To start the story at the beginning, click here for the prologue.
Iona read the first sentence of her book again. She’d been sitting on the riverbank for over an hour, but she just couldn’t get her mind to focus. For the thousandth time, she berated herself for being so foolish and impetuous. What had she been thinking jumping out of the carriage after someone she’d just met? And someone who had stolen all her jewels at that! He clearly was no paragon of virtue. The Highwayman must have something going on with that Gypsy girl. There’s no way he would ever be interested in Iona when he could have someone as exciting and beautiful as that.
She really should have thought of an explanation for her being alone in their village before getting there. But Iona had managed to fake her way through by telling the townspeople a story where her carriage had been stopped by a desperate outlaw, separating her from her dearly loved father in the process, and then getting hopelessly lost in the forest. It was mostly true, anyway.
The mayor of the village had been kind enough to invite her into his home, and Iona had enjoyed getting to know his daughter, a flighty little thing. He had sent word to Dublin about her whereabouts and she expected her father would arrive any day to spirit her back into the life she had tried to escape.
Iona pulled her knees up to her chest. It just wasn’t fair. She was young and had so much life ahead of her. Lord Covington made her skin crawl, and she was going to have to live with him for the rest of her life. Or, at least for the rest of his life, and his family was known for their longevity.
Living with him wouldn’t be so bad, she supposed. If she were going to live a life where he’d have his wing and she’d have her wing, and they only saw each other at breakfast and dinner functions… This, she could have lived with. But she’d seen the way he looked at her, the way his eyes had roved over the bodice of her dress when he had come to sign the paperwork with her father, the way his old wrinkly hands had lingered far too long at her shoulder and back.
Iona shuddered at the memory and the knowledge that he would expect so much more from her than a pretty face at his breakfast table. Suddenly, it became too much. She buried her face into her skirts and began to cry. How could she endure this? How could her father ask her to endure this?
It was as if every dream she’d ever had was slipping through her fingers and there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it. The handsome beau? Gone. The dream of a husband who shared her passions and her loves? Gone. The dream of love and romance? Gone. Instead, she was being asked, nay, forced, to prostitute herself for her father’s ambitions. Her sobs began to come harder as she grieved for everything she would be losing once her father came and forced her to say “I do.”
Iona was surprised when she felt a warm weight slide over her shoulders. She looked up through her tears to see a handsome man leaning over her. It was his jacket that she found herself wrapped in. He was tall and slender, dressed in a clean white shirt. His blue eyes looked down on her, his eyebrows furrowed together in concern. “Are you alright, Miss?” came the question from his lips.
She shook her head, unable to speak through her tears that wouldn’t stop. The man sat next to her on the riverbank and patted her on the back. “Cry yourself out, then. I hear that can help.” With this, she buried her face into his shirt and did just as he suggested. It wasn’t ladylike or polite or anything that her mother would have approved of, sniffling into the chest of this man she didn’t know. But, he felt warm and safe… and her mother wasn’t here.
As her sobs began to subside, she noticed that he was softly stroking her hair and whispering, “Shhh… it’s alright” into her dark curls. It had been a long time since she’d felt so taken care of. “Oh,” she murmured, as she pulled away from him. “I’ve gotten your shirt terribly wet. I’m sorry.”
“It’s no trouble,” he reassured her with a smile. “I’ve got a couple more at home, I imagine. You’re the mystery lady everyone in town is talking about, aren’t you? What’s your name? I’m Philip.”
“It’s Iona. It’s nice to meet you, Philip. Although I suppose I’m not at my best today, am I?”
He laughed. “What’s troubling you? I heard that your father was coming soon to fetch you. I’d think you’d be delighted to rejoin your family.”
Iona shook her head. “It’s not my father. It’s-- My wedding is in two days.”
Philip raised an eyebrow. “Oh well, congratulations are in order, it seems. Who’s the lucky groom?”
“Do you know Lord Covington?”
He grimaced with distaste. “Lord Cov--? Aye, I’m familiar with him. He has a terrible reputation for luring young g—.” He broke off awkwardly.
Iona sighed. “So you see, then.”
Philip patted her hand with sympathy. “I do. I’m sorry.” He searched his mind, looking for something to lighten the mood when his eyes lighted on the book Iona had discarded. “You read? What do you have there?” She passed the book into his hands and he opened the cover to peer inside. “Oh, I’ve read this one.
Have you gotten to the part where Mr. Donald kills—“
Iona interrupted him with a pretty laugh. “Well, don’t spoil it! I have not! What are you reading?”
Their talk ran quickly away from Iona’s predicament and focused on their shared love for books… and then for the popular music in Dublin… and then for the theatre. Before she knew it, Iona had forgotten her worries about Lord Covington and was chatting animatedly with her new friend. Her dark eyes sparkled and she pushed her hair absently away from her face as she warmed up to the subject.
“What if you didn’t have to marry him?” Philip asked, suddenly.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Iona said sadly. “I’ve thought of everything I could do to get out of it, and there’s just nothing. I’m an unwed girl, Philip. I have to do what my father decrees.”
“What if you weren’t unwed?”
Iona felt confused. “I suppose it would be hard to marry me off, then. But… I am unwed.”
Philip insisted, “But what if you weren’t? What if… you were married to me?”
She blinked at him. “To you? But we’ve just met… and…”
“I know. I know it sounds crazy, and I can’t explain it. I know we just met, and it doesn’t make any sense. But you’re here, and you’re kind and lovely, and we love the same things. I can’t explain it, but I feel like there could be something here between us. I feel something and I’ve never felt something with anyone. And the very thought of that wretched old man with his hands on you on your wedding night, and every night after that, makes me want to tear him apart from limb to limb and feed him to the dogs.“ Philip enclosed her hands with his own. “I’m not ready to let you go.”
