Catie Kelly, née Catie Darcy, opened her eyes and looked over at her new husband sleeping soundly next to her. His unruly, wavy black hair was more disarrayed than usual. Behind closed lids, crowned with long black lashes, his cornflower blue eyes fluttered. Dreaming, she mused as she rested her chin in her palm and stared at him intently. She was married. What now? In her midsection, a sudden panic grew. In every romance novel she’d ever read, “the kiss” was always followed by “the end.” So what does a woman do with a man after the nuptials? The chase was over. He had her—legally, binding, before God. “My Lord,” she whispered, “I’m married.”
Sean mumbled something softly, unintelligibly and shifted his pillow. The sun flooded in through a split in the curtains and washed over his naked chest, solid with a smattering of black hair as soft as down. “I’m married,” she whispered again, smiling now.
Never again would she be that silly little girl who paced the front hall of Pemberley in lip-biting apprehension, waiting for Sean after a long separation. Never again would she fall victim to Rose’s motherly scold of how her pacing would wear a trench in the floor or encounter Sarah’s sympathetic sisterly smile. Never again would she avert her eyes from Ben’s gaze, sensing his begrudging enthusiasm once reserved only for a father or a brother. Never again would she anxiously count down the days until she and Sean were together again or curse the minutes that passed so quickly when they were in each other’s arms. Sighing through another smile, she remembered sitting on the steps of Pemberley with him, clinging to each other and their last seconds together before he had to leave in order to catch the Dublin ferry. He always started off late, and she’d worry that he would speed and have an accident. She chuckled softly in her reminiscence. Young as they were, their courtship had been rather tragic and lovesick—like a romance novel.
“Fiction is referred to as fiction for a reason, Sis,” her brother often told her, forever trying to instill a degree of sagacity into his young, romanticizing sister. “And men in romance novels are not real men.” She didn’t know why he always overly accented the “real” when he made this proclamation. If men in romance novels were not real, then why were real men so daunted by them?
But Sean was real. Their love was real. It wasn’t created. They didn’t just “fall” in love with each other. They belonged together, were drawn together, despite the fact that they were star-crossed lovers in every sense of the word. He loved her and adored her. He also cursed her and the day he met her. They were poles apart yet each other’s compliment—lovers and foes who were destined and condemned to each other from the first time they locked eyes. They were only children then but old enough to understand Fate, which clearly had a sense of humor.
Sean and Catie had had a whirlwind, Brontë romance for the last four years, passionate and dysfunctional. She loved him. She would always love him, and though now a woman of twenty, she still bore a ridiculous schoolgirl honor at being his girl. He unconsciously reached for her, and she snuggled into the crook of his arm against his chest, a place that felt carved and molded just for her. Nothing would ever be easy between them. She knew that early on in their relationship, but she didn’t care. She wanted him, all of him, including his bloody pride and his archaic, Irish male ego.
A soft summer wind caused the curtain panel to billow, and Sean’s eyes fluttered open. He yawned, stretched, and then drew his wife deeper into the folds of the covers. “Why are you smiling at me like that, my sweet?” he whispered, his voice gruff from sleep.
He felt her shrug against him. “Just happy, I guess. I was remembering when you proposed to me.”
Sean grunted derisively. “Christ, don’t remind me.”
“But I loved the way you proposed to me!” She pulled away from him and sat up. The sun shone in the window at her back, illuminating her fair, naked shoulders and sleep-rumpled hair in a halo of light. She spoke in a dreamy tone. “On a white horse, you rode up to Pemberley right out of the morning mist, dressed like an Edwardian gentleman. Oh, Sean, it was just like a movie. It was the most romantic proposal ever.”
He brushed his hand lightly down her arm. “I meant, don’t remind me what happened the day before—Boxing Day…remember?”
“Oh,” she replied, blushing slightly.
Sean stood at the window and stared out at the white, icy front lawn of Pemberley. It was Boxing Day and cold—bloody cold. He had arrived late last evening and had only a short time with Catie before her brother “hinted” it was time for the couple to be off to bed. They never seemed to have enough time together. Their courtship had been long-distance, and absence did not make the heart grow fonder…only yearn and ache. When he and Catie were apart, Sean constantly felt as if he had misplaced something, something extremely important…like his breath. But they had beaten the odds and proved wrong all the naysayers. And they had done it with a lot more than the Irish Sea between them.
The Irish Sea. How many bloody times had he crossed those choppy, cold waters for a few short days with her? At the local pub back home, his mates ribbed him and called him “Selkie” because of his coal black hair and the many hours he’d spent on the ocean pining for a lass who was not of his world—many hours to be sure, and for what? To find himself sitting in Ben Darcy’s drawing room and under the man’s watchful eye, that’s what, he thought bitterly. God, Sean thought desperately, how he wanted to have Catie to himself for more than a few hours with no one to answer to.
