Chapter 20

Grace's first sensation on waking the next morning was an unaccustomed feeling of warmth and security. Her second was the welcome realisation that her husband still cradled her in his strong embrace. She lifted her head off his shoulder, only to find him awake and looking at her with such tenderness and love that she almost forgot how to breathe. Unbidden, her left hand began to stroke his bare chest, toying with the smattering of dark curls that so fascinated her the previous night.

"You are still here!" she said sleepily. She reached up and ran her fingers down his cheek, almost to see if he actually was there or was just a figment of her imagination.

Nicholas gave a bark of laughter. "Of course I am, my love. Where else would I be?" he said. He leant down and kissed her, his hand cupping her head and his thumb slowly rubbing her cheek.

Grace blushed and rested her chin on his chest. "I thought you might have gone back to your chambers," she explained, smiling.

Nicholas stared down her and wondered how he had ever survived before meeting this remarkable woman. He shook his head. "Now, why would I want to do that? I would rather your beautiful face be the first I see in the morning. You are far more attractive than what my valet is." He smiled down at her, recalling every one of her responses to his touch during the night. She did not disappoint him, her passions slowly building from smouldering embers until igniting into a blazing inferno.

"What time is it?" Grace asked, frowning. She turned and looked toward the window, seeing only a glimmer of sunlight through the drawn drapes.

"It is still early, but I suggest we begin thinking about preparing ourselves for the journey to London," Nicholas replied indolently. Although, he did not appear to want to shift from his position for the rest of the day and possibly well into the night.

Grace stifled a yawn and pushed herself up to a sitting position, the crisp, white sheet dropping down to her lap. Too late, she realised she was not wearing her nightgown, or anything else for that matter. She hastily clasped the sheet, pulling it up and clutching it to her breasts like a lifeline.

Nicholas watched her with some amusement. With a considerable amount of effort, he raised himself up, slipped his arm around her waist, and pulled her against his chest. A delightful shade of pink materialised on her cheeks and travelled down her neck to disappear underneath the sheet. "It is a little bit too late to act shy in front of me you know," he murmured into her neck. He placed the lightest of butterfly kisses just beneath her ear. "Besides, you were far from shy last eve."

Still under the spell of the wondrous feelings her husband was evoking, Grace leaned against that marvellous masculine chest. "I do not understand how wives consider what we did last night to be a marital duty. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I never knew the human body was capable of such pleasure," Grace murmured without thinking. A rumble of laughter brought her back to her senses. "Oh, good grief, I do not know what possessed me to say such a thing."

Nicholas smiled, turning her head and kissing her with a thoroughness she found entrancing. "Never apologise for telling me what you think. It is what I love about you. But there is one thing I wish to know. How do you know about what husbands do with their wives and whether they enjoy it or not?" he asked. He gave her a frown, though his eyes twinkled with merriment.

Grace laughed. "When one lives in the country, one cannot help but hear certain things. Things that a gently bred lady should not hear, I gather. Besides, Aunt Eleanor and Aunt Harriet spoke to me before the wedding on what I was to expect. In the absence of my mother, I suppose." She turned and kissed him on the cheek, running her hand down his chest. "I guess they did not count on my husband being so gentle and caring."

"Little minx," Nicholas groaned with desire. "If you keep that up, I shall never allow you out of this bed and we will never arrive in London." Reluctantly, he moved away from her, picked up his robe, which he found on the floor, and threw it over his shoulders.

Grace watched in fascination as the sculptured muscles in his back contracted with his movement. As much as the Marquess of Rutherford looked splendid fully dressed, he looked undeniably magnificent wearing nothing at all. The taut muscles of his thighs, toned from years on horseback and the rippling muscles of his arms from bouts at Gentleman Jacksons captivated her to distraction.

She sighed and turned away from the sight. Even though she had never seen the male form, did not mean that he had never seen the female form. Grace wondered if he had a mistress, as so many gentlemen seemed to need. Of course, he would have to have a mistress. And what would become of Grace when he tired of her? Leave her with child at Rutherford Court while he went back to London as his father had done before him, providing she produced an heir of course.

