“Things are going to be different in Mayfair this time, Anne.”
Anne Bourchier, the Countess of Cranfield, continued to watch the rain pelting the window as the carriage rolled on through the night. Their rain-dampened clothing made the interior too humid to be borne. Sweat trickled down her cheeks and she used her fan to cool her face with long, deliberate motions.
“I mean it. You’re going to be active in Society and make me proud for once.”
His uncharacteristically terse voice made her pause and appraise the fiery red glow of his curling hair and his boyish, almost pretty handsomeness. Tonight, he’d been so harsh, so resolute, so unlike himself. He hadn’t even taken a moment to let the servants bring their wraps but had practically dragged her down the steps of Whitecross Hall, out into the lashing downpour to the carriage. Now here they were, with no escort and no luggage. They didn’t even have any watered wine to refresh themselves.
This whole time, he hadn’t ceased lecturing her. She understood the indignity of his position and how he might feel a need to assert himself as a man in some part of his life. But this farcical attempt to play the husband, after having appeared to have long forgotten that he even had a wife, was growing tedious. It wasn’t her fault his long-term mistress had found another interest. She flicked him a disdainful glance. “And who will see to the running of our estate now?”
“I do keep a bailiff on staff.”
“His incompetence costs us too much. Since you refuse to dismiss him, someone needs to be there to keep an eye on him.”
“He’s my half-brother, Anne. How can I dismiss him?”
“You let your sentiment and your passions rule you.”
“Oh, always so cold, so in control, aren’t you, my darling? I meant what I said earlier about the other, too. You shall welcome me to your bed every night, except when nature inconveniences you. And you’ll at least pretend to be happy about it.”
Her chest went tight and she slapped her fan closed. “I have never locked my door against you.”
“I mean that you shall reside with me until the deed is done. Else I shall be forced to take more extreme measures. I’ll have my heir or die trying.”
She opened her fan and resumed cooling her face. She knew her husband well. Once in town, he’d find new distractions and she’d be able to slip away, back to the country.
The carriage shook, then slid in the mud for a heart-stopping moment. Two days of rain had made the roads treacherous. She turned to him. “We should have waited for the other carriages.”
Indignant eyes met hers in the lantern light. They were the most beautiful eyes—as green as summer grass and framed with thick, russet-coloured lashes. His elegant jaw tightened. “I didn’t want to wait—”
A sudden jolt rocked the seat beneath her and shook through her bones. A loud crash sounded and the carriage rattled as if it would fall apart. It veered over slightly. She clutched the seat’s edge. Her mouth went dry.
She glanced at William. He was so pale that his freckles looked like black specks. Her stomach flipped over.
“Christ.” He’d but whispered the word. It hung in the air between them like a prayer as the carriage rolled. She went flying from her seat. Something smashed into her side. Her forehead met a hard object. White shards of pain exploded in her head…
The wind howled with eerie effect. Anne tried to snuggle deeper into the covers but she couldn’t get comfortable. A steady throbbing beat in her head and intruded on her sleepy awareness. Pound, pound, pound. Each pulse struck with a ferocity that sent waves of nausea into her stomach.
Maybe she should call for Nellie to bring some strong, hot tea laced with laudanum. She was mostly on her back, twisted halfway. Not a very restful position at all. She tried to shift her body but something heavy and warm pressed her down and held her immobile. Helpless. She reached out to touch it and pain sliced through her shoulder and up into her neck. Swift, punishing pain. She cried out.
She opened her eyes slowly to pitch-blackness. The acrid tang of lantern oil burned her nostrils. The wind continued to whistle. Had someone left a window open? Damp fabric clung to her skin with chilling effect and made her shiver.
Dread sank deep inside her, cold and blood-curdling. “Nellie?”
Something shifted on her, sending a shaft of pain through her. A droplet of water splashed the side of her cheek. Then another and another. A steady stream of them.
William’s voice sounded directly above her. Weak and wobbly, but her husband’s voice nonetheless.
“William, what is happening?”
“Carriage…” His voice trailed off.
The carriage. They had been riding to London.
“Sweet heavens.” She struggled to regain her wits.
“Are you…” His voice died off suddenly and he slumped against her, becoming heavier. Pure fear infused her whole body in tingling chills. Icy dread that washed away her awareness of her own pain.