His turned his gaze to the bedside table and the envelope he had placed there before going to bed. That ordinary rectangular white envelope contained what, he hoped, would be the perfect start in life for him and Catie. Inside that envelope was a chance to begin their marriage without the meddlesome interference of their families, a chance to be alone in a place where no one knew that he was the son of a horse farmer and her the heiress to a fortune. All he had to do now was garner the courage to ask Ben for his blessing—not an easy task considering he was planning to take his new bride to America for a year. “Oh, God,” Sean muttered, meaning it, as he raked his fingers roughly through his hair then jumped at the solid and unexpected knock at his door.
“Sean!” called the master of Pemberley from the other side. “Are you awake, man?”
Sean’s eyes screwed shut in annoyance. “Yeah, Ben, wide awake. Come in.”
The door opened, and Bennet Darcy stood in the door frame, looking every bit a nineteenth-century oil painting. He wore white breeches, black top boots, a canary waistcoat, and a scarlet hunt coat. It was Boxing Day and Pemberley’s annual foxhunt. Sean swallowed down his urge to laugh at the spectacle the man made. Country gentlemen, even in these modern times, took their sport seriously. “Good morning,” Sean said pleasantly. “Fine day for a ride, eh?”
“Actually, it’s damned cold, Kelly,” Ben replied gruffly, stepping into the room. “Still, I am glad to hear you say so. I want you to join us this morning.”
“On the hunt?” Sean asked stupidly, voice croaking.
“Of course on the hunt! And I shan’t take no for an answer this year. My sister can make do without you for a few hours.”
“I…” Sean stammered, searching for an excuse. Catie, the woman he planned on proposing to that day, deplored blood sports. Without doubt, a row over hunting would not set the proper mood for such an important occasion. “I’d love to, Ben. But…er…unfortunately, I left my pink in my wardrobe back home.” Sean gestured to the man’s red coat and, affecting to look disappointed, added, “Damn!” for good measure.
Ben smiled shrewdly in response. “See Rose. She’ll make sure you’re properly attired. We meet in front of the house at eleven.”
Sean watched Ben leave and, as soon as the door closed, repeated, “Damn!” with emphasis. Of course, there was no scarlet hunt coat hanging in his wardrobe back home; he wasn’t a hunter. That type of recreation was for the rich. On many a cold, winter night in County Down, his da had grabbed his fowling piece and run outside in his pajamas and bright orange wellies to chase one of the varmints out of his mother’s henhouse, but Sean was sure that didn’t count as hunting in the true sense of the sport. He went over, picked up the envelope, and sat down heavily on the bed. An administrative internship, a solid start to his career, and a year in America—thousands of miles from bright orange wellies and foxhunts. He had to speak with Ben. Maybe joining the hunt wasn’t such a bad idea after all. An afternoon afield, just man, horse, and hound, might present the perfect opportunity.
Always the proficient, Rose, Pemberley’s housekeeper for the last twenty-two years and Sean’s aunt, managed to get him suitably dressed in a borrowed hunt coat that Sean was sure belonged to someone now residing in the Darcy family cemetery. He really didn’t want to know. As she fussily brushed and tidied the garment, Sean watched his aunt in the mirror. He never would have met Catie were it not for his Aunt Rose. She had gotten him the post of summer riding instructor at Pemberley to help with his university tuition, never foreseeing her vital role in his and Catie’s seemingly predestined union. She was, however, thrilled. Having cared for Catie from birth, Rose could not have been happier about the union. She loved them both dearly and had been the young couple’s chief champion for the duration of their courtship. “I’m going to ask Catie to marry me, Auntie,” Sean whispered confidingly, his face reddening as the words left his lips.
“Well, it’s about time.” She stopped brushing and smiled at his reflection in the mirror. “She has a bit of school yet, which leaves us plenty of time to plan a grand wedding for the summer following her graduation.”
“No.” Sean shook his head and turned from the mirror to face her. “We must marry this summer. Aunt Rose, I’m taking Catie to America.”
“America!” the woman cried.
He smiled reassuringly and took her gently by the shoulders. “Only for a year, not permanently.”
“A year!” she cried again. “But…Catie’s still at university!”
“She can take a gap year, and I happen to think the time abroad will be good for her.” Rose’s expression remained doubtful, so Sean continued in a more convincing tone, “I’ve been granted an internship under the headmaster at Norbury, a boys’ school in Georgia. It’s an excellent opportunity, Aunt Rose.”
“And what have your parents to say?”
“You’re the first to know. Catie knew I was going to send the inquiry but… Why don’t I just show you?” Sean hurried across the room and retrieved a royal blue velvet box from the bedside table. “I wanted my internship to be a surprise to her.” He handed the box to his aunt. “Along with this.”
Rose lifted the lid and gasped at the ring inside, dainty and brilliant—perfect.
“I know it’s not very—” he started, but his aunt put a finger to his lips and stopped him.
“It’s perfect, Seany,” she said softly. “Simply perfect.”