Iona felt bewildered. “Philip, marriage is forever. I appreciate you trying to help me, but there would be no backing out of it. Ever.”
Philip lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them slowly. “I don’t want to back out of it.” He slid his hand around her head, his thumb grazing her cheek lightly, and pulled her toward him. His lips barely separated from hers, he whispered, “I don’t want to back out of it at all” before he kissed her. It could be called nothing but a chaste kiss, probably not even anything she would have gotten in trouble for if witnessed after a ball. But, it was a kiss so full of feeling and promise.
“Okay,” she whispered back.
“Okay?” When she nodded, he jumped to his feet, pulling her up into his arms, and spun her around, a smile lighting his eyes. “Come on,” he said, pulling her toward the village. “I have a feeling we need to do this quickly!”
As they entered the village square, Philip scanned the crowd quickly and found Patrick towering above the others. He caught the eye of his friend and nodded toward the edge of the square.
Patrick met him away from the crowd. “Philip, how are you? I see you’ve met our mystery lady.” He smiled at Iona. “How are you, dear? I’ve been sent word that your father is on his way and should be here tomorrow. Why don’t you go on in the house and see Regan?”
“Oh… okay,” she squeaked out before closing the door behind her.
Philip cleared his throat. This was the hard part. “I want to get married. Tonight.”
Patrick looked up in surprise. “Tonight?? What in the world--? Regan didn’t say anything about…” Philip was shaking his head. “Not Regan? But I’d always thought…” he trailed off.
“Patrick, Regan and I don’t love each other. She’s a wonderful girl, but we’ll never be anything more than friends. I’m marrying Iona.”
“Iona? But you’ve only known her for—“
Philip interrupted and lowered his voice. “She’s supposed to marry Lord Covington. I can’t let that happen to her.”
“Lord Covington? Christ, Philip, are you out of your mind? He’ll kill you for taking what he thinks is his.”
“Not if she’s my wife, he won’t.”
“You’re insane. You can’t just go around, playing Savior to every pretty girl.”
Philip stared off across the valley. “Not every pretty girl. Just this pretty girl. She’s the one. I feel it, Patrick. Don’t fight me on it, just help me pull it off.”
Patrick sighed and nodded. “Alright, let’s get you to the chapel, crazy man.”
Two hours later, five figures stood in a nearly-empty chapel. Philip and Iona clasped hands in front of the local priest, with Patrick and Regan as witnesses. Vows were spoken, kisses exchanged, and the deed was done.
Congratulations were passed around. Philip caught Regan in a friendly hug and whispered in her ear, “No hard feelings, lass?”
Regan laughed at him. “Are you kidding? You’ve freed me up for you-know-who.”
Philip winked at her. “Give him hell, luv.”
“Congratulations, Miss.” The maid set the tray on a table, and then retreated from the room. Iona looked around, a little bewildered. Everything had happened so quickly today. One minute, she was crying by the river, the next minute she was married… and NOT to the lecherous old man. How had things changed so quickly?
There was a fire in the hearth, a dark rug and two chairs set in front of it. A beautiful picture window filled one wall and looked out over the valley. It was getting too dark to enjoy it now, but she imagined it would be a beautiful sight to wake up to each morning. The sight that filled her with just a little… alright, a lot… of apprehension now was the big bed that took up much of the room.
It was a bed you dreamt about. It was massive, built of a beautiful oak, and draped in miles of lovely blue silk. It was the kind of bed you could sleep in for days and never want to leave. But, tonight, it was to be Iona’s wedding bed. While Philip was infinitely more attractive than Lord Covington, he was still someone she barely knew. Not really. What in the world was she supposed to do?
The door creaked open, and she spun around to watch Philip slide through, something held behind his back.
Iona cocked her head to one side curiously. “What do you have there?” she asked.
He pulled the something out from behind his back and held it out. “Flowers for my new wife, milady,” he said gallantly. The scent of the wildflowers filled her senses. “I’m sorry, they were the best I could do on short notice.”
Iona smiled happily at him. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.”
Philip shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably. “Iona, I know this is a little different. I imagine this isn’t quite the way you had imagined your wedding night would be,” he apologized.
She laughed. “Until this afternoon, I rather imagined that the night would be spent with me hiding behind a chair, trying to pretend that my husband was a handsome knight, and not an ugly old man trying to rip my clothes off. My wedding night has suddenly become infinitely better than expected.”
He relaxed a little and slipped out of his dressing gown before sitting on the bed. “Come on,” he invited. Philip noticed her hesitation. “Just talking tonight, maybe. I intend to woo you properly tomorrow,” he promised.
Iona joined him a safe distance away, tucking her feet underneath her. She watched him place the tray that the maid had left between them on the bed and lift off the cover. “Strawberries and chocolate!” she exclaimed. “Where on earth did you get that?”
He offered one to her lips. “My secret.” They fed each other strawberries and sipped wine, getting to know each other a little better as the night wore on. When she began to yawn, Philip slipped the tray to the floor and patted the space alongside him on the bed.
Slightly more emboldened with the wine coursing through her, she slid under the blankets. Her cheek rested against his chest as his arm curved around to rest on her waist. She sighed and whispered contentedly, “I guess I could get used to this.”
Philip smiled, “I hope so.” Pulling a book from the table, he kissed her on top of her head, and read aloud, “It was a dark and stormy night….”