Sinclair returned, followed by a man and a woman bearing large platters of food and a jug of ale. Her husband sat across from her. “I hope you’re hungry. This establishment actually has some decent food. Black pudding and eels.” He rubbed his hands together. “I do miss good Scottish fare living in London.”
The barkeep set plates of food down between them. “This close to the border you’ll find many of the public houses serve Scottish food. And you can enjoy it here without risking yer neck in the northern troubles. But none as good as my Bertha makes.” He beamed at the woman and took the platter from her hands.
“Troubles?” Winnifred poked her fork at the pudding, not liking the look of it.
“It’s nothing, I’m sure,” her husband said. “There have been reports of fighting breaking out in cities. Public property being destroyed. But with us having such a poor growing season, tempers will spike.” Sinclair ripped the end off a loaf of bread and used it to hold a bit of eel in place as he speared it. He swallowed and tossed back a swig of ale. “Very passable. My compliments to the cook.”
The woman pinked. “It’s not often we have one as fine as yourself to cook for, Lord Dunkeld.” She dropped into an inelegant curtsy. “A marquess and marchioness eating my food.” She dropped another curtsy. “It’s an honor, milord.”
“Now, Bertha, let’s let the happy couple eat in peace.” The barkeep took her elbow. “Jus’ holler if you need anything else, milord.”
Sin nodded and tore off another hunk of bread.
Dust from the road dirtied his cravat and coat, and tendrils of hair had escaped his queue. Her husband looked rough, uncivilized, yet utterly confident and content, like a man who knew he could control every space and situation he found himself in. Every public house they entered, Sin bought the laborers a drink and sometimes joined them for a hearty laugh over some ribald jokes. Every evening he ate his meal with gusto, satisfaction making the edges of his lips curl up. Her husband was a man of large appetites.
Except, it appeared, for her.
He took another swallow of ale. “You’re not eating. I can have them bring you something else, if you’d prefer.”
Picking up her knife, she forced a smile. Never appear upset. Never give cause for concern. “This is fine. Besides, I’ll have to become accustomed to Scottish food.”
He stared at her, unblinking. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She placed a bite of the foreign sausage on her tongue and smiled around it, like it was the most delicious thing in the world. Her throat rebelled but she forced herself to swallow. Dear Lord, she would never become accustomed to this.
“I thought we’d agreed to honesty.” He pushed his plate away. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She set her silverware down and clasped her hands on her lap. He seemed so sincere about wanting to hear her thoughts. But a woman who freely expressed herself was a dangerous thing. No matter how earnest her husband appeared, she could never let her guard down. Only bad things happened to those who did.
“Winnifred? I’m waiting.” And he didn’t sound patient about it.
“It’s truly….” The word ‘nothing’ died on her lips under his withering glare. She sucked on her bottom lip. Would voicing this particular thought truly be so bad? This was a concern that most wives would probably raise with their husbands. She wouldn’t be considered queer for mentioning it. She hoped.
She fisted her hands under the table. “It’s only, we’ve been married for eight days now.” Eight days and seven empty nights.
“I’m aware of that.”
“And you haven’t… we haven’t…” She glanced around the room but no other patrons were within hearing distance. Still, she leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t you wish to produce an heir?”
He pressed his lips flat. His eyes, a blue as deep as a sapphire, went as hard as that mineral. A small muscle ticked in his forehead.
Sweat gathered at the small of her back, dampening her gown. “Any wife would wonder. My question is perfectly common.” Never appear different from the crowd.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “And I should have spoken of it before. But speaking of the act wouldn’t help my situation.” He shifted and cleared his throat. “There is a custom among the Archer family. Every Marquess of Dunkeld has bedded his wife for the first time in the ancestral bed.” A delicate flush stained his cheeks. “Perhaps it seems foolish, but I don’t want to be the first one to break that tradition.”
“Oh.” A tradition without a reason was as illogical as a superstition to Winnifred, but at least it answered her question. Her husband intended to have an intimate marriage.
Which left her with four more nights to fret over that particular marital duty. She wished it were over and done with. Lying next to her husband, wondering if he was going to touch her that night, dreading it yet always somehow disappointed when he didn’t, was its own form of torture. He was a big man. A strong man. And one who didn’t seem to care about the niceties. Yet he held her hand ever so gently. His contradictions intrigued her, and she couldn’t help but wonder how he would behave when he took his husband’s privilege.