Once Sean had laid out his plans to Rose, he set out in search of Catie. His stomach growled as he bounced down Pemberley’s elaborately carved staircase, reminding him that he had thus far that morning neglected his breakfast. The grand hall smelled homey with a mixture of fried bacon and festive greenery and was busier than usual with staff running to and fro, preparing for the field to arrive and share a glass of port with the master. Sean stopped a hurried maid. “Excuse me. Have you seen Ca…er…Miss Darcy this morning?”
“Yes, Mr. Kelly.” Wrestling a large vase being moved to make way for more glasses, the young woman gestured towards the kitchen stairway with her chin. “She’s in the kitchen.”
“Thanks. May I help you with that?” Sean nodded to the vase.
“No, sir,” she replied, looking at him oddly as she bustled passed.
“Right,” he said to the departing form, inwardly cringing at his gaffe. In four years, he’d yet become accustomed to the pomp and circumstance of Pemberley—and probably never would.
Catie had her back to him, pounding furiously on something. “Here’s my girl.” He embraced her from behind and nuzzled her neck. “Sleep well?”
“Yes, very,” she lied sweetly. In truth, Catie had been awake all night contemplating her counterattack to the foxhunt, an event she despised. The Boxing Day battle between the siblings over the annual foxhunt had become as traditional as the hunt itself. Bennet Darcy was a hidebound traditionalist in matters concerning his ancestral estate. Whereas Catie, to her brother’s great chagrin, took a more progressive stand on some of her country’s deeply entrenched customs.
“What are you doing there?” He peeked around her and gasped, “Catie!”
“What?” She turned to him, and it was her turn to be shocked. Her eyes widened at the sight of him. Sean stood before her in a black hunt coat, a tattersall waistcoat, white stock, and top boots. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“I’m joining the hunt,” he declared boldly, squaring his shoulders. “Never mind me. What do you think you’re going to do with those placards?”
“Traitor!” she cried. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”
“Oh, calm down. Sarah detests foxhunting as much as you, yet Ben carries on each year.” A fair argument, Sean thought. Sarah Darcy, Ben’s wife, was somewhat avant-garde in respect to being the mistress of a large English country house. So much so, she was outright intimate friends with many of her staff, often offering her home and gardens for weddings or the like. Nevertheless, she endured Pemberley’s foxhunt—once a year anyway.
Catie huffily crossed her arms. “Is it your plan, Mr. Kelly, to pattern our relationship after my brother’s marriage?”
“Of course not.” He reached down and picked up one of the placards. “Is it your plan to cause your brother to pop a clog? ‘Ban Blood Sports’ God, Catie, Ben will explode if he sees this.”
“I hope he does! Pemberley’s hunt is small and rural, too small to draw protesters. So, several of us Newnham girls decided to take up the cause. Never did I think I’d be protesting my own boyfriend.”
“Aren’t you always asking me to get on better with your brother—to improve our relationship?”
“Yes,” she conceded contritely. “But really, Sean, hunting?”
“When in Rome, my love. Now, why don’t you and the girls take a wee drive to Derby instead? Have a nice lunch or do some shopping, eh? It’s bitter cold outside, and there are better ways to get your point across than protesting, aye?”
Catie’s mouth twitched in consideration, but eventually she gave a single, reluctant nod.
“There’s a good lass.” He tweaked her nose playfully and then wrapped her in his arms. “And see that you’re home early. I’ve a grand surprise for you later.”
“What sort of surprise?”
Sean flashed down at her his signature wicked smile. “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise, now would it?”
She leaned back and eyed him seductively from head to toe. “Will it involve you wearing this getup?”
“Oh, what’s this?” he quizzed reproachfully. “I thought you hated country sport.”
“That depends on what sort of country sport you’re referring to.” Catie ran her hands inside the luxuriously warm hunt coat and slowly drew her nails down the sides of the snuggly fitting waistcoat.
The act made Sean take in a sharp breath, which he exhaled fiercely. He glanced about the kitchen and lowered his voice to a sinister tone. “You wee vixen. When you and I decided to wait till our wedding night, you never mentioned that you were going to be an unmerciful tease.” His admonishment met with a muffled giggle and further exploration inside his coat. “All right! Enough!” He stepped away from her and buttoned the ornamental brass buttons with a strained air of composure.
Catie watched him with lip-biting interest and a glimmer of amusement in her eye. Once finished, Sean leaned over, gave her a platonic peck on the cheek, and walked away, tugging rather inelegantly at his borrowed buckskin breeches.
She cupped her hand over her mouth and laughed.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God,” Sean recited silently from Matthew, wondering if he received any Divine merits for trying. Certainly, God knew what he was up against. Bloody-minded Darcys. He stole a look around the room. Other than the popping and hissing of the blazing fire, everyone was dead silent. No one dared look at the evening edition of The Telegraph, Ashridge’s local newspaper, which lay in the center of the drawing room’s round coffee table with its bold-type headline: “Darcy Siblings Rival over Boxing Day Foxhunt.” If the front-page caption weren’t enough public humiliation for the family, the photo of an irate Bennet Darcy breaking his sister’s placard over his knee sealed it.
