(SPOILERS AHEAD!: this epilogue takes places between book one in Christina Britton’s debut Twice Shy series,WITH LOVE IN SIGHT, and book two, THE VISCOUNT’S PROMISE. All content is copyright 2018 by Christina Britton. No part of this may be copied, distributed or printed without the author’s express permission. Thank you!)
“I do wish you would go to Madame Lanchester’s for your gown Imogen.”
Imogen hid a small smile under the guise of inspecting her stitches on the length of silk in her lap. Her mother, she knew, would not appreciate being laughed at, as important as the wedding was to her.
“Mama,” she said in that slow and overly solicitous way only those with infinite patience—and infinite practice—had, “we have discussed this. I am much happier piecing my own gown together. And with Mariah’s help, and Frances’s as well once we reach Willowhaven for the wedding celebrations, we will have it done in no time. After all, I would much rather have a gown crafted by myself and my sisters than one sewn by even the finest seamstress in London.”
As usual her words did little to sooth her mother’s upset. “But what will everyone think?” she fretted, peering with barely concealed disdain at the swath of fabric Imogen was meticulously sewing. “You are to be a marchioness, after all. A marchioness, Imogen. Marchionesses do not sew their own garments.”
Mariah spoke up then from her place beside Imogen. “The gown will be wonderful, Mama, just wait and see. But even if it were dripping with diamonds from head to foot, I’m sure the guests will hardly notice it, for they will be blinded by the way Caleb looks at our Imogen.” She gave her sister a small smile.
Imogen’s heart swelled. Though she no longer needed her sister’s staunch defense of her where their mother was concerned, it was wonderful just the same to be secure in her love and support.
As she was of Caleb’s. Imogen gave a happy sigh, returning to her stitching. But not before she gave the clock on the mantel a longing glance. How much time until she could see him again? Goodness, but it seemed days since she’d felt his arms about her, when in truth it had been mere hours. Heat flooded her cheeks as she remembered his visit that morning to take breakfast with them—and the kisses he had stolen before his departure. He was due to arrive any minute.
It could not come soon enough.
As if she had wished him into being, a knock sounded at the front door. She stilled, her needle suspended in the air, as Caleb’s deep voice echoed up to them from the front hall. The butler gave an answering laugh (really, was there a person Caleb could not charm?), and steps could be heard ascending the stairs.
Her entire focus centered on the door to the drawing room. In a moment he was there. A small smile played about his lips, his pewter eyes warming as he spotted her. In a few long strides he was before her, and Imogen thought her heart would burst from her chest she was so happy.
“Hello,” he murmured.
She grinned, unable to help herself. “Hello.”
There was a beat of silence as they stared at one another. And then her mother spoke. “Really, Imogen, you might ask Lord Willbridge to sit.”
Imogen did not take her eyes from Caleb’s face. “Mama says I should ask you to sit.”
If anything, his smile grew. “Hmm. And what do you think?”
“I’m not certain. I don’t know if you deserve to sit.”
Beside her, Mariah’s silent laughter shook the settee. Her mother, however, was not disposed to look so kindly on their teasing.
“Imogen,” she hissed. “Please sit, my lord. And do forgive my daughter. She has been uncommonly disobedient the last days. Though,” she hastened to assure him, looking faintly panicked, “I am certain she will be a completely biddable wife.”
“God save me from biddable wives,” he murmured, winking at Imogen before greeting both Lady Tarryton and Mariah. He took a seat close to Imogen. “Lady Tarryton, I do wish you would call me Caleb. Or barring that, Willbridge. None of this ‘lord’ business.”
She blushed like a young girl. “Oh, I could not presume.”
“I insist. After all,” he said with a warm smile Imogen’s way, “we are to be family.”
As Lady Tarryton smiled and fluttered her hands, Mariah, who was not so reticent in claiming familiarity, turned to him. “Well, Caleb, what do you think of Imogen’s gown? We have been working day and night on it.”
“Have you now?” He bent closer to peer at the shimmering material draped over Imogen’s lap. Suddenly his fingers, warm and strong, were on her ankle. Imogen sucked in a breath, heat racing along her veins. She shot her mother an anxious glance, but that woman seemed completely oblivious to the liberties Caleb was taking, the fall of fabric over her lap no doubt obscuring his caresses from her view.
