I know, I know, I'm the worst. I've been sitting on this chapter for awhile. You see, the rest of the story is sketched out and I have a lot of future scenes written, as I get inspiration... it's fitting them into a larger narrative that can be a challenge and deciding what needs to be here and what doesn't. There are a lot of vignettes that simply don't fit within a larger story line and, like a movie producer, I may put them together but end up canning them in the end.
I rewrote this a time or two... I feel comfortable calling this a bold chapter and those can be scary to post. Harriet appears in a new light here than in previous chapters. The banter in the second section is audacious and I actually cut it in my draft and kept writing, but I kept coming back to the concept of the conversation they have. I'll leave my commentary there, but I hope you like it.
Anyway, ya'll are lovely, and I hope you like this.
Before she had even come fully into consciousness, her mind perceived the familiar, warm, arousing scent of him, and her body acknowledged his presence beneath and around her as she lay partway atop him, one foot between his, her face nestled against his neck where she liked it best, an arm cast across him in a natural embrace that he returned with a hand resting on her lower back and another on her upper arm. She came slowly to consciousness, her eyes still closed so she could remain in her favorite spot, holding onto strands of sleep even as her foot came to life and began to flirt with one of his, her toes grazing along the top of his foot. He hummed a bit in recognition of this movement, his fingers stirring against the small of her back, gently stroking her skin. He, who woke easier than she, was the first to break the silence with any voluntary sound as he rumbled, "Good morning," in that sonorous timbre she knew so well.
Harriet smiled against his neck, her lips puckering in a kiss against his skin before she returned the greeting. Her fingers resting near the base of his rib cage began to stroke the skin she found there, without any reason other than she adored every inch of this man, and though she would feel silly telling him that in so many words, she tried to show it with her casual caresses and frequent affections.
Somehow, he roused her into conversation, witty and mirthful banter about nothing at all, that drew her from his neck to instead prop herself upon his chest. One of his hands combed gently through her hair while the other grazed her arm. He was gazing at her with bewitchment… and indeed, she knew she was staring back at him with endless affection of her own. Something he said made her giggle, and she buried her face against his chest, then peeked out at him after a moment to see him smiling at her, one of those rare but affectionate smiles that few others had the opportunity to see.
"You're irresistible, Hattie," he told her, his voice still possessing that morning hoarseness her voice had already lost.
She blushed with the response that came to mind, but finding herself so perfectly comfortable with him, she playfully challenged him anyway, the vaguest of smiles on her lips, "Then why are you still lying there?"
He chuckled at that and effortlessly redressed her observation of his inconsistency between word and deed, rolling atop her and bringing his lips to hers. His kiss was consuming and stirring, and she lost herself in it, able to feel his steady desire for her and only then fully realizing they were completely naked. Her body shifted beneath him, ready to be one with him, when he unexpectedly pulled back to gaze at her, his expression revealing a confluence of endless admiration and raw desire that felt both new and familiar, and her stomach fluttered in response. She brushed an affectionate hand through the hair on the side of his head, her other hand stroking the slight muscles of his upper arm, and he smiled a little at her, before kissing her again as he made them one. She moaned into his mouth, her back arching off the mattress, and he groaned in response, both lost in the breathtaking pleasure of their closeness….
With a gasp, the Duchess awoke, startled and alone, in the dark bedchamber she resided in at her sister's. Feeling exposed despite her solitude, she rolled onto her stomach as though that would help, only for the imagined feeling of her husband's body beneath hers to return to her, and she quickly abandoned the bed for an armchair by the fireplace, hastily putting on her robe as she sought to get away from her bed. She settled in the old-fashioned gilded chair with its plush embroidered cushions that matched the heavy tapestries that hung on the walls, pulling her feet into the chair with her. Holding herself now, she felt herself shaking a little, shocked by her dream. Harriet rarely experienced disturbances of any kind in her sleep, and this was undoubtedly the most vivid dream she had ever had.
