My True Love Gave to Me…
…two turtle doves…
Christmas Day, 1814
“It’s a damn cold night, eh Nathan?”
Nathan, the Duke of Hastings, glanced in irritation at his younger brother Lewis, just visible in the light from the coach lantern. When they’d set out from his estate, only a few miles away, the skies were heavy with winter storm clouds. But the weather held, and he and Lewis had little trouble during the journey to Pemberton Hall.
Lewis started speaking again, the entire conversation nearly one-sided, not that Nathan minded, he wasn’t even paying attention to what his brother was saying. Lewis was an easy-going sort and always had something to say. Nathan preferred to gaze out the coach window, lost in thoughts as his eyes roved over the miles of snow covered land.
Lucky devil. He envied Lewis’s freedom. As the head of his family, Nathan had so few choices that he could make freely. Even after obeying all of the rules, he’d still lost so much. Far too much. He buried the bittersweet memories deep in his splintered heart, welcoming the ache in his chest. One he deserved because he’d caused it.
“How much farther?” he growled.
“He speaks at last,” Lewis laughed. “Any minute.”
They emerged from a line of evergreens to a welcoming sight of Pemberton Hall, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Pemberton.
The duke was a distant cousin to Nathan and Lewis, although he was quite a few years older. The Hall itself was an expanse of tan stone nestled in the woods laced with fresh snow. The windows on the ground floor were illuminated with candles, and Nathan could see the flitting forms of dancing couples within.
“We’re here,” Lewis announced with a grin. “I hope we’re in time for the festivities.”
“It’s a ball. You’ll have hours to seduce the young ladies.” Nathan’s lips formed a thin smile. “I’m sure there’s plenty of mistletoe to aid your nefarious mission.”
“John Swann, the Earl of Cockswood, is in attendance tonight along with his family.” Lewis rubbed his palms over his thighs in eagerness. “A multitude of opportunities there.”
“The Swanns?” Nathan croaked. For a second he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Would she be here? The woman he’d loved and lost a decade ago?
“So I’ve been told. All seven of Cockwood’s daughters were invited.” Lewis cast a curious glance at Nathan. “Didn’t you almost propose to one of them? Thia, wasn’t it?”
Theodosia Swann. My Thia. Even after all these years Nathan’s heart still claimed her as its own. He didn’t answer. What he’d done or not done was no one else’s business.
“Surely most of them are married by now.”
She would be nine and twenty years-old by now. Well past her marriageable years, just as he, at six and thirty years-old, was expected to marry and produce an heir to secure the dukedom. He hadn’t cared about any of that when he’d met Thia. He’d only cared about her and the way she made him feel.
“Not one of them has successfully leg-shackled a man. Which means I shall have to tread carefully. Wouldn’t want Cockswood catching me compromising one of his daughters. He’d have my head or my proposal. Neither situation appeals to me.” Lewis snickered.
Nathan shook his head. Someday Lewis would be trapped either in a marriage or a duel.
A young, ruddy-faced footman rushed out to meet them and opened the door. “Welcome, Your Grace, my lord.” He bowed to Lewis and Nathan.
Nathan offered a weary smile to the lad. He was probably the only man in England who wasn’t fond of having a title, or at least he wasn’t fond of the responsibilities and expectations that came with it. The only benefit was it meant his father was dead. There had been no love lost between the late Duke of Hastings and his two sons. The ‘Old Curmudgeon,’ as Lewis often called him, had been bad-tempered even on his best days. There was no satisfying him, no pleasing him. It was only after his father died that Nathan had realized he’d given up everything he’d loved to win his father’s approval and had failed.
Nathan and Lewis marched up the steps to Pemberton Hall, tramping through the thick snow, where the butler waited to take their great coats. Lewis, only a few steps ahead of Nathan, turned and winked before ducking into the grand ballroom where he quickly vanished into the crowd. Nathan scowled. He despised these social gatherings. The prospect of seeing Thia again had him on edge with anticipation. He ran his hand over his jaw and tried to still his nerves. Was Thia already here? His hands were shaking, and he felt like a giddy lad planning to steal his first kiss. She always could turn him inside out, his Thia.
The ballroom teemed with local gentry and many familiar faces from London. Candles cast flickering shadows along the walls. There was light everywhere and laughter. Music from a string quartet playing in one corner filled the room. In a parlor opening to the ballroom a long table with a white cloth was laid out with drinks. Quite a few of the younger men lingered around a punch bowl that Nathan suspected contained far too many spirits. That was bound to be trouble later.