“I must say,” he murmured, making a great show of studying the delicate stitching—even as his hand caressed higher, drifting over her calf, “your skills have improved since I last saw your handiwork in this very room.”
Imogen managed a breathy laugh, even as she fought against the waves of desire that spiraled through her as his fingers reached the sensitive spot just behind her knee. “You are a beast to bring up that embarrassing debacle.”
He grinned at her before sitting back, releasing Imogen from the spell his hands had been weaving on her. Suddenly his eyes gentled. “Much has changed since that day. And I thank God for it.”
“As do I,” she murmured. Goodness, if she had even considered the possibility that she would one day be planning her marriage to Caleb, would know the glory of his lovemaking and the certainty of his love for her, she would have voluntarily gone to Bedlam.
“I cannot think why a tea tray has not been brought up yet,” Lady Tarryton fretted. “Gillian knows Lord Willbridge—er, our dear Willbridge—is here. Mariah, ring for him.”
“No need,” Caleb announced as Mariah made to put her own bit of shimmering silk aside. “I have informed the good man that I am not staying, and so he needn’t bother readying a tray for my benefit.”
“Are you leaving so soon then?” Imogen’s disappointment was sharp.
“No, we are leaving. In, “ here he removed the watch from his fob pocket, “about five minutes’ time.”
Excitement started up in her belly. She had not been alone, truly alone, with Caleb since the night he had returned to London and climbed into her room to declare his love. Memories of that time flashed through her mind, and it was all she could do not to toss aside the fabric in her lap and throw herself in his arms. “And where are we off to?” she asked a bit breathlessly.
“That, my love, is none of your business.”
“How positively intriguing,” Mariah murmured, sending Imogen a delighted smile.
“Oh, but you cannot leave,” Lady Tarryton declared. “We are at home today, and there are certain to be ever so many visitors here wishing to congratulate Imogen on her good fortune.”
“I think they should be congratulating me,” Caleb said, reaching out to take Imogen’s hand, stroking his thumb over her knuckles and sending a shaft of pure fire straight to her belly. “For I am the lucky one in this scenario.”
“Oh, that is just lovely,” Mariah sighed.
In that moment, with Caleb’s hand in hers and his eyes so full of love, Imogen knew she had to get Caleb alone with all haste. Grabbing up the silk from her lap, pushing it into Mariah’s arms, she stood and pulled Caleb along with her. “We shall be back later, Mama. Do give our regrets to any visitors.”
“You cannot go, Imogen. They are coming for you, after all.”
She let out a little laugh threaded with frustration. “They are just coming to gawk and stare, as if at an animal in a menagerie. I would rather not be present to provide such a spectacle.”
“How can you say that Imogen?” Her mother was growing incensed, her cheeks flaming with furious color. “You should be happy, my girl, that they are giving you attention at all. Why, a week ago you were a nonentity in their eyes.”
Mariah gasped. Beside her, Caleb gave a low growl. Squeezing his hand, she turned to fully face her mother. “I love you, Mama, but please don’t talk to me in such a way again.”
Lady Tarryton gaped and stuttered. Apparently she was still not used to this new side to her daughter. Smiling, ignoring the outrage in her mother’s expression, Imogen went to her and kissed her on the cheek. “We shall not be late.” With that, she hurried from the room, Caleb’s hand once more clasped tight in her own.
As they descended to the ground floor and strode through the front hall, she turned to him. “Please tell me I need not change, for I am most anxious to be off.”
He raised one copper eyebrow at her. “I didn’t know you still feared your mother’s wrath.”
“I don’t,” she said, then sent him an arch smile. “I just cannot wait to get you alone in that carriage.”
Caleb’s pale eyes turned molten. He lengthened his stride, and soon he was the one pulling her to the front door. “Gillian,” he called out.
The butler appeared as if by magic, her pelisse and bonnet and Caleb’s outerwear held in his hands. But of course Caleb had informed the man of his intentions. In short order they were outside in the warm afternoon air and climbing up into the waiting carriage.
“We should not be in a closed carriage, you know,” Imogen murmured as they settled themselves. “No matter that we are engaged.”
“Are you complaining?”
In answer, she launched herself across the small space. Her arms went around his neck, her mouth finding his.
Caleb did not seem to mind in the least. His hands bunched in her dress, his fingers strong as they massaged into the small of her back, the curve of her hip, down to her thigh. His mouth, too, was busy, opening under hers, low sounds of masculine pleasure coming from his throat. She took it for the encouragement it was, devouring him, her lips hungry as they moved over his own.