A long pause.
“William?” Her heart pounded, sending energy into her body. Her own pain lessened with each moment, as though she’d actually had that tea and laudanum. She touched soggy softness, the finely textured wool of William’s coat. It was thoroughly soaked by the rain pouring in through the cracks in the carriage’s exterior.
Holy mercy, his voice was frail. She could feel the effort it took him to speak.
“I am mostly unharmed.” Her voice broke, forcing her to clear her throat. “And you?”
Afraid of making his pain worse, she stopped searching his body. “Some of your ribs must be broken. That’s all.” She had to swallow again, to regain the ability to speak. “The doctor shall patch you up easily.”
A deeper sense of dread went twisting through her stomach, bringing back that earlier sense of queasiness. How badly was he injured? She opened her mouth to call for help but then clamped it closed. If the coachmen were in any condition to help, they would be engaged in that endeavour now.
Icy tentacles wrapped themselves about her innards.
How long would it take for help to arrive? Lightning flashed through the broken carriage window.
“Anne…I can’t…move.” The tenor of his voice made her catch her breath. He was afraid—very afraid.
Her heart contracted. She had once felt such tenderness towards him. A fragile, barely-born tenderness that had been killed in its infancy—yet it had been the dearest feeling she’d known in her life. It all came back to her, washing over her in an intense rush. She cradled his head against her midsection, ignoring the bruised feeling in her ribs.
The sound was loud—and close. A horse’s iron shoe kicking the thin carriage wall. Her heart leapt, pounding up into her throat. She tightened her hands on William’s crisp, curling hair.
His body jerked. “What!”
She stroked the side of his face, the soft bristle of his whiskers brushed her palm. “It is just the wind, knocking loose some piece of wreckage or a tree branch, I think.”
“Sorry, Anne—Should have waited. You’re always right…” His voice seemed to reverberate with pain.
She winced for him and caressed the side of his face. “Shh, it doesn’t matter now.”
His breathing changed, sounding deep and laboured. He had lost consciousness. Her chest constricted so hard that her breath began to hitch.
Please don’t let him die.
Lightning flashed again, brilliant and close. Thunder rumbled through the carriage’s frame and wind and rain continued to blow inside. One of the horses screamed.
Thud, thud, thud.
The horse’s hoof pounded the outside more frantically this time. Her heart beat furiously. That fragile wall was all that separated them from those hard, shod hooves. They were pinned here; trapped.
She gripped his arms and tried to pull him along with her, away from the sound. But the pain weakened her shoulder and his lean frame proved to be far heavier than she’d have suspected. Her grip slipped.
Another kick sounded. Then another. Each thud resounded deep in her chest. God, she had to get them both away from those beating hooves. She clenched her jaw and redoubled her efforts, pulling with all her strength while groaning deep in her throat against the red-hot pain in her shoulder joint. She managed barely an inch, then her arms shook and gave out once more under the burden of his dead weight. Her lungs burnt and she gulped for air. Her head throbbed so hard that it made her dizzy. How utterly helpless she was. But William was depending on her. She couldn’t fail him.
She tried again to rouse herself but this time her arms were so weak and the pain in her shoulder so severe that she trembled and couldn’t move at all. Her headache increased to almost blinding intensity.
“Oh, William.” A dry, painful sob tore from her throat.
Lightning struck again; thunder boomed violently.
The horse screamed.
Thud, thud, thud, thud.
A crunching, cracking sounded. Her head jolted up. Jagged edges of flickering yellow lightning broke through the blackness of the carriage wall. A stream of water trickled down it. The sight transfixed her.
Light reflected off iron and the white of a fetlock. Something skimmed past her face; she sensed its radiant heat more than saw its form. Icy tingling raced over her scalp, chilling her blood, freezing her heart.
She tightened her hands on William’s shoulders. As if she could possibly protect him. A hollow, dull knocking sort of noise reverberated through her bones.
Warm wetness splattered her face.
She wanted to be brave. She wanted to be herself again. The warmth of the sun on her face was pleasant; strengthening for one who had spent so many months secluded indoors. The green scents of August mingled with the pungent odour of horses blowing on the wind from the stables. As she reached the entrance, the rustle of the horses carried to her ears and her feet seemed to stall. One more step. She’d done this before…and failed. But it would really be so easy to take just one more step.