He smoothed his hands over his white linen shirt and tugged the edges of his black coat of superfine. Damned balls. He hated formal attire, but the black breeches and stockings were required. He’d even allowed his valet to talk him into the Throne d’Amour. A fleet-footed thought darted through his mind. Would Thia still think him handsome? Would she still be the young woman in awe of him as she had been so long ago?
He focused on the ladies around him and studied faces surrounded by ringlets or hidden by fans. Attracted by any flicker of feminine movement, he sought Thia’s likeness, yet he didn’t see her. His heart dropped, and his smile faltered. Maybe she wasn’t here. He pushed his way deeper into the ballroom, noticing an alcove he hadn’t seen from his former position. He took refuge there, hoping to get a better glimpse of the women in the room.
Evergreen strands circled the columns at the edges of the room, and men escorted women in beautiful evening gowns as they moved about. The press of chatter and bodies all around him was smothering. Then as the dancers moved in and out of view, a glowing presence caught his eye. He stood there, struck still as he saw her for the first time in ten years. She was just as beautiful as before, even more so.
His mouth dried, and he struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat. His body froze at the sight of her, stiff and taut with indecision. Should he go to her? What would she want? Would she be happy to see him? Perhaps she hated him? Or had she dreamt of him every night, as she lay alone in her bed, as he did her?
Lady Theodosia Swann stood out in the midst of her six younger sisters like a northern star in the winter skies, shimmering, glittering, all alone in the dark expanse of the inky universe. Yet, she was none the weaker for it. She was brighter, more enchanting.
Thia. My Thia.
As tiny as she was—he towered over her by a head and a half—she captured his full attention. He was enraptured by her as he watched her whisper something to one of her sisters. Her amber hair caught the light of the candles nearest her, a beacon shining for him. Her eyes, jade pools frosted with silver, glanced about the room, unaware of the steady heat of his own gaze.
Nathan sucked in a harsh breath as his body stirred to life with a level of arousal he’d thought he’d never feel again. Ten years had wrought great changes in her. In them both. The lithe-bodied girl of nineteen he’d swept across ballrooms in her first season was gone. In her place was a woman infinitely more alluring, with luscious curves his hands itched to shape, and pale pink lips he longed to explore with his own. Were they as soft as he remembered?
She smoothed her hands over her dark green gown and tugged at the puffed sleeves trimmed with lace. Her full breasts were accented by a square cut neckline and a bodice embroidered with holly leaves. When she shifted, he caught a glimpse of the shape of her legs as the silk, drawn up in festoons with more holly leaves, rustled and clung to her. Most men preferred younger women, barely out of their first Season, but Nathan couldn’t think of anything more lovely, more sensual, than a full-grown woman, who had a body worth holding, worth making love to endlessly into the night.
Her gaze swept the room and his gut clenched a second before her eyes hit him with the force of a physical blow. He swallowed hard as he watched as her cheeks turned from pink to ash. The look on her face robbed him of breath. Sadness haunted her, and he hated seeing it, seeing her so wounded. She looked as destroyed on the outside at seeing him, as he was on the inside since the day he’d broken both their hearts.
His heart cried out for her. Things are different now. I’m not the fool I once was, and I’m not under my father’s control.
Thia stared at him for a moment longer, and then turned and moved swiftly away, running from him. He had to speak to her, apologize for everything he’d done to ruin their happiness ten years ago. He prayed he wasn’t too late.
Thia gave up herding her sisters deeper into the ballroom. They seemed content to gossip and twitter like peahens. Exasperated she glanced about the room, watching the dancers, a little envious. She’d always loved balls, but she was firmly on the shelf now and was rarely asked to dance. Several couples moved past her, then split apart. Then she saw him. Him.
“Nathan!” she gasped. She blinked rapidly, trying to dispel the dream that had descended over her vision.
Nathan, now the Duke of Hastings. She’d forgotten how tall he was, standing several inches above the men nearest him. His golden hair was tousled and longer than she remembered as it curled at the edges of his collar. His eyes, such a warm brown, always heated her body like a wildfire whenever he looked her way. They were fixed on her now.