Sean glanced at Sarah. Not for the first time were they arbitrary mediators in a battle of Darcy wills. He had grown to accept, even somewhat appreciate, the eccentric, pertinacious siblings. But at the moment, he was furious with Catie. Not for standing up for what she believed in, not even for her drive and fearlessness in whatever undertaking she thought worthy of her attention—those were the qualities he loved about her, respected even. He was angry because she’d paid him no heed, and as a result, the day had taken a sharp detour from what he had intended. He looked at her, straight-backed and ready for combat—beautiful. God, he loved her, but right then, he just wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled.
His mind wandered back to the white envelope and blue velvet box in his room. He might have asked her by now. She might have already accepted him; she might already be wearing his ring.
“The Times is on the telephone,” Rose appeared at the doorway and announced. “They want to know if Pemberley would like to make a statement.”
“The Times?” Ben asked, turning from the large, crackling fire. “The London Times?”
“How the devil did London hear about this already?”
“News travels fast, but gossip invariably travels faster. What shall I tell them? They’ll print the story either way.”
Ben gave his sister a pointed look. “Tell them no one at Pemberley will be speaking to the Times or any other bloody newspaper.”
“That’s political repression,” Catie declared, meeting her brother’s eyes. “As was destroying my placard.”
“Catie,” Sean hissed reproachfully.
“Call it what you wish, Catherine.” Ben argued back, standing over her, nostrils flaring and looking menacing to no great effect, for his sister did not flinch. “But as long as I’m breathing air, no Darcy is going to protest this house or speak against it to the press. Our ancestors would turn in their graves to know Pemberley was at the center of such scandal!”
Impassioned, Catie came to her feet. “Do you mean the ancestors who would turn in their graves if they knew your wife voted or wore trousers? A hundred years from now, your descendants will think you were barbaric for foxhunting!”
“Foxhunting is a tradition—part of our culture. You can’t compare that to women’s suffrage.”
“I happen to think you can compare it. Shouldn’t animals have rights?”
Ben smiled cleverly at that. “Should they? I sure didn’t see you and your friends marching with your placards when that fox stole a newly born lamb from Lew Chapman’s nursery last spring. They’re bloody pests, Catherine—vermin.”
“Who cares about the damn foxes?” Sean stood up and butted in, making both Ben and Catie turn to him. He took Catie by the shoulders and lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “This isn’t how I’d imagined it.”
“How you imagined what?” she asked.
Sean turned to Ben, but the words he had so meticulously rehearsed were no longer there. “Just forget it!” he exclaimed, looking disgusted. “Just forget the whole bloody thing!” He glanced at Catie once more before storming out of the drawing room.
“Sean!” Catie called after him, but he was gone. “See what you’ve done!” She turned back to her brother, accusing.
“What I’ve done?”
“What you’ve both done,” Sarah said, her brows knitted and perturbed. Ben and Catie glanced at each other then down to the floor like scolded children. “You have both behaved horribly pompous and self-serving. If you were children, I’d see you properly punished, but you’re not. I’m perfectly ashamed of you…both of you.” Giving them both a stony look, Sarah sat down and said nothing further. She didn’t need to.
Ben and Catie gave each other another brief glance, each feeling the sting of Sarah’s speech. In the fewest of words, Sarah Darcy could say more than most could impress upon a person in an hour-long lecture. There was a lengthy silence until Catie folded her arms and left the room.
Ben fell onto the sofa, exhaling and rubbing his face. He cut his eyes warily at his wife. “I realize that I shouldn’t have broken Catie’s placard.”
“As usual, Mr. Darcy, your hindsight is a perfect twenty-twenty,” was his wife’s reply.
“My faults are many, Mrs. Darcy. Thank you for always being prompt in bringing them to my attention.”
She smiled faintly at that. “You’re welcome.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but Rose came to the doorway again. “What now, Rose?” he asked. “If it’s another damned newspaper, just put the bloody phone off—”
“It’s not another newspaper,” she interrupted him. “There’s something you and Sarah need to know about Sean.”
“About Sean?” Sarah asked, and Rose nodded.
An hour later, Ben found Sean’s rattletrap Land Rover exactly where he expected—parked outside the Green Man Inn and Pub. The old Rover was symbolic of the man’s principles. Sean would never spend a hard-earned penny replacing something that still worked. And what bit of quid he would part with was put toward furthering his education or visiting his sweetheart hundreds of miles from home. Ben sighed and smiled at the same time. He did respect Sean Kelly but had no intention on telling the lad. In Bennet Darcy’s opinion, no self-respecting brother would put a future brother-in-law at ease before the wedding.
The bar was nearly empty. It was rather late and too cold for most of Ashridge’s residents to be out and about. Thank heavens. He really didn’t want to answer a thousand questions about the day’s events. There were more pressing matters that needed resolving. He saw Sean sitting alone at the bar, nursing a pint of stout.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” Ben told Bobby, the Green Man’s bartender, making Sean abruptly look up.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said then returned his attention to his mug.