She swallowed against a throat gone dry. No, she couldn’t. Not just yet. But today, she would look inside. At least once before she left.
Richard Bourchier, the new Earl of Cranfield, William’s cousin and lifelong bitter rival, was holding a two-week-long hunting party and the gentlemen were all out on their mounts. But her beloved Neroli would be in the stable. She closed her eyes and pictured the mare, a glossy chestnut beauty, calmly chewing her oats. The mild eyes that always glinted with affection.
How could she fear such a gentle creature?
All right—the time had come. With her resolution to action came a trembling all over, making her question her resolve. No, she had to do this. Just one glance, then she could leave and return to the house and ring for a cup of chamomile tea.
It was such a silly fear for a grown woman, a widow. Even a simpleton should be able to overcome this fear. And she would overcome it. Her chest grew tight and she fisted her hands at her side, digging her nails into her palms. She looked into the stable.
Her eyes fell on the first horse inside its stall. Dust motes floated on the air as a shaft of light outlined its sleek lines; shards of white light zigzagged in the periphery of her vision. William’s grey stallion, Zeus, lifted his head and snorted.
Her chest grew tighter. He bumped his stall door and her legs went weak. She gripped the doorway. Whether here at Whitecross Hall or in Mayfair, William had always ridden Zeus every day. Now the grooms kept him exercised. What a powerful animal he was, his well-muscled legs capable of doing so much damage. She’d never have thought twice about that in the past. She would have walked right up to his stall and fed him an apple and petted his glossy coat before going to see Neroli. Now, such trust was unthinkable. He began to stomp, his iron shoes ringing on the stall floor. Her heart leapt into her throat and a strong urge to run jolted into her legs.
He kicked and bucked against the stall door, intent on getting her attention, and panic slammed into her. She jerked her eyes away and pulled back. All she could see was the hoof striking.
Cracking William’s skull.
Splattering her with his life’s blood.
Oh God, oh God, oh God…
Cold sweat poured from her brow and she shivered as nausea overtook her. Her vision grew dim and she dropped to her knees. Moments of quaking passed as her stomach rebelled against her.
Once it was over, she crawled along the wall, away from the stable entrance. She swallowed convulsively, trying to rid her mouth of the lingering, acrid taste of vomit. Oh, what if someone should happen along and find her in this condition? She had to get control of herself. She pressed a hand to her lurching belly and forced herself to take slow, measured breaths. As soon as she was able, she stood on her shaking legs.
What a dismal and complete failure.
She hadn’t even managed to see her beloved mare.
This terror—this weakness—was intolerable. Logic she could handle. She could beat any man she knew at chess. She knew the contents of all the books in the study. But something like this fear, she didn’t know how to fix.
She was about to turn twenty-three, yet found her world ruled by fears as if she were a girl. Found herself forced to live with her late husband’s cousin and his wife as an unwanted relic.
Her father, the Duke of Saxby, a man of wavering interests, had at one time become fascinated by racehorses. Early in her childhood, he’d purchased a sizeable horse farm with a luxurious hall in Ireland. Though her father had eventually lost interest in the venture and her parents had spent most of their time in Mayfair or in Norfolk on their ducal estate, Anne had grown up at the Irish hall.
Anne had inherited the Irish hall when her father died three years ago. As part of her jointure, upon William’s death it had reverted to her. If not for her incapacitating fear of horses and riding in a closed carriage, she would already be living there. The lady of the manor, her days filled with purpose once more. Foremost, she’d be independent. She hated being obligated to others in any way. People couldn’t be counted on—except maybe for servants, and then only because they were paid to serve and feared to lose their position.
Behind her, the hard drum of hooves sounded on the ground; the jingle of a bit and the heavy snort of a well-worked horse. She jerked her head up.
Flashing hooves and wide, snorting nostrils dominated her vision. The creature was huge, as black as death and headed straight towards her.
Everything went dark.
Her heart raced with unnamed fear. She always dreaded that short span of time between sleeping and waking. She never knew what horrors she might find when she came completely aware. Her eyes fluttered open tentatively.