A dream. She was stuck in a dream, one she’d had so often over the years. The room was always full of people, moving and dancing. She and Nathan at opposite ends, standing still, waiting, always too far to reach for each other or to speak. Had she fallen asleep in the coach ride to Pemberton Hall? Surely this was real. It felt too vivid to be anything else. Her heart pitched straight down into her stomach. Ten years. Had it been that long? She hadn’t forgotten one moment. She hadn’t forgotten his kisses, the tender way he looked at her, the softness of his smile, his hands rough and insistent on her skin as they’d melted into each other. She hadn’t forgotten their conversations, the wit and intelligence of their shared thoughts or the way they could speak without words. Yet covering it all was the gray, all consuming despair of her life when he’d left it.
Seeing him now, after all these years, the pain came rushing back. She bit her bottom lip, eyes burning with unshed tears. Instantly, she was back in her drawing room, Nathan next to her on the faded brocade settee, his arm around her trembling shoulders as he murmured useless apologies. But nothing could undo the pain of his severing their romance. His father hadn’t approved of her. She wasn’t suitable. It didn’t matter that her father was an earl, or she had a sizeable dowry. Nothing pleased the old Duke. Especially not her. And in the end, Nathan had listened to his father, not his heart, and abandoned her.
Since that day she hadn’t looked at another man, hadn’t been able to bear the idea of another suitor’s touch. Nathan was her only love, and he’d left her. Her hands ached to touch his face, measure the muscles of his shoulders beneath her palms, taste his lips and let his body warm hers. Heat infused her cheeks as, across the room, Nathan’s lips twitched into an uncertain smile. And just like that she was nineteen again, at her first ball, losing her soul to the dashing young heir to a dukedom.
The room seemed to be suddenly devoid of air. She couldn’t breathe. Frantic, she slipped past the guests and made a hasty exit towards the doors on one side of the ballroom. Her slippered feet flew across the floor, in the direction of the door leading to the gardens, her sanctuary.
She pressed her palms on the wood door and pushed. A shocking, cold gust of wind cut across her collarbone and the tops of her breasts. Beyond was a terrace overlooking the now dormant gardens. The cold air cleared her head, and she felt better immediately. The stillness, the snowy quiet of the dark world around her, created a sense of peace and eased her anxious heart. She was safe. She was alone.
“Thia,” a deep baritone voice rippled over her skin. Her spine stiffened, and she slowly pivoted around.
She peeped up at him through her lashes and hastily dropped her gaze to the snow covered stone.
He cleared his throat.
“It is good to see you again. You look well.” The hint of uncertainty in his voice was odd.
He’d always been so self-assured, so confident. This new side to him intrigued her. She raised her eyes again. He was different, yet the same. Still the man she loved with wild abandon, but age had wrought tiny lines at the corners of his eyes and melancholy had thinned his smile.
“Thank you. You look well too.” A shiver wracked her body, and she wrapped her arms around her waist.
He shrugged out of his coat. She retreated back a step when he advanced on her, his coat extended.
His lips pursed and his eyes narrowed. “Don’t be silly, Thia. Let me…” He cornered her against the stone rail of the terrace. She jumped when wet snow pressed into her lower back, soaking through her dress. Nathan seized on her distraction and wrapped his coat around her shoulders. He surrounded her. She didn’t dare move lest he vanish as he always had in her dreams.
The smell of him, the woodsy scent with a hint of leather and horses made her suddenly long for the past, before they’d been separated. Too wrapped in the delicious bittersweet memories of other days when he’d held her close, she didn’t fight when he pushed her arms in the sleeves and pulled his coat closed to keep her warm. It was wonderful to have the black coat around her, the warm fabric far more suitable to guard against the chill than the thin silk of her gown. But it was more than that. The coat was a shield against the present, letting her relive the past. She closed her eyes, absorbing the heat, his scent, the rush of longing. It stung, but the pain of her ache for him was beautiful. Beautiful in its tragedy.
“Thia…” Nathan’s hands settled on her shoulders, his firm grip demanding she open her eyes. He was so close, and something tugged deep in her abdomen, beseeching her to move nearer.
“I…” He seemed to be at a loss for words. His eyes strayed away from her face and then darted back. “You are more beautiful than the last time I saw you.”
He’d once thought she was beautiful, but he’d loved her for more than that. Was he being kind, so as to not make a scene? If so, then why had he followed her out here? Frustration and desperation warred inside her. She couldn’t succumb to his charms, not again, not if she wanted to stay sane. She couldn’t allow him back into her life.
She managed a watery smile. “Don’t Nathan! You don’t have to say anything. We’re past that. It’s been ten years. I don’t need pretty words or eloquent speeches. We’ve seen each other. We’ve been cordial. We don’t have to do anything else. You ought to go back inside. I’m sure there’s more than one lady eager to dance with the Duke of Hastings.”
