Authors: Jane Lark
The Dangerous Love of a Rogue
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First published in Great Britain by HarperImpulse2015
Copyright © Jane Lark 2015
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the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to
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Ebook Edition © January 2015 ISBN: 9780007594665
Praise for Jane Lark
“Jane Lark has an incredible talent to draw the reader in from the first page onwards.”
Cosmochicklitan Book Reviews
"Any description that I give you would not only spoil the story but could not give this book a tenth of the justice that it deserves. Wonderful!"
Candy Coated Book Blog
"This book held me captive after the first 2 pages. If I could crawl inside and live in there with the characters I would."
A Reading Nurse Blogspot
“The book swings from truly swoon-worthy, tense and heart wrenching, highly erotic and everything else in between.”
“I love Ms. Lark's style—beautifully descriptive, emotional and can I say, just plain delicious reading? This is the kind of mixer upper I've been looking for in romance lately.”
Devastating Reads BlogSpot
Praise for Jane Lark
Also by Jane Lark…
About the Publisher
It was a renowned truth, that any world-worn rogue, without a feather to fly with, must be on the hunt for a wife, or rather her dowry. As the parody of Miss Austen’s verse, from her charming little novel about country life, ran through Drew’s head, a sound of mocking humour rumbled through his chest and he leaned a shoulder against the false pillar in the Earl of Derwent’s ballroom watching town life.
The pillar was wooden, painted to look like marble. Like everyone in this damned room, it was a farce. A shallow image. A performance… Nothing here was what it seemed. Society lived a damned lie and he had lived it for a lifetime.
He was a bastard, sold by his mother to her husband as worth the risk of giving her naturally born son his family’s name to keep up the façade and to save the reputation of the Framlington title.
Damn the title…Damn the bloody name…Drew had no interest in either.
He was bored of this. Bored of pretence. Bored of the games these people and he played. Bored of the face he displayed to the world and bored of the man who suffered all this behind a closed door.
He wished to escape it. He had a plan. Of course plans required money. But his plan covered that. He was seeking a well-dowered young woman to take as his wife, and therefore earn himself an instant fortune. A fortune which he would use to pack up his bags and retire to a quiet life, away from town, away from this… Perhaps he would experience life then just as Miss Austen wrote it. Or was ‘Country Life’ an equal façade? Never mind wherever he went, he would not live behind a façade. He’d had his fill of charades.
“Have you seen Marlow’s daughter?” Mark leaned to Drew’s ear. “She would be a prize.”
Drew looked at his friend and lifted his shoulder away from the pillar, straightening up. “I have.”
“She looks remarkable.”
“She does indeed.” He’d been watching her. She was on his list of potential wives.
“Are you intending to try her?”
“I would be a fool if I did not. Look at her…” Yet the she in question, Miss Mary Marlow, was as far above his reach as the sun. The step-sister of a duke – with a bastard… It was not a match that would be desired by the sweet young miss’s mama and papa.
Yet Miss Marlow was the most appealing to the eye and Drew had been awaiting his moment to explore his opportunity with her. The time had come. He’d not been standing here for his pleasure. He’d been standing here waiting for Miss Marlow to complete her dance.
“Then what are you waiting on.” Mark laughed, spotting the same opportunity.
Not a thing. Drew glanced over his shoulder and gave his friend a wicked smile before turning to walk about the edge of the room.
Miss Marlow was in a set close to him and the dance was drawing to its conclusion. Drew positioned himself so that when it ended her back was turned him. She stood three feet away; he could feel her exuberance even though he could not see her face or her smile. Yet he knew she was smiling, she’d smiled throughout every dance tonight.
Mary Marlow was in her first season, newly launched upon the marriage market, and he was here to trade. But what his friends did not know was that as much as he desired her money, he desired innocence. His heart and mind were jaded and bitter. He longed for the refreshing invigoration of innocence. God knew, he’d never been given the blessing of innocence in his life; he’d been born into the world of sin. Born of sin and raised in sin.
Miss Marlow’s partner lifted her hand to his lips and bowed.
Drew stepped forward. “Miss Marlow.” He said her name as though they’d been introduced and he had a right to use it, speaking before the man had chance to offer to lead her back to her mother.
She looked at him, her expression confused, but then she smiled, and it was as though the sun rose in the room which was already illuminated by several hundred candles in the chandeliers.
Her smile said, “I am not sure I know you, sir.” Yet a young woman like her would never be rude enough to ask.
When her companion let her go, Drew captured her hand, as if he had a right to that too. He felt as though he did. She had become his favourite choice as a bride the minute she’d smiled at him and not turned away. “May I have the next dance?”
He did not push things too far, he did not kiss her hand, yet he let his gloved fingers slide up her wrist a little to touch her skin, as if the gesture was accidental. She lowered into a sweet perfectly correct curtsy and looked up an instant before she rose.
Her eyes were an unusual blue, an extremely pale rim of colour surrounding the dark pupils that looked at him in question.“Who are you? Do I actually know you, sir?”Too polite to ask those questions she simply continued to pretend they had been introduced. They had not.
If he could have picked a tune it would have been the waltz, but the first waltz was not until later and he had no wish to lose the chance of the distance from her family. They were at the far end of the ballroom, in their usual pack. The Pembrokes. Although Pembroke was not the name the family went by as a whole, the old Duke had had four girls, and they’d all married exceptionally well, apart from Mary’s mother, who had at first married a soldier, who’d died, and then settled on the second son of an earl. But the son from her first marriage had inherited the title and given Miss Marlow a very attractive dowry, and so Mary was simply a Miss and yet a powerful match as a duke’s sister, and innocent.
“I believe you should stand here, and I there…” Drew said to her look of confusion.
There was another quick smile, which was far more fleeting than the first. She was perhaps realising she had made an error. He smiled to ease her concern. “I shall admit we have not been introduced. You must forgive me for taking the liberty of breaking the rules, Miss Marlow.” The music commenced.
He stepped forward and took her hand in the format of the dance, then completed a shoulder to shoulder turn.
“I should walk away immediately.”
“Indeed you should. But is it such a sin for a man to find you so utterly beautiful he cannot wait even another moment, or at worse another dance, to find some party who might introduce him?”
“That is the course of a gentleman.”
“It is indeed.” He leaned to her. “There you have me; perhaps I am not a gentleman…” He said it in a voice to tease her, the voice he knew earned him a little more money from the women who asked for his favour. Her head turned instantly, but then her gaze dropped to the lopsided rogue’s smile he threw at her and she laughed.
“You are a gentleman. You would not be here if you were not.”
So innocent… so blind. Such a novelty.
What he would give for that blindness.
“So are you enjoying your season, Miss Marlow?”
Her answering smile was softened then. “Yes. I have had to wait patiently, because we’ve been in mourning for my grandsire, but I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to finally be out. My cousins, who are older, have been full of stories and made me long for this. Now finally I have my moment.”
Yes, she did. “Tell me how it compares to the things you must have dreamed…” As they talked their steps followed the intricate country dance, but the blessing of it was, he had by chance chosen a country dance that did not separate them.
“It does not compare, I could not have imagined this…”
“You lie, surely you knew you would be in a room full of young men making fools of themselves for young women, and old men being bores, and young women who giggle at the slightest word.”and older women… like his mother… he did not even wish to think of them.
“So you think I giggle like an idiot.” There was a little annoyance in her voice.
As they made another turn he took the opportunity to press his palm against her side, below her breasts. Her body slid across his fingers as she followed the pattern of the dance. He only touched her for an instant, as if it was to stop her stumbling, yet her whole body jolted.
“Forgive me. I thought you’d missed a step.”
“No I did not.” He leaned to her ear as he stepped forward. Her hair brushed his cheek. “I simply wish this were a waltz and I had the opportunity to hold you.”
He stepped back. There was a sparkle in her dark pupils, and he saw her heartbeat flickering beneath her skin at the base of her neck.
The woman was charming.
“Yet it is not a waltz, and so you should refrain…”
Finally he was challenged, her pause awaited his name. It had taken her long enough. “Lord Framlington.”
As they walked around the back of the couple beside them she looked as though she searched her memory for his name, yet when they came into the middle of a ring of six there was no light of recognition in her eyes. The Duke of Pembroke had not mentioned his name to her then.
“I like you, Miss Marlow. You are pretty and sensible,” he said, as they came back together –and innocent and wealthy.
“I cannot say I like you in return, I do not know you.”
He smiled at her little jab. “Know you or not, I like and admire you.” It was true, the girl was claiming his entire interest the more the dance progressed. She was perfect.
“Indeed.” She laughed, a light, jolly sound, not a forced jubilant creation developed to draw attention.
The girl was doing something to his soul, he felt as though he was bathing in her innocence, baptised in it, his sins washed away. “It is no jest, and no falsity, you are charming. A man would be a fool if he did not see it.”
“So you are telling me you are no fool.”
“I have never been a fool, Miss Marlow.” Another step forward brought them together. “I am interested in you.” He whispered it into her ear.
Her head pulled back. “Interested…”
He let his lips tilt into a smile. “Yes. Very. Immensely. As I said I like you.”
“My Lord, you may speak as though you know me, but you do not.”
“Such a sensible head, you only interest me more…”
Damn it, there was probably only a dozen steps left and beyond those dancing Drew saw her father in a discussion with her brother, Pembroke. The Duke must have recently arrived. They both glanced across the room.
Drew looked at Miss Marlow, his time with the beauty was at an end. “I am the son of a Marquis…” In theory, and yet if he was to sell himself he must sell his best side. “You may hear bad things of me, but disregard them. Judge me by the man you see. Admittedly I am not like the young men I see you dancing with—”
“You have been watching me.”
“Did I not already say that I admire you? Why would I not watch you to learn more about you and be sure what I think is true?”
“What do you think?”
“That I shall be a very lucky”and wealthy, “man, if I were to win you… You are a beauty.” He would guess if she looked about this room she would only see the light, the flowers, the beautiful dresses and people’s smiles. Like looking at that damned wooden pillar, unless you touched it, or tapped it, unless you knew, you would not know the lie beneath the paint.
Damn it, if he chose to marry her he would lock her up to protect her innocence.
The music ceased; her fingers were in his as the dance was completed. She would have pulled them free but he refused to let go.
She lowered in a curtsy.
Half the room would be laughing behind their smiles as they watched his game play, thinking the poor woman the fool he’d just told her he never was. He did not wish her thought a fool either, though.
As she rose, she smiled.
Her eyes said she liked him, even if she had not said it with her lips.
She’d taken him at his word, and she was judging him by what she saw, not by the history that had woven around him like a web for years… Rogue… Rake… Bastard… Unwanted son… Unwanted entirely…
“My father,” she breathed as her hand slipped from his. He felt the loss like something had been taken from him.
“Remember me as I am.”
She gave him another tentative smile and then her fingers gripped her dress to lift it away from her feet and she turned towards her father.
Drew watched her cross the floor then join her family. Her father leant to her ear and spoke hurriedly. She glanced back. Drew smiled. She smiled in return but it quivered with uncertainty. She knew now. Her father had just told her.
Do not dance with that rogue…
Damn the man, and damn these people. Drew turned away, to return to his friends, to return to his life, but he had ambitions, and now his ambitions leaned heavily towards Miss Mary Marlow, though winning the girl would be a challenge, there was no denying that.
“Drew, come to my room tonight…” for God’s sake, he had just bathed in innocence and now he was dirty again. He’d lied when he’d said he was unwanted entirely, one element of society welcomed him willingly. Women of his mother’s ilk.
Her removed Lady Worton’s hand from the front of his trousers, pressing his thumb into her palm so she would yield her grip on his crotch. “I am afraid I am not inclined, Bets. Find another toy tonight.”
He did not wait to hear the woman’s reply. He was so damned bored of his life. He’d fallen into it, never chosen it. Been damned well born into, like a whore into a brothel, and for years he’d enjoyed the sex, and the money and gifts the women gave him, but there had come a point he wished to be able to do as he chose – be free to live as he chose – and the only way to achieve it was to marry money.
“Drew!” Another of his friends, Peter, lifted a hand. Drew did have some people he appreciated.
“Peter. You are late. Where have you been?”
“I have been…” As Drew listened to his friend, he turned to face the room.
Miss Marlow was not dancing the next, she stood with her father receiving a scalding by all appearances, while her brother was with a woman in a knot of the family who crowded around them.
Drew looked at Peter. “Who is that with Pembroke?” The Pembroke women, including Miss Marlow, were all dark haired, it was one of the strongest characteristics of their beauty; jet black hair and pale skin and then pale blue eyes about onyx pupils, but this woman was blonde.
“Pembroke’s bride. I came in just before them. He’s taken a wife.”
Good Lord. That was a lark. No one would have expected the man to marry for years. He was not like his sister, his heart was made from stone, and he was no more innocent than Drew. They had travelled in the same circles on the grand tour. Pembroke had been one of the women’s toys too. But he’d walked away from it years ago. Yet he’d been tarnished by it even then.
“Why?” Peter gripped Drew’s shoulder.
“Oh for no reason, I simply wondered.”
“I thought you were interested in the sister, you will hardly have a chance there if you pitch for the man’s wife.”
Drew laughed and looked back over, Mary’s father had ceased talking to her but now her mother was speaking to her. Miss Marlow glanced across the room, her eyes seeking Drew out.
An odd sensation leapt in his chest. He would have said it was his heart, but like Pembroke, he did not really have one. That had been kicked far too many times in his life. Her mother said something else and Miss Marlow looked away.
Drew looked at Pembroke again. Drew liked Miss Marlow. She fulfilled all that he was seeking. Yet Pembroke would never let Drew near his little sister. That thought was a punch in the gut. Another rejection, and a rejection from a man who could have no moral standing over Drew.
It was bloody tempting to pitch for Pembroke’s wife, solely to kick the man back.
If Pembroke had earned himself a wife and a second chance, than why could he not offer Drew the same?
“Stop drooling over the fair Miss Marlow, come and play cards.”
“I ought not, I ought to dance with every woman with a dowry if I am to find one fool enough to take me.”
“There is no hurry for you to choose a woman. If you need funds I’ll pay. Come and play. I am need of your company; Mark and Harry are already playing so I need another man I trust for my pair.”
Drew played a few hands of cards at the tables with his friends for an hour; they did not normally attend such affairs, but Derwent’s wife was in Drew’s mother’s set, and so any young man with ill-morals had been encouraged to attend. It would end in an orgy later, but by then he and his friends would be gone. He had never been into those sorts of games.
“I am out.” He’d played for long enough.
If he wished to escape his current life, he must return to the task of looking for a new one.
“Then you must settle what you owe.”
Fortune had played against him. Drew looked at Peter who nodded as a hand moved to his pocket. Drew rose. “Good evening, gentleman.” he said to the others about the table, but then he shared a look with Peter that said I shall see you in a while. His friend smiled.
It was all well and good to have a generous wealthy friend, but how could a man respect himself when he lived off his friend like a leach, or from services rendered to the older women of society. They saw society’s untitled sons as a pack of male whores. The devil take this life. He no longer wished for it.
Of course there were lucky untitled sons, those who had fathers who paid for a commission in the army, or the clergy. Framlington would never have deemed to give Drew that. He had given Drew nothing bar his name, his food, and limited clothing, from Drew’s birth until his fifteenth birthday. Then Drew had learned a way to earn freedom from his false father’s house. Only to tie himself up in a new hell.
He should have saved the money the women gave him and paid for his commission into the army, but he’d been young, and greedy, and he’d celebrated his new wealth playing hard at the tables and buying whatever he wished. Of course then the debt had begun, and the debt had sucked him deeper into the power of his mother’s set of friends; though friends was an ambiguous word. Yet they had paid his duns for years, but never enough to fully clear his debt.
He returned to the ballroom to look for his prize – a young woman with a dowry of reasonable size, one that would clear his debt fully, and finally, and enable him to set up his life as he wished.
His eyes were immediately drawn to Miss Marlow’s dark curls, which bounced against her shoulders as she skipped through the steps of another country dance. He truly liked the girl. She’d become his preference tonight.
But he should not put all his eggs in one basket, as people said. He looked across the room at another debutante, a lady with auburn hair whom he’d danced with thrice. She was not as pleasing on the eye as Miss Marlow and yet her dowry was equally substantial.
As he passed a set, a woman was spun out of the last turn of a dance breathing hard. Her gaze met his.
Pembroke’s newly acquired wife.
She had blue eyes, but they were not as pale a blue as her sister-in-law’s.
Damn it, but he was tempted to play a game. He knew if he settled on Miss Marlow, then Pembroke would fight him all the way. Pembroke had turned his back on the life Drew led, and now treated all those who’d no choice but to live it, as if they were scum. Drew could teach Pembroke a lesson with this.
As Pembroke’s wife’s partner bowed over her hand elegantly Drew saw Pembroke speaking with Lady Elizabeth Ponsonby, Drew’s sister. She was older than Drew, older than Pembroke, and of Framlington’s blood, and she’d adopted and thoroughly enjoyed their mother’s way of life.
She was the one who had pulled Pembroke into their set on the grand tour. Pembroke had been as innocent and stupid as his little sister then. Like a baby, newly born, presented to the women in a linen cloth. Here is another young male for you to mislead.
Drew never spoke to Elizabeth. They did not acknowledge their connection.
Yet on this occasion Drew was grateful to her.
Pembroke would be occupied for a while; if Elizabeth was interested in him again she would not let him escape easily.
“Your Grace.” Drew grasped the fingers of the Duke of Pembroke’s hapless young bride as soon as her former companion walked away. The woman looked a little lost… a lost sheep… “Would you dance with me?”
She had large blue eyes, which looked her confusion.
“Oh, of course…” Just like her sister-in-law she was too polite, too innocent and naïve, to deny him.
Of all the dances, it was a waltz.
He took her hand and brought her close, so her breasts pressed to his chest. She stepped back.
This was going to be amusing at least, and perhaps if she was so newly innocent, if she could be persuaded, sharing a bed with her might actually be enjoyable.
He span her several times, gripping her firmly as her hold was so light it felt as though she tried not to touch him at all. “So where did you meet Pembroke?”
“I… Near Pembroke Place, Lord Framlington.”
She did know who he was then.
“Is your marriage as blissful as you hoped…” he was being sarcastic.
Her mouth opened, but she did not answer, as though she didn’t know what to say. Well there it was then. Another cold loveless society marriage that would end in shame, and sin. He did not wish it for himself. He wished for more in the marriage he sought, underneath all else, he sought loyalty too. He may have cuckolded dozens, but he did not wish for that from his wife.
Drew saw Pembroke over her shoulder, whispering with Elizabeth, already perhaps agreeing to play his poor wife false. Drew had an urge to play the same game, why should Pembroke have what Drew wished for and then treat it ill.
Besides Drew had been brought up to be wicked. He leaned to the Duchess’s ear speaking as he spun her again, toning his voice to the pitch of seduction. “Pembroke is dull. Perhaps when you tire of him you might think of me. I would be willing to warm your bed if it is cold.”
The woman snapped her head back, as though he’d slapped her, and the look on her face implied horror. “I will never tire of my husband, my Lord…”
Her rejection was an insult, another kick. He wished to be good enough for a woman like this. “But there is much to be said for variety, my dear, and your husband knows it, look, see, he’s speaking with my sister, an old flame he probably wishes to rekindle.”
She looked as he turned her, her head turning as he turned, so she could keep looking at Pembroke. When she looked back at Drew pain shone in her eyes, pain and something else… She cared for Pembroke. Truly cared. Her eyes were shimmering with tears, and she had bitten her lip to stop them falling. Her fingers clawed on his shoulder and gripped his hand a little harder as though she was saving herself from falling as much as trying to prevent her tears.
His hand, which had been seductively spread across her back to feel the movement of her body beneath her gown, now slid a little downwards, to hold her up if needs be, as they took the last few turns.
He did not know what to say.
When he looked beyond her, unable to look at her eyes filled with sparkling tears, he saw Pembroke coming. The man had disposed of Elizabeth and was crossing the room with a look of thunderclouds in his eyes, walking through the dancers for God sake.