Daylight. Oh thank God.
A flash of cream and blue showed in the periphery of her vision. The décor of the morning room. She was inside Whitecross Hall.
Relief flooded her body, relaxing her muscles as though she’d slipped into a soothing warm bath. She let her eyelids open fully.
Intense blue eyes met hers. Slowly, the face above her came into focus. She knew that face, from the high forehead with its permanent vertical lines between the eyes to the strong jaw and the long, narrow nose.
Jonathon Lloyd, the Earl of Ruel.
Her heart leapt into a frantic, fluttery beat. Like the wings of a butterfly trapped between closed palms.
He rubbed her wrists. Slow, feather-light strokes of his long fingers. A thrill chased up her arms and through her whole being. His large hands were hard and smooth, like horn. Just as she’d imagined. Yet his touch was by far gentler than she would have expected for such a fierce-looking gentleman.
Part of her wanted to stay still and allow him to continue caressing that sensitive area of her wrists. But the very strength of that craving scared her.
She moved to sit.
He ceased his massage and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Slowly, now.” The note of command in his deep voice made her weak and seemed to paralyse her limbs. But was it really his voice or the intense way he continued to hold her gaze?
Good heavens, he had the bluest eyes.
He pressed her back to the settee. And she made no attempt to stop him. But why? Other than her abigail, she didn’t let people touch her. Didn’t let them near her, if she could help it.
“I-I must have become…overheated.” Her tongue stumbled over the words.
He continued to study her for a long interval, his expression revealing nothing. “Undoubtedly.”
Of course he was the one who had ridden up on the black monster. Why else would he be the one concerning himself with her now? Where did a man find the courage to ride a beast like that?
People in general put her on edge, but this gentleman in particular made her a ball of pure nerves. He was no classically handsome Lancelot, but a hard-boned Viking warrior. He’d intimidated her from the moment they’d met.
“You mustn’t miss today’s hunt on my account,” she said. “I shall be fine.”
“I don’t care to hunt for sport.”
That was the very last thing she’d expected to hear from a gentleman. “Don’t you enjoy it?”
Her voice sounded flat. Hopelessly stupid. Inwardly, she cringed.
The barest hint of a grin softened his hard mouth.
Her heart seemed to wobble and her stomach went all quivering and feeling as though it might float away. It was the most peculiar sensation. Like she’d experienced once during her Seasons in Mayfair, when she’d seen a hot air balloon leave the ground and arise to the heavens.
“B-but don’t all gentlemen live to hunt?”
Oh, what an utterly wan-witted thing to say!
His grin spread wider and those blue, blue eyes lit with something. Amusement?
She wished, rather intensely, that she might sink into the settee cushions and disappear. She concentrated hard, searching her mind for something witty to make up for her dullness. “I mean to say, it is enjoyable, is it not? I mean…uh, the dogs and the horses and the…the f-foxes?”
Crinkles showed around his eyes as his smile deepened. His regard grew warmer, like rays of sun. He picked up her hand, then looked down and traced his fingers over her wrist bones.
“Yes, Lady Cranfield. The dogs and the horses, and even the foxes, they do add interest.”
“But not enough?”
“If I need something to eat, then I’ll hunt, but in the most efficient way possible. I prefer to do so alone. I can’t abide gathering in the woods like a gaggle of geese and spending the day aimlessly wandering, while hissing and honking over the latest gossip. I was taking a morning ride but it’s a good thing I returned when I did, my lady.”
At the familiar feminine voice, Anne turned her head. Her abigail stood in the doorway, her apple-cheeked face contorted with concern.
“Eh…what?” Anne replied dumbly, every fibre of her being still aware of the Earl of Ruel being so close.
Nellie’s concerned frown deepened. “My lady, are you quite well?”
A healthy dose of good sense came over Anne, like a refreshing splash of cold water. She found her wits. “I am fine, Nellie,” Anne said steadily. She turned back to Ruel and attempted to regard him just as coolly.
He nodded slowly, his eyes again strangely intense for a moment. “Good day, Lady Cranfield.”
He stood and walked away with his characteristic erect posture and purposeful stride. Sunlight from the windows glinted on his ash-blond hair.