She was not as ignorant as she had once been about marital relations. As a married woman, she knew the mechanics from her limited experience, of course, but she was also privy to greater information from women in her confidence than she had been as an unmarried woman. Even if she had not discussed the matter since the early days of her marriage, even with the women she trusted most, she had no doubt they knew the gossip of her marriage, and yet some societal custom that struck her as odd allowed her married friends to tell her things they would never have confided before her marriage. She knew now, from those conversations and the occasional scandalous book that found its way into her hands now that no one oversaw what she read, that intimacy could be pleasurable. It was a notion that perplexed her, for she had experienced the opposite of pleasure the only time she had been with her husband, though Lady Mary had advised her, before Harriet had realized her husband would not be returning to her bed, that the discomfort would go away in time and that if she remained amiable and disposed, she might with a bit of luck eventually find some sort of enjoyment in the experience.
She sucked her breath in quickly, though, to compare that advice with her dream. Whatever her mind had imagined without her permission had been something quite different than anything she had read or been told. There had been a comfort and an intimacy between them that was something different entirely from anything from which she could draw reference. She had wanted to be with him; she had not been merely accommodating his needs, a consenting body for his pleasure as she had been long been told wives were meant to be and nothing more, nor did it seem they were coupling for any purpose other than their own enjoyment of one another. Her emotions had felt so real and overpowering….
None of her imaginings were real, she knew, and the emotions she had felt therefore were based in fantasy, she reasoned. The man she had been with may have resembled her husband and possessed a great many of his traits, but he was a mere product of her mind's fancy. She was, she knew she could no longer deny to herself, attracted to her husband in some sense of the word, but she did not think much of that reality. If anything, perhaps it would make it easier for her to endure their pragmatic sanction, should he choose to act within the terms of her decree. It mattered little otherwise.
Having sufficiently calmed herself, she returned to her bed. As she lay there trying to persuade her body to find rest again, a feeling of loneliness crept into her stomach. She did not approve of the feeling so foreign and unbidden, but she gave into it, dragging a pillow by her side and pretending it was a bedfellow.
Margaret was uncommonly pensive. She had greeted him simply, threaded her arm through his, and accompanied him to the barn and to the park with no further conversation. With anyone but Margaret, he would not have given the silence any thought, likely he would have even been grateful for the silence. With his sister, though, it was another matter. Margaret was always loquacious, especially with him, and at least normally she kept nothing from him.
It remained a great mystery to him—one he felt uncomfortable prying into, supposing perhaps she simply had woken up in an odd mood—until he spotted Wiltshire and his sisters riding down a perpendicular riding path. Margaret's eyes met those of her beau, and he heard her exhale. Wiltshire pulled up his horse, opened his mouth as though he wanted to call out to her, when she ripped her eyes away so forcefully the curls at the back of her wig swayed noticeably. Trying to make sense of what he'd just witnessed, Margaret now playing with Arthur's mane, he looked back at Wiltshire, who had a stark, pained look on his face until one of his sisters distracted him. Somerset decided to do the same: "No invitation to ride with Wiltshire today?" he asked, perturbed with himself to notice that he sounded far less sympathetic than he had intended.
She was too distracted to notice. With a heavy sigh, she looked at him mournfully, "There was an invitation, but I declined."
His eyebrows lifted, but he could not think of a sensible reply, and she was not forthcoming. He was not used to her being cagey, and he wondered what could cause this new state of affairs. Was Margaret coming to a point where she could no longer discuss her life frankly with him? The thought depressed him, for though he was obliged to keep some sensitive matters from her for propriety's sake and knew eventually she would be bound by circumstances of her own to avoid some topics, he otherwise felt they could talk about everything. Then it occurred to him that perhaps it were not such a terrible new order emerging, but merely that she did not know how to talk about what she felt. Passion was odd that way. When it came to Harriet, he had never been able to express himself sensibly to her or anyone else, and so he rarely said anything at all. Powerful emotion silenced him, and though it had never occurred to him before, it seemed reasonable to suppose Margaret suffered from the same affliction despite her more vocal nature. He knew she adored Wiltshire, perhaps even loved him; a blind man could see that. It seemed wrong to let her suffer, even if her suffering was by choice.
"Care to unburden yourself?" he prompted after several minutes, unable to think of any better way to get to the bottom of whatever it was he had just witnessed. If nothing else, it would make it obvious he cared to know what she was feeling.
