When a Middleton causes a scandal, it's never by half measures . . .
This was certainly the case with Willow Middleton, who had thrown every bit of care to the mid-May breeze and . . . married the imperious duke her sister abandoned at the altar moments ago.
But how's a bride to win over her bossy husband?
• Disobeying his every rule probably won’t help.
• Perhaps some kissing is in order?
• Maybe even some seduction?
• Unearthing his every secret is definitely recommended.
• Falling in love . . . completely out of her control.
When a Middleton caused a scandal, it was never by half measures. In fact, they usually engaged in the exact amount of caution one would when casting one’s fate entirely to the wind. And this was certainly the case with Willow Middleton, who had thrown every bit of care into the mid-May breeze.
Willow inhaled deeply, smoothing her hands over the soft pink silk wedding gown with a growing sense of resolve. It was often said new relationships held the promise of a bright future, a future with love, happiness, and prosperity.
Whoever said that ought to be run through with a blade, Willow thought darkly as she and her father reached the edge of the aisle she was about to walk down. As far as promises go, she was not feeling any kind of promise—except the promise of infamy.
But there was one memory that came to mind in this moment.READ MORE
Willow had once advised her sister, Poppy—quite teasingly—whenever the day should come where she lost her marbles, she ought to take care to wear her best gown for the occasion.
Willow had never thought a day would come when she’d be the one following her own advice. She smoothed her hands over her skirts. Well, nearly following it. This was not her best dress, after all—it wasn’t even her dress to begin with.
“So much for that then,” she muttered under her breath, dropping her gaze to regard the exposed flesh of her ankles. It wasn’t as though she had planned, or even prepared, for this to be the day she descended into madness. It had come on rather suddenly, a wild impulse that had replaced all common sense.
And this was by far the craziest, most impetuous and reckless thing she’d ever done. Far bigger than the odd prank she’d played here and there. Colossal even, for it entailed handing over the oh-so-small thing called her life and pledging it to another.
The Duke of St. Ives.
The man her sister had deserted at the altar only moments ago.
Beside her, her father stood tall, proud. Her rock. Willow hoped he would still be that proud after today was through. But for better or worse, there was no turning back now.
“Are you ready, dear?” Her father’s soothing voice tugged at her twelve-year-old self—a time where her only thought had been colorful ribbons and pretty bonnets.
As ready as I will ever be.
In answer, she took a resolute step toward her fate just as the wedding march struck up, each chord slamming into her chest with the subtlety of a nail driving into a piece of wood.
But there was peace in knowing she was saving her sister from ruin at least, particularly seeing as she had her own selfish reasons for wedding the duke.
That was the true secret—the reason for her impulsive actions. She could fool everyone—her family, St. Ives, and even the guests—that she wed the duke to save her sister. But she could not fool herself.
In her chest, a cauldron of emotions churned.
Willow knew that she had quite willingly descended into this madness. She was walking down the aisle because she wanted to, because her sister had provided her the perfect opportunity to do so.
Truth be told, she wasn’t even sure her actions would save Holly’s reputation. She may very well worsen everything with her efforts this day. But she took another step forward anyway.
Madness. Utter madness.
Willow clung to that madness like a lifeline. It was the only way she managed to put one foot before the other. So much was at stake.
But for every step she took, her heart stuttered to a stop and then charged into a full beat again. The duke could still discover her deception, even though she wore a veil thick enough to obscure her face.
She was, after all, a few inches taller than her sister—a fact made obvious by the length of the dress. For anyone looking closely, it would be a telltale clue that duplicity was underfoot. Willow prayed the duke only saw the shortened dress as a final rebellion on his fiancée’s part.
In truth, his reaction upon finding a different bride under the veil was the real cause for concern. Would he be humiliated beyond belief? Would he annul the marriage?
Willow supposed the worst that could happen was that the duke marched off in a fury upon the discovery, leaving her and her fleshy ankles to the mercy of the wolves. But even as she considered that, she felt the combination of the duke’s arrogance and male pride would demand he go through with the wedding regardless. At least, she hoped that would be the case.
Darting her eyes to the row on her left, then to her right, Willow became aware of curious eyes dropping to her slippers, whispers reaching her from all sides.
Willow’s ears burned.
Fortunately, her father hadn’t seemed to notice either of her fashion faux pas. Not only was the shortened skirt an issue, but it was also rather out of fashion to wear a veil. She also sensed her father’s worry for her—or rather for Holly, the “her” he thought she was—since the wedding had been hastily patched together. They had all been worried, in fact, but Holly had insisted she had found her true love.