Pembroke did not in general show his emotion. Drew had truly believed him no more movable than stone. He had thought this woman had been selected to be a future Duchess and was on the verge of a life of hell. But the look in Pembroke’s eyes, the anger, implied the man felt as much for his wife as his wife clearly felt for him. Drew had made an error in this.
Fortunately before Pembroke collided with a couple the dance came to its natural end, and when he reached them, as the last notes played, he gripped his wife’s arm, with a force that said, she is mine and no one else will touch her. Then he hissed at Drew. “I’d already made a note this evening to warn you off – I do not want you dancing with my sister – and now I see I must also warn you off my wife. Just so that you know, Framlington, hunting my sister is pointless, I would not agree the match and never pay you her dowry, and if you touch my wife again, I’ll kill you.”
Drew smiled as he stepped away from the Duchess. He wished to laugh. Well who would have known that Pembroke had a heart? And who would have known that Pembroke could make a woman fall for him so deeply.
As Drew walked away he saw Miss Marlow, Pembroke’s sister, being returned to her parents, by her latest partner. Her gaze turned to Drew, as it had earlier. He smiled and nodded slightly in recognition.
She had not heeded her brother’s and her father’s warnings.
He returned to the fake marble pillar and watched Miss Marlow. She spoke with her family as her dance partner walked away.
Several of the men in the Pembroke group had hands resting at their wives’ waists, and the couples stood close, barely inches between them. Some of them had been married for years…
The Earl of Barrington turned and said something to his wife, then kissed her lips. Barrington was Mary’s uncle on her father’s side, and Drew had heard he’d been a rake, as wicked as they came, until he’d married. Now he was never in town unless he was with his wife.
Wiltshire, another Duke, The Duke or Arundel, who was as hard-nosed as Pembroke, laughed about something, then mid-conversation he turned and looked at his wife, lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed them, then merely turned and continued the conversation.
Drew saw Marlow lean and say something in his wife’s ear and she looked up at him and smiled then shook her head laughing, her answer from him was a kiss on the cheek and another whisper as he gripped her fingers and then kept a hold of her hand.
They were all affectionate. Every pair. Mothers with their husbands, and the elder daughters with theirs. He was looking at a utopia. Of course it could be as false as the damned pillar he leaned against. But if it were true…
If it were true then there was no doubt about his choice. If Miss Marlow was as capable of constancy as the other woman in her family, why would he choose another?
Yet it would not be easy to win her. They would wrap her up and keep her away from him now. But he wished to be sure of this. He wanted to be confident in the fidelity of his wife, and he now wished for something new, after tonight… How could he expect a loyal wife if he did not ask the same of himself? He wished to know that he could be faithful to the wife he chose too. He knew exactly what he wanted now. He wanted what the Pembrokes had. Commitment… Exclusivity… Constancy… Even affection… perhaps…
He had made his choice, for a wife. He wished for Miss Marlow, but he would wait and not rush – to be certain. He had a little more credit he could call on, his need for her dowry was not desperate.
“Are you ready to retire?” Peter’s hand settled on Drew’s shoulder.
Drew also had a friend with generous pockets.
“Aye.” Drew straightened, looking back at his friends, Peter, Harry and Mark, his brothers… His family. “Did you fair better than I?”
“Richest of us did.” Mark quipped. “The man who does not need it.”
“I won back your losses and more.” Peter clarified. “So I say that earns us a drink and a pretty bird of paradise each.”
“I’ll take the drink, but I shall pass on the whore…”
Spending the money he’d earned from the women he now hated, on younger, prettier women of his choice, had been the way he’d balanced his soul for years, a little silent kick in the teeth of his mother’s friends. But now he was done with women until he took a wife. The thought of sleeping with a woman other than the one he’d chosen for marriage was now abhorrent.
“Then I shall have yours as well as mine.” Harry laughed.
Drew smiled at his friends, but as they walked from the ball, he glanced at Peter. The only one of them who usually attended these sorts of events with Drew. “What do you know of the Pembrokes? The sisters, and their daughters…”
* * *
Mary was sitting on her bed, with her knees bent up and gripped in her arms. Her bare toes peeped from beneath her nightgown. She watched her mother put her garments away; she’d dismissed the maid.
“Mama, why did you favour, Papa?”
She was placing Mary’s earbobs into their box. She hesitated and did not speak for a moment as though the question shocked her. Perhaps she’d guessed why Mary asked. Mary had asked because one particular gentleman’s light brown eyes had hovered in her mind all evening, along with the particular lilt of his smile.
“There you have me. Perhaps I am not a gentleman…”
No. So her brother John had told her father, and her father had told her. “Framlington is a fortune hunter. A rake. A man to avoid…”
“Remember me as I am…”
“When I met your father…” her mother sat on the bed, “our eyes met across a table and I just knew he was right for me.” She was blushing a little.
“Do you think I will know?”
“I hope you will. I hope you find a man who shall sweep you off your feet and love you with all his soul.”
“That is what I hope for too.” Lord Framlington’s eyes, his face, returned to her mind. There had been something fascinating about him. He was different to any other man who’d spoken to her.
“Did you truly enjoy the evening? You have been quiet tonight.”
Mary smiled. “I did.”
“Come along then, let me tuck you in—”
“I am too old to be tucked into bed, Mama.”
“You will never be too old. Come along.” Her mother rose.
Mary slipped off the bed, then lifted the sheet and slid beneath it. She plumped the pillow with a thump before she lay down her head.
Her mother leaned down and kissed her cheek, then tucked the sheet in beneath the mattress so the sheet was tight about Mary. “Sleep well…”
“Would you give Papa a kiss from me?”
Her mother smiled. “I love you, Mary.” She bent and pressed another kiss on Mary’s cheek, then her cold fingertips touched Mary’s cheek too.
“I love you too, Mama.”
Mary’s mother walked across the room and extinguished the candles in the candelabrum before turning to collect a single candlestick. Then she walked to the door. “Goodnight.”
Her mother turned once more as she opened it. “Sleep well.”
Mary smiled, and then her mother left and closed the door. The light disappeared with her.
Mary saw Lord Framlington in the darkness, as he stood against a marble pillar, watching her across the room. She ought to feel nothing for him. She ought to never think of him again. He had been courting her dowry, nothing more.
Yet there had been something about him.
I like and admire you, Miss Marlow…She had felt the same. There had been something calling her towards him.
She’d looked for him thrice after they’d danced, on one occasion he’d not been in the room but the other times, he’d looked at her too, and smiled.
But John was adamant he was unsuitable and if Lord Framlington were seeking her dowry he would smile.
Then why did she feel pulled towards him? Her thoughts drifted into dreams. Dreams that included Lord Framlington.
The following year…
Miss Mary Rose Marlow’s whole body jolted with surprise, “Oh!” and she nearly fell down the short flight of garden steps she’d just climbed. A masculine chest faced her.
Lord Framlington caught hold of her elbow, saving her, only to pull her towards the chest which had caused her exclamation.
He’d appeared from behind the hedge to block her path.
Her fingers pressed against the solid muscle beneath his day coat. Unladylike longings besieged her. She had never forgotten him.
Irked by the desire she should not feel, Mary pushed him away, anger flaring and overriding the unwanted attraction that constantly pulled at her, urging her to look for him, to listen for his voice.
She looked up and met his gaze, ire burning a flame she hoped he saw in her eyes.
If he did, the deep, dark amber brown of his absorbed it with cool, quelling disengagement.
Her stomach wobbled like aspic with an unwilling hunger for the reprobate.
“Miss Marlow.” He let go of her arm, then raised his hat a little.
Mary stepped back, careful to avoid the shallow steps.
“It is my good fortune to collide with you.”
Bobbing a hardly recognisable curtsy Mary’s gaze reached beyond him seeking a way past. But the garden path, lined by tall yew hedges, was barely wide enough for one. She could not pass him without further contact unless he moved aside.
“Lord Framlington.” Her voice rang sharp with irritation. “If you will excuse me, I really ought to be getting back.” She moved to sweep past, but he blocked her with his broad chest.
“No haste, Miss Marlow, the party was still in full swing when I left, no one will notice our absence, they are busy playing Lady Jersey’s outdoor games. Have you tried the archery butts? You could aim an arrow at my heart if you wish, I would not complain, and perhaps you might snare me if it came from Cupid’s bow.”
Her gaze lifted to his. “Do not be absurd?” The snapping words leapt from her mouth. His comment was far too close to her secret wish. “You know my brother advises against you.”
“The Duke of Pembroke?” Condescension sharpened his words, while a roguish smile played with his lips. Oh she remembered that smile, it had hovered in her dreams for a year… “What do I care for his opinion, and what do you care. I have often thought the man did me a favour, warning you off. You have been enamoured ever since.”
“I have not.” Mary’s hands balled to fists. The man was infuriating. Why on earth did she find him so interesting? Because on one evening, nearly a year ago, he had danced with her, and talked and flirted, and smiled and laughed as no other man had.
He grinned. “Careful, or I shall think you protest too much. Besides I know because I have seen you watching me. Whenever I turn, there is Miss Mary Marlow staring across the room.”
He leant forward, his face inches from hers. “Your looks call to me, Mary. You whisper to me, come, come, Framlington, closer.” His husky pitch made her skin tingle with awareness and possibilities course through her blood.
He straightened, his gloved fingers gently bracing her chin. “Well here I am, Mary. Come to you. What will you do with me?”
She backed away a step, lifting her chin from his grip. “Nothing.” She forced the denial from her lips, when internally she longed to know how his kiss would feel. “Let me pass. I should not be speaking with you.”
“But you are.” He stepped forward.
When she’d danced with him last season his glittering light brown eyes had melted her bones. He’d held her gently, while making her laugh, like he was a jester, and as they’d parted he’d asked her to remember him.
She’d fallen in love during that dance. Irrevocably in love. She had not forgotten.
But afterward her eldest brother, John, the Duke of Pembroke, had advised that Lord Framlington – her beauty – was a beast. A fortune hunter, chasing dowries.
Worse, he was a rake, a philanderer, a seducer, not to be trusted in the least.
It is folly talking to him.
“Then let me rectify that.” She tried to pass him. But he caught her upper arm, stopping her and turning with her. She stood facing him in the narrow gap between the tall yew hedges.
“Stop running and stop pretending you do not like me. I am not blind. Besides, run, and my predatory instincts say, chase.” On the last word he leaned forward, pulling her closer and then his lips pressed down on hers and his other hand came to her nape urging her to stay, to allow, to give, as his lips brushed across hers.
Mary’s instinct screamed, run. But his lips urged so beautifully her body cried, take, longing to devour, to the point that she was no longer sure who was the predator, him or her. This was her first kiss.
Gripping his shoulders, she clung to him, opening her mouth at his urging, and when his tongue invaded her lips a rush of desire slid through her stomach reaching to the central point of femininity between her legs.
This was what she’d imagined and longed for – this enchantment and desire.
He moved her back a step, against the yew hedge, as his kiss increased in intensity, the movement of his lips and the caress of his tongue growing in determination, intriguing and intoxicating.
His grip left her arm and closed over her breast, squeezing it through the thin muslin of her gown.
A sharp, sweet pain travelled from her nipple, catching her breath. It was delicious, but still it was pain and it was enough to rip her focus from his kiss to rational thought.
What am I doing? What am I letting him do?
Breaking the kiss suddenly, she caught him off guard and it gave her the chance to escape.
Slipping from his grip, she fled, not daring to look back for fear he’d follow.
“Miss Marlow!” he called after her, a note of humour in his voice. “I know you feel the same for me as I feel for you! Stop running and come back to me!”
She did not even look back.
“Well then, if not now, whenever you wish, simply give me a sign and I shall find a way we can meet! Or look for my signal!”
Her fingers gripped her dress, holding it from the ground, as she ran along the path, her breathing heavy and her lips burning, while her breast ached from the pressure of his hand.
When she reached the end of the path, she slowed to a walk letting her dress fall and stepped out on to the open lawn where a crowd of elite society had gathered for the garden party.
Her fingers pressed against her breastbone.
“Mary, there you are.” She turned as her brother’s voice cut the air. “We were coming to find you. Katherine was concerned.”
Mary looked to the lady who held her brother’s arm. Her sister-in-law was kindness incarnate, but Kate was Mary’s chaperone today. A blush burned beneath Mary’s skin. She had let him kiss her. A man her father and brother had explicitly warned against.
“I walked down to the Jerseys’ grotto. I wished to see it and I did not like to bother you, you were talking.”
John’s and Kate’s eyebrows rose. They did not need to say,Mary you should not have gone alone, she knew it was an error now.
But his kiss had been beautiful. She had not known that a combination of lips and tongues could cause her body to ache… and ache in unspeakable places.
Lord Framlington appeared from behind the hedge. Mary looked back, the heat in her skin increasing.
The rogue smiled at her, then walked on across the lawn, implying, without a word, that something had happened between them. Heat swept over her.
“What were you doing?” John whispered, in a harsh condemning tone. Mary met his pale blue gaze; it was chilling, like ice.
What indeed? “I did not plan it,” she whispered back, tipping up her chin to stand against her domineering brother. “I bumped into him.” Literally. “I did not intend to.”
One of John’s eyebrows quirked. “Well I assure you, he did. Do not to speak to him, Mary, and certainly, never in private. If you are compromised, you will be tied to him. That is what he wishes. If you do not want to be forced into marriage with a grasping rake, then have more care; no wandering pathways alone. You’re lucky he did not ravish you and wait on someone to happen along and see the two of you together. His situation is even more desperate than last year. The man cannot curb his spending, his debt is spiralling. There is not a prudent bone in his body. He’s fortune-hunting, hard.”
Mary’s gaze fell to John’s diamond cravat pin. She did not argue. Lord Framlington had proved John right – and her wrong. Very wrong.
Every word John spoke was true, she knew that, but something within her burned for Lord Framlington. He’d lit a flame in her a year ago, and it refused to be snuffed and if her heart had longed for Lord Framlington for a year, now it screamed… He had kissed her and fulfilled every expectation fostered in her dreams.
She shut her eyes to escape a giddy sensation. Simply thinking about his kiss caused her to ache for him.
She opened her eyes, denying her inner clamour. “I know, John, it was a mistake. I will not do it again.”
“Do not fret, Mary, no one saw.” Kate linked her arm with Mary’s. “Did Lord Framlington do or say something to frighten you? Has he upset you?”
“No.” Mary looked at Kate. There was no need for her family to know he’d kissed her. She did not wish John, her father, or her uncles, calling Lord Framlington out. It was only a kiss after all, no harm, not really. Except, if she’d stayed, she did not think it would have ended there. John was right: Lord Framlington was trouble. He had intended ravishment.
Why did her silly heart have to make her stomach flutter at the thought?
“He did not touch you?” John’s fingers rested on her shoulder, his voice filled with concern, but there was an edge of anger to.
Her eyes turned to his. “No.” Guilt thrust its knife into her breast. “Honestly, John, Lord Framlington merely frightened me. I know I made a mistake.”
Lord Framlington had made her lie.
John’s fingers fell away from her shoulder. “Well, if he’s scared you, you will hopefully never make such an error again.”
“Yes.” She would not, she had learned her lesson. This could have ended with awful consequences. She felt torn in two, he heart pulled one way, towards danger, while her head and her family pulled another. She must listen to her head and heed common-sense.
If I’d been seen with him?
The blood drained from Mary’s head. “May we go home?”
“If you wish.” John looked at her, his gaze deep with concern, as though he only half believed her assurance. “I’ll send for the carriage.” He turned away.
“We shall say our goodbyes, John.” Kate drew Mary closer and began walking across the lawn to where Lady Jersey stood among a knot of friends.
“He did disturb you,” Kate whispered, “and I’m sure it was over more than nothing. You do not have to tell me, but just mind what John says and do not allow yourself to be drawn in by Lord Framlington’s charm.”
Mary looked at the woman she thought of as a full sister. “It was nothing, really, just nonsense.” She was lucky, her family may caution, but they would always support her. Mary smiled. Kate smiled too, but her eyebrows lifted again.
“Nonsense to a woman, Mary, is manoeuvring to a man. Beware, males are predatory and determined when they choose to be, and Lord Framlington is of that ilk. Avoid him.”
“I was… I am… I just… I never thought he would follow.”
“Well, doing the things we never expect, is what they do,” Kate advised conspiratorially. “But I will convince John not to tell your father and mother of this. No need for you to listen to this lecture twice.”
Mary’s smile lifted a little. “Thank you.”
“Now let us get our goodbyes over with, and then, shall we stop at Gunter’s for an ice; the day is so hot, I am positively melting.” With that Kate flicked open her fan and began to waft the warm early summer air over them both, looking towards Lady Jersey.
Mary’s gaze spun away scanning the lawn full of people for a gentleman with dark brown hair, a head above the rest. She spotted him in seconds she was so used to searching him out.
Lord Framlington stood among a group of men, laughing.
His head turned and his gaze reached across the open space finding her. He knew she’d been watching. He smiled, a self-indulgent smile and nodded before looking away.
Her heart raced, against her better judgement, her imagination whirling with images she should not see.
“The game is on with Pembroke’s little sister. I have settled on her. She is my choice.” Lord Andrew Framlington, fourth son of the Marquis of Framlington, in name only, leaned back in his spindle chair, self-confidence flooding him. He hooked one arm across the chair’s back and raised an ankle to settle on the opposite knee, modelling the pose of a dissipated rake. That was what he had been for most of his life.
“Marlow’s ice maiden? Are you serious, Drew? The girl who freezes out all of dubious character? She has not allowed you near her since last year.” His friend, Harry Webster’s speech slurred a little.
“The same,” Drew’s gaze passed around his small group of loyal friends.
Harry sat forward in his chair. “Have you spoken to her?”
“Yes, and as you know I have been improving my character.” He smiled at Harry. They knew he had kept himself away from whores for nearly a year – the kind to be paid. Yet he’d also kept away from the kind who paid. His friends did not know the latter fact. “You’ll see. She’ll be mine in a month, three at the most. She’s taken my bait, a kiss, and I shall charm her into submission. She will be begging me to wed her at the end.”
“She’ll be yours within a week, knowing how women fall for you.” Mark Harper commented, his concentration still on their game of cards. He tossed a four of spades onto the table.
Drew looked at his hand of cards. No spades. He would trump them all with a heart.
“But didn’t Pembroke warn his little sister off you?” Harry persisted.
“He has warned her off every man with a speck of dust in his closet. A man must have a spotless reputation to be considered.” Peter Brooke, Drew’s closest friend smiled.
“As if Pembroke can judge,” Harry pressed. “That man is no saint, he is not spotless himself.”
“But reformed,” Drew answered. He un-looped his arm from the chair, leaned forward and set his card on the table, then looked at his friends, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Maybe the woman has a little contrary in her soul, though. Ever since he warned her off she’s been watching me. Or perhaps she just has a taste for risk or badness hidden beneath her cold denials, or likes being naughty – any of which appeal, they are all to my advantage.”
The group laughed.
Peter leaned forward to lay his card. “Well, I would not cross Pembroke or any of her family for that matter, they are far too influential. She calls a quarter of the House of Lords Uncle, even if her father is only a second son.”
Drew did not need reminding.
Yet he intended winning her. He had waited a year, given her, and himself, the time to be sure. He was sure. She had come back to town this season and her eyes had still searched for him across the ballrooms, and the first time he’d seen her again he’d felt slain. The girl was beautiful, rich, innocent and his best hope of constancy – and ever since the night he had danced with her, he’d felt pulled into choosing her. It was a physical feeling, not simply a mental choice.
She had lived with him for a year, in his dreams, both in the day and at night.
Yet as certain as he was of his choice he was equally certain her family would not allow it. They would say no if he asked for her.
Hiscontrary streak itched. He did not like being told no. No, was temptation. Like the girl running, it only made him want to chase. But he did not think she would run, not now – unless it was towards him. He smiled at his silent humour.
“You are going to wed her then?” Mark clarified.
“I’ve no choice. The duns are on my tail. I need to marry money. She’s interested, available, and she has it. Plus she is remarkably kind to the eye.”