Nathan’s fingers dug into her shoulders, and he glared down at her with a violent emotion she couldn’t read. He pressed close enough that the heat of him made her dizzy. She was on the verge of wilting in his arms.
He blinked, seemed to regain his composure and stepped back. “So that is what you think of me.” The incredulity and resignation on his face sent her heart skittering wildly. “You think I could ever love another woman the way I love you?”
Surely he didn’t…he couldn’t…but he’d said love not loved.
Thia opened her mouth, but didn’t know what to say. She was too scared to hope, to pray that it wasn’t too late.
She gasped, as much with a thrill as with surprise, as he impulsively wound his arms around her waist and hauled her against his body. Anyone could have come upon them, yet he’d acted rashly, something she knew he rarely did except when his heart was in control of his mind. Her heart slammed in her chest, anticipation heating her cheeks as he dipped his head and captured her mouth.
The kiss was everything she feared and loved. It was raw, punishing, glorious. He made up for all of the days they’d been apart, all the nights she’d hungered, alone and cold without his body against hers. He slid one hand into her hair at the base of her neck and fisted his fingers into the loose ringlets, tugging at the curls. The small bite of pain spurred a flash of wet heat between her legs. She moaned against his marauding lips. As if encouraged by her wanton reaction, he slanted his mouth harder over hers. It overwhelmed her, aroused her, clouded her senses with him and only him.
The kiss was deep, their tongues dueling and lips bruising. His other hand traced her spine and skipped down to shape the curve of her rear. He clenched her bottom hard and jerked her body up several inches, settling her on the terrace balustrade. Nathan’s hands dug at her skirts, working them up her legs and out of the way so he could slide his hips between her thighs. Mindless of the cold that should have bothered her from such exposure, she arched into him, her body in control, her mind surrendering. He rocked his hips against hers, promising the passion to come with low growls against her lips as they finally broke apart from their kiss.
He stared down at her, still holding her prisoner against the terrace railing. Their shared breath formed pale clouds around their flushed faces. Nathan’s lips were parted, the faint rasp of his panting sending new flashes of heat and awareness skating over her skin. Even ten years ago, they hadn’t kissed like that. So much had changed and so much lay between them. Pain, sorrow, loneliness, regret. Her barely-healed heart started to crack and splinter into diamond shards, yet she wouldn’t have taken that kiss back. They’d spoken with their lips, yet needed no words.
How did they go on from here? She was terrified of what the answer might be. She knew she wouldn’t survive if he walked away a second time. There was nothing so cruel in this world than to have her heart’s unattainable desire so close and for it to be denied a second time.
Destiny could not be so cold.
Nathan cupped her face in his hands and feathered his lips over hers before touching his nose to hers in a gentle nuzzle.
“God, I’ve been such a fool, Thia.” His voice was low and pained, yet tinged with husky frustration.
Her throat closed, and her breath froze in her chest. Her fingers clenched and unclenched in the folds of his snowy linen shirt as she struggled to understand what he meant. Did he regret their kiss?
She choked back a sob. “Nathan, please. If you mean to leave, for heaven’s sake, go now,” she begged in a harsh whisper.
Her throat was raw with the violent heartbreak shaking her entire body. He’d walk away, as he had before. She’d be alone again, save for a silvery-tinted memory of one last great kiss. A kiss she had no right to even remember with fondness, not when he’d soon marry and belong to another woman. To love without expectation of such love being returned, was a curse upon her soul. A tormenting flicker of impossible hope still clung to her, demanding she live these last few minutes with him as though she’d never lost him, never been wounded beyond repair.
If this was the last moment she had with him, she wanted to remember everything. His crisp shirt beneath her fingertips, the fire that ignited his eyes when she licked her lips.
“Leave?” The shock in his brown eyes made her knees buckle. She clung to his arms as she fell into him. Her head spun in dizzying circles.
“Yes, now that you’ve realized this was a mistake?”
“No!” he snapped, his voice hard and cold. “How could you expect me to…I love you, Thia. I’ve never stopped loving you.”
“What?” Her cry was barely audible. Her vision threatened to black out, but Nathan set his mouth to hers. Hard at first, then his lips softened, coaxing her to respond.
“I was a fool to listen to my father when my heart told me you were mine. I only pray you have the mercy to forgive me.”
Thia slid her hands up his shoulders and locked her fingers around his neck as she found the words she’d practiced a thousand times in a thousand unfulfilled dreams.
“When you love someone, forgiveness is unnecessary.”
