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THE STRANGER I MARRIED
By SYLVIA DAY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Sylvia Day
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFour years later
"His Lordship is at home, my lady."
For a great many women such a statement was a common utterance and nothing of note, but for Isabel, Lady Grayson, it was so rarely heard, she could not remember the last time her butler had said the same to her.
She paused in the foyer, tugging off her gloves before handing them to the waiting footman. She took her time with the task, taking the extra brief moments to collect herself, and ascertain that her racing heart was not outwardly visible.
Grayson had returned.
Isabel could not help but wonder why. He'd rejected every missive she sent to his steward, and had sent none to her. Having read the dowager's letter, she knew what had broken him that day he'd left both London and her. She could imagine his pain, having seen his initial excitement and subsequent pride at becoming a father. As his friend, she wished Gray had allowed her to provide him more than just that one hour of comfort, but he'd turned away from her, and years had passed.
She smoothed her muslin skirts, and touched a hand to her upswept hair. When she caught herself checking her appearance, Isabel stopped with a muttered curse. This was Gray. He would not care how she looked. "The study?"
"Yes, my lady."
The scene of that day.
She nodded, and squared her shoulders, shoring up her nerve. As ready as shewould ever be, Isabel passed the curving staircase and turned into the first open door on the right. Despite her mental and physical preparations, the sight of her husband's back struck her like a physical blow. He stood silhouetted in the window, appearing taller and definitely broader. His powerful torso tapered to a trim waist, beautifully curved ass, and long, muscular legs. Framed by the dark green velvet curtains, the perfect symmetry of his form stole her breath.
But there was a somber, oppressive air that surrounded him that was so distant from the carefree man she remembered. It forced her to take another deep breath before opening her mouth to speak.
As if he felt her presence, Gray turned before she managed a word. Her throat closed tight as a fist.
He was not at all the man she had married.
They stared at each other, both held motionless in the pregnant pause. Only a few years, and yet it seemed a lifetime had passed. Grayson was no longer a boy, not by any stretch of the imagination. His face had lost that faint remnant of youth, and time had etched its passing in the lines that bracketed his mouth and eyes. Not happy lines, she could see. Frown lines, lines of sorrow. The brilliant blue of his irises that had caused many women to fall in love with him were now a deeper, darker shade. They no longer smiled, and appeared to have seen far more than possible in only a four year span.
She raised a hand to her bodice, dismayed by the rapid lift and fall of her chest.
Gray had been beautiful before. Now, there were no words to describe him. She forced her breathing to slow, and fought off a sudden, desperate flare of panic. She had known how to handle the boy, but this ... this man was not tamable. Had she met him anew, she would know to stay far away.
Even his voice had changed. It was deeper now, slightly raspy.
Isabel had no notion of what to say to him.
"You have not changed at all," he murmured, striding toward her. The previous cockiness of his bearing was gone, replaced by the type of confidence one gained from walking through hell and surviving it.
Sucking in a deep breath, she was inundated with the familiar scent of him. A little spicier, perhaps, but he smelled like Gray, nevertheless. Staring up at his impassive face, she could do no more than shrug helplessly.
"I should have written," he said.
"Yes, you should have," she agreed. "Not just to warn me of your intent to visit, but before, if only to say that you were well. I have been worried about you, Gray."
He gestured with his hand toward a nearby chair, and she sank into it gratefully. As he moved to the settee across from her, Isabel noted his quaint garb. While he wore trousers with jacket and waistcoat, the garments were plain, and of common materials. Whatever he had been doing these last years, it apparently had not required the latest fashions.
"I apologize for your worry." One side of his mouth curved upward in a ghost of his former smile. "But I could not tell you I was well, when I was far from it. I could not bear to look at letters, Pel. It was not because they were from you. For years I avoided any sight of correspondence. But now ..." He paused, and his jaw tightened, as if with determination. "I am not visiting."
"Oh?" Her stomach fluttered. Their camaraderie was gone. Instead of the easy comfort she had once enjoyed with him, she now felt decidedly nervous.
"I have come here to live. If I can remember how to do that."
He shook his head, his slightly-longer-than-fashionable locks drifting about his neck. "No pity, Isabel. I do not deserve it. What's more, I don't want it."
"What do you want?"
His met her gaze directly. "I want many things, but mostly I want companionship. And I want to be worthy of it."
"Worthy?" She frowned.
"I was a dreadful friend, as are most selfish people."
Isabel stared down at her hands and noted her gold wedding band-a symbol of her lifelong commitment to a veritable stranger. "Where have you been, Gray?"