She sighed heavily again, and it struck Somerset that it was a genuine sigh revealing actual distress, not merely one meant for dramatic effect. "How long did you know Harriet before you knew you wanted to marry her?" she asked, catching him off guard.
He did not like that she was using his relationship as an example of any normal sort of courtship, and so he tried to dismiss her question out of hand by replying in a rather paternal tone, "Marriage is a complicated matter, Margaret, and not an institution to rush into." It was rare Margaret could relay all her sentiments with only a look, not as practiced in the art of avoiding speech as he was, but she gave him a look that at once demanded a response to her actual question and at the same time revealed that whatever Wiltshire had done was causing her great misery. He resolved, then, to be honest with her to the greatest extent that he could, in the interest of perhaps easing her mind. "The length of a season. I met her in December and asked for her hand in June. We married in September." He let his words linger for a moment before adding, "My situation was different. Lord Wiltshire does not have the same pressures upon him."
Margaret looked at him as though he had just betrayed her, but the question she voiced was not what he had anticipated: "You expect me to believe you did not love Harriet when you married her? That you married her only for practicality?" Her voice was demanding, and though he suspected she was primarily applying her own upset with her situation to the long ago matter of his courtship with Harriet, he decided not to call her on it.
He sighed, "I said nothing of the kind. I loved her—" he paused and mentally corrected himself that he had likely only really lusted after her. The thought of anyone lusting after his sister made him grimace slightly, but he pushed the thought away, reminding himself that she was no longer a child, and it was an inevitability. "I love her," he altered his tense after a few moments of his mind running away with him. This time he confessed with far greater emotion in his voice than when he spoke of the past, only confirming that what he had felt then had been very different from what he felt now. He had never thought of his feelings in these terms, and it discomposed him. "I mean only that love is emotional, marriage is practical," he said at length, feeling like a hypocrite. She looked at him again as though he were being disloyal to her for advocating anything less than a marriage based on feelings, though he reminded himself that for Margaret, who had been so fortunate as to fancy a man who was nearly her equal in social status and prospective fortune and to have him smitten with her in return, practical matters seemed of little significance. "I am not expressing myself well—" he stumbled out at last.
"No, you really are not," she interjected pertly, though he did not begrudge her it, knowing well the sort of foolishness romantic feeling could cause.
"What I mean to say is that Wiltshire has no practical impulse to marry. He seems very fond of you, but men rarely marry simply for affection, no matter how strong that affection may be," he stated.
Margaret now seemed a mix of disappointed and agitated. "Then what am I to do!?" she exclaimed.
He shrugged. "You could bide your time," he suggested, but she shot him a look that made it perfectly clear that waiting was not an option in her book. It never had been for him, either. Neither of them, nor Catherine, had wanted for anything as children. Even though the former Duke had not indulged Somerset to quite the same degree as he had his daughters, he still had never been taught to wait for anything he had wanted and certainly not how to deal with being told he could not have something prior to his marriage. It was all rather distasteful when he thought on it now, and he thought, should he ever have children, that he would greatly prefer if they had at least some notion of anticipation in their lives so it might spare them acquiring such a distasteful aspect to their personality that they would ultimately have to be broken of in adulthood when one's desires were no longer as simple as wanting a new firearm or pony. Margaret would have to learn on her own, though.
Somerset cleared his throat. "You will not like my advice, but I will give it bluntly with your consent," he said.
"Go on," she allowed.
"He has too much of you," he advised, trying to keep himself removed from the situation as best he could, for otherwise his advice would be clouded by his own very selfish desire to keep his sister from going far away, "You have given him your devotion without making him demand it of you. Make him demand it. Entertain other men until he does."
Margaret, easing out of her dramatics to consider his advice properly, seemed nonetheless distressed at this advice. "Would that not be somehow disingenuous?" she asked.
"The rules of fair play do not apply in matters of the heart," he returned unthinkingly, instantly ashamed of himself for imparting such a vile sentiment to his sister, one that had brought him significant misery, even if her situation was very different from his.
They fell into silence as she pondered the notion. "Brother," she caught his attention after a few minutes, "Was another man pursuing Harriet at the same time as you?"