“Kind to the eye.” A sarcastic smile twisted Harry’s lips. “That is lacklustre. The girl’s the darling of society. They all fawn over her. She’s stunning. I would have a go at her if I thought I stood a chance, but she’ll not look twice at me. You however…”
“You have the looks and the knack, Drew,” Peter expounded, “while we are all left to petty jealousy.”
Drew laughed. “I have not won her yet, and you are just as capable.”
“No. But we all know you will win her. I would not even waste a wager on it,” Mark enthused.
“The question is, what will you do with her when you have her?” Harry laughed. “Now that is what I would like to see, however, after that, what on earth will you do with a wife?”
Drew looked past his friends at his small living quarters.
His rooms in the Albany were a decent enough bachelor’s residence, but he would need something more once he’d wed. He longed for a property of his own. Somewhere outside of London and he would need space to lose a woman in. He did not wish to be crowded. In the last year, when he’d thought of marrying Miss Marlow, he had never considered the detail beyond the wedding night and receiving the cheque.
Still once he’d wed, he’d have her dowry and he could buy a bigger property, perhaps something with land, to make a profit from. She would understand that life and fill her time without his assistance.
His hands itched to be out of town and free of his reliance on Peter. His debts had swelled in the last year, barely anyone allowed him credit now and so more and more he’d become reliant on Peter’s kindness. It unmanned him, but he refused to return to earning his living through sex.
But how the hell would he fit in a life with a wife…He had not one daisy petal of an idea how to manage land, let alone how to manage with a wife.
All the wives he knew spent their time cuckolding their inattentive husbands.
But that was why he’d settled on Mary, chosen Mary – he thought her different to those women. He’d watched her family for a year. They were all in what society deemed love matches.
Love – that word was false, in his experience. A non-entity. People did not love. They used the word to wound and hurt.
His mother declared she loved the Marquis, but cuckolded him constantly. While on the occasions the Marquis came to town he spent his hours with chorus girls. His mother’s favoured companions were the sons of society and she was regularly in town.
Their behaviour was typical; he knew that because his mother’s friends had begun his initiation into their world of fornication when he’d been fifteen. Ten years on and society had not changed.
But he had changed.
“Drew, I’m sure you’re thinking of what the woman will be like in your bed, but you will not be saying goodbye to her come morning. I said, what will you do with her once you’re wed?”
He had no idea.What the hell will I do with a wife?
Lock her away somewhere so she will not lay with other men.Or could he truly trust her.
She was not like them. Miss Marlow was his best hope of fidelity and yet she would not be in love with him… and he would not be in love with her. Theirs would not be a love match… He did not know how to love, he did not even really believe in it.
Perhaps if all failed he would follow his false-father’s path and leave her to get on with it, find a country sanctuary for himself and rooms in town for her.
But quiet words whispered in his head, she would not be false.
Deep down, he hoped so hard.
That desire was another secret he was keeping from his friends. They thought him a pleasure loving rogue. He was still, in a way, but…
God, how they’d laugh if they knew a man with his reputation hated the women he was meant to seduce. He could not stand female promiscuity anymore. Not since he’d discovered a group of women who abhorred such things.
The Pembroke women had become like idols to him.
He met Harry’s gaze, his friend waited on his answer with an inquisitive grin, as the others carried on playing cards.
A self-deprecating smile twisted Drew’s lips. “The devil knows.”
“Pass her on to me!” Mark laughed. I’ll entertain her when you’re bored.
Drew’s jaw stiffened, his hand itching to form a fist.
He threw down another heart, the knave, and claimed the trick.
Then he forced his shoulders to relax and leant forward, to pull all the cards towards him. But while he did so, he shook his head. It was an adamant, no.
“Why not share, you’re hardly the monogamous type.” Harry laughed.
Drew tidied the cards into a pile at his elbow. Then looked at Harry, and Mark. “Perhaps not. However, I require that quality in a wife. She shall be monogamous, and if any of you touch her…” His gaze passed to Peter too, “I shall call you out.”
They all laughed.
Drew did not. It was not a jest.
“My God, Drew, have you fallen for her?” Peter charged. He knew Drew too well. They’d known each other since they were six.
Drew made a face at Peter, calling him ridiculous. “No, why would I? That is hardly my style. I just do not fancy being done to—”
“As you have done to others… Chickens coming home to roost, Fram?” Harry threw Drew a broad smile.
“Exactly, I’ll not be made a fool of.” He’d willingly admit that much.
Let them know he would insist on a faithful wife, he just did not wish them to know how important it was, or that he planned to be faithful to. They would think him a fool.
* * *
A week had passed since the Jerseys’ garden party, a week to contemplate her foolishness. Yet no matter how stupid Mary knew it was she had not ceased looking for Lord Framlington at every event. Her traitorous body refused to heed the frequent warnings of her conscience and her common-sense.
She had not seen him, but tonight, as she walked into the crush of another ballroom, on her father’s arm, her eyes immediately identified her heart’s quarry.
He stood in the far corner, with his elbow on a marble bust, leaning forward and speaking with a woman, the Marquis of Kilbride’s wife. A beautiful blonde woman. Mary’s heart sank and she looked away before Lord Framlington felt her observation as he always did.
John is right. She’d told herself so a thousand times in the last few days, and yet even as she said it her mischievous mind recalled the press of his lips and the feel of his hand cradling her breast.
Heat rose across her skin and awareness leaked into her senses, prickling along her nerves.
Why am I so attracted to him?This emotion never clawed at her when she looked at other men, and she had danced with dozens. It was just Lord Framlington her heart and body craved.
Ninny!her common-sense screamed.But her senses still whispered Lord Framlington’s nearness.
He walked past, barely feet away as if he knew his proximity made her senses sing.
Yet he did not look at her.
Mary gripped her father’s arm more firmly.I will overcome this attraction.
There must be some man she could feel as much for. A man who did not have a wicked reputation. Who she could trust not to treat her ill.
“Miss Marlow, I would be extremely honoured if you will allow me this dance.”
Mary turned and faced Mr Gerard Heathcote, one of her staunch admirers. He bowed deeply. He was a wealthy merchant’s son who’d courted her last season. Her family liked him. He was charming, in a genteel way.
He’d made her an offer last season. She’d refused, saying it was too soon to settle on a husband. But that had been kindness. He was good natured, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. But her heart craved dark brown locks and laughing brown eyes with a wicked glint.
However Gerard was a good dancer and he’d become a friend, as were many of her beaux. But none of them were anything more. She felt nothing beyond like.
Mary swallowed back her growing impatience, letting go of her father’s arm. She offered her hand and Gerard drew her away. Usually she enjoyed dancing, but tonight it was one endless boring whirl.
Since when did I become so jaded?
Since the rogue kissed me.
From this moment on, unless Lord Framlington repeated his kiss, her life would be dull.
* * *
Arms folded across his chest, with one hand loose, the stem of his wine glass dangling between his fingers, Drew watched the dance floor.
She was dancing again. Her hand held that of the young heir to the Earl of Warminster as she skipped along an avenue made by their set. It was a boisterous country dance. The boy was smiling as was Miss Marlow, brightly, giving her beau all her attention, and Drew had none of it.
He was beginning to wonder if instead of increasing her interest he’d jumped his fences with that kiss and made his horse bolt. He’d not once caught her looking at him tonight. She was instead doing everything she could to avoid looking at him.
She’d spent the entire night amidst a gaggle of youths – a mix of her female friends and their beaux.
The child she danced with laughed at every word she said. Drew suspected the boy would laugh no matter what she said, and undoubtedly Miss Marlow was bored. But even so her eyes focused intently on her idiotic companion while her female friends fluttered their fans, along with their eyelashes and cast their gazes about the room seeking to hook some unsuspecting male.
Irritation burned in Drew’s veins.
He’d expected Miss Marlow to at least come closer. He’d even given her a clue earlier, by walking past her, suggesting a silent game they could play, passing close without touching, in secret acknowledgement. She had not picked up his gauntlet. She’d left it where it lay, kiss and all, and instead blatantly ignored him.
He leaned his shoulder against the wall silently seething. He’d thought this the victory leg but despite her youth and innocence Miss Mary Marlow was not going to be easily caught.
A challenge. He sighed, suddenly, letting the tension in his muscles ease with his outward breath. A challenge was like a chase, it whispered to his male instincts. He liked to be challenged. What fun would there be in life, if everything came easily?
Raising his glass of wine to his lips he watched her let go of young Warminster’s hand.
Then she turned to take her place in the line of the set. Her eyes lifted, and her gaze reached across the room. It was literally a glance, only an instant, but in that instant their gazes collided. She had looked for him. She had known he was watching her all along and exactly where he stood.
A smile curved his lips as she looked away and began to clap, watching another couple skip along the middle.
You will be my wife, Mary Marlow. You will.And you will beg me to offer for you, when I do.
He was going to change his tactics, though, perhaps she needed a little less subtlety and a little more urging.
* * *
Lord Framlington’s gaze made Mary’s skin prickle on the back of her neck as she looked along the line of dancers. He’d stared at her for an hour. What he expected her to do she did not know. Perhaps he thought she would seek an assignation with him. She could even hear his words in her head,“Come and meet me, Mary, outside where it’s cooler, where it’s quiet”.
It was nonsense of course, she was not psychic. It was her urge. Yet he’d applaud her weak conscience if he heard it and say, “Listen to it, do what you want to do, not what you should”. It was his voice she heard.
“I know you feel the same for me as I feel for you! Stop running and come back to me!” he’d called when she’d run away from him, along the pathway.
How could he know, and how had Lord Framlington managed to invade her thoughts so utterly after one kiss? But it had not just been since his kiss, ever since she’d danced with him she’d heard his voice and seen him in daydreams, and when she slept.
His gaze left her, like a physical touch slipping away.
Mary looked to see him set his half empty glass on the tray of a passing footman before he strolled away, leaving the ballroom, and she presumed the ball.
A sense of desertion tugged somewhere in her stomach and an odd ache settled like a cloak about her heart.
Was that it then? Was it over? Had she spurned him successfully? That had been her intention, to cut him dead and she’d succeeded until that final moment when she’d dropped her guard and glanced his way.
Perhaps he’d taken the hint regardless and tired of playing with her. There were a dozen other heiresses on the market, she was not his only choice.
But you are his choice. Her traitorous, wicked heart thought it a compliment that a man of Framlington’s looks and reputation wanted her as his wife.
“Idiot,” Mary said aloud, to her heart. Unfortunately as the dance drew to a close, Derek heard it too when he took her arm to walk her to her parents.
“What have I done to deserve that charge? Did I step on your toes?”
Patting his arm she shook her head, forming the false smile she’d relied on tonight. “I was speaking to myself, sorry. I agreed to dance with two partners for the supper set, I will have to apologise to someone.”
He accepted the excuse, without hesitation. Why would he not? Mary had not been in the habit of lying, until the day of the Jerseys’ garden party. Now she had lied twice.
When she reached her parents Lord Derek gave her knuckles a chaste kiss and bowed. The kiss did nothing to her innards. Unlike the kiss on her lips that had twisted in her stomach like someone hurriedly coiling embroidery threads.
Physical memories clawing at her soul, the room spun and Mary longed for home. The burden of pretence was too tiring.
“Mary, is something wrong?” Her gaze lifted to meet her father’s.
“I have the headache.” If sulking made her pathetic she did not care. “May we go home?”
“Already, we have not even eaten supper?”
“I know, Papa, but my head hurts.” Her fingers pressed to her temple. It throbbed with the pain of bottled up tears. She wished to cry over her insanity.
His brow furrowed and his fingers stroked her upper arm gently. “We will get you home.”
“I must use the retiring room first though, Papa.”
“Very well, you go up. I shall have the carriage called for, and tell your mother. We shall await you in the hall.”
Mary turned away, her head pounding. She felt a little sick as she climbed the stairs. The retiring room was quiet. Her mother’s maid was not there; she must have already been told they were leaving.
As Mary left the room, her fingers shook and she walked along the silent hall, with her thoughts screaming.
“Miss Marlow.” Her arm was gripped, firmly and she was pulled aside, into an alcove, and then pressed back against the wall as Lord Framlington’s mouth came down on hers.
She lifted her arms about his neck instinctively kissing him back with a longing that raged through her and took away the pain in her head, but then common-sense prevailed and she let him go, gripped his shoulders and pushed him away, whispering. “What do you think you are doing?”
“You have been playing a good game of ignoring me, but we both know you cannot. As I cannot ignore you.” His breath brushed over her lips his voice low and quiet. She would have turned and walked away but he gripped her wrist and held her still.
“Miss Marlow. Mary. Darling. Do not deny this. I know what you feel, because I feel it too.”
“I feel nothing.”
“And that is why you kissed me a moment ago, and at that garden party. You feel. You want. But I cannot come to you in a place like this, so if you want what I can give you, you will have to come to me…”
“What you give—”
“Kisses, darling. Happiness. A life filled with moments like this. You know I am looking for a wife, I know your brother has told you—”
“Most men do not look for a wife in the shadows of a hallway, or a narrow garden path—”
“I am not seeking any wife, I am seeking you, and if you wish to explore that, you will have to come to me, Mary.”
“No.” She pulled her wrist free, and turned away, her heart pounding as she began to run.
She heard his deep voice echo down the hall. “You may run but I know you do not wish to… You will come back when you have had chance to reflect and understand what you will miss… I will give you time, Mary, and then we’ll see.”
* * *
Drew watched her hurry away. She was scared but interested despite her better judgement. She had kissed him back. Her denial was pretence. He’d felt her attraction in her body, her breasts had pressed to his chest, as her slender arms had clung about his neck.
The power of emotion in him had caught him off-guard. At the garden party she had answered his kiss hesitantly, but tonight, it was as if she had longed to kiss him again. In the first instant when the shock had silenced her fears, she had thrust herself at him, and thrown herself into the kiss.
She had kissed him with innocence on both occasions.
His hand gripped the back of his neck for a moment, then fell. What if he had been the first man to kiss her? God that thought pierced through his chest, like a spear surging through him.
The first to press his tongue into her mouth.
Lord. The idea floored him with a sudden punch. But then he smiled, as the novelty of it bloomed, uncurling in him like a shoot from a seed, it rose up. Hope.
He walked along the hall; she had already reached the stairs and disappeared.
She was becoming more and more essential to his future. No other woman would do. She was his choice, and he was not going to be deterred.
She simply needed time.
Hell she had kissed him back with hunger tonight, albeit a little clumsily, but who cared. Who cared when he had been the first man to claim her lips – like a pioneer, and he intended to claim much more.
There was only one way he knew how to woo women, and that was with his body, he could teach the woman things she could never have imagined.
Innocent. He could not even remember how that had felt. But he knew how to make her feel good. He would give her the gift of sensual discovery and then she would never be able to refuse him. He would have her then.
But if she was running from kisses, she was not ready for that yet.
He needed another approach for the present and he had one; if the girl wanted to play hard to get, let her. If she wished to fain disinterest, then so could he.
He would give his little fish more line. Let her have some time to contemplate her choices. He doubted any of her young beaux made her heart race, or her bones melt. He doubted she had thrown her arms about their necks, and he had a very strong feeling she had never kissed any of them.
He would reel her in in a week or two when she’d had chance to realize his kisses were better than a hundred dances with the children she had danced with here.
What he had said to her was true, he felt the same… He knew she desired him, as much as he desired her.
* * *
Mary sat in her family’s coach bowling towards her brother’s town mansion.
The coach swayed on the uneven cobble. Its motion made Mary feel sick.
“It is unlike you to suffer with headaches, Mary, is something wrong?” her mother whispered.
Mary shook her head, then stopped as pain hammered in her skull.
“You look pale,” her father stated. “Has something happened?”
“I just need to sleep,” she whispered. She’d done very little of that in recent nights, and she feared she would not sleep tonight. The strength of Lord Framlington’s kiss still trembled through her nerves. “I will be well tomorrow.”
Leaning forward her mother pressed Mary’s knee. “We will be home soon. Would you like me to sit with you a while when you retire?”
“No, thank you, Mama.” Their kindness was cloying when Mary knew she was living a lie. She was not who they thought she was, she was not good, she was bad, or rather, she wanted to be bad. Everything Lord Framlington had said was true, she wanted to meet him, and kiss him again. He tempted her.
Now she felt as though he had poured himself into her blood, her body throbbed from the memory of their sudden encounter in the dark, and she could still feel his gentle grip on her wrist.
When they reached home, Mr Finch, her brother’s butler, opened the door. John and Kate were at a private dinner. Her younger brothers and sisters were all in bed. Her mother came upstairs with Mary, helped her undress and then tucked her in to bed, even though Mary had not wished her to.
“May I fetch you anything? Something for the headache?”
“No, Mama, thank you, I just need to sleep.”
Her mother smothered the candle then pressed a kiss to Mary’s forehead.
“I am not a child, Mama,” Mary whispered into the dark, although she longed to be held and for the turmoil inside her to ease.
Her mother sighed. “I know you are now nineteen. But you are still my daughter and you always will be, no matter your age.”
Her mother’s fingers touched Mary’s hair. “Goodnight, sweetheart.”
Mary rolled to her other side, feeling guiltier than ever, and wept.
She’d done nothing wrong, not really, not yet, it had only been kisses that she had allowed, but she had a dreadful feeling she would. She could not quell this longing for a man she should not want.
* * *
For the third night after she had kissed Lord Framlington for a second time, Mary looked for him with no success. Her heart ached. She longed to see him. She missed the rogue, with his little knowing nods in her direction, and his charming smiles.
He had asked her to meet him but then disappeared and made that an impossibility. While his kisses continued haunting her…
She wished for wickedness. She wished for kisses and embraces.
“Miss Marlow. Damn it, you stood on my foot.” Mr Makepeace was a wealthy landowner, but he was double her age and as dull as working on embroidery. He was boring, and he was rude. She may have missed a step, because she had been daydreaming, about Lord Framlington, but it was ungentlemanly to curse at her for it.
“Forgive me.” The heat of a blush touched her cheeks as people along the line of dancers looked over at them. Oh, she longed for a dance she had shared with a man a year ago, she had barely heard the notes of it; her thoughts had been too absorbed by the colour of his eyes.
They were hazel; a light shade of cluttered brown, but when the light caught his eyes it turned the colour to honey, a soft amber or gold. It had literally gilded his eyes.
The men she danced with were young and weak in nature, and silly compared to him, or too old for her, like Mr Makepeace, and dull, or in between but so busy seeking to portray a fashionable ennui that they had no personality at all.
The dance came to its conclusion, thank the Lord.
Breathing hard Mr Makepeace walked her back to her parents. She smiled at her mother. Then turned to Mr Makepeace. “Thank you.” He nodded in return then walked away.
She looked about the room for Lord Framlington, he still was not here. She was becoming angry with him now. Why? Where was he?
She huffed out an unladylike breath. “Mama, I wish to go to the retiring room.”
“I will come with you.”
“That is not necessary, the hall is busy; I will not be alone.”
Mary turned away and then pressed a path through the crush of people out into the hall and then across to the withdrawing room. She had foolishly hoped to discover Lord Framlington hiding somewhere. He had not been hiding anywhere.
The rogue had known how she would feel, how she felt…You feel. You want, but you know I cannot come to you in a place like this, so if you want what I can give you, you will have to come to me…But how could she come to him if he was nowhere to be found!
She hated him.
He was playing with her.
She loved him too, though. No one she spoke to or danced with compared to him, they were all a mile beneath him.
He was beautiful, witty, charming… and poor… A fortune-hunter, and a rake.
Her heart thumped as she hurried back to the ballroom still looking for him. He was not there. She did not return to her mother, she sought her friends. Someone to talk to. Though she had not spoken to them of Lord Framlington, they would think her mad. Everyone would think her mad. She could not even explain to herself why she liked him so much. But she did.
Her heart pounded harder even at the thought of him.
“Emily,” Miss Smithfield was one of Mary’s more recent, less confident, friends. She had looked lost one evening, sitting out a dance against the wall, and so Mary had befriended her.
“Mary. You poor soul, I saw you had to dance with Mr Makepeace.” Lady Bethany Pope kissed the air beside Mary’s cheek.