So he was not going to tell her. "Very well, then. What do you want from me?" She lifted her chin. "What service can I provide?"
"First, I will need to be made presentable." Gray waved a careless hand down the length of his body. "Then I will need to hear the latest on dit. I have read the papers, but you and I both know that gossip is rarely the truth. Most importantly, I will require your escort."
"I am not certain how much assistance I can offer you, Gray," she said honestly.
"I am aware." He stood and moved toward her. "The gossips have been unkind to you in my absence, which is why I have returned. How responsible can I be, truly, if I cannot take care of my own wife?" He dropped to a crouch beside her. "It is a great deal to ask of you, Pel, I know. It was not what you agreed to when we made our bargain. But things have changed."
"You have changed."
"God, I can only hope that's true."
Gray caught up her hands, and she felt calluses against her fingertips. She looked down, and saw his skin dark from the sun and reddened from work. Next to her smaller, paler ones, the contrast was like night to day.
He gave a gentle squeeze. Isabel lifted her gaze, and was stunned again by the comeliness of his features.
"I will not coerce you, Pel. If you wish to live your life as you have been, I will respect that." That faint hint of his remembered smile shined through again. "But I am not above begging, I warn you. I owe you much, and I am quite determined."
It was that brief glimpse of the old Gray that soothed her. Yes, the outer shell had changed, perhaps even much of the interior, but there was still some of the scapegrace charmer she knew in there. For the moment, it was enough.
Isabel smiled back, and his relief was tangible. "I will cancel my engagements for this evening and we can strategize."
Grayson shook his head. "I need to gather my bearings, and familiarize myself with being home again. Enjoy yourself tonight. You shall be burdened with me soon enough."
"Perhaps you would agree to have tea with me, in an hour or so?" Maybe then she could compel him to tell her about his absence.
"I would enjoy that."
She stood, and he rose with her.
Heavens, he was tall. Had he always been? She could not recall. Pushing aside her surprise, Isabel turned toward the door, and found one hand still caught in his.
Gray released it with a sheepish shrug. "See you in an hour, Pel."
Gerard waited until Isabel departed the room before sinking onto the settee with a groan. During his absence, insomnia had been a recurring torment. Needing physical exhaustion to sleep, he'd worked the fields of his many properties and in doing so he had become accustomed to muscle aches and pains. Never had his body hurt in quite the manner it did now. He hadn't realized how tense he was until he was alone and the seductive floral fragrance that was his wife's alone had dissipated.
Had Isabel always been so beautiful? He could not remember. Certainly he had used the word "beautiful" to describe her in his thoughts, but the reality was beyond what the mere utterance could convey. Her hair had more fire, her eyes more sparkle, her skin more glow than he had remembered.
Over the last few years he had said "my wife" hundreds of times as he paid her accounts and handled other matters relating to her. However, until today, he had never actually put the appellation together with the face and body of Isabel Grayson.
Gerard ran a hand through his hair, and wondered at his sanity when he'd made this marriage bargain with her. When Pel had walked into the room, all the oxygen had left. How had he never noted that corollary before? He had not lied when he said she looked the same. But for the first time, he saw her. Truly saw her. Then again, during the last two years, he had begun to see a great many things he had been blind to before.
Like this room.
He glanced around and grimaced. Dark green with dark walnut paneling. What in hell had he been thinking? A man could not peruse accounts properly in this gloomy place. And reading was out of the question.
Who has time to read when there are drinks to be had, and women to woo?
The words of his youth came back to taunt him.
Rising to his feet, Gerard walked to the bookshelves and withdrew random volumes. Every one he opened creaked in protest at the bending of its bindings. None of them had ever been read.
What kind of man surrounded himself with beauty and life, and then never spared a moment to appreciate any of it?
Filled with self-disgust, he sat at his desk and began a list of things he wanted changed. Before long he had filled several sheets.
He lifted his head to see the lackey in the doorway. "Yes?"
"Her ladyship inquired after you. She wishes to know if you have decided against tea?"
Gerard glanced at the clock in surprise, and then pushed away from the desk and stood. "The dining room, or the parlor?"
"Her ladyship's boudoir, my lord."
Every muscle tensed again. How had he forgotten that, too? He had enjoyed sitting in that bastion of femininity and watching her prepare for her evenings out. As he climbed the stairs, he thought back on what time they'd spent together and admitted it had been filled with very little meaningful discourse. But he knew he had liked her, and that she had been a confidant to him.