“Yes, it’s me.” Ben sat down next to him and waited for his beer.
Bobby returned shortly. “Anything else, Mr. Darcy?”
“Yeah, keep ’em coming, eh, Bobby? We might be here awhile.” Bobby glanced at Sean, nodded, and went back to drying glasses. Ben took a generous swallow and exhaled slowly, giving Sean a sidelong glance. “My sister and I can be complex at times.”
“Hmph,” Sean grunted and drank down the last of the dark liquid.
Ben gestured for Bobby to refill Sean’s glass and then continued, “You might be glad to know that Sarah took us both to task after you left.” Sean made no comment to this, so Ben went on, “She gave us a fair lashing with the sharp side of her tongue, which we rightfully deserved, but she didn’t storm out. And she never would.”
Sean looked at him. “I—” he started, but Ben cut him off.
“Let me finish, Kelly. We Darcys are a devil of a lot to live with. Sarah can vouch for that. But if a man makes a commitment, he must stand by it.”
“I don’t understand.” Sean said.
Ben sighed, resigned with a tinge of sadness and drank down another healthy gulp. “If you’re going to marry my little sister, Kelly, you can’t just run out on her, no matter how bloody headstrong or unreasonable she is.”
“How?” Sean sat bolt upright, but realization came quickly. “Aunt Rose?”
“Yes. Not that the news came as a surprise. I know my sister’s heart, and I’ve been wise to your feelings for her for some time now.”
“So…er…” Sean stammered. “Does this mean you’re giving me your blessing?”
“The hell I am!” Ben declared. “You haven’t asked for it.”
Sean blinked and swallowed. “Will you give me…us your blessing?”
Ben shook his head. “No. Not until you make me three promises.”
“And they are?”
“Catie must finish her education after this little sabbatical of yours is over with.”
“It’s a bit more than a sabbatical,” Sean replied sharply. “It’s an opportunity to gain administrative experience and put my graduate’s degree to work.”
“And I’m glad for you, but my sister’s education is my priority.”
“Catie’s education is just as important to me as it is to you.”
“Good answer.” Ben nodded. “I’m not thrilled about her being abroad for a year, but seeing more of the world may temper her passions somewhat.”
“Or, seeing more of the world may not change her convictions at all.”
“Perhaps not, but at least those convictions will stem from real-life experience. I’ve fallen short in providing for her on that front, I’m ashamed to admit. A bit of adventure will be good for her I think.”
“What else?” Sean asked.
Ben looked Sean directly in the eye. “You’re a proud man, Sean. I can appreciate that. However, you mustn’t allow my sister’s money to affect your marriage. You must never hold it against her. It’s easy for a man to marry a woman of less means but much more difficult for a woman.”
Sean considered Ben’s words for several seconds. From the beginning, Catie’s wealth had been a sore spot. Still, he loved her, and there was no help for it. “Catie shall have what’s rightfully hers. I would never begrudge her that.”
“I’ll see you stand by those words,” Ben vowed, his expression granite.
Sean breathed in and let out an uneasy breath. “What’s the third?”
Ben’s expression instantly softened, and he turned back to his beer. Twisting the glass in his hand, he whispered, “Take care of her, Sean. She might make me angry enough to break things but…but my little sister means the world to me.”
Staring up at his new wife, Sean smiled and whispered, “I’m really glad you said yes.”
“How could I say no?” Catie nestled closer to his warm body, giggling softly. “You were so nervous; you wobbled when you knelt to ask me. I felt terribly sorry for you.”
“Oh, I wasn’t nervous, lass,” he replied cockily. “I was thoroughly pickled that morning. Didn’t you know?”
“Pickled?” She sat back up. “You mean you were drunk!”
“Aye.” He moved to pull her back down to him, but she drew away and out of his reach. “Come here!” he demanded playfully, grabbing her wrists and wrestling her beneath him.
In futile protest, Catie squirmed and struggled to free herself, but he shifted his weight and effortlessly pinned her to the bed. “Barbarian!” she hissed, glowering at him but grudgingly surrendered and lay still.
Her defiant submission excited him—so much so that his voice came as a coarse rasp in her ear. “Your brother and I closed down the Green Man only hours before I came to propose to you, bhean chèile, so, aye, I was drunk. But I knew what I was doing; I’d carefully planned it for heaven’s sake. I wanted you that morning more than I wanted the damn sun to rise…as I want you now.”
“Ban kay…what?” she asked, unable to properly mimic his Irish.
“Bhean chèile,” he repeated. “Wife. Mo bhean chèile, my wife.” He leaned down and kissed her mouth, forceful and eager, but his young bride did not yield to him.
“Were you pickled last night?” she asked in a soft voice, turning her face from his.
“Maybe…a wee bit,” he admitted. “God, Catie, you don’t think me a drunkard, I hope. I hardly ever have more than a few pints.”