That proclamation had lasted all but four days.
Nevertheless, her father still believed Holly to be madly in love with St. Ives, which is why he was presently walking the bride down the aisle and not dragging her away from it.
Speaking of which, her bridal march was nearly over. Just six or so steps away, the intimidating figure of the duke loomed. She straightened her spine and prepared to face the man who would soon be her husband.
He stood impossibly tall, his face clear of all expression, hands clasped behind his back. He was as unbearably handsome as he’d always been with his sandy hair artfully arranged over his forehead, though that did not tame the natural wildness of his locks.
Willow understood why Holly had fallen hard and fast. Had it not been for his eyes—which ruined the perfection of his Adonis-like features in her opinion—she might have fawned over him as well.
She could not see them now, but if she closed her own, she could envision those soulless black pools, filled with nothing but fathomless indifference. A chill passed through her.
Think of your goal.
Think of your family. The scandal.
Remember he is a tyrant.
The last was a sobering thought, reminding her of the demands he would make of her, the demands which had caused her sister to fall right out of love with him.
But Willow could handle one duke. There would be a scandal all the same, but this way, at least, Poppy would have a fighting chance of finding a respectable husband. And Willow would get what she truly wanted—a child.
Grand adventures of falling in love? She’d leave that to her sisters.
But she did want a particular kind of love: the kind that lasted forever, the kind that only grew fiercer with time, and the kind that required a husband. So, when the opportunity to secure a husband without prancing before hordes of gentlemen, hoping they took notice, and then having to endure a lengthy courtship appeared, Willow had seized it.
Her desire for a child was finally within her grasp.
And she would be a duchess. There were worse things in the world.
“What on God’s green earth are you doing?” An angry voice echoed through the church.
A hush fell over the ceremony like a heavy cloud and Willow was forced to a halt when her father stopped. Her knees almost gave out. Had she been caught out? Who did the voice belong to? Her heart skipped beat after beat, waiting.
Willow bit down on her lower lip and spared a nervous glance over her shoulder. When she found no enraged person, Willow let out a soft breath and nodded at her father, who led the last few steps to the duke.
St. Ives’s expression, from what she could gather behind her veil, gave nothing away. Not even the slightest fire burned in his eyes. His features were vacant, as if he were bored with the entire ordeal. Did he not care that someone might have stopped the wedding? Or was he just that arrogant?
“Dearly beloved,” the priest hastily began citing the words that would bind them together. “We are gathered together here in the sight of God…”
Doubt began to seep into her skin. She always thought her actions through. For the most part, Willow did not lunge and leap, consequences be damned. But now a nagging thought entered her mind. While she knew why she had acted impulsively, she knew nothing of why the duke wanted to be hastily wed.
It did not matter, she told herself. And it truly did not. Regardless of his reason, everyone won in the end, right?
Or so she hoped. Standing beside St. Ives, who was so tall and solid, it was hard not to feel the quiver of nerves that skittered up her spine, sending tiny bursts of sparks along her skin.
Willow was bursting with questions. Did he feel nervous too? Did he suspect she was not his chosen bride? Was he furious behind his mask of indifference?
Willow found herself further dwelling on why she ought to have waited to marry and perhaps not steal her sister’s fiancé, abandoned though he may be. His anger, for one—he was a moody, broody lord. She could have married a quiet, endearing man instead. And, according to Holly, the duke had rules that must be followed. Strict rules. Rules that involved one slice of toast. Then there was her mother-in-law—the dragon duchess.
It almost seemed like she was marrying into a bad Shakespearean play.
Willow swallowed her misgivings. There was no turning back now in any case. Assuming they completed their vows, they were in this, for better and for worse.
“…have and to hold from this day forward…”
Think about tiny baby fingers and toes.
“…if either of you knows any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony…”
Don’t think about a bad Shakespearean play.
Willow half expected that same booming voice to call her on her deception.
No one spoke up.
“…have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
Willow held her breath.
Don’t say no. Don’t say no. Don’t say no.
“I will.” The firm, strong voice of St. Ives echoed.
The air whooshed from her lungs.
“Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband. . .” Yes! Yes! Yes! She repeated over and over until the priest finished, “. . . so long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” she rushed to say and was pretty certain her reply had come out as a croak.
“Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”
Her father stepped forward and the priest passed her right hand over to the duke in ceremonious custom.
Willow felt her breath catch.