Finally Imogen pulled back, though she did not leave the circle of his arms. Not that he appeared at all willing to let her go. His arms tightened about her, holding her prisoner across his lap.
“I would say,” he said hoarsely, “that you are not complaining in the least as to my choice of conveyance.”
She laughed, pressing her face into his neck. His pulse beat rapid there, proof of her effect on him. “Will you tell me now where we are off to?”
“I will not.”
She blinked in surprise, pulling back to look at him. He was trying—and failing miserably—to appear innocent. “What are you planning, you devious man?”
“Let us just say that, as you are about to marry a stuffy, reformed rake, I want to show you that your days of adventuring are not over.”
With those words, he shifted, removing her bonnet with careful fingers. Suddenly her spectacles were being whisked away and a piece of cloth fell over her eyes.
She jerked in surprise. “What in heaven’s name—”
“As I am keeping the location of our destination a secret, I certainly don’t want you taking a peek at the scenery and guessing. It will ruin my surprise.”
“Please do be careful with my spectacles, Caleb.”
“Of course. You are entirely too fetching in them, anyway, and so I would never allow any damage to come to them.”
His fingers were quick, tying the cloth securely across her eyes.
She pursed her lips, trying not to smile at his childish antics. “Just how old are you, Caleb? For I thought only children played at blind man’s buff.”
To her surprise his lips were suddenly close, barely brushing hers, his breath warm on her skin. “Oh, I am no child,” he murmured.
Her fingers convulsed in his coat. “No,” she breathed, “you most certainly are not.” She paused, and then, “Caleb, I don’t suppose we can keep this length of cloth for later?”
There was a beat of silence before he burst into surprised laughter. “My darling Imogen, you never fail to delight me.”
Which was mutual, for his hands and lips started doing the most incredible things to her.
Too soon, however, the carriage slowed. He groaned against her neck. “Not now,” he muttered.
“Can’t we have them drive just a bit more?” she gasped, arching into his hand as it played over her breast.
“I would if I could, love.” To her consternation he went to work righting her clothing. She tamped down on her disappointment. After they wed they would have the whole of their lives for such scenes.
Which did much to improve her mood. Yes, soon they would marry. And she need not be parted from him again.
She listened as the door of the carriage opened. There was the faint murmur of conversation as Caleb spoke to whomever stood on the pavement. Soon his strong hand was at her elbow.
“Time for your adventure, sweetheart.”
With his help she descended from the carriage. There was a faint breeze on her skin, the barest hint of warmth from the sun. For a moment anxiety reared. What if someone saw? She must look ridiculous, walking about with a blindfold over her eyes. But, try as she might, she detected only the faintest sounds of traffic, as if from a distance away. She had no time to wonder at it, for in the next minute she was being hurried into a building.
Instantly cool air enveloped her, and a feeling of closeness, as if she were in a small space. The strange scents of freshly hewn wood and paints, perfumes and tallow candles filled the air.
Her feet faltered. Her hand, clasped tight in Caleb’s, convulsed around his fingers. “Caleb?”
“There is not a soul here, Imogen.” His voice was warm and soothing in her ear. “Trust me.”
Instantly her tense muscles relaxed. For there was no one in this world she trusted more. She let out the breath she had been holding. “Of course.”
He planted a quick kiss on the crown of her head before hurrying her along. Their footsteps echoed oddly back at them, and try as she might Imogen could not discern the manner of building they were in. It seemed they travelled through all manner of spaces. At one moment the sounds of their journey bounced around them as if the walls were too close to contain them. The next minute they echoed down on their heads, hollow and far reaching, as if the ceiling itself had opened up to soaring heights.
Finally they slowed, and stopped. Caleb’s hands found her shoulders, and she was turned. She fought to control her breathing, her heart pounding like mad in her chest as she waited for him to remove the blindfold.
“Keep your eyes closed,” he whispered. And then his hands were at the knot at the back of her head, and the cloth was loosening. It fell away, and her spectacles were secured to her face. Still he did not tell her to open her eyes.
“You know,” he finally murmured, “if I could have a painting of you in this very moment I would.”
“Caleb,” she warned, clenching her hands in her skirts to stop their sudden shaking.
He chuckled. “Very well. Open your eyes you impatient minx.”
