Excerpt from Prelude to a Most Unusual Marriage by Katherine Kingston

Copyright © Katherine Kingston, 2014

After an hour or so they stopped at a stream dappled with shadows from overhanging trees. It sang merrily as it plopped over rocks and a fallen log half-drowning in its clear course.

“It’s a lovely area,” Elizabeth said.

“Made all the more so by the company.”

“You are ever the flatterer,” she said.

“No, my dear, I’m honest.” He stared at the stream rather than at her when he said, “Except that you appear far too melancholy. Do you still grieve for Henry?”

She drew a breath. It started now. “I do, some. But more I grieve for all the ways I wronged him.”

That silenced him for a moment as he turned to flash a glance her way then looked back at the stream. “How do you believe you wronged him?” It came out sharper than the earlier question.

Elizabeth straightened her spine, gathering her courage. “In many ways. I was a poor wife to him. I tried but I wasn’t the woman he needed.”

“What do you believe he needed that you couldn’t supply?”

She sighed. “I’m not entirely certain. I think perhaps someone gentler, more understanding, more tolerant of his faults, yet one who could be subtle enough and smart enough to curb some of his excesses.”

He turned back to her again, his features pulled into a troubled expression. “Excesses?”

“He drank more than was wise. Gambled. Spent every farthing he could get his hands on.”

Richard’s frown turned even darker. “Did he leave you penniless?”

“Not quite.”

“How have you lived this past year?”

“Carefully,” she admitted. “But I have managed.”

“Why did you not tell me this?”

“My lord, Richard, we are not related by blood. It was not your responsibility.”

“As I was Henry’s guardian, I naturally feel responsibility for his family.” He took another step toward her. “Which brings us to the question of your future. I should be happy to take a hand in finding you another husband.”

“No.” It came out without thought and more sharply than she expected. “No, please, Richard. I’m not ready to be wife to another yet. I’m not fit.”

“Because you were unable to restrain Henry? Or unable to understand him as perhaps you thought you should?”

“No, there’s more,” she admitted, “But I…” She dropped her face into her hands as she struggled to get out the damning words. Breath refused to form them. “No, I can’t,” she said.

“Not right now. I will, I promise. But not right now.”

A finger pressed beneath her chin, forcing her face up. She hadn’t heard him get so close and was surprised to look up directly into Richard’s gray eyes. “If it’s related to what you’ve told me already, I doubt it could be so horribly shocking and unforgivable. Did you have an affair?”

This time her eyes widened. “No. Of course not.”

“Then I doubt it will be so awful.”

Elizabeth tried again to tell him, but the words caught in her throat. His closeness was doing strange things to her. Her blood seemed to bubble and froth within her. Her heart pounded hard against her chest. His aromas of leather and horse and man surrounded her, drawing her toward him.

His fingers stroked down the side of her cheek and the warmth of it sent a thrill careening down her spine. When he leaned toward her, she watched the blade of his nose, the hard planes of cheek, the well-shaped lips move closer and closer. His mouth came down on hers, all sweet softness and delicious heat. She closed her eyes, the better to soak in the sensations that contact roused. Glorious tingling heat rushed from her lips to settle down deep in her womb.

Her mouth opened in a soft moan. His tongue swept in to explore the depths and recesses. Excitement frothed her blood and bubbled through her. Desire rose, making her want to open more than just her mouth to him. She wanted to feel his hands on parts of her body below her face. Her breath sped up and she reached up to cup her hands in his thick, soft hair.

A few exciting moments later, he broke away and took a step back. “Elizabeth… I’m sorry. I should not have done that.”

She collected her breath. “Why not, Richard? We are both free of other promises.”

“But we must find you a husband who’ll treasure you as you deserve.”

“As I deserve,” she echoed softly. She shook her head. “That is the issue. I deserve nothing. But what about yourself, Richard? Surely you mean to marry again. You’ve a title to pass on.”

He swallowed hard. “I do mean to marry. Perhaps soon. I’m hopeful.”

“She is a most fortunate lady then.”

“Perhaps not,” he said. “I have a title and some fortune, but I am no easy man to live with.”

“Even so you’re a worthy match.” She grinned through the remains of her tears. “I think you would ever be a challenge, so your wife would rarely be bored.”

He looked startled, then a wry grin spread across his face. “You may be right. But it will take a special woman to see it that way. And to accept the challenge I present.”

“Are you really that hard to accept, Richard?”

“Yes, I am. Much more so than you can guess.” He stopped and backed up another step. “I suppose we should be returning before someone begins to wonder where we are.”