These traitorous thoughts swirled about her head as she slid on her own robe, tying it at the waist. In her heart, she knew he would never do such a heinous thing, as he knew how much it had hurt his mother. But her brain refused to yield, allowing her finally to accept that she found a man to love her. What had possessed her to think of this now? It was not as if she could ask him either. She was not even supposed to know they existed, let alone whether her husband had one. But the very thought that he might sent her mood plummeting down to her toes.

Nicholas turned to find Grace sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out into space. He was by her side in a trice, sitting down on the bed and taking her hand. "What is it, my love? Did I hurt you last night? Are you in pain?" he asked, his questions tumbling from his mouth in his worry. "Please, tell me what is troubling you."

Grace shook her head, refusing to look at him. "No, I am not in pain," she said. She made a decision. Gathering her courage into a neatly stiffened backbone, she turned and looked at him. "Do you have a mistress?" She searched his face for any evidence of anger at her audacity, but could only see confusion.

It was some moments before he answered. "Where did that come from? You should not even know of such things." He shook his head, but saw how much it troubled her and continued. "Yes, I do, but I have no intention of visiting her ever again. She will have to find another protector, as I plan on remaining faithful to my beautiful wife. Besides, she does not hold a candle to you, my love." He put his arm around her and drew her closer to him, her head resting on his shoulder.

Grace felt rather foolish at her jealousy toward a woman she did not even know existed until that very moment. For that is what it was, green-eyed envy. To think that another woman could lay a claim on who Grace now considered hers, it was utterly ridiculous. How could she have ever doubted him? "I am sorry, Nicholas," Grace mumbled. "I should not have even asked, but I began to think – "

Nicholas gave a shout of laughter. "You think altogether too much. I love you and only you, my incorrigible bluestocking. In fact, I have decided that wherever we go, we go together and that includes going aloft, but that shall not happen until we are bouncing our grandchildren on our decrepit old knees."

Grace tried to stifle a chuckle, but failed miserably. She began to laugh, falling back onto the bed. "I believe that is not a choice we can make, darling. I am sure that the universe answers to a higher power, one even more powerful than a top-lofty marquess such as yourself," she said through her giggles.

Nicholas's lips began to twitch and he joined in her laughter. "Come, my love. Ring for Jenkins to help you dress. I shall meet you in the breakfast room." He kissed her and left the room through the connecting door.

The sight of an ornate travelling carriage through the village usually garnered a certain amount of curiosity and today was no exception. Circumstances such as these did not happen very often. Many residents left their homes to gape at the elegant equipage decorated with the Rutherford herald, trundling down the lane. Children dressed in little more than rags ran alongside, their voices filling the air with high-pitched squeals of delight.

Inside the carriage, Grace peeked out of the window, memories flooding back from a time she would sooner forget and feeling slightly embarrassed by the attention they were receiving. An involuntary gasp escaped her as the carriage passed the rectory and the church, her mind regressing back to the happy childhood she had known. How bittersweet it was to return here, she thought. Pushing this from her mind, she saw her destination.

"We are here, Nicholas," she said, pointing to a charming cottage with a lovely garden out the front. She could barely contain her excitement and would have bounded out of the still moving carriage if Nicholas had not have put a staying hold on her arm.

Nicholas gave her a tender smile and banged his cane in a signal to the coachman. Immediately, the carriage came to a stop. Artemis, sensing something was afoot, began to pace restlessly along the bench opposite Grace and Nicholas. A footman opened the door and Artemis bounded out, practically leaping in the air with the familiar scents and sounds that greeted her. Laughing, Nicholas descended the carriage first, and then offered Grace his hand so she could join him.

At the sound of a dog bark, a slight, white haired lady popped up from behind a rhododendron in the garden of the cottage. Age had not wearied her it would seem. Hastily, she wiped her hands on the simple muslin apron. Recognition flitted across her face and she broke into a wide smile at the sight that greeted her. "Miss Grace," she cried, walking down the path to meet them at the gate. "Or should I say Lady Rutherford." Her eyes twinkled with merriment. To say she was inordinately pleased would be an understatement.

Grace clasped her outstretched hands and said. "Mrs Woods, how lovely it is to see you again. I could not go to London without passing here first." She turned to Nicholas who stood behind her. "I would like to introduce you to my husband, Lord Rutherford. Nicholas, this is Mrs Woods, housekeeper, companion, and dear friend."

Despite the fact that she had been gardening when they arrived, Nicholas clasped her hand and bowed low, an action that immediately endeared him to the wise old lady. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, dear lady. I have heard so much about you, I feel I know you already."