Mary made a face. Bethany and Emily laughed.
“Hasn’t he asked you to dance every night this week?”
“Good heavens, yes, but hopefully never again, I stood on his foot.”
“Perhaps.” They all laughed but Mary heard the hollowness in hers. Her life no longer interested her. She was bored. She missed the sense of danger hovering across the ballroom when Lord Framlington watched her. He made her feel different from everyone else, special. Every other man she danced with, danced with a dozen other women, she was no exception to any of them, and yet she had never seen Lord Framlington dance with anyone since he’d danced with her. Nor did he stare at anyone but her…
Although he had talked to that blonde woman the other day…
Had she lost him, by not conceding? Had he given up on her?
“Miss Marlow.” Mr Gerard Heathcote bowed before her. “May I have the honour of this dance?”
She wished to scream. No! She had danced with him ten dozen times, he was nice, polite… Boring.
Oh, her father had never spanked her, but he would wish he had done if he knew how wrong-headed she had become.
She dropped a shallow curtsy and then gave Gerard her hand. “Of course.” In reality she wished to run from the ballroom and out into the dark garden. It was raining outside, she quite fancied a thorough soaking. Perhaps it would bring her to her senses.
On the twelfth night after her second kiss with Lord Framlington, when she returned home with her parents, she stopped at her bedchamber door, and refused to let her mother in. “Please, Mama, I can retire alone. You cannot treat me as a child forever.”
“I know it is only out of love, but I wish to retire alone, Mama.”
As soon as she shut the door, the tears came. They had been hovering all night as she had looked for Lord Framlington almost constantly. When she’d waltzed her gaze had spun about the room searching every corner. Her dance partners must have thought her mad.
But she had come to the conclusion that it was over. He’d given up on her, and so she ought to listen to common-sense if the man was so fickle.
But her bitterness was washed away by tears. The maid in her room unbuttoned the back of Mary’s bodice, and then unlaced her stays. Mary looked at her, the stains of silent tears still damp pathways whispering their presence on her cheeks. “Pray tell no one that I have been upset. You may retire.”
“Are you certain, Ma’am.”
“Yes absolutely certain.”
When the maid left, Mary did not even bother to strip off her clothes or blow out the candles, but tumbled on to the bed and cried. Not only because she had not seen him, and may not see him ever again… but because she was a complete ninny for wanting to see him.
“Fool.” she breathed into the sheets.
Pride in his self-discipline burned in Drew’s chest as he strolled into the Wiltshires’ ballroom. He’d avoided Miss Mary Marlow for two weeks and now the moment to return was ripe.
Lord Wiltshire, The Duke of Arundel was her uncle. The girl would be feeling relaxed among her family and find it harder to be false and he hoped easier to establish a moment to escape as she’d done at the Jerseys’.
Looking down from the top of the entrance stairs, at the end of the Wiltshires’ ornate ballroom, he briefly scanned the crowd of heaving humanity, theton, England’s elite,in all their shining glory.
If her uncle knew Drew’s intent he would never have received an invitation, but he ‘d kept away from Miss Marlow in public since last year and so, to her family, he was simply another name on a list to fill the room and enable every society hostess’s wish for a crush.
He saw Miss Marlow; she was not far from the foot of the stairs and when his name was called she looked up. He rarely entered a room without drawing the attention of women, he ignored the others and smiled at her, holding her gaze.
She had been looking for him, for two weeks, and she had missed him, he could see it in her eyes; they were sparkling bright with relief.
He smiled at her, and for the first time in nearly a year she gave him a little self-conscious, confused smile back.
Her eyes asked him questions as she kept looking. “Where have you been? Should I seek you out and ask?”
Yes, you should, Mary.
He let her gaze go and smiled at the room in general to avoid her family noticing the exchange. If they whisked her away to the country to avoid him, his game would be off entirely for this year.
Drew wasted his first hour in the card room. This early in the evening she would be too much in demand to risk slipping away.
The supper bell rang and the music died, then guests surged into the room set aside for refreshments. Drew sauntered in a little late, at the rear; a gentleman acquaintance with whom he’d been playing cards at his side, a friend he’d picked out for the sole purpose of gaining entry into Miss Marlow’s family group.
If he was going to tempt her he needed to throw her at least a little more bait. His companion was an old mutual friend of Drew’s and Pembroke’s, from their days in Paris, during their dissipated grand tour. Days the Duke of Pembroke preferred to forget. Like Pembroke, Roger Harris had turned prude, and therefore Harris was the perfect camouflage, he would be welcome even if Drew was not.
On cue Roger called, “Pembroke!”
The family group were sittting about several tables. Drew ought to be daunted, but daunted was not within him, what he felt was a swell of anticipation, exhilaration. This was a bold move. He was walking a line, willing Miss Marlow to notice him while he wished her relatives to spot nothing out of the ordinary.
His quarry sat amidst her uncles and aunts on her brother’s table.
“Roger! I did not know you were in town.” Pembroke rose and strode the few steps towards them. “Is your wife with you?”
With Pembroke’s attention focused on their mutual friend, Drew let his gaze deliberately meet Miss Marlow’s. He caught it just for an instant, a moment in which his heart forgot to beat as her pale blue gaze struck his – summer skies and azure Italian seas. She was still deliberating. “Should I seek you out?”
Her beauty literally kicked him at times. He forgot to breathe.
“No, I’m afraid Miriam is in her last month and not fairing too well…” Harris babbled on about his family.
Drew nodded marginally to Miss Marlow. A blush stained her pale skin red. Drew let a hint of a smile form at one corner of his lips then looked away, nodded to Harris, lifted his hand in parting and walked on. He wanted her to watch him; it was his signal.
Satisfied the bait had been set. Drew helped himself to items from the buffet, but did not bother with a plate, he did not wish to spend the supper hour eating. He stopped to acknowledge a few acquaintances, and then extricated himself from several ex-lovers, before turning to walk from the room.
He glanced at Miss Marlow as he passed.
She was watching. Would she follow?
He gave her an encouraging echo of a smile.
“Should I?” The thought shone in her eyes.
His absence had done its job, all her pretence had gone.
Striding on across the empty dance floor he looked back. Her gaze followed him still. He smiled again and nodded.This is your chance, Mary, darling…
Deliberately picking his path to keep within her view he walked to a set of open French doors and stepped into the tepid night air, looking back one last time, throwing her a calling card.
He was too far away now to be sure she still watched, but something in the turn of her head told him she did.
Come on little beauty, follow.
Outside he walked to the end of the Wiltshires’ stone terrace, he could not go too far, she would not find him.
The terrace, like the ballroom, was deserted.
He leant his buttocks against the stone rim of the balustrade.
The dark house walls framed the empty ballroom and the view into the dining room, like a picture, with huge chandeliers illuminating the scene within.
It made the terrace darker.
He withdraw a slim cigar and a match from the pocket of his evening coat, lifted the cigar to his lips and struck the match on the stone beside his hip, then held the flame to the tip of the cigar and sucked until it caught.
At least he had an excuse to be out here if he smoked.
Taking the cigar from his lips he let the smoke slid out of his mouth.
Miss Marlow smiled at her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Pembroke, nodding at something the other woman said. Then her face turned to someone else across the table, a gentleman, one of her uncles, and she laughed. Pembroke spoke to her. Drew could see the Duke smiling at her, at something she must have said, before he laughed with her too.
Her father approached behind her, stopped and pressed a hand on Miss Marlow’s shoulder. He leaned and kissed her temple.
Drew took another long draw on the cigar he held between his fingers.
It was as unreal as watching a play at the theatre. Drew did not understand a family like that. They moved in a pack, a pride, like lions, closing to defend and protect one another whenever the need arose, all the men prowling about their lionesses.
I really ought to be daunted. He was not, very little dented either his ennui or his ego.
But Miss Marlow dented his ennui.
That was good. He hardly wished for a wife who’d bore him.
He sucked on the cigar again, relishing the flavour of tobacco in his mouth. He knew how to enjoy things. He’d learned to make the most of every little gift life gave him when he was young. He would enjoy making Miss Marlow his.
Rising, smiling at her brother and her father, and then passing the sunshine of her beauty about the others at her table, Miss Marlow then bobbed a slight curtsy.
Drew smiled, sensations dancing a bloody jig in his chest; his little fish had taken the bait.
Strolling away from the table she weaved a path through the other guests, stopping occasionally.
Drew’s heart beat a steady elated rhythm. He felt as though he’d been dealt the most superb hand of cards, but there was still a risk that if he laid them wrong he’d waste their benefit. There was still a requirement for skill and caution. He had to be careful now.
When she reached the ballroom instead of turning towards the open French doors, though, she disappeared through a door at the side of the room near the entrance stairs.
Shutting his eyes Drew urged her with all the will power he had, to…Come to me!
But damn it, if she did not, he was not giving up; he would simply have to find a new tack.
Drew opened his eyes lifted the cigar back to his lips and sucked in the smoke, then looking up to the stars he blew out a circle.
The night was clear, a blanket of very dark blue with thousands of sparkling pin pricks of light. He loved night, like he loved storms. His soul had always turned to the dark and wild.
As a lad he’d lain outside for hours, looking up at the endless pitch black and he’d loved swimming in the dark, clothed only in moonlight. That had always been his purest escape. It had been a whole other world.
A small dark shadow flew like a dart in the air over his head. Bats. He smiled, watching them swoop and turn. Now he’d spotted one, he saw more, they were after the moths which had been drawn to the light spilling from the windows.
“What are you doing? Where have you been?”
His own little moth came to the flame. Her wings would be burned. But, God, he could not believe how much his heart thumped, and exhilaration coursed through his blood.
Her voice had come from the foot of the steps which descended from the terrace to his right.
Lifting his weight from the balustrade, his eyes searched her out in the darkness.
He caught the movement of her pale lemon dress about two feet away from the bottom step.
“I am waiting for you,” Drew answered her first question as he descended the steps, feeling the tug of her presence pull at him.
She was young, six years his junior, but he’d never seen her behave as a girl. She did not fluster or giggle. No, Mary Marlow had a serene womanly grace, she was kind, sensible, confident and extremely beautiful.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness.
“Tell me where you have been. I have not seen you for days.”
A few teasing curls of her ebony hair had fallen to lick her jaw and throat where he’d like to place his lips; and her eyes sparkled diamond bright as they caught a shaft of moonlight and challenged him.
His game of patience had been a brilliant hand.
“I have been giving you time to make your choice. Does this mean you have made it?”
He’d confused her. Hell he was confused himself.
The movement of her fingers clasping together before her waist pulled his gaze lower.
She was anxious. She should be. But he was too. The emotions inside him were eclectic. Hope. Desire. Need. Desperation. But there was respect and pride too… When had he ever felt respect for a woman? Never before.
“You being here – is this your answer? If it is you took your time.” He stepped from the bottom step to stand in front of her, aware of the hardness in his voice and a stiffness in his body, but both were due to the bewildering mix of emotions causing turmoil inside him. He did not know this ground; did not know how to speak with a young innocent woman.
“I could hardly get up the minute you walked out. I do not even know why I am here.”
Ah damn it, he needed to forget his anxiety, forget his own fears. He did know how to woo women. She was a woman.
“Because you want to be here.” He moved closer. “With me.” He dropped his cigar on the dew damp grass.
“Do I? I barely know. All I know is that I missed you watching me.”
When he lifted a hand, she stepped back.
He smiled, his fingertips brushing her cheek. “You want more kisses, Mary. You can hardly have them if you do not let me near.” Damn it, he needed to persuade her to stay and not run again, to persuade her to be his wife – and the only way he knew how to do that was through sex. He needed her to let him close.
* * *
Is that why I am here, to let him kiss me again?She had not been able to define the pull which led her here.
She had seen him enter earlier, and her heart had leapt at the sight of his splendid figure as he stood at the top of the stairs. But she’d wanted to know where he’d been. Why he’d stopped following her?
To give her choice…
But choice had left her with a desperate, quivery feeling inside. Choice, separation from him, had been painful – and yes, she longed to be kissed.
He had a magnetic quality. When he’d walked out his gaze had called follow, and an invisible thread had pulled her here.
Lord Framlington pulled that invisible thread again and it drew her nearer still.
His fingers trailed across her jaw, then his thumb brushed over her lips.
She met his gaze, though she could barely see him in the darkness beyond a silhouette. The smell of tobacco carried on his breath.
This is madness. Why did I come to him?Why am I doing this?
“Not here,” she breathed as his lips neared hers. “Anyone may see us.”
She could not see his lips curve and yet she sensed they did. His fingers opened, spreading to cradle the line of her jaw while his other hand gripped her waist. He pressed her backward.
In a trance she let him back her into the darkness, into the corner where the wall of the house turned at the side of the steps, and met the high yew hedge bordering the garden beyond the terrace.
They were deep in the shadows, she could not see him at all, but she could feel his tall frame against her and his strong hand half holding, half caressing at her waist, while the hand cradling her jaw slid to her nape and pulled her mouth to his.
His lips were firm then soft against hers, coaxing her to kiss him back.
A sensual ache spiralled through her stomach, sliding down between her legs. Her arms lifted and her fingers settled on his broad shoulders as she leaned into him, clung to him, and gave herself up to kissing him back.
It was delicious and wicked, and utterly stupid. But she didn’t care, she didn’t want to think, she just wanted to feel. Her body fitted to his perfectly, her back curving, her hip bone pressing to his, her breasts crushed against his chest.
A groan rumbled deep in his chest. She felt it in her mouth and her breasts.
His tongue slid between her parted lips, tentatively at first, then deep, then tentative again, tempting her, encouraging her to seek more.
She wanted more with a bone-deep longing; his kiss dissolved her senses.
Her fingers clasped his hair as he pressed her further back, the wall grazing one shoulder while the sharp clipped bows of the yew hedge pierced her other.
The sound of the orchestra spun into the night air. The supper hour was over.
He did not stop, his tongue danced about hers as his fingers cupped her bottom and pulled her hips more snugly to his.
A ridge of hard flesh in his trousers pressed against her abdomen, it ought to have scared her. It did not.
His grip stayed tender and gentle while the play of his tongue enchanted.
“God, Mary, you’re beautiful,” he whispered into her mouth. “Better than I imagined.”
His fingers slid up over her hips and her waist, then settled at her ribs and his thumbs brushed the first curve of her bosom.
“Mary,” he said her name again with a dizzying awe. Then he kissed her jaw and her neck, while his palms settled over her breasts, kneading her flesh through her gown.
Voices spilled from the open French doors onto the terrace. People would be dancing again soon, crowding into the ballroom and walking out on to the terrace. Her heart pounded hard, fear, excitement and bewilderment mingling.
He didn’t stop, his teeth nipped her neck while one hand left her breast and slid downwards.
He touched between her legs, stroking inward over the material of her gown pressing it to the warm wet flesh at the juncture of her thighs.
She knew men and women joined there. That was where she craved him.
His strokes were tender, careful, like his teeth and lips on her skin, and the grasp of his hand on her breast.
Anticipation and desire climbed, as if her body sought a peek.
Her breath quickened and a sob broke from her lips as delicious sensations wove a spell in her blood.
The hum of conversation seeped from the ballroom along with a melody the orchestra played.
She should tell him to stop, but wrapped in the darkness, hidden from view, the danger had become exhilarating.
His hand clutched her breast harder and his thumb swept back and forth across her hardened nipple, while his fingers stroked forward and back in the cleft between her legs caressing her aching flesh.
Her hands clawed on his shoulder and his neck, clinging, as a whimpering sound left her lips.
He silenced her with a kiss.
She could not kiss him back, she could not think as whatever peak she raced towards approached as if she flew on a firecracker.
Goodness. Oh heavens.
She exploded, and fell from the sky, then the sensation inside her was carried on a flood of water swirling beneath her skin, reaching out to her toes and fingertips as she gripped hard at his neck and shoulder, afraid she would truly fall.
A sound of amusement, half laugh, came from his lungs, slipping into her mouth as he drew away.
He looked down at her, but she could not see his face, or his eyes. His fingers touched her face and his thumb ran back and forth across her cheekbone.
“I could make a sound and have someone find us like this.” he whispered.
“Is that what you want?” His thumb touched her lips as she breathed heavily, still a little disorientated. He was breathing heavily too and through her grip on the back of his neck, even through his neckcloth, she could feel his heart racing hard.
She was not afraid, nothing about him spoke of danger,but I do not know him at all.
“I want you,” he answered, in a hushed voice. “I want you as my wife.”
“You want my dowry.”
“I want you, and your dowry. I know your brother hates the idea of a man in need of a fortune, but he has one. It’s hardly a crime to need to marry wealth, just circumstance. But any of three dozen heiresses could bring me money. I want you, Mary.”
She smiled, knowing the darkness hid it. “You could choose a military career and work for your living.”
His thumb swept across her cheek. “I have not even enough to buy a commission. Besides would you wish to follow the drum?”
“The clergy then…”
“Me, a vicar? Are you mad? That would never work.” A scoffing rumble of amusement growled in his throat.
“I must be, I am here with you.”
His thumb and forefinger gripped her chin, then tilted it up. “Do I have your interest?”
“To be your wife?” Mary fought a desire to kiss the lips lingering over hers. “I barely know you. All I know is you are a rogue.”
This time his amusement erupted as a proper laugh which someone might hear. “Guilty as charged, I’ll not deny it, but now I’m looking for more than amusement. I did not do this with you for that. I wish to marry you. I am trying to persuade you.”
He shook his head. “Money, yes. I need it. I’ll not lie to you. But I want you, too, not only your fortune.” His lips brushed hers, weaving enchantment, fogging her mind.
She forced herself to cling to common-sense. “And if I had no fortune…”
He did not answer. He’d said he would not lie.
He would not choose her if she was penniless. But that was the way of life. There were three dozen men in her uncle’s ballroom without expectation of inheritance, or the desire to be shot at on a battlefield, or the inclination to preach… All of those men were in need of a fortune.
She pushed him away.
As he moved back, his hands slipped to her waist.
“I have to go. I will be missed.”
“When can I meet you again? Where? Do you ride in the morning, in Hyde Park? What if I were there at nine, would you come?”
Male voices drifted on the night air, rising in volume, they came from the terrace.
“I don’t know. I have to go.” She slipped from his hold, both physically and mentally, and hurried back across the grass to the courtyard entrance she’d come from, then returned to the ballroom via the servants’ entrance.
He was not in there. He’d gone.
Mary found her father, who commented on the length of time the maid had taken to fix her hair. It was only teasing.
She’d lied to him, deceived him and disobeyed. She had never done any of those things until the Jerseys’ garden party.
Insanity had claimed her.
What had she done?
Her heart raced, her blood running thick with the memory of their intimate caress.
“Miss Marlow, will you dance?”
She turned to face Lloyd Montague, another of her usual set.
She liked him, she liked them all, but they did not intrigue or enchant her. The only man who did that liked to make her dance with danger.
She accepted Lloyd’s arm and let him lead her into a waltz. But she longed to be outside with Lord Framlington again.
Would she go tomorrow? She could, if she took a groom.
But would it be wise?
Of course it would not. It would be anything but wise. But she wanted to go.
Where would this lead if she went? Not to marriage. Her family would never permit it. It could only lead to disgrace.
She would not.
Drew sat astride his horse, waiting by the gates of Hyde Park. Miss Marlow was thirty minutes late. She was making a fool of him.
Impatience bit hard. His hands on the pommel of his saddle he shifted his weight, and as he did so, he thought of her in his hands last night. Something gripped within his stomach, something which was not lust. She had melted him. Entirely. He had been ice and now he was water… She flowed in his veins, he’d never had an encounter with a woman which was so… beautiful… so real
God his heart had thundered as hard as hers at the end, and he’d wanted to yell out with jubilation. She would have thought him insane, and of course, it would have meant they may have been caught.
His friends would think him insane too if they knew how he felt.
He’d smiled for the rest of the night, like a damned green youth who’d just discovered the sport, and he’d still been smiling this morning.
She had been all that he’d hoped of in an innocent woman.
