see disclaimer chapter 1
Sunlight poured through the windows, bathing the room in warmth. An easy silence had fallen over the pair. Leopold was sitting at Tessa's desk, tinkering with his model and making notations in his log, but had swiveled around to see what Tessa was doing. She lay on her stomach on the bed, with her ankles crossed in the air, much as a child would. Tangled sable curls flowed over her shoulders. A frown creased her forehead as she studied the rows of figures that filled the page of the huge ledger that was open before her. He took advantage of the privilege of studying her uninterrupted. He didn't think he could love her more than he did at that moment.
"Marry me," he said softly.
Brown eyes flew to his face. "But," she began.
He cut her off. "No. Marry me."
Tessa could think of a million reasons why she could not, and only one reason she should. She stared at Leo incredulously. This man, whom she loved with all her heart, was willing to overlook her entire past and offer her the future she had so secretly longed for, but knew she would never have. Thick eyelashes cast shadows on her cheekbones as her eyes slid shut. An internal battle raged within her. Her heart screamed yes but her brain reminded her that she would be his ruin, could she be so selfish, to say yes?
Leopold waited patiently for her to decide. He knew she was torn and he loved her all the more for it, but he was not going to sacrifice his love and happiness for the sake of society. He had already gone over every aspect of his decision; he knew the consequences and was willing to face them, but only with Tessa at his side.
"Leo, you know what would happen if we marry? You know that this is not acceptable?" She paused, and then added, "That I am not."
He frowned. "I forbid you to ever speak of yourself in that way again. And yes, I know what will happen."
She rose from the bed and crossed the room to him, looked into his eyes for any sign of doubt about what he had asked of her and found none. She found love, trust, and need shining in the hazel depths. Placing her small hand on his cheek, she gave him her hearts answer. "Yes."
Leopold pulled Tessa down onto his lap. His lips sought hers in a sweet, gentle kiss. "You have made me the happiest man in the world, my darling." Another kiss followed, longer and deeper than the first. "I love you so much Tessa."
"And I love you, my duke." Her arms wound around his neck, pulling him to her for another kiss, this one full of fire and passion. Leopold swept Tessa up and carried her across the room, following her down onto the bed.
Before he claimed her lips again, he murmured, "My wife, my heart."
Limbs entwined, they discussed details of how they were going to accomplish their marriage. It was no small undertaking. They would have to marry in secret and then face Leopold's family and friends.
"I have a childhood friend who is a priest," Leo told Tessa. "I'm sure he would perform the service for us."
Tessa suggested, "We could run away to Scotland."
"You still are afraid of the consequences, aren't you?" Leo smiled softly. "I will not let anyone hurt you. We must face them, Tessa."
"I know." She shivered, in spite of Leo's warmth wrapped around her.
Leopold changed the subject. "When?"
Tessa answered quickly. "After the ball."
"Before the ball," he argued. "That way I do not have to act out a charade. I can announce to everyone that I already have my bride."
Tessa was horrified. "You'll do no such thing! You will not publicly embarrass your uncle like that. We will inform him privately after the ball."
"Before the ball, and I will not hear another word on the subject," Leo informed her. "Do you intend to argue with me, Madame, over everything?"
Tessa smiled at his mock outrage. "Only when you are wrong, Your Grace."
He kissed the tip of her nose. "So it won't happen often then."
Her smile widened. "We'll see...we'll see."
The next day, Leopold, Duke of Albany and Tessa Sterling stood before a priest, who had been sworn to secrecy, and pledged their hearts to each other. Leo's eyes welled up with tears as he slid his mother's ring upon Tessa's finger. Her tears fell unchecked, as she gazed up into the face of the man who was now her husband. "You may kiss your bride," the priest informed Leo. He smiled softly and whispered, "My bride."
Tessa's answering smile was sweet, and she whispered back, "My husband," before they sealed their vow with a gentle kiss.
"Would you mind if we stopped at my house for just a few minutes?" Leopold asked of his new wife. "There is something I need to do."
Tessa quashed the fear that rose inside her. "I do not mind in the least."
Leo kissed the top of her head. "My brave girl," he whispered into her curls, letting her know that he understood just what she was feeling.
They reached Leopold's estate. The carriage clattered up the tree-lined drive. Leopold assisted Tessa down, but instead of entering the house, he led her around the back. Making their way through manicured gardens, they soon found themselves standing in the family cemetery. Leopold stopped in front of the site that was marked as his parents. "Tessa, could I have a moment alone?" He turned to see tears in his bride's eyes. She nodded slowly and walked away. He watched her thoughtfully, knowing he would address her tears later. Now he needed to talk to his parents. He had always come out and told them of major events in his life, and this was no exception. He kissed his fingertips and pressed them to his mother's name.
"Mother, Father, I have something important to tell you. I have fallen in love." Tessa saw that he was talking. Ashamed at herself but unable to resist, she moved closer to eavesdrop. Leopold continued, "I wish you were here to meet Tessa. You both would've loved her. Father, she has a keen business sense and is exceptionally intelligent. Mother, you would adore her. She has a soft heart, but is not afraid to stand up to me." He chuckled. "She reminds me a lot of you, how you used to argue with Father. And I'm afraid I will be quite like you, Father, giving in to her just to see her smile." He turned serious again. "There will be a bit of trouble when we are found out. Uncle will say that I have shamed your memory yet again. You see, Tessa has not had an easy life. She did what she had to do to survive. But some people will not see it that way. Father, you know that I have never wanted this burden of title placed upon me. Now it will be lifted. I want you both to know that I am happier than I have ever been. Tessa makes me happy. And I know that is what you want for me above all else."
He turned to where she was standing. "Come." She joined him, grasping his hand tightly in hers. "Father, Mother, I'd like you to meet Tessa, my wife.
Tessa glanced at her husband. "Can I speak freely?" she asked softly. Leopold nodded. She knelt in front of the carved stones. "Please forgive me my selfishness in marrying your son. I have put him in a difficult place, but know that I love him with everything inside me. I will be a good wife to him." Tears fell on the leaves that covered the ground. A gentle breeze lifted blossoms from a nearby tree and scattered them around Tessa.
Leopold lifted her to stand next to him. "I think they approve," he smiled, lifting a petal from her hair. More flowers rained down on them.
Tessa smiled back at him. "I hope so, because I'm not letting you go."