Mrs Woods gave him an appraising look through narrow eyes. She did not miss the tender regard that passed between the two newlyweds. One could not hide honest love and affection and Mrs Woods did not doubt they had both in abundance. Silently, she cast a brief, though heartfelt, prayer for the blessings that Grace had found love with a man that loved her. Grace deserved nothing less.

Still holding Grace's hand, Mrs Woods turned and led the way down the path. "Please, do come in. I am sure you are quite in need of some refreshment after your journey."

Once they were seated in a pretty apricot and cream parlour with cups of tea in hand, Grace poured forth everything that happened to her since leaving, with interjections from Nicholas. Mrs Woods listened in rapt fascination, her hand fluttering up to her heart when she heard what the squire tried to accomplish.

"And I would like to thank you for all you have done for me, Mrs Woods," Grace concluded. "That includes sending my manuscript away to a publisher in London."

"I too wish to convey my heartfelt thanks for looking after her so well. She should have had someone to protect her and not have been left alone," Nicholas said with heartfelt gratitude.

"It was an absolute pleasure, my lord, my lady," Mrs Woods said, with tears in her eyes. "I have known you from the day you were born. I could not have left you on your own. Your parents would never forgive me. As for the manuscript, it deserved to be published."

Nicholas glanced at his pocket watch, and then took Grace's hand. "It is becoming late; we must leave now if we are to make London before nightfall. Besides, do you not wish to start making preparations for our wedding trip?" He broke out into a wide grin.

"How can I make preparations when you have not informed me where we are going?" Grace retorted. She smiled to take the sting from her words.

Mrs Woods laughed. "Of course, you must be on your way. Please, I do hope you shall visit again. Unfortunately, my sister and brother-in-law are away visiting my niece in Bath at the moment, I am sure they would have adored seeing you."

Nicholas stood and Grace immediately joined him. After making their farewells to Mrs Woods, they found themselves on the footpath outside the front gate, with the carriage waiting patiently in front of them.

Grace turned to Nicholas, a pleading look on her countenance. "Do we have time for one more stop?" she asked.

Nicholas frowned. "You do not wish to see the cottage do you?"

Grace shook her head. "No, the churchyard if you please," she replied. "I never want to see the cottage again."

Enlightenment flashed across his face. "You wish to visit your parent's graves," he said softly, squeezing her hand.

Grace nodded. "May we walk? It is not far, but I must get something out of the carriage first," she said. Grace went to the carriage and retrieved her wedding bouquet of white roses, which had damp muslin around the stems in an effort to keep the blooms fresh.

They walked down to the churchyard, hand in hand, and soon found themselves making their way in amongst the headstones. Some cracked and broken with barely readable inscriptions they were so old. Grace led Nicholas to the back row where eventually they stood looking down into a pair of identical grey headstones. Not one weed grew in the earth and someone had placed fresh flowers in pots on both of the graves.

Nicholas read the simple inscriptions, In Loving Memory of Adele Preston, Beloved wife and mother, died1814 and the other read In Loving of Memory of Reverend Henry Preston, Beloved husband and father, died 1814. He placed his arm around Grace and felt her shoulders shuddering. Drawing her closer he allowed her to cry on his shoulder, the black fabric of his greatcoat becoming damp from her tears. Her arms crept around his waist and they stood for a long moment, silent in their own reflections.

Grace lifted her head from his shoulder and met his regard, her eyes shimmering with tears yet to fall. Nicholas retrieved his handkerchief and wiped her tear stained face, gazing down at her with a mixture of love, sympathy, and concern.

Grace gave him a misty smile, and said. "Mrs Woods must have taken over tending them. Something I used to do. Once a week I would come and ensure they were looked after."

His arms tightened around her, looking down at her with an intent gaze. "Are you alright, my love?"

"Yes, I miss them terribly, but I am finished living in the past. It is time I looked forward to the future. To our future," she replied, regarding him with such love and devotion it prompted another earth-shattering kiss.

No, fate had not been kind to the young woman sitting amongst the late spring flowers that long ago day. But now, fate was bathing her in all of its glory, opening up a world that she did not even know existed, and she finally allowed herself to feel truly enlivened by the prospect of spending the rest of her life with the man she loved.