He, Drew Framlington, had been the first to show the beautiful Miss Marlow what true pleasure could be!
Yet she had not come this morning. He was not smiling anymore.
Damn it. Waiting on a woman was not Drew’s forte. He’d rather walk away than wait. But he craved her now, he could never choose another woman now. Not after her beautiful response last night… and he needed to marry someone, he needed a bloody fortune too. He refused to go back to his former life and give pleasure to his mother’s friends for money, yet if he did not come into money soon the dun’s would have him in jail.
Devil take it, she’d shattered in his arms last night…
He’d not thought she would allow him so near so soon, but she’d been willing him on, kissing him back with an un-virginal fire.
He wished this courtship over and Miss Marlow in his bed, just as much as he wished for her damned money.
But it seemed he’d lost his touch.
After the climax he’d given her last night, and it had undoubtedly been her first, she had been shocked by it, he would have thought she’d be here begging him to marry her.
He lifted his watch from the pocket of his morning coat. Five minutes more had passed.
She’d stood him up.
Bloody hell. He would never live it down after he’d bragged to his friends that they could begin their celebrations.
Women, damn them, they were all fickle.
He saw her.
Lord. Something bit into his chest. Relief. Desperation. Then came the flood of hope on a wave of a storm of sensations even deeper than he’d experienced before.
She rode along the street outside the park, a peacock feather bouncing above her head, to match her vivid blue habit. The colour a sharp contrast to her pale skin. She sat the horse extremely well, her spine rigid and her grip on the reins firm. She looked magnificent riding the glossy jet black stallion.
A groom rode beside her, keeping guard over the Marlows’ precious package.
Drew smiled and tugged on his reins, turning his mare away from the gate and setting it to walk across the lawn.
He could not let their meeting appear planned. It must look accidental. His heart raced as though he was galloping, not walking the horse.
A clear blue sky stretched from one horizon to the other.
Drew kicked his heals and stirred his horse into a canter, giving her time to enter the park and his heartbeat a chance to recover from the sight of her.
It was not busy but there were others about.
Once he’d ridden a few hundred yards he swung back, turning on to the outer path. She was a couple of hundred yards into the park, rising and falling in a trot.
She’d seen him, he could tell. She was not looking his direction, but he somehow knew from her stance.
Riding nearer he slowed from a canter to a trot and lifted his hand as though he’d just noticed her. “Miss Marlow! Well met!”
With his raised hand he lifted his hat and bowed his head in greeting, ignoring the groom who gave him a hard glare.
“Lord Framlington!” Her voice rang with a bright false pitch as she turned her horse towards him.
She was worried. A surge of something he was not used to feeling for anyone other than his younger sister, Caro, surged through his blood – a need to reassure and protect her
He slowed to a walk as she did, then stopped, his horse facing hers.
“You are out riding early, Miss Marlow?”
“I thought to come out while it’s cooler.”
“May I ride a little way beside you?”
“If you must.”
Drew smiled, as she turned her horse. He turned his, walking the animal close beside hers.
She looked over her shoulder and signalled for the groom to stay back.
The man’s glare bored into Drew’s back.
“You are late.”
“Well, that is a woman’s right.”
“Is it?” He glanced sideward.
Her habit hugged the curve beneath her breasts, the arch of her lower back and her slender delicate arms. He was falling into the enchantment of her innocence, fast and hard. His hunger was intense. He no longer even cared that she’d kept him waiting. She had an aura which pulled him close, winding around him like a charm. She gave him life, he felt different in her company.
It was probably just her beauty affecting him…All men must be dazzled by her. She was exceptional.
“Let us race?” she said, flicking her whip and setting her animal off, not waiting for agreement.
He kicked his heels, following her into a gallop as her horse tossed divots of grass at him.
The sharp rhythm of horse’s hooves pounded on the earth, and her laughter played on the air between them.
He gained ground and pulled ahead. She did not concede but tore on towards the lake, laughing still.
When they neared the lake, he pulled up, a full half leg in front. She stopped too and her horse turned a full circle.
“What was that?” he called to her.
“Fun!” she breathed, laughter dancing in her pale eyes as he rode closer. “I was not going to come you know.”
Her groom had been left a quarter mile back, but he could see them.
“So that was why you were late then, a change of heart?”
“Not exactly. I always behave. I always do as I should. Perhaps I just wished to kick up my heels.”
“Then this is not to be taken as any indication you agree to my offer.”
“Definitely not.” She shook her head. “If my family knew I was here with you, they would—”
“Slaughter me. I know.”
“Then, you cannot, for one moment, imagine they would agree to a match. They would think I had run mad.”
“You would be mad not to.” He held her light blue gaze. “I gave you a glimpse last night of how good it could be.”
She smiled, her eyes catching the sunshine. “In your bed you mean. That says nothing of how we would get along. Marriage is more than that, my Lord. Much more. And my family would never agree. They neither like nor trust you.”
“No… Then why did you come?” Drew did not intend to seek consent. He knew he would never be approved, the only one he sought to convince was her.
She stopped her horse from prancing and her gaze locked with his.
Those eyes. Who was seducing who?
His gaze fell to her lips.
“I have no idea. I think I am insane.” Her words kicked him firmly in the chest, and a soft ache hovered in his middle, as his gaze lifted back to her eyes.
The girl was a breath of fresh air, a light summer breeze. Sunshine.
“Could you not sleep, Miss Marlow, for thinking of me?” He laughed, feeling hope swelling inside him.
She blushed slightly. She had spent the night awake then. He hoped he’d hovered in her dreams as she had in his.
“So where do we go from here?” He encouraged her to take another step towards commitment.
“Where…?” A frown marred her beautiful brow. She had genuinely not thought about his offer then, merely their embrace.
“What next?” Drew clarified.
She shrugged, a dainty little gesture on her slim shoulders. “It should be nothing.”
“But it will not be nothing, because you want more, don’t you?” She needed more persuasion. Drew leaned forward and gripped her hand as it held her reins, holding both her and the animal steady. “Where will you be tonight?”
Her gaze clung to his. Maybe her common-sense told her there should be nothing more but other parts of her, that he had sway over, bid her answer. “I am attending Lady Frobisher’s musical evening.”
Musical evenings were a rogue’s curse, he could do nothing untoward when seated in a row of chairs. The game was off then, for tonight.
Nor could he meet her again in the park, once could be deemed accidental, but twice would draw attention. Without doubt the groom would mention this encounter to someone in the house.
“Miss Marlow!” A timely call came from their rear.
Drew glanced back. Her groom had come to retrieve his damsel from the beast.
Drew let her hand go and straightened. “Tomorrow then, where?”
“I shall be at the Phillips’ supper party.” Her gaze passed over Drew’s shoulder to the groom.
“There then. They have a large glass house in the grounds, to the right of the house. I’ll meet you there at midnight.” Drew’s eldest brother had been at school with the Phillips’ son, he could obtain an invitation.
Mary nodded. She had begun an intrigue. She had definitely become foolish.
“I shall look forward to it, immensely. Until tomorrow then, Miss Marlow.” His fingers reached for hers. Instinctively she released the reins, letting him take her hand. He lifted it to his lips, turned her hand, his thumb pressing into her palm, and kissed her wrist, above her glove.
Her heart skittered, its rhythm racing violently.
When he let go a smile lifted his lips and glinted in his eyes but the gleam turned wicked as his gaze shifted to her groom before he turned his horse and rode away.
Mary ached for him. She’d wanted this for a year… to give in to longing. But she should not have agreed to an assignation; it could mean nothing more than kisses.
“Forgive me, Miss,” Evans spoke when he drew near, “you should not speak with gentlemen.”
“I shall speak with whom I wish, Evans.” She sounded like John, and she was not normally harsh with servants.
“Miss Marlow.” The man lifted his fingers to his cap and tipped it forward, “Forgive me, but it is my duty to inform your father.”
“That I met a casual acquaintance in the park by chance and spoke with him? There is hardly anything to tell, Evans.” She ought to feel guilty. She did not, not yet, perhaps later.
It was as though she no longer knew herself.
She had lied to her family, and a friend, and now she was widening the net of deceits to the servants. It would trap her in the end if she was not careful.
She turned her stallion in the direction of the park gates.I cannot continue this. Tomorrow must be the last time she spoke with him and allowed his kisses. Unless she chose ruin.
Her heartbeat flickered and her stomach somersaulted. Was she fool enough to do that?
But John had increased her dowry as a gift to broaden her choice of husbands. Why did it matter if she chose a man who needed it?
Because John thought him heartless.
She rode out of the park gates beside Evans. Lord Framlington seemed sincere. He had not hidden his need for her fortune, just said he’d chosen her over other wealthy women.
Mary knew he’d chosen her, he’d chosen her a year ago; she had not needed to hear him say it, because her heart had chosen him too, and since then they’d watched each other through the crowds.
Whether she believed him or not, though, it did not matter. John did not like him and therefore nor did her father, and therefore Lord Framlington could never be hers.
You are a fool Mary.End it tomorrow. It can go no further.
When she drew her horse up before her brother’s front door, Evans swung down from his saddle and offered his hand.
She took it, lifting her knee from the pommel of her side saddle. Then he made a step with his hands so she could descend.
Before leaving him, she said, “You need not trouble yourself to tell tales, Evans, I shall inform my father.”
Bowing he tilted his cap again. “Miss Marlow.”
Lifting the hem of her riding habit from the ground, Mary ran up the steps to the front door which a footman held open.
Her family would be in the breakfast room. She headed there, stripping off her hat and gloves and passing them to a footman on the way.
Her youngest brothers and sisters ate in the nursery, but those who could sit sensibly shared the adults table and so the breakfast room was full and noisy. She smiled at her father and mother when she entered, and then at John and Kate.
Mary loved her family. She’d never lacked a thing. She’d always felt secure. So why did the danger Lord Framlington dangled draw her away?
“Mr Finch said you were riding, Mary,” her mother said with a gentle smile, “that is unusual for you.” It was a subtle question.
“I slept poorly and the morning was so sunny I could not resist.” Mary bent and kissed her mother’s cheek, then moved to take a seat among her younger brothers and sisters.
“Had you asked I would have ridden with you,” her father stated.
“It was a momentary decision, Papa.” Her eyes focused on the spout of the coffee pot, as a footman filled her cup, a blush warming her cheeks.
“Was Hyde Park busy?” John asked from the head of the table.
Her gaze lifted and met his.
John was older than her by a decade. He behaved more like a second father than a brother. Looking away she helped herself to bread from a plate a footman held. “Not very, I saw Lord Framlington, though. He stopped and spoke.” She let the words fall as though the incident meant nothing.
“Then you must not go again without a chaperon.”
“John,” Kate spoke from the other end of the table. “Mary took a groom and I’m sure she is able to cope with Lord Framlington. She was in the open, and she is sensible.”
Mary smiled at her sister-in-law.
The footman dished up some scrambled eggs and smoked fish.
“I have no concern over Mary’s behaviour,” John answered. “It is his I worry over.”
Mary looked back at John. “Why do you dislike him?”
The question made her father look at her too. “He’s a fortune hunter.”
John’s eyebrows lifted. “And a man of his ilk, is not for you.”
“His ilk?” Mary could not help pressing. She wanted to understand. She wanted to convince her heart it was wrong.
“This is why, she needs a chaperon.” John looked at Kate. “He speaks to her, and now she is asking foolish questions.” He looked back at Mary. “What did he say to you?”
Heat burned under her skin. “Nothing beyond courtesy.”
“So he put on the charm. Do not believe any of it. It is feigned.”
Mary set down her knife and fork. “I cannot see—”
“Mary!” Her gaze passed to her father. “This is an inappropriate conversation.” He glanced at her younger sisters. “I trust you to be sensible. But I agree with your brother, no more unaccompanied rides.”
She held her father’s gaze for a moment, before looking back at John.
What had Lord Framlington done to be deemed such a villain? Many men needed to marry for money, Lord Framlington was right, that in itself was not a crime. He was a rogue too, but many men were that also, they lived recklessly then grew up – as John had done.
But surely if he intended marrying her his rakishness did not matter, he was not planning to seduce and desert her. Her father’s and brother’s arguments were groundless.
Mary focused on her breakfast. Perhaps John had some vendetta against Lord Framlington; he had not spoken against any other man so adamantly.
Perhaps she would ask Lord Framlington why her brother disliked him tomorrow.
The thought of meeting him made her appetite slip away and a dozen butterflies take flight in her stomach.
Drew strolled into White’s, his gentleman’s club, seeking masculine company, a game of cards and conversation.
He found his friends in their usual place. Harry Webster, Mark Harper and Peter Brooke sat in the first salon.
“Fram!” Harry called. “I thought you were hunting Miss Marlow…”
Drew smiled. “She is attending a musical soiree, a place where it is impossible to pursue the chase.”
His friends laughed. Drew signalled to a footman to bring him a glass of brandy.
“How goes the seduction?” Mark asked when Drew sat beside him.
“If it were simply seduction it would be done, but as I am seeking a wife the game is more complex. Despite allowing me certain favours, Miss Marlow has given not a single indication she will agree to become my wife.”
“Favours?” Peter laughed.
“Tell,” Harry added.
Leaning back into the winged leather chair and letting his hands fall onto the arms Drew grinned at them all. “I am hardly likely to share. If all goes according to plan she will be my wife.”
“I cannot see why that prevents you,” Harry pressed, his gaze darting across the room then back. “Your brother never keeps his triumphs in the dark.”
Drew looked over his shoulder, sure enough his eldest brother sat a distance behind him, accompanied by their brother-in-law, Lord Ponsonby. Ponsonby had married Drew’s eldest sister. Neither man was an example Drew wished to emulate. A sneer touched his lips. Drew’s sister, Ponsonby’s wife, was no better.
The only member of his family who had not broken their marriage vows was his younger sister, Caro, Lady Kilbride. However, her husband, the Earl, had. That man had a violent nature too which poor Caro constantly lived in fear of.
Caro was the only member of his family Drew felt close to.
Drew looked back at Harry, glowering.
“I take it you will not then,” Peter quipped.
Drew’s gaze spun to his best friend. “Definitely not!”
The others laughed.
A footman appeared with a tray bearing Drew’s brandy. Drew took his drink, then looked over his shoulder at his eldest brother, who was now looking at Drew.
Drew lifted his glass, in mock salute, then turned back to his friends.
* * *
Raising the dress of her ivory satin gown, Mary hurried along the garden path.
She’d left at the commencement of a set, hoping her family would not notice her absence. They were all busy dancing or talking.
There were no lanterns to light the way, deterring couples from strolling into the garden but the night sky was clear and moonlight shone through the leaves of shrubs in places so she could see the route.
Etched in the moonlight Lord Framlington’s figure formed a vivid silhouette in the darkness when she reached the glass house.
“Miss Marlow,” he called, stepping forward when she drew near.
Her heart skipped and her stomach spun like a top. She’d barely been able to eat since she’d last seen him, and she’d not slept last night; as her thoughts danced a reel.
She had to end this. It was beyond foolish.
But she wanted to be alone with him one last time.
He looked dangerous in the darkness, she ought to be afraid of him. She only knew him by reputation and that was bad. Yet she’d never been so pulled towards anyone – surely her heart could not be wrong?
His lips lifted in a half smile when she reached him and his fingers touched her face. He’d removed his gloves. “I was not sure you’d come. You’ve barely given me a glance this evening.”
Her fingers captured his and drew them away from her face, as she smiled too. “I did not wish to make my family suspicious. I’m already in the mire for speaking to you in the park.”
His other hand lifted suddenly, then gripped her nape and pulled her mouth to his.
He kissed her long and hard while he braced her nape with one hand and his fingers also weaved between hers and twisted her arm behind her back.
When he released her she was short of breath and her heart thumped.
But he was short of breath too.
His dark eyes held her gaze for a moment. “We should go inside in case someone walks this way.”
She’d forgotten the risk. “Yes.” They should not be kissing on the garden path where anyone might find them. But then she should not be alone with him.
Her hand clasped in his, he pulled her into the conservatory and closed the door.
Orange, lemon, olive and fig trees, in terracotta pots, lined the pathways in the huge glasshouse and the scent of warm earth merged with the floral aroma of the delicate flowers dangling from vines above them.
The grip on her hand claimed her. It said he treasured her. She was not anyone to him.
She felt special.
Was it an illusion? If she believed John, Lord Framlington thought nothing of her; he only cared for money.
He turned to face her, illuminated by moonlight through the glass above them, his starkly handsome face painted silver. He smiled, a smile that shone in his eyes too. He stepped backward one pace, then another, pulling her with him, leading her deeper into the glasshouse. “The exemplarily Miss Marlow has fallen from her pedestal.” His tone teased.
“Or perhaps a certain Lord has pulled her from it.”
His smile lifted again, this time it had a wicked lilt. “I accept the charge. I am sure it was deadly dull upon it anyway.”
Yes, yes it was,and lonelyat times.
Perhaps that was why he tempted her. She should not feel lonely in such a large loving family but she had no space to be an individual. She wished to be loved singularly, to be the most special person to someone, to him. Like her father was to her mother, and her mother to her father.
She looked beyond him, closing her lips on her disloyal thoughts.
A small wrought iron table stood on a paved area among the plants, with a few chairs gathered about it. Beyond it she saw the river Thames through the glass. She’d forgotten the garden bordered it.
Ripples ran with the current of the river, shimmering in the moonlight. While dots of light sparkled from windows and lanterns on the far bank. It was a scene from fairytales.
Lord Framlington lifted their joined hands, pulling her awareness back to him as he brought her fingers to his lips, then kissed them. His dark eyes gleamed staring at her glove, then he freed the button at her wrist, and then began to pull each fingertip free.
Once the glove was loose he stripped it off and tossed it on the table where his gloves laid. Then he removed the other too.
She should not allow him to touch her skin, but beautiful sensations skipped up her arm as his lips pressed on her bare knuckles.
Was everything which felt good wicked?
“What are you thinking?” He pressed a kiss on each of her fingertips.
Her heartbeat stuttered, she could not find words to reply while his breath warmed her skin.
Pain circled low in her stomach.
His gaze lifted to hers, “What, Mary?” then lowered. He slipped the tip of her little finger into his mouth and sucked it gently.
She pulled her hand from his grip, a blush burning. “I should not allow you to do this.”
“You should not be here, come to that.” His voice was deep and low.
“But you are.” His hands braced her waist.
The danger she faced reared. They were a long way from the house. No one would hear her cry out if he forced himself on her.
Her heart raced harder as her fingers gripped the muscle of his arms through his evening coat and her breath caught in her lungs as she looked up at him.
“You do not trust me.” It was a statement, not a question.
She did not. How could she? “I barely know you…”
“Apart from your brother’s tales.”
His face had moved into shadow. What had seemed an enchanted place, suddenly felt like a gothic novel.
“I’ll not hurt you,” he whispered. “Don’t heed him, I am no monster, Mary, darling. I do not wish you harm. I want you to be my wife, why would I hurt you?”
“I… I…” She struggled to find words as his gaze dropped to her lips.
She turned her head, so he would not kiss her. He merely kissed her cheek instead.
A tremor raked her muscles as his lips touched her earlobe too, then her neck.
Her fingers clasped his arm. “Why does John dislike you so much?”
His head lifted, moonlight catching as a glimmer in his eyes, which were dark here. “Pembroke sees himself in me. He was not always a saint. He had an affair with my eldest sister.”
“With your sister…”
He smiled. “I suppose he did not mention it. Yes, he cuckolded my brother-in-law, Lord Ponsonby, not that I think Ponsonby cared. It was when we were in Paris.”
“You were in Paris with him…” His palms felt heavy on her waist.
“Yes.” The deep masculine burr tingled over her skin.
John had spent seven years abroad. She’d written to him, but he’d rarely replied and she’d been too young to hear much of how he’d lived. He’d married Kate soon after his return.
“If you do not believe me, ask him. I doubt he’d lie. A young man’s recklessness is part of life – a part your brother now claims to be above. But he has no cause to judge me ill beyond my lack of wealth.”
“But you have a reputation.”