“I was waiting for you, my lady, and becoming quite worried by your lateness.” Nellie’s voice broke into Anne’s observation of Ruel.
It was a gentle reproach from a favoured servant, for Anne usually napped in the afternoons. The emotionally fragile widow who must be coddled. Just how vulnerable and pathetic she’d become, even in her servant’s eyes, hit her as it never had before, and it wasn’t a very comfortable realisation.
The weak were despised in this world. They had no place—neither ruler nor servant.
She was currently a person without a place. And it was a wholly intolerable position to be in.
“I feel fine.” Oh, what an atrocious fib. She hadn’t felt fine in almost a year.
“You mustn’t push yourself, my lady. You must remember what the doctor said…”
Her servant’s words faded as Anne’s gaze returned to follow Ruel’s departure, tracing every line of his tall, broad-shouldered frame, his long, powerful-looking legs. Such strength, such tenderness, such intensity in his azure eyes. It surprised her. Richard and Francesca were so sharp tongued and witty, and those who surrounded them were a fast, fashionable crowd—almost to the point of being scandalous. They seemed to care about nothing but pleasure. She’d previously dismissed Ruel as yet another of their ilk.
Who the devil is he really?
It was a question she pondered over the next few days as every morning, from the safe vantage of her bedchamber window, she watched him ride off on that monster of a warhorse. Watched him interact so comfortably with Richard and his circle, his wits sharper—and at times more painful—than a rapier. She found herself studying him from the corner of her eye, tracing every inch of his strong jaw and grateful not to be the focus of his attention.
He would turn, suddenly, and fix that beautiful yet formidable blue gaze upon her. His intensity took her breath away and every particle of her being came alive, as if attuned to him. Unable to stop herself, she’d face him, gazing into his eyes…well, it was absolutely the most unnerving thing, yet she found herself transfixed, incapable of breaking the spell.
Then someone would speak, stealing his attention, and he’d turn away…
Today, however, he had not turned away. They were in the music chamber. Richard’s wife, Francesca, was playing piano, accompanied by her constant shadow, the irritatingly girlish Lady Scott—or Cherry, as she was known to her friends. The other ladies were positioned by the large picture windows, busy painting watercolours of the towering oak outside. The other men were nowhere to be seen.
Ruel’s stare pierced her. There was something predatory and hot in that stare. It came to her, slowly, that he was pursuing her; challenging her.
Yes, her. Anne Bourchier, the Countess of Cranfield. The awkward, somewhat chubby girl who had hidden in the shadows during her Seasons. The woman with the ice-cold embrace that had repulsed her husband, a wholly oversexed gentleman who never turned down a chance to roll in the sheets.
It was unthinkable that man like Ruel could possibly be interested in her.
He knew something about living and being brave. Something she wanted desperately to know.
The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.
The philosopher Spinoza’s words echoed in her head. Yes, if she could gain better understanding of what true, natural bravery was, she could grasp hold of it and free herself.
An only child left alone by her parents and always separated from others by her rank and her social awkwardness, she’d found all her answers about life from reading. One could read and study people just like books, surely. If she could speak to him and analyse his responses, she could distil that knowledge into something she could use.
He continued to stare, as if daring her to make the move that would either end the game…or take it to the next step.
A giddy sense of power washed over her. For once, she had something someone else wanted, besides her wealth. She could use it to get closer to him. To observe and learn from him. Should she just give the signal and be done with it?
She knew nothing of such matters. What if she did it wrong, made herself look a fool? Gripping her open fan in her right hand, she lifted it in front of her face.
She intoned the words in her mind with all the power of her intention.
How long should she leave it there? She closed her eyes and silently counted to thirty, each number echoed by her pulse. Then she let her hand drop, her stomach bottoming out.
She’d done it.
Oh God, she’d actually done it.
Gooseflesh rose all over her body and an itchy, twitching sensation raced down her spine to energise her legs and feet. Without daring to check his reaction, she snapped her fan closed and fled the chamber, leaving behind the others and their merrymaking.
Once safely down the corridor, she leaned against the wall, whipped her fan open and fluttered it rapidly in front of her overheated face.
Boot falls echoed in the empty passage way. Her hand froze. One quick glance took in his customary fierce expression.
