It was the thought that for the first time in years, he might have someone. Marriage became companionship. Companionship became a reason to give up his fight, to spend evenings with her instead of poring over shipping records, searching for a pattern that would yield profit.
No. He couldn’t let himself dwell on that.
But not thinking about his inchoate wishes left him unprepared when he reached the church where they were to be married. He felt off balance throughout the ceremony—as if he were on the brink of stumbling and couldn’t reach out to catch himself.
He couldn’t bring himself to look directly at her. Her gown was the color of daylight just before sunset; if he looked at her too long, he feared he might be left blind once she was gone. The vicar stood between them, reciting words that Hugo couldn’t comprehend—richer and poorer, troth, wife. He repeated his vows in a dream; he barely heard her answers.
But when he took her hand to slip his ring onto her finger, she was solid and warm—the only real thing in the room. He almost didn’t want to let go of her. The vicar gave him permission and he kissed her—not hard, for lust, nor long, for love, but a light brush of his lips for the brief space of time that she would stay in his life.
In the hired carriage after, as he returned Serena and her sister to her home, he could not help but think of what he would not have. The carriage drew up; her sister disembarked.
Serena did not move.
“The lease is in order,” Hugo said, “and I’ve arranged your passage on the stage. I hired a woman to see you through the next year. Don’t argue; you shouldn’t be alone under the circumstances.”
She was turned away from him.
“Thank you,” she said. Her hand clenched in the fabric of her skirts convulsively.
“If you need me for anything, you have only to ask.” A foolish offer, but then, he was used to turning into a fool around her.
“I…that is…” Her voice quivered and deep inside, some part of him quailed.
“What?” The word came out cold, but he didn’t care.
She turned to him. “I think we should consummate the marriage after all.”
Yes, some possessive beast inside him growled. But what came out was the clipped version: “Why? Is this some sort of misguided thanks? I don’t want—”
Her lips thinned. “Because maybe you can pretend that this is solely a business transaction, but I cannot. Consummation will provide us both with some protection, should the marriage be challenged. More than that. We are married—and maybe this is no conventional arrangement, but it is still real.”
“It isn’t,” he said.
“It is. What is a husband, but the man who offers you support when all the world turns you away?”
Was that what he was to her? He couldn’t look at her now, or she’d see how much those words affected him.
She continued. “What is a wife, but a partner who will see you through to your deepest wishes? We have promised each other our deepest wishes.”
“You will be my protection from the world. And I…” She set her hand on his arm, and a prickle ran up his neck. “Legally, you’re obligated by my actions. Another woman might take advantage. You’ve trusted me not to thwart your ambition. Let me trust you with this, too.”
He couldn’t make his lips form the word. He couldn’t even bring up his hands to touch her. Instead, he gripped the edge of the seat. “Have no hope of me, darling. I have none to give you.”
“Liar.” Her voice shook, but her hands were steady on his shoulder. And then slowly, ever so slowly, she leaned in to him. She smelled of bergamot and soap, of sunshine and sugar. He was so, so lost.
He met her lips with his own, settled his hands about her waist and drew her in. He held her close—as close as he’d wanted all these past days.
She nestled against him, her lips soft against his. He didn’t want to let go. He could have kissed her forever.
Instead, the carriage door swung open.
“Guv’nor?” It was the driver. “Oh—uh—oh.”
Hugo looked up, his arm full of woman.
“I don’t—this isn’t—” The cabbie was sputtering.
“Calm yourself,” Hugo said. “We’ve just married.” He didn’t meet Serena’s eyes. “Take us to Norwich Court.”
Serena’s hands stilled in unspoken question.
But he couldn’t bring himself to make an answer. Not when he had nothing to offer.
THE CARRIAGE PULLED UP OUTSIDE a bleak, thin row house.
Serena had expected something more sumptuous from the man who was responsible for Clermont’s fortune. But Hugo made no apology for the dark, narrow stair he led her up, nor for the haphazard disarray of the rooms beyond the door that he unlocked. There were two low openings off the main room—so low that Hugo would have to stoop to get through them.
He wasn’t neat. Truthfully, after staying with Freddy, Serena suspected that nobody would ever seem neat again. A jacket hung on a chair; a pair of stockings was strewn across the floor.
She peered into one of the neighboring rooms and found stray barrels and a trunk. In the other was a bed—heaped haphazardly in bedclothes and tousled sheets.
Neither of them said a word.
She wasn’t sure what she’d expected—that she’d offer herself to him and win him from the duke? That he’d become her husband in truth, cleaving unto her as the words of the wedding ceremony suggested he should?
But there was no cleaving. They felt awkwardly, painfully separate.
Before Serena could lose her nerve, she ducked into his bedchamber. Her heart pounded, but she unbuttoned the pelisse that covered her gown and set it over a chair, then tugged off her gloves. Her hands were shaking by the time she undid the sash on her gown, but still she started to unhook the bodice. It was foolish for her hands to shake—foolish, because she felt no trepidation.
She couldn’t feel trepidation. She wouldn’t let herself. As long as she didn’t look down…
But she looked up from her buttons to see Hugo standing in the doorway, watching her. There was a point, she’d discovered climbing trees as a child, when she reached the end of the branches. When the leaves gave way to sun, and the breeze blew fresh and unhindered upon her face.
For a few seconds when she reached the top, she would feel the finest sense of accomplishment. But that was also the moment when she first looked at the distant ground between her feet. And when she did, what came to mind was not the thrill of victory, but: Now how am I going to get down?