“Yes. Ignore it, it is irrelevant to us; your brother had a reputation. Now he has a wife. This is about the two of us, no one else. You and I shall be all that counts.”
Her heart ached. But her common-sense whispered. “Only because you need my money.”
“What I need right now, Mary, darling, is not your money. I need you.”
A muddle of turbulent emotion writhed inside her but longing overrode them all, as his lips pressed down on hers.
She forgot doubt and responded as his tongue slipped past her parted lips. Her fingers gripped his shoulders and when she slid her tongue into his mouth, he caught it lightly in his teeth, for an instant, before sucking it deeper.
It was so intimate.
Her fingers slid up into his soft, thick hair.
I love you, the words whispered through her thoughts unbidden. She did, she loved him, no matter what John said, no matter the risk. She loved him.
His hands held her, resting against her back.
She remembered everything he’d done the other night. His lips left hers and began travelling a path of kisses along her jaw then down her neck.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, against her skin.
She shivered. “And rich,” she whispered to the air above her, forcing her mind to return to reality.
His head lifted and a soft laugh left his lips as his finger tapped beneath her chin. “Yes you are rich but there is far more to you than money.”
His fingers fell to either shoulder and slipped beneath the short sleeves of her gown then slid them down. They hung loose on her arms and her bodice sagged
His gaze dropped to her breasts, and his heated palms cupped them.
Mary’s mouth dried and she looked up at the glass roof above. It reflected her image, against the jet black wash of night.
She saw his dark hair against her pale skin as his lips touched the hollow at the base of her neck where her pulse flickered.
When his fingers slid into the fabric and gripped her breasts, she shivered again.
Oh dear Lord. A sweeping sensation plunged down to the place between her legs. She ached for him there.
He eased one breast free, then his lips brushed her nipple before covering it and then sucking it; cradling her nipple on his tongue.
Her bones dissolved and her fingers clasped in his hair, as she watched the mirror image above them.
This was wicked, but delicious; the sensations intoxicating.
Her breath came in pants. He made her body ignite.
Still sucking her breast, his hands slid to her hips, and began lifting her dress.
Cold realisation drenched her, he was not going to stop. He did not simply expect kisses. “No.”
Her fingers, slid from his hair, gripped his shoulders and pushed him away. “No.” She had not completely lost all sanity.
His gaze cut through the darkness, meeting hers, his heavy breaths echoing against the glass. “Mary.” His fingers unclenched, letting her dress fall.
But when she would have stepped back his hands slipped to cup her buttocks, and pulled her closer still.
A column within his trousers pressed against her stomach through their layers of clothing. “See what you do to me.”
Her grip on his shoulders urged him away. “Let me go.”
“You have no need to be afraid of me.” His hands slid back to her waist then fell as he stepped back.
Her fingers shaking, Mary righted her bodice and lifted her short sleeves, unable to look at him.
“I would not hurt you.” His voice hit a hard tone.
Fear and wariness slashing at her foolish soul she met his gaze. What if her instinct had been wrong? She had good cause not to trust him. It was not only John who thought ill of him, he was an outcast, ignored by most.
“For God sake, Mary.” His pitch lifted to anger.
Her chin titled defiantly. She had to stop this before it became too late to turn back. “I will not meet you again.”
“I did not hurt you.” Irritation brimmed in his voice.
“I know you did not.” She stepped back – away. This was the end. “I did not say you did, but I cannot… I will not meet you again. I won’t hurt my family. I cannot keep betraying their trust.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I came to tell you… I would not—”
“You took your time saying no. If that was your intent. You came to be made love to…” he growled.
Mary held up a hand, to ward him off. “Love is not involved in this. I may be innocent, but I am no fool either, Lord Framlington. You may convince me you are attracted to me but you will not persuade me this has anything to do with love.”At least not on your part.
That was her downfall. She’d let him take liberties because she did love him.
* * *
Silver moonlight caught in Mary’s eyes.
Pain shone there.
He’d said he would not hurt her, but he had. That cut at him. He thought of Caro… and himself as a child…The only time when perhaps he could compare his feelings to understand Mary’s. He never wished to hurt Mary.
Damn, he was unused to women with a heart – a woman who knew love. A woman who’d been surrounded by it her entire life.
His error glared him in the face. He should not have wooed her with passion. It was not her body he had to persuade – it was her heart. She wanted to be loved. Of course she did.
“Andrew,” he stated bluntly.
Why had he given her his full name?
Her chin tilted higher, reminding him of her brother’s stubborn countenance.
How the hell do I make her love me?
“What?” Her tone rang sharp and challenging.
She did not even know his name. He’d wooed her physically and not even let her in so far as to tell her his name.
His voice dipped to a calmer conciliatory pitch. “My name is Andrew, although most people call me Drew.”
“Oh.” She looked confused. Perhaps she also realised how many favours she’d allowed him without even knowing his name.
“Say it.” His voice held the undercurrent of the desperation humming in his blood. He could not let her walk away. Everything hung on him winning her. The idea had fermented in his head for so long, he could not choose to change his path, not now. He could not bear to be with anyone but her.
She took a breath. “Andrew.”
A fist gripped hard and firm in his gut.
“Or Drew… That suits you more, it is more dangerous.”
“You deem me dangerous… I’m not the devil, Mary, just a man. A man looking for a wife, you, and once we are wed, every morning when you wake, you will say my name; and when we retire, I’ll make love to you, slowly and thoroughly so you know it is not a marriage solely for money.”
Uncertainty flickered in her eyes. But he knew he could not progress. He needed to regroup, and think of a new strategy. To make her love him?
Damn. He knew nothing about love.
But an odd sensation seared in his chest.
If she came to love him, he’d rejoice. It was what he wanted – a faithful, committed wife. He had no idea how Mary would fare once they were wed, but surely if she loved him it could not go awry. “I want you, Mary. If you need to be loved, I will love you, I swear it. I’m half in love with you already.” It was surely true, the emotions inside him were a turmoil of desperation, need and hope.
Her eyes turned cold. “Or half in love with my dowry…”
Her stubborn insistence that he desired her money made him angry. “You were right earlier, you don’t know me. Money is not all to me.” He picked up her gloves and thrust them at her.
She took them, then turned.
But he caught her elbow before she could leave
“I have to go. I am promised for the next dance.”
“There will be no next time!” Her elbow slipped from his grip, and then she was gone, her ivory clad figure disappearing into darkness.
Bloody hell, he’d lost more ground than he’d gained tonight. If she would no longer come to him then how the hell was he to progress? He could not approach her, that would make her family suspicious. They would remove her from town.
Striding from the garden he didn’t bother heading back to the ball, instead he headed to his club. He needed to drink, and think.
After breaking her fast, Mary retired to the drawing room with her mother, her sister-in-law Kate and her sisters, while the boys were at lessons upstairs. She chose to sit on a sofa in the sunshine, beside her younger sisters, Helen and Jennifer, who were busy working on embroidery samplers. Mary guided them.
“Excuse me, Your Grace.”
Mary looked up. Mr Finch stood just inside the door, a small silver tray balanced on his fingers.
Kate held her son on her lap, and had been amusing him with a wooden rattle while Mary’s mother sat on the same sofa, with Mary’s youngest sister, Jemima. They’d been studying a picture book.
They all looked up.
“What is it Finch?” Kate asked.
“A letter for Miss Marlow,” Mr Finch intoned.
“Mary?” Her mother looked in Mary’s direction, a question bright in her eyes. Who?
Mary stood, heat flaring in her cheeks. She received letters regularly from a variety of friends, and her cousins, but they came with her father’s and John’s post.
She took the letter from the tray, her skin glowing.
Mr Finch turned to leave.
The writing was unfamiliar. But… Surely not…. It was large, bold strokes. She broke the blank seal and looked at the bottom of the page.
Her heart pounded against her ribs.
Her family had noticed her absence last night. She’d told them she had gone to the retiring room. Even so her father had admonished her for not telling her mother. They had warned her of rousing unnecessary gossip.
Kate had interjected then, saying she’d experienced such things and would not wish them on Mary.
By the time they’d come home, Mary had been thoroughly chastened, and been made to feel painfully guilty. She’d cried herself to sleep, then woken barely an hour later, thinking of the things she’d let him do, and what he’d said.
Holding the letter she crossed to the window.
“Who is it from?” her mother asked.
Mary glanced back. “Lord Farquhar.”Daniel, one of her friends, she’d known him since her come out, her mother knew him too.
Her mother smiled with a fond look, before turning her attention back to Jemima and the picture book.
Mary longed to take the letter up to her room but that would look odd. Instead she sought seclusion on the window seat, slipping her feet from her shoes and then lifting them on to the cushion before her.My dear Miss Marlow,Has any man told you what a treasure you truly are?
The rogue, he actually referred to her fortune in a pun. She smiled, more amused than angry.What I would give to make you mine, you cannot imagine. I am yours, a hundred times over. I adore you. Your ebony hair and your alabaster skin. Your eyes, as blue as a summer sky, or an azure sea, so pale they are like ice. They make me shiver when you turn your gaze upon me, turn it my way often and forever, Mary dear. Make me yours, make me love you. If love is what you want, bring me to your heel. I will come. I will beg for you if that is what you wish, only never turn your smile away from me, that is what I live for, to see your perfect smile.And your lips, I have not yet spoken of those…
It was nonsense of course, all nonsense, and it went on and on, profoundly expressing her beauty and his adoration, while not once claiming to love, but pleading for her to give him the opportunity to fall in love. It begged her to tame him. It asked her to show him how. Then he finished it all with a silly poem.
When she folded it and lifted her gaze, a smile curved her lips.
He’d not been deterred by her dismissal yesterday. That gave him credit. He was more serious about choosing her than she’d thought. He could have simply transferred his attention to another wealthy woman.
“What did he say, Mary?” her mother asked.
Mary looked across the room. “He is gushing, Mama.” It was becoming far too easy to lie. She rose from the window seat, and slipped her shoes back on.
Her mother smiled. Her sister-in-law Kate looked up and smiled too.
“Are you interested in Lord Farquhar?” her mother asked, with a curious look.
Mary laughed. “Heavens no, but it is flattering.”
“Let me see!” “Let me read it!” Her sisters cried.
“No!” Mary clutched the letter to her breast as they rose and rushed over.
“It’s personal,” her mother admonished. “Helen, Jenny, sit back down and leave your sister alone.”
Fortunately her parents were not in the habit of reading her post. They trusted her.
A sharp pain cut deep into Mary’s chest.
She did not deserve their trust anymore.
She’d been beyond foolish last night. She would have lost her family’s respect forever if she’d been caught with Lord Framlington. She would have been utterly ruined. She would have had to marry him.
But, then, surely, his discretion was another point in his favour. Even his letter did not contain anything which would force her hand.
Last night he could have had what he wished, her hand in marriage, her money, if he’d arranged for someone to discover them.
Surely that he had not arranged it – that he would not act without her consent – meant he was honourable despite his reputation. Then he must also – to some degree – care for her.
“May I take this letter up to my room, Mama, so I can put it in my travelling desk?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” Her mother gave her another fond look.
Mary fled the room with sinful, wrong notions, spinning in her head. If only she knew his address she might write back.
No! No! I have finished with this foolishness.
* * *
Fate played an odd game on Mary at the Fosters’ ball; as Mary stood talking with Miss Emily Smithfield, Lord Farquhar asked Mary to dance the first set.
She accepted with a shallow curtsy, smiling at him, then glanced back to give Emily, who invariably ended up the wallflower once more, an apologetic smile. Emily was the shy type, too quiet, but as she had only come out this season, she was still finding her place in society.
Mary looked back to see if Emily had found another companion to speak with, and caught her mother watching. The look in her eyes resembled the one in the drawing room that morning. Her father’s eyes glistened in the candlelight when she looked at him.
They thought she carried a torch for Lord Farquhar and he for her.
Mary turned away.
Lord Farquhar carried his torch for her good friend Lady Bethany Pope.
Oh heavens, lying never brought any good. It was always found out. The only time she’d lied in her childhood was when she’d accidently broken her mother’s perfume bottle. She’d hidden the broken bottle and claimed no knowledge of it. They’d known because she was the only one who smelt of the perfume.
She’d been in more trouble for lying than for breaking the bottle.
She’d never lied again – until the day of the Jerseys’ garden party.
Lord Farquhar’s eyes twinkled with good humour as he led her on to the floor. She liked her friends. She’d formed a good set last season. She glanced back at poor Emily. She was sure Emily would become settled, her friends were loyal, happy people, and generous in nature, all of them – yet none of her male friends carried an air of mystery, as Lord Framlington did. She selfishly wished for a life that was more exciting than this.
Her heart ached with a bitter sweet sadness. Lord Framlington made her long to unravel all the things he kept hidden. He was exciting…
Yet she had not even known his given name until she’d been about to leave him in the glasshouse.
The image of his eyes as he’d asked her to say his name aloud caught in her memory.
He was… vital… consuming heat… danger – and mystery. All other men were bland compared to him. How could she carry a torch for a bland man when there was Lord Framlington to compare to?
She would probably never marry, and then if she never married her whole life would be dull.
“You do not look quite the thing this evening, Mary. You look distracted. Is anything wrong?”
Lord Farquhar’s fingers gripped hers as they passed each other in the format of the country dance.
She had not even spoken to him since they’d walked on to the floor. “Nothing is wrong. But thank you for asking. I am merely tired, I have attended too many entertainments…”
“You can never attend too many…Are your shoes pinching? You may have too much dancing if your shoes are pinching…”
Mary laughed at his attempt to cheer her but stupidly it sent her tumbling into the doldrums.
If she never spoke to Lord Framlington again she would have to endure an entire life of dullness?
“I should be honest. It was not I who noticed. Bethany did. She sent me to cheer you up.”
“Ah.” Mary glanced at Bethany, who now stood beside Emily, then she looked back and smiled at Lord Farquhar.
She must cease longing for Lord Framlington. This was enough to make her happy. It had to be, and happiness was enough. Even if inside she spent her life screaming for excitement.
When the dance drew to an end Lord Framlington entered the ballroom, as her group swapped partners then formed the next set.
He walked with a group of men. They stopped and looked about the ballroom.
One gentleman’s gaze passed over her, then jolted back, stopping on her for a moment before he turned to the man next to him, his lips tilting in a smirk. Then they all looked at her.
She turned away.
Lord Framlington had spoken of her to his friends, then. What had he said? She hoped he’d not told them anything.
“Mary?” Philip Smyth took her hand and pulled her into motion as the music began. She was one step behind everyone, her heart racing as nausea tumbled in her stomach and light-headedness made her feel as if she might collapse.
But she did not give in to her weakness for the dark-haired, vibrant brown-eyed Lord Framlington, she lifted up her chin, caught up the step and continued, focusing on Philip and smiling as hard as she could.
When the music drew to its crescendo and ended in a brisk flurry, relief and a desire to reach the safety of her mother swamped Mary. But before she had chance to ask Philip to take her back, a shadow fell over her. She turned. John’s cousin, from John’s father’s side, stood beside her, Lord Oliver Harding, with another man.
She had met Lord Harding at several events but he’d never paid her any particular attention. He was older than John and not interested in John’s young half-siblings.
Mary curtsied. “Lord Harding.”
He smiled, bowing only slightly then he turned to the gentleman beside him.
Heat burned beneath Mary’s skin. He was one of the men who’d entered with Drew.
“May I introduce Mr Harper to you Miss Marlow, he begged an introduction. Mr Harper, Miss Marlow, is my cousin’s sister.”
Mary searched for a memory of the man’s name but could recall nothing. She’d never seen nor heard of him before.
He gripped her hand, then kissed the back of her glove. Goosebumps ran up her arm, like a cold breeze had swept in to the room.
Bowing her head, to avoid his gaze, she curtsied a little.
When she rose and looked at him, she met piercing, assessing, blue eyes.
His blonde hair gave him a look of innocence, but his eyes denied it entirely. He was a rogue, of the worst sort, the sort who did not even bother to court wealth. That was why she’d not seen him before, because he was not the type of man to attend sedate functions. Even the card room here, she was sure, would not play deep enough.
He was a man who danced only with sin – and Lord Framlington’s chosen companion…
“May I have this dance, Miss Marlow?” If she refused it would be obvious to everyone around them as the sets had already formed and she would have to leave the floor alone. Philip had turned away.
Her mouth was too dry to answer. She nodded, anxiety spinning in her gut. Why would he single her out? What had Lord Framlington said?
“You’re very beautiful, Miss Marlow. More so than I’d thought, I admit. Now I can see why he is so smitten.”
“He?” Her cheeks heated with a deeper blush as they took the first steps of the dance moving forward then back. Then they turned to make a ring of four with the couple to their left.
Mary faced Lord Framlington.
Ah. So this was the game?
They completed a full circle, hands joined as a four and then she turned, looking at Lord Framlington and walking towards him as the dance required.
“Miss Marlow,” he acknowledged her with perfect formality.
Her fixed smile faded.
The next move was a closer turn, shoulder to shoulder, he pressed close. Heat scorched down her arm, and burned inside her, her heart thumping hard. She opened her mouth to breath, but there was no air.
“Mary,” he leant a little to whisper to her ear. “Did you receive my letter?”
“Will you write to me?”
There was no time to answer. They were parted by the figures of the dance.
She faced his friend again, her heart pounding as she sought to watch Drew through the corner of her eye. There were no other moments to speak with him, and the rest of the dance seemed endless as the complicated patterns moved Drew further and further away.
* * *
During supper, Drew stood apart from everyone, hands in pockets, as he watched those eating. Miss Marlow was in the bosom of her family, again, surrounded, laughing and happy. Happy? Now there was a word, a word like,love. Had he ever known what it was to be happy? How the hell did he know who was happy?
He’d laughed last night, though, laughed and got very drunk. He’d called at White’s after he’d left her, searching for his friends.
They’d not been at White’s, but he’d tracked them down in a gambling den not far from St James.
He’d dragged them all from their game, and Peter and Harry from the whores draped about them, and taken them back to his bachelor residence for a more intimate night of masculine companionship.
On the way there he’d explained his plight.
How was he to convince the girl to love him? How did a man use romance and not sex to woo a girl?
Harry, particularly, had laughed heartily.
Drew could see the humour in the situation, the renowned seducer smote by a lack of love.
What the hell did he know of love?
His friends had spent the next three hours in drunken hilarity, advising him on the subtleties of love, and its difference from desire.
The letter had been Peter’s idea.
He’d leaned back in his chair, lifting his glass of brandy and grinning. “What you need my friend, is a bloody good poet. Prose is your key. All women fall for it. They like to be told their eyes are like this, their lips like that, they love to have their beauty praised.”
Between them then, through much laughter, they’d constructed the basics of the letter. The prose, had in fact, been mostly Peter’s. This morning Drew had re-written it with a sober hand and sent if off.
Yet, having played a part in the game of catching Mary Marlow, his friends had declared their interest in attending the next ball. They were eager to see the outcome of this new, more tactical, game. They’d considered it brilliant luck that Mark knew the Harding twins, Pembroke’s cousins, and then another plot had begun to spin, one to gain Drew access to Mary at the ball.
The Hardings were not as high in the instep as the Pembrokes. Lord Oliver had not even lifted an eyebrow at Mark’s request.
The plan was, once Mark had the introduction he would introduce the others and then they’d all dance with her, and if Drew merely passed her during moving sets, her family would not suspect any particular intent.
But the reality proved frustrating. He could only speak to her for an instant here and there.
He’d asked if she had the letter, if she’d write, if she’d missed him, she’d had no chance to answer anything to any real degree. Then he’d resorted to brushing her shoulder with his fingertips once.
It was hardly enough to win him a wife. He was not going to be able to convince her to take him like this.
Turning on his heel he walked from the supper room, he needed to think, he needed to settle his mind. He’d go for a smoke. Then he realised, suddenly, in a blinding thought, he’d asked her to write, but she didn’t know his address. He could hardly put it in a letter, her parents might see it.
Changing direction then, he searched out a footman in the hall, and asked for a quill, ink and paper to be brought to the gentlemen’s smoking room.
He let her dance with her friends, for the first and second dances after supper, but then he asked Peter to lead her out.