“No.” She looked back at him now with an injured gaze that made his gut tighten with shame.
“Did I…did I hurt you last night, lass?”
“No.” She shook her head. “You were gentle. It was nice.”
He drew back as if she’d slapped him. “Nice!”
“Okay. Very nice,” she amended.
Sean stared down at her. He hadn’t been able to help himself the night before. He’d waited four long years to have this woman, and his patience had paid the price. He remembered collapsing and rolling off her. Then, in a vague sleepy grayness, he remembered thinking he must recover himself and return to her. But he had not.
“Your family will leave soon,” she said tenderly, smiling now. “We should go down and spend this time with them.”
No longer feeling cocky, Sean sighed heavily as he watched her slide out of bed and put on her dressing gown.
“Goodbye, Mr. Kelly.” Catie affectionately hugged her new father-in-law. She loved the man dearly and he her. Their mutual fondness happened naturally and early on in their acquaintance; he reminded her of the father she so painfully missed, and she quickly became the daughter he never had.
“You’re our daughter now, Catherine.” Seamus Kelly clutched her tightly in his arms. “You must call us Mam and Da, unless you think your parents would have disapproved.”
Catie smiled up at him. “I think they would have been pleased.”
“It’s settled then,” he said then glanced over at his eldest son, who was soothing his tearful mother. A year was a long time for a young couple to be alone without elders to guide their new union. “He’ll make you a good husband, lass, or he’ll feel my displeasure.”
Although the threat wasn’t an idle one, Catie played it off with a pretty half-smile. “We’ll be fine, Da.”
“Aye, you will. I’ve no doubt.” He instinctively reflected the smile as he kissed her cheek then lifted his chin to beckon his son. “Seany, a word, me boy.”
In a flurry of slamming car doors, shouts, and tears, the Kelly clan caravanned off for the ferry. Sean and Catie stood on the steps of Pemberley and waved until the last car had turned the bend in the drive. “I’m going to dreadfully miss them,” Catie said with a sigh.
“It’s only a year, love.” Sean put his arm around her, and she nestled against him, glad for his sureness, for she hadn’t any. Leaving England was more than a little frightening to Catie, but Sean was adamant. They were going. She wanted to be a strong wife like Sarah, and so she vowed he would never know her reservations or suffer her complaints.
When they entered the house, Ben greeted them enthusiastically, waving their airline tickets above his head. “No need to thank me. It was easily done.”
“What was easily done?” Sean asked.
“I rang my man in London and had you both upgraded to first-class. I shan’t tolerate my sister enduring coach for a transatlantic flight.” Ben winked at Catie then clapped Sean on the shoulder. “Now, come through and have lunch. You’ve a long train journey this afternoon, and old Johnson’s whipped up beans and sausages in your honor.”
Although Ben took no notice, Catie saw a flicker of annoyance in Sean’s face. Those tickets had been a gift from the students of Norbury. A bizarre was held, cakes were baked, and pictures of the event sent to Sean. He had proudly shown them to her.
“He didn’t know,” she whispered apologetically as her brother walked off.
Sean exhaled a frustrated breath and looked at her, his annoyance now more than a flicker. “How shall I explain this to Dr. Middleton? Yes, sir, of course I appreciate the students’ hard work raising money for my aeroplane tickets, but my brother-in-law shan’t tolerate his sister enduring coach.” The latter Sean said in perfect imitation of Ben’s posh British accent.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Sean, Dr. Middleton won’t know where we sit.”
“Maybe not, but why must your brother always intervene?”
“He means well.”
“Right,” he said, looking and sounding unconvinced.
“Is something else bothering you?”
“Well, yes, now that you mention it. Why is it that beans and sausages are always served in my honor? I mean, I fancy beans and sausages fine but—”
“Did you not see how excited he was?” she said. “It’s Ben that fancies beans and sausages, but Sarah rarely indulges him. So, he’s convinced her that beans and sausages are your favorite dish.”
“Poor chap.” Sean glanced sympathetically in the direction Ben had departed.
“She’s only concerned for his health. Ten years from now, I’ll probably mind what you eat as well.”
“The devil ye will! Now, come along, woman. I fancy me some beans and sausages. I understand they’re me favorite.” Sean’s threatening brogue had no effect on his young bride, other than to elicit a small hiccupping laugh. So he narrowed his eyes, took her firmly by the elbow, and marched her to lunch.
The laughing increased…significantly.
Arriving in London mid-afternoon thoroughly exhausted, Sean and Catie had a late dinner then stopped off for a few drinks. The fanfare of wedding, parties, and farewells were finally behind them, filling Catie with both relief and melancholy in equal measure—like most new brides, she supposed.
“Nan was rather cheerless when we left,” Catie said as she and Sean strolled unhurriedly back to the Darcys’ townhouse, holding hands. Nan, short for Nanny Rose, was what Catie called Sean’s aunt, the only mother she’d ever known.