He needed a friend now, since he no longer had any. He determined that he would rekindle the friendship he had once enjoyed with his wife, and with that expectation in mind, he lifted his hand and knocked on her door.
Isabel took a deep breath at the sound of the soft knock, and then called out permission to enter. Gray came in, pausing on the threshold, a telling moment of hesitation she had not seen from him before. Lord Grayson never waited. He leapt into action the moment he thought of something, which is how he often landed into mischief.
He stared at her, long and hard. Enough to make her regret the decision to receive him in her dressing gown. She had debated internally for almost half an hour, and in the end had decided to act as much as possible like she had before. Surely, the sooner they settled into their usual routine, the more comfortable they both would be.
"I believe the water is most likely cold by now," she murmured, turning away from the gilded vanity to sit on the nearby chaise. "But then I was always the one who drank tea."
"I preferred brandy."
He closed the door, giving her a brief moment to savor the sound of his voice. Why she should notice its slight rasp now, when she hadn't before, puzzled her.
"I have it here." She gestured toward the low table where a china tea set, brandy decanter, and goblet waited.
Gray's mouth widened in a slow smile. "You are always thinking of me. Thank you." He looked around. "I am pleased to find the space exactly as I remember it. With the walls and ceiling draped with white satin, I have always felt like I am standing in a tent when I am in here."
"That was the effect I wanted," she said, relaxing into the low back and curling her legs next to her.
"Is that so?"
He sat across from her, tossing his arm across the back of the settee. Isabel could not help but remember how he used to do the same to her shoulders. At that time, she had thought nothing of it. That version of Grayson had merely been exuberant.
He also hadn't been quite so large.
"Why a tent, Pel?"
"You have no notion of how long I've waited for you to ask that," she admitted with a soft chuckle.
"Why didn't I ask before?"
"We did not talk about such things."
"No?" His eyes laughed at her. "What did we talk about then?"
She moved to pour him a brandy, but he shook his head. "Why, we talked about you, Gray."
"Me?" he asked with raised brows. "Surely, not all the time."
"Nearly all the time."
"And when we weren't talking about me?"
"Well, then we were talking about your inamoratas."
Gray grimaced, and she laughed, remembering how much fun she used to have in simple discourse with him. Then she noted how he looked at her, as if he could not quite put his finger on something about her. Her laughter faded away.
"How insufferable I was, Isabel. How did you ever tolerate me?"
"I quite liked you," she said honestly. "There never was any guessing with you. You always said exactly what you meant."
He looked past her shoulder. "You still hang Pelham's portrait," he mused. Gray returned his gaze to hers. "Did you love him so very much?"
Isabel turned, and looked at the painting behind her. She tried, truly tried to dredge up some remnant of the love she had once felt for him, but her bitter resentment was too deep. She could not reach below it. "I did. I cannot remember the feeling now, but once I loved him desperately."
"Is that why you avoid commitment, Pel?"
She looked back at him with her lips pursed. "You and I did not discuss personal things either."
Gray's arm left the back of the chair and he leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. "Could we not be better friends now, than we were then?"
"I am not sure that would be wise," she murmured, once again glancing at her wedding band.
Isabel rose and stood at the window, needing to put distance between herself and his new intensity.
"Why not?" he asked again, following her. "Do you have other, closer friends who you share things with?"
He set his hands atop her shoulders, and it took only a moment for his touch to heat her skin, and his scent to reach her nostrils. When next he spoke, his voice came close to her ear. "Is it too much to ask that you add your husband to your list of trusted friends?"
"Gray," she breathed, her heart racing with her distress. Her restless fingers brushed the satin billowing beside the window frame. "I do not have friends such as you describe. And you say the word 'husband' with an import we never gave to it."
"How about your lover, then?" he pressed. "Does he hear your thoughts?"
Isabel attempted to pull away, but he held her fast.
"Why a tent, Pel? Can you tell me that, at least?"
She shivered at the feel of his exhale against her nape. "I like to imagine it is a part of a caravan."
"A fantasy?" Gray's large hands slid down her arms. "Is there a sheik who occupies this fantasy? Does he ravish you?"
"My lord!" she protested, thoroughly alarmed by the way her skin was prickling with sensual awareness. There was no way to ignore the hard male body that bracketed hers.
"What do you want, Gray?" she asked, her mouth dry. "Have you suddenly decided to change the rules?"
Excerpted from THE STRANGER I MARRIED by SYLVIA DAY Copyright © 2007 by Sylvia Day . Excerpted by permission.
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