The dance was a pattern of four. Drew picked a quiet little wall-flower of a woman to partner him.
Two movements into the dance he and Peter swapped partners. It was not a requirement of the dance. He’d agreed the move with Peter to gain longer access to Mary.
Of course Mary realised instantly what they’d done and her jaw dropped on the verge of exclamation, but he caught her fingers in his as part of a turn and squeezed them hard. It effectively silenced her. The little wall-flower seemed to think they’d made a mistake. She was smiling at Peter as though she thought him foolish, but then knowing Peter, he was probably charming the girl and making her think he was the one who’d planned the swap.
“Lord Framlington,” Mary whispered in a harsh tone. “Why are you playing this game?”
He bent his head and although he felt like being harsh in return because she had returned to distancing him with the use of his surname, he softened his voice to honey. Some elements of seductive skills could still apply when making a girl fall in love… by convincing her you suffered the same condition… “My dear, it is no game. I told you, I want you for my wife. I am not backing down. Steadfastness is surely an element of love.”
Lord Framlington bore arrogance tonight. He obviously did not like losing. She had enough brothers and male relations to know how stubborn they could be.
“It is no statement of love to want to win at any cost.” She did not like being used like a puppet.
“You are on your guard, Mary, darling. I told you, I will not hurt you.”
“Anything between us will hurt me, when it will hurt my family…”
“But what if it hurts you and I more to be held apart. Does my steadfastness not express my heart’s devotion?”
“You are determined, Lord Framlington, I give you that. But devoted, I question, I do not think you devoted to anything beyond my dowry.”
“Call me, Drew–”
His eyes shone with condescending humour. “Must I be set back so far?”
“You have not been set back at all. There is simply no going forward. Is there? Our—”
“Affair…” He leaned forward and whispered the word. It vibrated through her nerves.
She took a breath. “Hardly that, but whatever it is; it is over – and was always folly. I cannot hurt my family.”
“Folly,” he whispered. “I have heard it said, Miss Marlow, that each of us has a soul mate, and if I am yours, if we are each-others, would you throw that away because your family did not like the man of your heart, and hurt that man, who ought to be higher in your heart – your future husband. Families rear us; then they are meant to become second in our lives.”
His words struck her like a slap –and if I am yours, if we are each-others, would you throw that away because your family did not like the man of your heart, and hurt that man…
That was bloody prophetic. Where the hell had it come from? Drew would be spouting this drivel as second nature soon. But he would do anything to win her, including prattling, idiotic, poetic words.
The dance separated them for several movements. But his gaze clung to her face.
She was intoxicatingly beautiful. Whenever he looked at her a jolt sparked in his chest as well as his groin. His thoughts were forever transfixed by the woman while he was in her close proximity and even when he was not.
He had to win her.
He did not want to choose another woman. He’d chosen her last season, nearly a whole year had already passed, he would not wait another year and he’d no intention of letting her slip through his fingers.
He refused to accept no from her.
He needed her and not simply for her money.
Did she not understand that?
Aware his gaze had hardened to glaring, he whispered, harshly, “Am I not good enough for you? Did you not like my verse?”
Her lips parted slightly. They drew his gaze. If they’d been alone, he would have kissed her, drawn her into his arms and never let her go. She was his. She just didn’t know it yet, but he knew it. His eyes lifted to hers again. “You are meant for me. Why can you not see it?” Forget the drivel about souls and fate and love, this much was true. He was certain that she was the only woman he would be happy with. Lord, without her, he would never even be able to claim the word, happy!
Her lips pursed.
“I tried to tell you in that letter, what I think, how I feel—”
Her fingertip grazed his lips, to silence him, as she passed him in a turn.
Good God!Did she not know he would give anything to have her?
“I read your letter, I know what it said.”
Drew’s heart missed a beat. The look in her eyes spoke of sympathy.
Did it mean he had hope?
“Write to me,” he urged. “I’ll speak to you when I can, but in the meantime write.” The notes of the dance drew to a close.
“I do not have your address, I—”
He captured her fingers, lifting her hand to kiss it, and as he did so, he slid the small folded piece of paper he’d written his address on into the wrist of her glove.
“You do.” He met her gaze over her bent knuckles as he gripped her fingers. Then he let her hand fall and bowed briefly before turning away.
* * *
Mary watched him return to his friends, her heart racing.
“Miss Marlow.” The man who had led her into the dance, Lord Brooke, was at her side offering his arm.
She lay numb fingers on it.
They’d orchestrated the whole night, he and his friends.
“There are a dozen other heiresses he could court…” she said.
“But none as beautiful.”
“So that is what draws him, wealth and beauty?”
They walked across the floor, towards her parents, slowly, as people formed sets for the next dance.
Lord Brooke leaned closer. “Is it not his looks which draw your eyes to him?” It was not a whisper, his deep baritone made her skin prickle, and the note of condescension stirred anger inside her.
“Miss Marlow.” He straightened, lifting her fingers from his arm, as her parents came into view. “It has been a pleasure.” He bowed.
Then like Drew he walked away.
“Who were you with?” her mother asked, coming forward.
Mary, glanced across the room. Lord Brooke, Lord Framlington, Mr Harper and Mr Webster were leaving the ball.
Mary faced her mother. “Lord Brooke, Mama. Oliver introduced his friend to me and his friend introduced Lord Brooke.”
“And his friend was?”
“Mr Harper.” The slip of paper tucked within Mary’s glove itched. Had the whole endeavour been to slip her his address?
“Mr Harper? I think his father’s money came from sugar plantations.” Her father had moved beside her.
She shrugged. “I have no idea, Papa. We danced, we did not share life histories.”
He smiled. “No, I suppose not, but if it was that Mr Harper, avoid him, he has an appalling reputation, and Lord Brooke too. Avoid them both in the future.”
She had been right; Lord Framlington consorted with men whose reputations matched his. His had been earned then, surely.
Her breath slipped out through her lips – and, he’d left his address within her glove. She would be the worst fool to communicate with him.
Her father’s fingers, tapped her beneath the chin. “Cheer up, sweetheart, there are plenty of decent men about, and here is one. I believe Lord Farquhar wishes a second dance.”
Mary turned. Daniel was approaching with a broad smile.
Why could not cupid aim steady arrows at her heart, ones which led to trustworthy men, rather than dangerous predatory rogues?
Drew crawled into bed, three sheets to the wind. They’d retired to his bachelor apartments for a second evening, and it was now almost five of the clock. The first light of dawn crept about his curtains.
His friends had spent half the night commending him on his choice. The second half they’d spent constructing more verse, only this time Peter had said it should praise Mary’s nature, not her eyes. Apparently Mary did not take kindly to being complimented on her looks. She wished to be appreciated for more than her appearance. It was another credit to be notched in her favour.
A considerable amount of laughter had followed, and an inevitable quantity of wine.
When he woke he was hot and sweaty, his body thrumming with need for Mary Marlow – in his dreams she had not said no the other night.
He looked at his watch on the side. It was only mid-day but there was no way he would be able to sleep again.
He threw the covers aside and got up, then washed and shaved, planning to ride in the park and vent his frustration. Rewriting the latest letter would have to wait until he’d dealt with his painful surge of desire.
He could seek a willing woman to assuage it, but if he wanted constancy with Miss Marlow the idea seemed traitorous; he had abstained for a year, he would not break that now.
He was not interested in other women anyway. Not any more. Mary consumed him, mentally and physically. It was Mary he needed, no-one else.
His mouth dried, filling with a bitter taste, and it was not from last night’s excess of drink, it was from fear he’d fail and lose her.
On his ride he stretched out his mare, hurtling across the open meadow of Green Park, leaning low, hugging his body to the horse, pushing his bodyweight into his heels, and keeping balance with his shins, and his thighs, riding like a mad man.
He felt close to insanity – desperate.
Still, if she was easily caught he’d be bored of her in weeks. No, her determination to withstand him only bore out his belief that she was the woman for him.
She had strength of character, and that was to be admired.
Returning home he rewrote the letter his friends had constructed in their cups last night, and as he reached its end found his own words flowing from the quill, a diatribe falling from his mind onto the paper as the words had last night when they’d danced. He blotted the words briskly then folded the paper before he lost the courage to include his own words and sealed it with wax.
He found a young lad he trusted in the street and sent the boy off to deliver it.
* * *
Mary sat alone in the family drawing room. She looked up at the butler who carried a silver tray.
When the butler bowed to offer it, Mary saw Drew’s handwriting and her wicked heart flooded with joy.
Her mother and father, with John and Kate, had taken all the children on an outing to the park. Mary had declined accompanying them and bidden Mr Finch to say no one was at home if anyone called. She was not in a mood to entertain, or be social.
Images and memories of Lord Framlington kept spinning in her head.
Her heartbeat thumped when she took the letter.
She had a foolish heart.
When Finch had left she opened it, slipping her feet from her shoes and curling her legs sideways on the sofa.
It began with another poem, commending the extreme good nature of her soul, and then enthusing on her charm, her eloquence.
Lord Brooke had been telling tales.
The following paragraphs spoke of commitment, of life long happiness. They were only words. They meant little in reality.
But the last paragraph… The strokes of Drew’s writing seemed somehow sharper, and the words on the page lifted out with feeling.My Mary, you are you know, mine. You always will be, accept me or not. You and I are meant to be one, half to become whole. Put us together Mary, darling, make us one, a single being. I want you. I cannot say I love you, not yet, I do not even know what on earth love is, but I do know that I cannot sleep for thinking of you, or avoid dreaming of you. I think of you and I lose my breath, I see you and my heart begins to pound, I hear you and my spirit wants to sing. I am yours, Mary. Be mine. I cannot simply walk away. I will not.Think of the possibilities. If this is love? If this is our only chance? If we are meant to be, would you throw that away? Throw me away?Do not! Let us be.Yours truly,D
The words were spoken as though he stood with her and read them.
She barely knew him and yet she felt as if she’d known him all her life. She had not been drawn to any other man – perhaps it was true, he was meant for her.
A sigh slipped past her lips. If she let him go he’d marry someone else. He needed an heiress. He could not wait forever.
Her gaze drifted to the window. Birdsong permeated the glass. She would not marry unless someone else made her heart race as he did. If no one ever did, she would definitely never marry. She sighed again. She had thought that last night, and yet she had not thought about what he would do… She may never marry but she’d be forced to watch him with his wife.
Oh, why did her heart have to fall for someone forbidden?
He was mystery. Challenge. There was so much to learn about him.
Her heart was caught up with him and she did not know how to break free.I don’t want to be free.I want to be his wife– to understand the complexity in his eyes.
She didn’t see a bad man in his eyes.
Was that a dreadful admission?
John would be furious if she chose Drew. Her father and mother would be disappointed. But they would not disown her. They’d forgive her, because they loved her.
She folded the letter and took it to her room. There, she searched out the paper on which he’d written his address. Then she sat at her writing desk.
Her quill hovered over the paper. She could not make promises yet. She was afraid to do what her heart wished and say yes.
Could she have her family and Lord Framlington?
Could she trust him to look after her and love her?
How could she bear to hurt her family?
Yet how could she bear it if Drew turned to someone else?
Make me believe, if you wish. she began to write.You make us be.Prove that I may trust your words.Prove that you will love me and not hurt me.
She wrote no more. She could not think of anything else to say. His ego was too big to offer him compliments. He’d only bask in them.
Folding the letter she reached for wax, and melted a little to seal it. She smiled when she rose from the desk.
Was she really doing this?
It appeared so.
Her feet carried her downstairs, the letter fluttering in her fingers to dry the wax.
When Mary reached the hall, avoiding Finch, and any unwanted questions, she carried on into the servants’ stairwell, heading for the stables.
There she found one of the boys who fed the horses and cleaned the stalls, gave him a half-penny and sent him to deliver the letter.
Less than an hour later, the boy burst into her private sitting room with a broad grin, waving a reply in his grubby hand. “The gent sent this back, Miss. I brought it up meself ’cause he said it was a secret between you and me. I’ve snuck through the house. No one saw me, Miss.”
Mary rose and took it. Then found out another half-penny for the boy.
Drew had probably given him one too – the price of deceit.
“Wait here a moment.”
Breaking the seal, she turned and walked into her bedchamber then sat on the edge of her bed.How may I prove it to you? Tell me, and I will do it. Anything. I will climb the highest mountain for you, swim a lake or run across a continent. Only tell me and I shall prove it, Mary, darling.Are you alone? How long for? Look from the window.
Oh heavens!He’s outside!
She went to the window.
Carriages passed in the square below and people walked the pavements. She saw him. He stood against the central railing of the square on the far side of the street from John’s house, looking up and smoking a cigar, in a nonchalant, blasé, pose, the rim of his hat tipped forward shadowing his eyes.
She returned to the sitting room where the stable lad waited. “Let the gentleman in, Tom, please. Take him to the summerhouse and tell him to wait there. But remember this is a secret. I will reward you for your silence later. No one must see him, you understand?”
“Yes, Miss.” The lad gave an awkward bow, tugging his forelock, and then he raced out of the room.
Mary hurried back into her bedchamber, checked her hair in the mirror on her dressing table, tucked a loose strand into the comb holding up her hair, then raced downstairs, gripping her blue muslin day-dress to lift her hem from the ground.
A dozen butterflies took flight in her stomach when she saw Finch in the hall. She slowed immediately, half-way down the stairs.
He looked up and bowed, as did the footman he spoke with.
Mary stepped from the bottom stair. “I’m taking a book out to read in the summerhouse, Mr Finch. I may sleep, please don’t let anyone disturb me.”
“Of course, Miss Marlow,” the old bulldog answered. He was her family’s guardian, and now she was deceiving him too. Her parents would send her home to the country if they knew.
She went to the library and picked up a book from a side table, without even looking at its title, then let herself out through the French door into the sunshine.
Heat touched her face as she crossed the lawn. She had not put on her bonnet. But she didn’t hurry in case Finch watched from the house.
The Summerhouse was at the end of the garden, tucked away amongst tall shrubs. No-one could see it from the house and no-one could see anyone approaching it from the stables.
A beautiful Wisteria archway covered the path Drew must have walked through.
When she reached the summerhouse, he stood at the far end of the narrow wooden veranda, with his back to her. He’d removed his hat and he’d ruffled his hair.
“This is very bad of you,” she stated as she climbed the steps of the veranda. Then she leaned back against the post at the opposite end to where he stood, the book she carried tucked behind her.
He turned with a broad smile on his lips. The same smile danced in his eyes. “But exhilarating. What if we are caught? Think of the repercussions!” He was teasing. She saw laughter in his eyes. She had not seen him in daylight since the morning they had ridden together. She had forgotten how sunlight gilded his eyes, and made the hazel shine like gold.
“I would rather not,” she answered, watching him and smiling.
“But you feel the exhilaration. Otherwise you would not have ordered the lad to let me in.” He walked towards her pulling off his gloves. “How long do we have?”
“An hour, perhaps more.”
“A whole hour to ourselves…”
He threw his gloves aside. They landed beside his hat on a low table.
When she looked up, he stood a foot away.
“So tell me…” His fingers touched beneath her chin. “…how may I prove that we are meant for one another?”
She could not find any air in her lungs to answer as she looked into his eyes. But then it didn’t matter; his lips pressed to hers. It was unlike any other kiss they’d shared – it was not urgent or hurried, or persuasive. It was just a kiss, a touching of lips.
A sigh escaped his mouth when he pulled away as if he’d been longing to kiss her.
Mary leaned around him to put the book down beside his hat and gloves.
He caught hold of her hand when she straightened, and gently pinned her back against the post. “I’ve thought about you all night…” His words caressed her ear sending tremors down her spine, then his lips touched her earlobe and the sensitive skin behind her ear.
Her head tipped back, and she said to the air above them, “So we are back to this.”
His head lifted as he laughed and his hand let hers go. But then both his hands braced her waist gently and he shook her a little. “God, I love you, you have convinced me of it. You’re the only woman who can say no to me. I adore you more because you fight me. But you are tempted none the less. You just do not trust me enough…”
“Enough to do what?” She held his gaze, fighting the urge to believe him. His hands made her feel safe not in danger, but the words I love you were easily said and they’d been spoken with a pitch of frustration and laughter not from any depth of feeling, they did not sound as though they had come from his heart – and he had said in his letter he did not even know what love was…
“To become my wife. I was not talking of physical intimacy, sweetheart. I am speaking of marriage.”
“What would it be like to be your wife?” She had never looked into his eyes in the daylight this close, the hazel had now turned to the depth of light shining through amber. She looked beyond the colour trying to see into his soul.
He looked back at her with as many questions as she wished to ask. But she could not see any artifice.
Did he feel for her?
Put us together Mary, darling, make us one, a single being. I want you. I cannot say I love you, not yet, I do not even know what on earth love is, but I do know that I cannot sleep for thinking of you, or avoid dreaming of you.
Were the words true?
“I hope we would be happy. I want to make you happy. We will buy our own estate and make it a home. It needn’t be large. It will take time to become profitable, but I will make it so.”
I think of you and I lose my breath, I see you and my heart begins to pound, I hear you and my spirit wants to sing. I am yours, Mary. Be mine.
“And children?” She longed for her own life and her own family.
His smile dropped, and his gaze turned inward, no longer looking at her but lost in thought.
Didn’t that prove his earlier words true though, if he could not hide when he needed to stop and think to answer?
She touched his cheek. For the first time believing she saw something real in him, a hidden reality. This was not the Lord Framlington of dangerous rakehell fame. This was Drew, the man who had written those impassioned words.
His gaze came back to her. “I have never thought of children.” He spoke in a solemn voice, as if the thought shocked him.
She pressed her palm to his shaven cheek. He was a man, human, as vulnerable as any other, no matter his reputation.
“But I would like them, with you…” His tone said, only, with you.
Mary lifted to her toes and kissed him, touching her lips to his – as he’d kissed her.
His grip at her waist firmed. “We will have a dozen children.” A broad smile parted his lips and his eyes shone with a new light. “You must teach me how to be a father, as you’ll need to teach me how to love you. I am no good at this.”
He was good. He just didn’t know it. But she could teach him.
“Are you tempted?”
“To marry you?”
He shook his head the smile playing on his lips. “Stop doubting me. I am not speaking of a physical relationship. Of course to become my wife.”
“Yes.” The word slipped out before she had chance to consider it. Her heart said it. It was the truth, but she defined it. “I am tempted.”
His lips pressed to hers in a strong kiss.
When he broke it, he whispered to her mouth, his nose rubbing hers, “I love you. I really think I do.”
And I love you. She did not say it. She did not dare. Her head did not trust him enough. Not yet. But her heart…
He picked her up. She grasped his shoulders as he swung her into his arms, one about her shoulders and another beneath her knees.
“You are perfect for me, Mary.”
She laughed unable to prevent the sound, as he smiled broadly.
His eyes gleamed gold and then shone amber, changing in the changing light, as he carried her into the summerhouse, and then dropped her on the soft cushions of a sofa.
Smiling like a fool she sat up and spun around.
She did love him, she adored him, but her head was still too afraid to let him join her upon the sofa.
His smile tilted, but undaunted he dropped to one knee. “Mary…” He took her hands from her lap, gripping them gently. “Marry me.”
Her stomach performed a somersault.
She took one hand from his, and pressed a palm to his cheek.
His eyes were so earnest, she believed him. He wanted her, not just for money. He bore affection for her, whether it was love or not, he cared for her.
But her family? “I cannot answer yet. I’m sorry. I need to think.”
His eyes turned darker. “But there is hope. I have hope you will say, yes?”
“You have hope.” Mary bit her lip, afraid of what she’d said, of what she wanted to say. She loved him – her body pulled her towards him.
His fingers lifted and gripped her nape, then they urged her mouth to his, as he remained on one knee, a supplicant before her.
This time his kiss seared her, like a fire, as his mouth opened and caressed hers with hunger and thirst. The same hunger and thirst ran in her blood.