Oh Lord. Now what?
Her heart pounded into life. She picked up her skirts, flew down the corridor and dashed into the study.
It was empty but for the odour of cigars lingering in the air.
She stared at the doorway, still filled with nervous energy.
What would he say or do once he found she wasn’t playing quite the game he thought she was? But how else to speak to Jonathon Lloyd, the seventh Earl of Ruel, away from the bevy of hangers-on he attracted?
She turned to stare out of the window, watching the wind toss the mighty oak branches.
The bolt to the door clicked softly into place.
She whirled back to face the door. He was advancing on her. At the sight of him, she caught her breath. His tall body was long-limbed and large-boned, yet in perfect proportion. Masculine elegance. Now, as always, his hair was styled with the appropriate amount of disarray. His clothes were eminently fashionable. Yet she’d never once seen him glance in a mirror or fidget with his cravat or hair, as other gentlemen were wont to do. He didn’t seem to give a damn.
He scanned the room with a sweeping yet comprehensive stare, as if he were still on a battlefield, searching for hidden dangers. Then he narrowed his gaze on her.
Her heart fluttered with tiny shocks of apprehension. Heavens…to be the object of that stern, intense gaze.
“You did strike me as the studious type,” he said, advancing towards her with the deliberate motions of a warrior.
She backed all the way into the bookcase.
“Why did you run away?” His deep voice settled in her belly, rich and warm, like crème brûlée on a cold winter’s night.
“Because I wanted you to follow.” She tried to sound sophisticated and seductive, but her voice choked off on the last word.
Ruel placed his hand on the shelf above her head and blocked her path to the door. His tall, solidly muscled body leaned over her, surrounding her with the sumptuous, sinful scents of tobacco, Scotch whisky and something masculine and undeniably dangerous. A slow, sensual smile stretched his hard mouth.
He appeared different. Softer. More approachable.
At the change, her insides seemed to flip over.
“Well, sweeting, getting us off alone was a very inspired idea.” He touched one of her fallen ringlets. “I am bored to distraction with endless talk of hunting and fencing.”
As he slowly wrapped the curl around two fingers, he brushed her collarbone. Fiery sparks tingled down her spine, so intense that she shivered and her nipples beaded, pressing against her stays. By some instinct she hadn’t even known she possessed, she arched her back, presenting herself for his assessment.
His eyes shone so vividly blue against his bronzed face that they resembled cornflowers. She swallowed tightly and wished for a long drink of claret. This more personal side of him suddenly seemed far more hazardous than his usually fierce exterior.
Well, no matter. There was nothing to fear. She would allow only as much contact as need be to get to know him a little. Since being torn from her lonely yet secure life in Ireland and thrust into Society at age sixteen, she’d spent her time allowing people only as near as was comfortable. She was an expert at emotional evasion.
It should be easy to regain her control.
But now, as rays of the late-afternoon sun played over his pale hair, turning it the colour of winter wheat, all her carefully rehearsed words flew from her mind.
Say something—anything—else he will think you’re a bird-wit.
An intimate smile, one that invited her to play, tugged at his mouth.
“In a situation like this, alone with a gentleman, it’s perfectly normal for a lady to feel some apprehension.” His hushed voice, barely audible above the piano and boisterous singing from down the corridor, accentuated their isolation. His gaze became so piercing that she had to lower her eyes.
He brushed his fingertips over her cheek. “She will invariably ask herself if he will try to kiss her.”
She jerked her eyes back to his face. God, he couldn’t mean to—not yet, surely… Peculiar, heated chills swept over her. She tried to take a step back, but found her bottom flush against the bookshelf.
He leaned closer; so close that his Scotch-scented breath tickled her face. “And just in case you are wondering, Lady Cranfield—the answer is most assuredly yes.”
She should demand that he put his arm down so she could pass by and leave. She really should. But she couldn’t stop looking at his hard mouth and wondering what it would feel like upon hers. He was so close to her that his breath blew on her lips. If she moved but a fraction, she’d be kissing him.
Dear God. Her breaths began to come very fast and short. Her throat went tight with a suppressed moan.
His eyes burnt as brightly as aquamarines. He looked so fierce. If he kissed her, if he dared… Oh God, it would be so harsh. That cruel-looking mouth could express itself no other way.
