amusement touched with mild affront. He had just been cut by a four year old child.

He followed her back to the house, from a distance in case she took offense at his presence again. When she reached the sweeping gravel drive in front of the mansion, she suddenly took off running. David saw the bride step out of the crowd and swing her daughter into her arms, regardless of her exquisite dress and jewels and the jam and dirt on Molly's clothes. Molly put her arms around her mother's neck, and then Marcus came to meet them. David saw the quick smile his brother gave Molly as he tweaked her curls.

I don't deserve that, David thought to himself.

"Did you find her?" Celia was beside him, holding her skirts. "I checked the house and the gardens."

"She was in the stable," he said, nodding toward the child in question, now describing something—the expectant mother cat, no doubt—with vivid hand gestures to her mother and stepfather. Celia sighed in relief as she caught sight of them.

<What a Gentleman Wants>"Thank heavens! I couldn't bear for anything to ruin this perfect day. Oh, David." Her voice softened as she gazed at the trio. "Have you ever seen anyone so happy?"

His spirits sank even lower. "No."

"And someday—soon, perhaps—I shall be married, and you, too. Then think how happy we shall all be!" She heaved a sigh of contented anticipation.

David heaved a sigh of his own. "Perhaps."

"Perhaps? Of course you shall!" his sister cried. "I, for one, shall be delighted to see you fall madly in love, David. No doubt there is a lady just waiting for you to win her heart—"

"No, Celia." He shook his head. "I think I had better avoid ladies for a while."

She laughed. "Then one will find you!" He snorted. "I know it," she declared firmly. "When you least expect it, there she'll be."