His hands on her face tightened ever so slightly. “You still love me, my darling? Tell me now if you don’t. Break my heart clean and swift.”
The earnestness reflected in his eyes filled her with a strange elation and warmth blossomed in her chest.
“I never stopped loving you. Even when I knew you’d never be mine, my broken heart still carried your name.” She met his eyes, telling him the truth that she’d kept secret from the world for so long. “I was always yours.” Even though it had felt like her ribs had been broken and each ragged breath cost her all of her soul, she’d kept breathing. Kept loving him.
Nathan pulled her back into his arms, tucking her head beneath his chin, arms securing her in his embrace. He wasn’t sure how long he held her, but he was too terrified to let go of her, lest she vanish like a phantom on the moors in winter. He’d been gifted with a second chance and he wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
A flutter of wings and a soft cooing made him raise his head. Thia turned to look at the rail next to them. A pair of turtle doves perched next to each other. Their heads bobbed back and forth, their soulful black eyes watching Nathan and Thia. The two birds were a perfect match for each other. One dove bent, rubbed its cheek against the chest of its mate. The second dove raised a wing and settled it over his mate protectively against the chill of the night air.
“They’re so lovely,” Thia whispered. Her cheek rested against his chest. “A perfect Christmas present.”
Nathan hugged her close and whispered into his ear. “Lucky for me they flew here of their own accord. I doubt I could have gotten them into a box for you.”
Thia laughed. The weight on her shoulders eased and slowly disappeared.
“Say you will marry me, Thia, as soon as we can arrange it.”
She nodded, and smiled, her heart shining in her eyes. When she pressed her cheek to his and then nibbled a path to his ear, his body screamed out to finish what they’d started.
“This is my Christmas gift. Getting you back.” He stole a kiss and would have made good use of the balustrade if a harried female voice hadn’t cut through the air at just that moment.
“Theodosia Swann!” Lady Cockswood, Thia’s mother shrieked. Lady Cockswood and one of Thia’s friends, Lady Cecile Barrington were watching them from the doorway. Lady Cecile, let out a little giggle and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Mama!” Thia gasped, her delicate features morphing into a mask of horrified embarrassment. She clung to Nathan and buried her face into his chest as though to banish her mother and friend and simply not see them.
Nathan cleared his throat and patted Thia’s back in a show of silent support.
“Good evening, Lady Cockswood, Lady Cecile.” He gave the two women one of his more charming smiles. It must have been ineffective after not being used for years as Lady Cockswood didn’t melt the way he’d expected her to after finding her daughter in the arms of a duke.
“Good evening, Your Grace.” She arched one brow, her slightly plump arms crossed. “I trust you will be speaking to my husband later tonight about Thia’s hand?”
Nathan nodded hastily.
“Excellent. What a relief this is. Seven daughters. Seven! Not a one married until now. Thank heavens for mistletoe.” She jabbed an imperious finger in the air. Nathan and Thia looked up. The doorway a few feet away had a large bough of mistletoe nailed to the frame. Neither he nor Thia had noticed its very obvious placement.
“You must come inside before you catch a cold. Thia, you should dance with His Grace. I’m sure everyone will want to see you together now that you are to be married. Finally.” Lady Swann added heavily at the end, shooting an unimpressed look at Nathan.
He felt like a boy stealing candied chestnuts from the kitchen. Clearly he’d spend the next several years working his way into his future mother-in-law’s good graces. He looked forward to the opportunity.
Thia slid her hand into his, her fingers lacing between his own. He raised their joined hands to his lips and brushed a kiss over her knuckles.
“Will you be happy with me?” he asked.
“Deliriously happy. And you?” She crinkled her nose in concern.
“Ridiculously happy.” He stroked a fingertip down the length of her upturned nose, winning a genuine smile from her petal-soft lips.
“We are fools in love.” The silver green of her eyes was so lovely that it made his heart gallop at an uneven pace.
“Lucky fools,” he agreed. He’d wasted so much time without her. But never again. He’d never let her go.
As they walked back through the door into the hall, he glanced over his shoulder. The two turtle doves cuddled into each other, one’s eyes were closed, the other dove’s at half-mast as though lost in the pleasure of simply being close to its mate. They seemed happy, as happy as two creatures made for each other could be. Nathan knew exactly how they felt. He tucked Thia into his side and together they walked back to the ballroom, ready for a life together.
A life full of love and hope.
Join us again tomorrow for Chapter Three of My True Love Gave to Me.