Excitement rushed through her, sending tingles to every point of her body, even her toes.
But no, he wouldn’t. Not yet.
He kept leaning closer. He didn’t close his eyes. Instead, he seemed to focus all the harder upon her.
Her heart pounding, unable to move away, she braced herself for his assault.
His lips brushed hers, barely. A gossamer caress.
He lifted his head.
It was done.
And it hadn’t even begun.
He held her chin, appearing so cool, so unaffected. His kiss had seemed to sear her. An urge to put her fingers to her lips arose in her. She resisted it, for it would give away too much of how she was affected.
Never show your feelings.
He traced his thumb along her lower lip, slowly, deliberately, as he studied her with eyes that now glittered with something powerful and predatory. Heat pooled in her pelvis, low and spreading even lower.
She went weak all over, as if she’d lain in a sunny window seat for too long. Her knees almost buckled. She forced them to lock. To be strong.
It should not have affected her so profoundly. It had been just a peck—not a true kiss at all. William had poured out all of his skill upon her and hadn’t garnered even a tenth of the reaction in her that this man’s peck had.
Ruel traced her jaw line with his fingertips. Unthinkingly, she leaned in to his touch.
“Of course, once he has kissed her, then it’s his turn to wonder…” His voice sounded unnaturally loud in her ears. “How will she respond? Will she withdraw, or can he ignite some hidden fire?”
She sensed that he was toying with her. She didn’t understand flirtation—why had she imagined she could carry off this ruse? Was he making advances in order to have a laugh with Francesca and her simpering friends later? Hurt blossomed in her chest. She resented him for that. She ought to feel indignant, superior, uncaring—anything but hurt.
“Please don’t make sport of me.”
She cringed. Was that quavering, pleading voice really hers?
An infinitesimal pause. “Now, why on earth would I do such a thing?” His voice was as smooth as velvet.
“To please your vanity,” she replied, trying to regain her wits.
“Here.” He placed her hand to his chest. The contours of his muscles were hard, powerfully developed. Even more so than she’d expected. His body heat radiated through the satin and, beneath her hand, his heart’s beat was rapid and strong.
“Is that vanity?” He put a finger under her chin, giving her no choice but to face him. “Is it?” He gentled his grip.
The warmth in his voice settled over her like luscious hot chocolate. Melting her insides to quivering burgoo, rendering her speechless, unable to move.
“My dear, lovely Lady Cranfield, I am going kiss you again.”
Then he touched his mouth to hers, more firmly this time. Delicious, steady pressure. Her lips trembled and she clutched his lapels. He lifted his head. At the loss of his touch, a throaty, pleading moan sounded in her ears. Had it really come from her?
Clearly, now was the time for her to reassert some control over her reactions. To put him at a more comfortable distance.
“Kiss me back.” At the commanding edge in his voice, hot, sweet honey pooled in her belly.
What had she wanted to ask him? Focus? Dear God, what rubbish. She could scarcely remember her own name, much less anything else. What madness had made her think she could maintain control over him?
He traced her mouth with his tongue. Deliberately; lingeringly. This time she couldn’t hold back a moan. She had grown to dislike it when William kissed her with an opened mouth. It had always seemed such an overheated, messy thing. But where was her coldness now? She was burning to know what it would feel like to know Ruel’s full kiss. She had to know—just once—or she would surely die.
Just once. Certainly once wouldn’t hurt.
Tentatively, tremulously, she opened her mouth.
He thrust inside, his tongue like a bold blade of flame as it touched hers. He tasted of whisky and something smoky, too sensual to be borne. Fire burst within her, spreading over her breasts. Of their own volition, her hands slid up his muscled arms and she gripped his shoulders and moaned again.
She twisted and pressed her breasts against his chest, trying to increase the sensation on her taut, aching nipples. However, her stays prevented it. Her frustration vibrated deep in her throat, another longer, more intense moan.
The sound startled her and, for a moment, it was as if she were staring down at the two of them. She didn’t recognise herself, but she couldn’t stop kissing him back. Couldn’t stop rubbing her breasts against him.
Who was this uninhibited strumpet?