Her question confused him: "Why do you ask?"
"Mere curiosity. You speak with such authority," she observed.
He thought about providing her with an answer that painted him in a very fine light but changed course upon further reflection. Margaret was old enough that he knew her affection for him would not be dashed with any accounts that were less that hagiographic. "Not precisely," he replied, "but I was selfish and could not bear the thought of her with a hypothetical other."
He half expected Margaret to make some indulgent comment about how Harriet surely wanted no one else, but instead, she replied, "I'm not sure I'd decry that as selfishness… rather natural as it were."
The Duke equivocated, "Perchance," before noting a familiar face across the way, "Say, is that Simon Maxwell?"
She looked at him uneasily, doubtless remembering the conversation they had had in which Somerset had reminded her that Maxwell, a younger son unlikely to inherit a title, was too beneath her to be worthy of pursuit, but then she nodded with diluted determination and steered Arthur off at a trot, calling to get the young man's attention. It seemed to the Duke that Mr. Maxwell's status, if Wiltshire were truly interested, would only smoke him out sooner at the indignity of it all. Somerset had enough pride that he knew how to use another's pride against them, and this seemed a worthy cause.
It had never occurred to Somerset that perhaps his feelings and actions toward Harriet were not entirely abominable. Margaret, admittedly, understood him better than most anyone, and yet she was also perhaps most prone to be disappointed in her brother when he did err. The night Harriet had rejected his comfort, that very first night of their marriage so long ago, as he had lain in his bed trying to make sense of what had happened, he had only been able to conclude that he was a loathsome monster, and he had carried that belief since, eventually trying to overcome it, but knowing all along what he was and what he, as a result, deserved: a wretched and desolate existence.
Harriet, it occurred to him, perhaps did not see things so differently from his sister, though she knew a side of him far more wicked than anything Margaret would ever know, and if she had reached such a conclusion, surely had come to it by a different path. It was clear, though, in her smile and in her interactions with him—and never more clear than when she had made clear her willingness to have a child with him—that he was no longer a villain in her eyes. The thought warmed him for he did not feel he deserved her forgiveness or her friendship, never mind her offer of salvation, and it spoke to him of a depth of character his wife possessed that had escaped his notice for as long as he had esteemed her and only increased his regard for this woman of whom he knew he was in no way worthy. The truth he had to acknowledge, though, if reluctantly, was that he had changed in the past three years. He was not truly the monster he had decided himself then to be, not now after years of endeavoring to be a better man, something he had strived for for a very particular reason: to be worthy of her and to atone for the wrong he had committed against her. Perhaps he deserved some measure of redemption.
Before he could devote much more energy to the thoughts that had consumed him since Margaret had left him to "pursue" poor Mr. Maxwell, he was called back to attention by Sampson tossing his head. He instinctively pressed a set of fingers into the reins to call the horse's attention back to his rider before realizing Sampson was responding to a small and flashy dapple grey pony joining them. He did not have to look to know that his new company was his wife, given no other female company would possibly join him, but he did nonetheless to take her in as she greeted him, "Good morning," her smile not as bright as normal, her eyes tired. He noted mentally with some amusement that they had managed to accidentally match one another, she in the gold-trimmed blue costume that was his favourite of hers and he in his navy coat.
He offered a wry look as he returned, "Duchess… I am not accustomed to seeing you so low." Indeed, he had decided, she was undoubtedly out of sorts, and he imagined she was enduring the small pony out of desperation to escape her sister's house and reap at least some of the benefits of equestrianism.
She smiled appreciatively as his wit, "Yes, well, Humdrum here was my best option to get out for a bit this morning."
"If I had known you wanted to ride this morning I would have brought over Sapphira."
She shook her head and offered a grateful smile, "My decision was entirely impulsive."
He nodded and they rode in silence for a few paces before he looked up with a quizzical expression, "Humdrum… his name is actually Humdrum?"
She laughed brightly and explained, "My sister never cared for horsemanship. I would imagine she thought the name a compliment. Anyway," she added with a playful snigger, "he is no worse than that dreadful pony you gifted me upon our marriage."