For such an iron-fisted man, his touch was surprisingly gentle. Her hand trembled in his as she stared up into inscrutable eyes while he repeated his vows. I, Ambrose Jonathan Griffin, take thee Miss Middleton as my. . .
Wait a minute! He hadn’t used Holly’s name. Why hadn’t he used her name?
Willow had no time to ponder the question before it was her turn to repeat her vows. “I, Miss,”—she was not about to announce her name loud and clear if he hadn’t—“Middleton, take this man . . .” sickness and health and so forth and so forth and not obey “according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”
His hand applied subtle pressure on hers.
Well, Willow had deliberately left out the obey part. Again, she wondered why he hadn’t announced her sister’s name.
Then he slipped the ring onto her finger—the final symbol of the fate she’d chosen—and Willow felt the touch deep in her bones.
And she realized, he knew.
Why else would he announce his name but not hers? Why else would his movements be as stiff as a stick as he slipped the ring onto her finger?
The remainder of the ceremony passed in a daze. Then, too soon—much too soon—his hands reached out to lift the veil. She’d have preferred to pass through the entire ceremony without lifting the veil, to reveal her identity in the carriage. Or after the wedding feast. Or tomorrow. But the duke had other plans.
Because he knew.
He must know.
Tension tightened in her chest as he lifted the layers of lace from her face, and she could not help holding her breath.
The moment of reckoning had arrived.
Their eyes locked.
All around them, whispers of confusion rocked the church. And for the first time since Willow was introduced to the duke, a kaleidoscope of emotion—affirmation, disbelief and fury—flashed in the depths of his dark gaze.
But besides the subtle clench of his jaw, his composure remained untouched to the average observer.
Oddly, Willow felt nothing but relief. The duke was not a demon spawn, the very devil himself, bereft of any feelings. Deep, deep, so very deep down, the man possessed a heart.
Another realization followed shortly after that. They had yet to sign the registry. And even then, the marriage could still be annulled. Lord almighty, there were a thousand holes in her plan. Large holes. Holes that could ruin her entire family. And he knew it.
Obsidian eyes stared down at her.
Heat rushed to her cheeks.
Don’t you dare annul this marriage, her eyes challenged.
And then, before Willow knew what he was about, his head bent to capture her lips in a kiss. It was so unexpected, so shockingly brazen, that her hands lifted and pressed against his chest and pushed, eyes wide. Beneath her fingers, his muscles tightened, but he didn’t move an inch, didn’t draw his mouth away from hers.
It occurred to Willow then that his kiss was more than intentional. He meant for it to be a bold declaration. This is my chosen bride, the kiss seemed to imply. But merciful heaven, she felt that kiss right down to the tips of her toes, and of their own will, her lashes drifted shut. His lips were soft, such a contrast against his harder features. Her fingers gripped his jacket, anchored there, his teeth scraping her lower lip.
This was no mere peck.
The priest cleared his throat.
His lips pulled away, turbulent eyes lifting to hers. Then he leaned in, a sharp bite laced in his voice as he whispered, “Wife.”
A promise of satisfaction.
Swiftly, the duke pivoted and signed his name across the registry. When he handed her the quill there was only the slightest hesitation before she did the same. He did not so much as glance at her signature, only held out his arm and waited for her to join him at his side.
Willow forced breath into her lungs. She had known what she was getting into, had known her actions would prompt some form of reaction from him. What she hadn’t expected was the thrill of excitement that was now racing along the edges of her backbone.
Her fingers trembled as she placed them on the sleeve of his jacket. The raw strength of him rippled beneath her hand. Suddenly nervous, she listened to the quiet conversation and rustling of movement around her as her husband led her from the church. She didn’t dare seek out Poppy or her father, not ready to face the confusion and shock of her family.
Again, she reminded herself that this was what she had wanted.
And it was. Except for one startling development.
Willow was taking notice of St. Ives in ways she hadn’t before. Not once as her sister’s betrothed had she noticed his scent or any detail about him except that he was tall, arrogant, detached, and a duke. Now, she pursed her lips together, inhaling the woody scent of her husband, drawing it deep into her lungs. It was a rich and earthy aroma, and quite pleasant. For a moment, Willow allowed herself to believe that perhaps this entire day would be as pleasant. After all, he hadn’t stormed out of the church. He’d signed the registry. They were married.
If the worst possible thing had not happened, perhaps she’d pulled it off.
Willow nearly smiled.
Because what happened next was entirely without warning.
The loud wail of her mother-in-law filled the church.COLLAPSE