His breathing changed, growing heavier. He cupped her face with his large, long-fingered hands, angling her head. She went even more boneless and allowed him to move her as suited his desire.
He probed more forcefully with his tongue, went deeper, compelling her to open further, to melt against him more completely. He slid his hand to her neck and threaded his fingertips through her hair. He lifted the heavy mass off her neck. Cool air rushed over her nape. In one quick movement, he tightened his hold on her hair and, with gentle but firm pressure, he pulled her head back. Her shocked gasp came out as a mere whimper, muffled by his demanding mouth.
No man had ever handled her like this. She’d never even suspected a gentleman would handle a woman—not even one of his whores—like this. If she had any sense left, she ought to be frightened, offended—enraged.
Instead, her nipples pebbled painfully and heat twisted through her insides.
He tore his mouth from hers. As she gasped for breath, a sense of loss hit her so intensely that she felt disorientated. She stood there, leaning against his hard body, panting open-mouthed, with her head pulled backwards by his grip.
He studied her and tightened his grasp, pulling more harshly this time. A violent shaft of desire stabbed her, womb-deep.
Warmth, and what looked very much like satisfaction, shone in his gaze.
He laid his other hand along her collarbone in what could only be called a blatant, sexually possessive manner. The skin crinkled around his eyes. He was smiling, ever so slightly.
Something had just happened. She didn’t understand what. If only she could think, she would be able to reason it out. However, liquid warmth pooled in her lower pelvis and flowed out between her legs in a gush that came so suddenly she gasped. Her sex throbbed as if it were a beating heart.
Coherent thought was impossible.
He shifted and throbbing heat seared her, even through their clothing.
Its long, thick weight was more substantial than William’s.
Ruel brushed his fingers against her back. Tugging, pulling.
Undoing her laces.
She froze and placed her hands on his chest. “Don’t.”
The gown slipped and she automatically clutched the dark purple silk to herself.
He took hold of her wrists, easily encircling them with the forefinger and thumb of each hand. “Let the gown fall away.”
He used the voice. The one from the dreams she only reluctantly admitted to herself. The confident, commanding tone that the nameless, faceless man used in her nocturnal fantasies. Her secret lover who would press her down and—
“I want you to remove the rest of your garments and then I want you to lie on that crimson divan and display yourself for me.”
She threw a glance at the divan, her favourite spot in this whole house. The image his words conjured—her, lying naked on the crimson velvet, open for his perusal—burnt into her brain. Her inner muscles contracted several times—hard. The folds between her legs swelled and grew slicker.
Of course, despite her wayward dreams, she didn’t really want to do something like that.
She couldn’t possibly.
She barely knew Ruel. Yet there was that innate sense that she could trust him. That she could give in to his whims and it would be safe. A secret shared between them. Temptation tingled through her, increasing with every beat of her heart.
She had never been reckless in her life. A trembling began in her legs.
She turned back to him. His features were tight with desire, his stare commanding and compelling. She wanted to be reckless with this man.
“The door is locked. The others aren’t going to come in here—the gentlemen are all occupied with fencing and the ladies are busy with their watercolours.”
She’d never allow herself the luxury of surrendering to this. For this was pure emotion and it would be giving him too much of herself.
“I won’t do it.” She had intended to make her tone resolute. That thready, pleading voice couldn’t possibly be hers.
“It would please me.” His firm tone sent a new wave of lassitude through her limbs.
Need twisted in her lower stomach and a fresh cascade of wetness slicked her intimate folds. It slid down her inner thighs.
Wait—How had they come to this moment? Where the devil was the reserve and sexual coolness that had driven William into other arms? This virtual stranger held some kind of special power over her. God. It was unthinkable. It was terrifying.
“No.” Her strident denial echoed jarringly in her ears.
He released her wrists.
She pulled the gown up high and clutched it tight. She wanted to run. She should run. But his large, strong body still stood between her and the exit. Would he really attempt to stop her if she tried to flee? Her heart pounded at the thought. Because she knew that if he put his hands on her and stopped her, especially if he did it as forcefully and firmly as he’d behaved thus far, she’d melt for him.
What a revelation! She’d never suspected such a creature existed in her secret heart, waiting for someone to come along and draw her out.
“You’d better leave now.” She pushed the words past her shaking lips.