"Are you still holding that against me?" he asked with mock offense.
"Only in part," she confessed. "Sapphira mostly made up for that wrong. You had your reasons, though, I know."
He only nodded in response to her comment, but Harriet nonetheless carried on, much to his surprise, "I suppose were I ever to find myself at such a risk again, we had best put Sapphira up for brood, as well. Perhaps we could put her to Sampson."
He had to clear his throat, which felt tight to hear her speak so practically on the matter, despite the fact this was the first time he had seen her since she had made her proposal, a fortnight ago. His avoidance of her had been, at least in part, by design. He still did not know how he felt about the idea… did her willingness to make the offer change anything about how he felt about the concept? He still was not sure and would not give an answer until he felt certain such an arrangement would not destroy their carefully constructed friendship. His greatest fears remained intact: that his need for her was too great and surely unmatched and that he would revolt her still when it came time to do what they must.
"Perhaps," he allowed at last, hoping she thought his silence was brought on merely by him thinking of the benefits such a coupling might bestow upon his stables, even as their conversation was beginning to feel like it was not really about horses as he added, "Of course, mares can be particular about stallions. If she does not approve of him the covering would be in vain."
"There would be only one way to find out," she responded pragmatically.
"Yes," he agreed, "but stallions are much less confident than one might expect. One poor coupling early in their careers can scar them profoundly." Though anyone experienced in husbandry would concur with his statement, he knew he was not really talking about the horse beneath him.
He suspected now that neither was she as she responded, her voice gentle and low, "Surely if he succeeded on the second try, that would restore his confidence all-around."
He turned a deep shade of red and, making a show as though he was simply bothered by the increasingly warm spring weather, transferred the reins to one hand as he undid the buttons on his coat. Feeling barely composed, he responded, trying further to make it seem as though he thought little of her words, "You'd have to ask the horse. I suspect they're all a bit different."
She smirked a little, and he knew he had failed in his attempt to seem unaffected by their conversation, though he wondered if their repartee bordered on vulgar for him alone. "You overestimate my talents, Sir," she remarked, her voice flirtatious now, "I thought an expert in husbandry such as yourself a decent second choice for a consultation."
The double-entendre was not lost on him, and, pulling himself from his embarrassment, he returned dryly, "And now you vastly overestimate mine." He should like to think himself a good husbandman, but a good husband was a great deal more elusive a title. Nonetheless, he knew his wife was too gracious to make such a jest contemptuously, and her comment made him wonder if she was trying to relay a compliment or if he was reading far too much into her words. He thought to push the matter, but, lacking courage, asked instead, "Say, does that pony canter?"
The answer to his question was, in fact, a no. With a great deal of effort, Harriet managed only a handful of cantering strides out of the pony, but their attempts inspired a great deal of mirth between them, before, giving up on a more spirited ride, they resigned to a slower pace. Their conversation took a more decidedly serious turn as she welcomed him to confide in her as to his frustrations with this political matter or that, and she tentatively offered her advice, which he had grown in recent months increasingly to appreciate. Eventually, the hour growing late for riding, Margaret rejoined him, somewhat brightened to see Harriet and promising to call upon her sister-in-law soon, and Harriet bid them adieu. As he rode home with Margaret, nodding along to her chatter, he had a brief and sudden thought that his conversations with Margaret were no longer as supremely fulfilling as they had once been, by no fault of her own. Rather, in Harriet he had somehow found a confidant well-matched in interests and values with whom he could discuss some of his most preoccupying concerns that Margaret, still a gay girl of only twenty, as yet lacked the substance to care much for some of those matters most on the mind of a man with obligations the like of his. His conversations with Harriet were an aspect of his life he had not known he wanted until he now found himself quite reliant on her thoughtful consideration and perspective. He marveled briefly over the thought, before reengaging with his sister, who he gathered had not gotten very far in her flirtation with Mr. Maxwell as her report of her conversation consisted almost exclusively of gossip.
Fun fact, their conversation about horse breeding was inspired by my MA thesis on 18th-century horse-breeding practices. Their conversation reflects actual contemporary beliefs about horse breeding. Whoever said historical fiction wasn't educational? ;)