Taking a deep breath, she did. And lost her breath entirely.
“Caleb, is this…?”
“Drury Lane? It is.”
He grinned. “I called in a few favors, got them to clear the place out for a bit.”
She blinked, stepping forward, Not quite believing the truth her eyes were telling her. The theatre’s interior spread out before her, dimly lit, and as Caleb had promised utterly devoid of people. She had never seen it thus, had only ever visited when it was brilliantly lit and teeming with theatregoers. Row upon row of benches led to the arc of elegant boxes that spread in a horseshoe shape before her. Above her head the ornate ceiling soared, the chandeliers that hung from the heights dark now.
And she was on the stage.
The stage. Goodness, never in her wildest imaginings had she ever considered something of this nature.
“You do realize,” she said, her voice shaking, made all the worse as it bounced back at her from the yawning emptiness of the theatre, “that I have not once in my life wished to tread the boards.”
He laughed. “I do think that was a given. However,” he continued, much too smugly for Imogen’s peace of mind, “there is something I do know you love. Besides me, of course.” Here he smirked, confidence dripping off of him. Then, placing a hand on her elbow, he turned her around.
She had thought, after this puzzling and completely shocking turn of events, she could no longer be surprised by anything else today. She was quite wrong. A glistening pianoforte stood on the stage behind her, a soft fall of light lending a glow to the highly polished wood.
She blinked. “I don’t understand.”
He sighed. “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times. You are quite the most intelligent woman I know. Please do strive to keep up.”
She let loose a laugh, remembering when she had last heard those words from his lips, in the attic at Pulteney Manor as he had prepared her alternate identity for the masquerade ball. The night that had forever changed her life.
No, she corrected herself, her life had changed far before that night, when she had gone running blind through a darkened garden and found herself in Caleb’s arms. Though she never would have believed that a case of mistaken identity and a stolen kiss could so thoroughly change her fate.
“Perhaps,” she said now, “you had better explain. Just in case.”
Placing a hand at the small of her back, he guided her to the waiting instrument. “I want you to play. For me.” He shook his head, frowning. “No, that’s not right at all. I want you to play for you. And when we grow old and gray, you may regale our grandchildren, and their children after that, with tales of how, when you were young, you played at Drury Lane to thunderous applause.” He grinned, though the tenderness did not leave his eyes. “Leaving out the part, of course, that the thunderous applause was from your husband-to-be.”
Tears filled Imogen’s eyes, overflowing to track down her cheeks, and she sniffed. “I do love you so, you ridiculous man.”
He cupped her cheek, his thumb wiping away her tears. “And I love you. But I will not force you. You need only play if you wish it.”
In answer she spun from him, making her way to the beautiful instrument. Sliding onto the bench, her fingers trailed feather light over the keys. A selection of music awaited her. She ignored it all. For her heart was full enough for a concert of songs.
The music came naturally, a gentle piece she had learned in her childhood. It was a simple melody, yet it was hauntingly beautiful in the rise and fall, the rolling grace of the tune. Her fingers moved with ease, playing over the keys, loosening the music from the instrument with the graceful arch of a finger, the delicate press of ivory.
She had never heard anything like it. Sound rose from the pianoforte, wrapping about her before travelling up, up, to the very heights of the ceiling. There it swirled, expanded, filling the cavernous room until she could feel it in her very bones.
She did not know how long she played. One gentle song blended into a livelier piece, turned into a sweetly romantic melody. Finally her fingers stilled, the last vibrations from the instrument falling silent. She closed her eyes, her heart holding onto the music much longer.
A clapping started up, breaking her from the trance of the song. Her eyes flew open, finding Caleb where he stood off to the side of the stage. His grin was nearly wide enough to split his face, his hands working furiously in an enthusiastic applause. But it was his eyes that touched her heart the most. For they were brimming, overflowing with tears that tracked down his cheeks.
She sprang up from the bench and ran to him. Immediately his arms closed about her, dragging her close into his embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered, pressing her face into his shoulder. “Thank you so very much.”
He chuckled, the sound thick with emotion. “I will do anything for you, love, to make you happy.”
She raised her head, cupping his cheek with her palm. “You already do make me happy, with every breath you take.” Then her smile turned wicked. “Now, please tell me you still have that blindfold.”
As he guided her from the stage his laughter followed them, filled with the promise of their tomorrows.