“She seemed her usual fussy-self,” Sean replied, putting a protective arm around his wife and steering her around a rowdy group of men who had spilled out of a pub, laughing and singing. It was a pleasantly warm summer’s evening and getting on past eleven. The shops were closed up, windows dark, but the city’s restaurants and bars were brightly lit and lively.
“That’s just it. Nan is terribly crabby when she’s sad. Oh, Sean, I just hated leaving her!” Catie exclaimed, once again fighting tears that had been a constant threat during the afternoon’s train journey. With each passing village, she felt as if she were being stolen further and further from family and home. They would be off to America in just two days, and the girl who was leaving Pemberley would never return. She knew that with certainty. Her brother’s children, Geoffrey and George and little Eliza Jane, would grow taller and eventually stop asking, “When is Auntie Catie coming home?” Pemberley would never be her home again. She belonged with Sean now, not there, not with them. I’ll be a visitor, she realized suddenly and inadvertently sighed.
Sean stopped and took her hands in his. “Look at me, lass.” She raised glistening eyes to his, hoping he wouldn’t see her emotion and praying he wouldn’t detect her ever-increasing panic. “I’ve pushed you; maybe this was a mistake.”
“No! I’m sad, yes, but I want to be here. I want to be with you.”
Sean smiled. “All right then, but stop being stubborn, and let me comfort you. It’s normal to be sad and maybe even a little frightened.” He ducked his head and whispered, “I’m a wee bit frightened meself.”
He chuckled at her surprise. “Aye. But we’ll take on this adventure like the others that will surely come our way.”
“Together,” he said then kissed her softly on the lips.
The next day was hectic with their preparations for leaving. Ben, as overly protective as ever, had telephoned no less than six times, asking if she’d remembered this or that and reminding her each time to ring him any time, day or night, if she needed anything. “Yes, Brother,” she assured him each time, smiling and shaking her head at Sean. But Catie couldn’t complain. Overall, Ben had handled circumstances better than she had anticipated, and she was glad for it.
By evening, Catie had nothing left to do but pen a few final thank-you letters. She sat in the townhome’s front lounge writing industriously as her husband, just as industriously, disassembled the room, tossing pillows and blankets onto the floor in front of the fireplace.
Leena, the Darcys’ London housekeeper, stepped inside the opened door and looked strangely at Miss Darcy’s new husband. Catie lifted her head and, after glancing at Sean as well, shrugged to Leena. “Shall I bring in your tea before I leave, Miss Dar—” She paused and looked at Sean once more. “Sorry, I meant to say, Mrs. Kelly.”
“It’s all right, Leena,” Catie assured her. “I’m still getting used to it myself. And no, don’t trouble yourself with the tea.”
“Yes, miss, madam,” Leena quickly corrected her error, her light-brown skin flushing. “Sorry again.”
“How are your own wedding plans coming, Leena?” Catie asked with interest.
“Oh.” Leena perked up instantly. “Cedric will be arriving from Canada in two months. We will marry in six.”
“I’m happy for you,” Catie said.
“Thank you, madam. My parents have chosen well, I think.” Leena smiled. “Will there be anything else before I leave this evening?”
“No.” Catie shook her head. “Thank you.”
“Well, goodnight then,” Leena said and left.
“Goodnight,” Sean and Catie replied in unison.
Sean looked at Catie. “Cedric?”
“Yes, Leena’s betrothed.”
“I gathered that, but he doesn’t sound very Indian.”
“Oh.” Catie smiled. “According to Leena, Cedric’s mother was born and brought up in England and prefers Western ways. She would have even liked for her son to marry a woman of his own choosing, but Cedric’s father wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Funny,” Sean said. “You don’t seem at all bothered by Leena’s arranged marriage.”
“Why should I be bothered by it?”
“Well, not only are you the perpetual romantic, but you most certainly like a cause. I would have thought you might have tried to dissuade Leena by now.”
“Leena’s family wishes for her to marry someone who shares their beliefs and traditions. Plus, her father has done well in this country. He just opened his second restaurant in Soho. It’s only natural that he would want to make sure that his daughter not marry beneath her.”
Sean stared at her for a moment then said, “Only natural?”
“For their culture, Sean,” Catie replied hastily and defensively, realizing he was taking umbrage at her remark.
He exhaled heavily, as if he might be preparing to argue her true meaning, but nodded instead.
“What are you doing there?” she asked, wanting desperately to change the subject. Her wealth and his lack thereof were not something that a good row could change, so they usually avoided the subject all together. Probably not the best-laid plan, but it worked…for now.
“Making us a pallet on the floor. What are you doing there?” His expression lightened as he got up and came over to her, and Catie was relieved to see it.
“I’m writing out thank-you notes for our wedding gifts. Nan and Sarah have threatened me with my life if I don’t get them posted before we leave for America.”
Sean pulled her hair back and softly kissed her neck. “Finish them later,” he whispered against her skin.
“Look, Sean.” She picked up the card in front of her. “Maggie Reid, remember her? She used to work at Pemberley.”
“Aye, sure, Maggie Reid,” he responded absently as his lips continued exploring her neck.
“She’s a nurse now at Royal Edinburgh. Look at the lovely card she sent us.”
“Yeah, lovely.” He stopped long enough to peek at the card she was holding. “Now, put this stuff away, mo chailín.”
Arching her brows at him, she scolded, “According to Rose, Mr. Kelly, Debrett’s says, ‘a thank you letter is rather like a flower; it becomes less attractive the longer it is left.’”
Sean took the pen from her hand. “I don’t give a damn about Debrett’s. Your husband requires your attentions at the moment.”
His words made Catie’s stomach pool. They had been married for two full days, but Sean had only made love to her once. His new wife was beginning to wonder, worry even.
“Come.” He took her hand and led her across the room.
Early in their relationship, she and Sean had decided to abstain until their wedding night. A decision not completely without its religious merits, the couple had been raised by sisters, devout Anglicans, who went to great lengths to instill Christian values into the minds and hearts of their children. But for Catie, it was more than Rose’s cautious speeches on virtue and chastity. She wanted her and Sean’s first time together to mean something, to mark their marriage with an occasion more profound and intimate than a rehearsed ceremony of vows in front of a church full of people. Giving Sean her virginity would be special, divine, between man and wife, a night they would always remember.
In the end, however, the moment had failed to live-up to Catie’s expectations. She recalled the many nights they had gone to separate rooms boiling over with both desire and frustration. Had they let pass that golden moment to make love passionately and without abandon? Have we waited too long? she wondered. Should they have gotten this thing out of the way sooner—when they both wanted it so ardently? These thoughts—or doubts rather—sat heavily in her mind as Sean led her to the pallet he’d made. He smiled at her, and she moved to make herself comfortable on the floor. “Not yet, my love.” He stopped her in a soft but commanding voice.
Catie remained standing and watched as he went around the room lighting candles and switching off lights. He finished by lighting the gas fireplace then came back to her. The flame from the fireplace flickered at his side, casting half of his face in shadow. His usual bright blue eyes were narrowed and examining her, giving him a dark, menacing appearance. The vision made Catie’s breath catch. She had always thought Sean Kelly the most handsome man she had ever set her eyes on, but never had he looked more so than at that moment—her own wicked gypsy demon sent from hell to claim and devour her.
He finally spoke in a thick, raspy brogue. “I’m going to undress you now, Catie Kelly, and touch you and explore every wee inch of you.” He paused, and she visibly saw him swallow. “Aye?”
She stared up at him with genuine innocence but couldn’t suppress the desire that hammered in her heart. She nodded.
He nodded back and slowly, almost clumsily, reached for her top button. When his fingers began to work more nimbly, making short work of her blouse, the pool in Catie’s stomach flipped, and alarm bells went off in her head. She wanted this, had fantasized about it many times, but she still possessed a virgin’s modesty and discomfort. “Sean,” she said, her tone a pleading one, “couldn’t we blow out a few candles?”
“It’s all right, lass,” he whispered insistently. “I’m your husband. You’re my wife.” Both his words and his gaze bore an intensity she couldn’t refuse. She nodded again, granting him permission to continue.
Her pulse racing, Catie lifted her arms so he could remove her blouse, and instantly a dawn of insecurity washed a lovely pink blush over her fair skin.
Sean smiled at her discomfort and pressed his lips against the bone in her shoulder, making gooseflesh ripple and spread down her naked arms. “Don’t be embarrassed, darlin’,” he said softly. He knew she felt exposed and longed to steal away under the blankets on the floor, but he’d be damned before he would give in to her or feel sorry for her. She wanted him—not his pity. Motherless at birth and orphaned completely at the tender age of eight by the death of her father, Catie abhorred pity of any kind. She wanted him to push her to her limits and beyond. That was why this woman married him, and he knew she would accept no less.
When he had finished, she stood naked before him, her clothes in a small pile on a nearby chair. Self-conscious, Catie lowered her eyes and clasped her hands in a vain attempt for cover. “No,” he breathed and gently pulled them apart. Then, with a marked deliberateness, he slowly traced his fingers over her torso and limbs. It was as if he were in a museum, admiring the cool, clean lines of a statue. Other than the occasional sharp intake when his exploration reached a spot of blissful discomfort, her breath was deep and even. He made his way around the back of her. He caressed and patted her bottom approvingly then slowly came back to her front.
“Are you pleased with me, Sean?” she asked so quietly he barely heard her, her eyes finally lifting to meet his.
Great God, he thought, looking at her. Had this woman never looked at herself in a mirror? There wasn’t a flaw on her—the delicate flair of her hips, the swell of her bosom, and the curve of her bottom. Without answering, he lifted her in his arms and laid her gently on the makeshift bed, greatly enjoying the play of the flames on her belly and breast. He removed his shirt and leaned over top of her. He kissed her mouth at length then said, “You, Mrs. Kelly, are a lovely, perfect creature. And I am most definitely pleased.”