When he drew away, his eyes looked into hers. “Let me touch you. Let me love you. I will not take your virginity I swear that I will leave you choice, but let me show you how it can be between us. You are right marriage is more than a physical thing, but this is what I know, let me give you this and show you…”
She could not answer with words, her head wished to refuse – yet her heart…Agreement spiralled in her stomach, coiling to the point he’d touched between her legs that first night, and her fingers slid into his hair, pulling his lips back to hers.
This kiss was hard and ruthless, pressing against her mouth, as he rose from the floor, leaning her backward.
His warm hand gripped beneath her knee, lifting, encouraging her to move her legs on to the sofa so she lay down. Then the weight of his knee dipped the cushion beside her, a moment before his other knee settled on her dress between her thighs. She was trapped beneath his masculinity, smothered.
She didn’t care. His weight on top of her was beautiful – dangerous and arousing. His tongue came into her mouth, invading and caressing, and the heat of his palm slid upward from her waist.
What if my parents return?
He stole the thought away as his palm covered and caressed her breast.
Her nipple hardened and a sharp pain ran from it into her breast.
The thrill of that night beside the terrace, in the darkness, with people talking nearby span through her memory. There was no darkness to hide them now, everything shone clear and visible.
He broke the kiss and knelt up. She sucked in a breath as he took off his morning coat and threw it on to a chair across the room. Then he moved his legs either side of hers, and began sliding up her dress watching her face as if he feared she might stop him.
Her heartbeat thundered. She should stop him – but she wanted to know…
She pressed her heels into the cushion so the material could slide up easily, her gaze clinging to his as if he was a cliff and she might fall.
When her hem slipped over knees he stopped, and the air trembled in her lungs as he came back down on top of her.
Just the weight and feel of his hard muscular body was a caress, it made the place between her legs throb with moisture.
One of his hands pressed on the cushion holding some of his weight, the other settled over her breast.
Her fingers shook as she swept back the hair from his brow, looking into his brown eyes, there were so many different shades within them.
People were not all one shade, one thing; they were a myriad of elements. He could not only be bad, there was good too. She longed to unravel the good in him and prove to her parents it was there.
A firm column within his trousers pressed against her hip.
Need coiled through her abdomen again.
Like this, she could imagine how it would be to lie with a man, with him. Her mother had told her very little, but Mary knew what happened. He mother had said not to listen to anything she might overhear implying it was unpleasant; it was not unpleasant if you loved the man you married.
She loved Drew, and it did not feel at all unpleasant to be beneath him, letting him touch her.
He kissed her again, urging her to reciprocate as his tongue pressed through her lips.
She did, her fingers clasping in his hair as their tongues played a breathless weaving and dancing game, and her hips pressed upward against his.
His fingers undid the couple of buttons securing her bodice free, then his hand was within, beneath her chemise clasping the flesh of her breast.
She wanted to feel him.
Her fingers left his hair reaching between them running over his waistcoat, searching for buttons, she found them and fought to free them.
A sound rumbled in the back of his throat, and his hand gripped her breast more firmly, but his body lifted a little to let her slip his buttons loose.
When his waistcoat opened her fingers slid beneath, brushing over his cotton shirt and the architecture of his muscle beneath it.
She arched against him as her hands moved to his back beneath his waistcoat, she wanted the release he’d let her experience in the dark.
His kiss left her lips. She shut her eyes, shut out embarrassment, as his lips touched her chin then travelled down her neck, nipping and biting gently.
“You’re beautiful, Mary, within and without. I do love you.”
I love you too.
Her fingers slid down his back and pulled his shirt from his trousers, as his lips touched her breast.
A summer breeze swept in through the open doors, caressing the naked skin he’d revealed.
He said nothing as she pulled his shirt loose and touched his silky skin, and the firm muscle beneath it. With her eyes closed she hid in the darkness as they’d done in the garden.
He sucked her nipple with a sharp tug, and the pain of desire struck like a dagger between her legs. She wanted him there. To know how it felt.
Another moan left her lips as instinctively she arched again, pressing her breast towards his mouth.
Then the warmth of his mouth was gone.
She opened her eyes, sensing him looking at her. The brown amber had become dark, his onyx pupils wide. “Let me touch you fully.” His voice flowed over gravel.
She didn’t understand at first, but then his hand slid from her breast to her dress clutching the fabric.
“Will you allow it?” he breathed.
Her eyes held his gaze.
“Yes,” again the word fell from her lips without thought. But it was what she wanted, desperately wanted.
He held her gaze, and drew her dress higher, his fingers brushing the smooth inner surface of her knee.
A shiver raked her body.
A smile lifted his closed lips, but he did not look away.
She wished to hide behind closed eyelids but she could not while he watched, it seemed cowardly. His fingers slipped beneath the hem of her drawers, playing across her inner thigh.
Her lips fell open. She wanted to weep, whimper and cry out with pleasure all at once.
Then with a single movement his fingers swept up and touched her there, between her legs, pressing against her flesh for a moment.
She bit her lip holding onto his gaze, imprisoned by it, as her fingers gripped the skin at his sides above his hips.
“You’re wet for me, darling.” His fingers slid forwards and back, as they had in the dark over her dress only now he touched her flesh, slipping through the slit in her drawers.
She could not breathe; a part of her could not believe she was letting this happen, another part wished for so much more. She wanted him to stop and she wanted him to continue.
If my parents find us like this?
Again the thought was swept away as his fingers slipped into her, only slightly, but…
She died, closing her eyes, the world crashing in on her, as her fingernails cut into his flesh, gripping him hard. She cried out. His lips covered hers, brushing them again and again, taking the sound.
“Good, God, you are perfect. I cannot believe how well we are matched.”
His fingers worked a charm within her, withdrawing a little and pressing back, gently stroking and provoking. Sensory delight danced through her nerves. The day was so hot; she wanted to be rid of all her clothes, of all of his and lie naked with him.
The column of his arousal pushed against her hip as he worked. She wanted to touch him, but embarrassment held her back, and yet… And yet… She could not hold herself back… She pressed her hips into his hand searching for a deeper invasion, but he would not give it. Desperation pulling at her nerves, her fingers hunted for the buttons on his waistband then she fought to free them as a soft laugh left his throat.
His lips touched her breast then sucked as the buttons came loose.
She bit her lip, afraid to open her eyes, afraid of his judgement, hiding in the darkness, and not wanting to face what they did because then she would have to admit she was committing a sin. If she did not face it. It did not feel sinful.
Her fingers dipped within his trousers to touch the hard column of his flesh.
The skin felt like velvet.
She clutched it, holding firm, not knowing what else to do.
“I’ll show you.” His voice brushed her cheek, answering her unspoken thought. Then his hand covered hers; his fingers damp with her essence. “Like this.”
She opened her eyes and met his gaze, as he drew her hand down and then up.
His eyes were pools of emotion, sunlight shining through honey.
I love you.
She should feel embarrassed by this intimacy. She did not.
After a moment he let her hand go, and then his fingers were back between her legs, and they touched each other, watching each other. He had a hand about her heart too, and a fist in her stomach, the emotion caught so tight within her.
His head bowed and his hair brushed her skin as his lips touched her breast again.
He sucked her nipple, his fingers working their charm between her legs.
Her fingers clasped tighter about him.
The hunger and thirst inside her surged on a high tide, rising in a pool in the place between her legs, impatient for more. She wanted his weight, his strength, his pressure there.
Her thoughts lost in the turmoil swirling through her senses, Mary’s thumb brushed the tip of his erection.
A shiver racked his body.
How heady, to know she could move him as he moved her.
His suck pulled hard on her breast, then he released it and his head came up, a rogue’s smile twisting his lips. “Mary, darling, I’m trying to be good.”
“And if I do not want you to be good.” The breathless words tumbled from her dry mouth.
His eyes lost their rakish glint. “Sweetheart, you do. I made you a promise. You can trust me. I shan’t break it.” The caress between her legs grew more intense as he spoke, utterly entrancing her body.
His head bent and his lips brushed her temple, then his kiss touched the skin beside her eye. Her eyelids lowered.
He kissed her cheek, her nose, her chin.
Her fingers gripped his erection, just holding now, with one hand, while her other clutched his shoulder as her breathing quickened and her heartbeat raced.
“Let go, sweetheart, trust me,” he whispered to her ear in a husky voice.
A tide rose within her, like it had done in the dark. He knew… He knew how he moved her.
His fingers stroked, pushing inside her a little before withdrawing while his thumb played over a sensitive spot and the sensations flowed like ripples through her body, reaching even to her fingers and toes.
“Please, I want you.” Her fingers clasped more tightly about him.
“You’d regret it, darling. You would. Just let go.” His voice urged as it had done in the dark. “Come into my hand.”
Thoughts and feelings shattered, splintering into a thousand pieces that were swept away on a surging, rolling wave. It washed through her blood like a boar tide, ripping through her veins, stronger than she’d felt in the darkness.
“That’s it, sweetheart… Just… That’s it…”
Then his fingers were gone from inside her, and she felt him touch the tip of his erection, spreading her moisture there, before his hand closed over hers.
She opened her eyes, her vision focusing on his face, then his eyes. He was looking at her. She held his gaze. “I’m sorry, darling. I’m sorry, but I need this.”
His hand covered hers, moving her fingers.
His gaze clung to hers, fixed and hard.
His hips moved, pressing into their joined grip and then withdrawing.
The pattern aroused her as his deep brown amber eyes shone, his gaze sharpening with a dark intent, their onyx centres dilating.
She understood the heat in his eyes, she could see the sensation he’d taught her echoed there.
His movements quickened, and his fingers gripped more tightly over hers, it became a painful embrace. Then he stopped, suddenly, as though every muscle in his body locked, a cry of revelation broke his lips, rasping from his throat and his gaze was lost then. She saw ecstasy there for an instant before his eyelids fell, then he pulsed in her hand and wet heat spilled from his tip.
The intimacy and vulnerability of it gripped at her soul. It spoke of his humanity. He was not a monster, just a man. A man she loved, and a man who’d said he thought he loved her. A man who did care for her. A man who’d just been isolated and labelledbadby society. They were wrong.
When he opened his eyes, they shone with gratitude. “You are divine, Mary, thank you.” His forehead rested on hers for a moment before he rose up, lifting off her, though his gaze still held hers. “When you’re certain, my darling, when you say, yes, then we’ll join, but not before. You can trust me.”
Her heartbeat had slowed. She felt cold, despite the hot day.
“Here…” He’d reached to his coat and withdrawn a handkerchief, to wipe her hand clean, then he wiped himself.
Her fingers lifted to brush back his brown hair as she sat up. She felt uncertain now, and her touch was tentative.
Had they really just done what they’d done? Had she reallybegged him for more?
He looked as if he feared she’d bolt.
She would not. She’d made her choice. But she was embarrassed and self-conscious.
He slid the soiled handkerchief back into his pocket, then rose to secure the buttons at his flap and tuck his shirt into his trousers.
He looked down and smiled. “You look gorgeous. Do you want to tempt me back?”
Heat absorbing her skin, Mary pushed her dress down, then swung her legs from the sofa, to sit upright before pulling up the neck of her chemise and securing the buttons of her bodice with shaking fingers.
He bent, and his fingers wrapped about her nape, tilting her face up so he could press a hard kiss to her lips – a thank you kiss.
Her heart fluttered and her stomach flipped.
When he straightened, letting her go, she stood up too, awkwardness besetting her, uncertain what to say or do.
He smiled as he buttoned up his waistcoat.
He was a stranger to her in so many ways and yet her soul knew him… It had been waiting to find him. She trusted him, regardless of what her father and John said. Had he not just proven himself? He could have taken everything from her. He’d not. He’d left her the choice.
She’d made it.
Lifting up on to her toes, and wrapping her arms about his neck, she kissed his cheek before saying to his ear, “I will, yes.”
He pulled away sharply, his eyes full of questions as his hands braced her elbows. “Yes?”
She smiled. “Yes. I will marry you.”
His brow furrowed, as though he did not believe her.
If she had needed more proof he was not the rogue he seemed, here it was. His surprise and doubt only showed he was not as self-confident as he appeared. He needed her as no other suitor had. He needed her to help him show people he was not what they thought.
“You’re sure?” he whispered. “I feel as though I have done nothing to prove myself.”
“I am sure,” she answered, holding his gaze and stepping from the cliff she had clung to earlier – faith her bridge. “I think I can trust you.”
His eyes softened, the rich, deep, honey brown glowing behind dark lashes. “You think you can trust me, and I think I love you. Is it a good enough foundation?”
Her hand cupped his cheek. “Do you wish to dissuade me now? You are only proving yourself worthy of my…”
His lips tilted to his roguish half smile, when she stopped. “Of your what?”
She shook her head, losing courage.
“Of your love? Do you think you love me too…” His voice rang with surprise and hope.
“I would not have done what we did, if I did not?” Vulnerability trembled through her nerves. She lifted her chin in defiance of it.
His fingers brushed her skin as his gaze bored deep into hers, looking for something. “Let us be in love then. Let this be a love match.” His voice rolled through gravel. Then he pressed a hard brief kiss on her lips, before catching hold of her hands. “I’ll make arrangements.”
“You know we must elope, your family would never agree to a match while your brother is so against me.”
“I know.” The weight of her decision settled heavily on her shoulders. This would be hard, she would break their hearts. But surely they would come to see the good in Drew.
His fingers tenderly brushed a lock of hair from her brow.
The muscle within her core clenched, aching at the memory of his more intimate touch.
“I’ll write to you. Send the boy to me in three days and I’ll send word.”
His lips brushed hers, another brief touch, then he breathed across her mouth. “Sweetheart, I cannot believe you said yes.”
She could not believe it either.
Her fingers clasped in his hair as she kissed him. She did not want him to go.
He broke it. “You will have me hard for you again but I must go.”
She nodded. Her parents would be home soon.
He gripped her hand and squeezed it for an instant before letting go and turning to pick up his coat.
“I’ll walk you to the gate,” she said as he put it on.
He threw her a smile across his shoulder, then picked up his hat and put it on, before picking up his gloves too.
Her heart thundered.
He held out his hand. She took it. It held hers firmly, the leather of his glove now a barrier between them.
She pulled gently, leading him from the summerhouse into the cover of the trees and then beneath the arches draped with sweet scented flowering wisteria.
When they reached the gate which opened onto the alley leading to the mews, she stopped and looked up at him.
His gaze held hers, then he bent, bestowing a brief hard kiss on her lips. When he broke it, his eyes shone. “I’ll write. I’ll tell you where and when.”
Nodding, she caught her lower lip between her teeth as tears clouded her vision.
He smiled, and his gloved fingers brushed her cheek. “We will be together soon.”
She nodded again, unable to speak for fear she’d cry. He turned and slid the bolt loose, opened the gate and threw one last roguish smile across his shoulder, then he left.
It was still clear and bright, but without him the sun had gone.
Her heart raced as she turned back to the garden.
“Mary! Mary!” Several voices lifted on the air shouting her name, her brothers and sisters.
Her parents were home and her siblings had tales to tell about everything she’d missed.
She longed to tell her own news.I am engaged.
A smile suddenly parted her lips.I am engaged, I am going to marry him.
Her brothers and sisters came into view, charging towards her at a run, all shouting at once.
* * *
As Drew jogged up the steps of White’s, he grinned from ear to ear. When he walked into the room where his friends were ensconced a few moments later his grin had dropped to a smile but joy was lodged somewhere deep in his chest and exuberance hovered. He had said the words I love you. God knew if they had been true; he did not, no one had ever taught him what love was. But his feelings for Mary had been so much more than physical.
She had been without guile, without powder or paint, without artifice, beautiful, honest, and her soul had been naked for him. She had let him touch her. But more than that, she had given him her complete trust… and hope… and love… She had inferred that she loved him too.
His feelings had been more than lust, it was not just a physical desire he felt for her, and so the word love had come to his lips, the word he’d never thought he’d say… Even if it was not true, it did not matter. He cared for her. He knew that.
He cared a great deal.
He saw his friends.
Strange new feelings still whizzed about through the nerves in his chest, like fireworks exploding. Pride. Happiness. Hope. Excitement. His life had become something to look forward to, he saw a horizon in the distance, and Mary there.
“Success.” He stated the single word as he joined their group and dropped into one of the leather armchairs about a low table. Their eyes turned to him in question. “You may congratulate me gentlemen, I am engaged to the fair Miss Marlow.”
“You dark dog!”
“Bloody hell, old boy!”
All three exclamations broke at once, his friends rising to their feet, then they slapped his shoulder and shook his hand.
“The prose did its job then,” Peter intoned.
“It was more than the prose, my friend. It appears I’ve not lost my charm after all.”
Peter laughed. “You did not? It’s the middle of the day. How the hell did you get within ten feet of the girl?”
Drew smiled.That is for me to know…
Peter laughed again, shaking his head before sitting back down.
The others sat too, but as they did, Drew caught sight of Pembroke across the room. Mary’s half-brother sat among his influential uncles, looking Drew’s way.
Drew sent him a twisted smile. Let the bugger squirm, he would find out the cause of their exuberance soon enough.
But Drew needed to be wary, he could not let her family find out. They would stop this instantly if they knew, and he’d have her father, her brother and her uncles baying for his blood. But they would be anyway when the truth was out.
Looking away Drew leaned forward to pour himself coffee. He was in for a fight, but it was a fight worth having. He would need a day alone with her. It would be best to leave in daylight then they could travel more easily and cover more miles to find somewhere they could be private for a night. There, he would fix their fate, so when they were found, there would be no going back.
When Mary saw Lord Framlington enter the ballroom with his friends two nights later she could recount how many hours and minutes had passed since he’d left her at the garden gate. Their secret had been bursting to break from her lips ever since. She wished to scream it aloud, to grip her friends’ arms and whisper in their ears, to take her mother and father aside and say,I am engaged.
Her fears had slipped away and instead her heart brimmed with a tentative joy.
Her family would be disappointed, and angry, but she would make them understand.
Last night she’d claimed a headache and kept to her room rather than eat dinner amongst them; not wishing to face the guilt but to hold on to happiness. She had not slept, or eaten since then, she was not tired or hungry. Her body hummed with energy, waiting impatiently for the moment they would elope, jubilant yet terrified the lies she’d told would start to unravel.
Her mother had come to her room to talk this morning, sat on Mary’s bed and taken her hand, then asked, “What is wrong?”
Mary had denied anything was. But then her mother had said she’d heard Lord Farquhar had announced his engagement to Bethany last evening. She’d thought Mary upset because of it. She had kissed Mary’s cheek and promised she and Mary’s father would always be there.
Mary hoped they would forgive her.
She hoped to elope with Drew soon, before any more of her lies came to light. But oh, she wished they could be like Bethany and Daniel as they were now, surrounded by her friends all congratulating them. Mary longed to open her mouth and say, I am engaged too, but she was unsure how her friends would receive the news. They only knew Drew by reputation. They would probably call her mad.
Her gaze left her friends and looked for him as love coursed through her blood. He stood among his friends, and it was as if they stood either side of a battle field, the chasm between their lives too wide. But she would cross it.
He probably could not see her as she stood among her friends.
A confident smile hung on Drew’s lips then he said something to his friends and the group broke into laughter.
Something tight gripped in her stomach.
Lord Brooke and Mr Harper looked over their shoulders, then Drew’s gaze lifted and searched the room. She guessed they were looking for her.
What had he said to them? Why had they laughed?
A woman approached the group.
Mary recognised her, Lady Kilbride, the Marquis of Kilbride’s wife, she had seen Drew speaking with her once before. The woman laid a hand on Drew’s forearm. He bent towards her, letting her whisper in his ear. His friends turned away, talking amongst themselves. Then Drew turned.
Mary’s heartbeat stuttered.
Lady Kilbride held Drew’s arm, her fingers gripping it as he escorted her outside through the open French door, disappearing into the darkness.
Mary’s stomach froze.
She’d heard rumours of Lady Kilbride, of her unfaithfulness. Was Drew one of her consorts?
Nausea ate at Mary’s empty stomach.
Were her parents, and John, right?
She did not dance the next set, claiming her slippers rubbed. Daniel stood out with her while Bethany danced and shy Emily sat with them, as she was playing wallflower again.
Utterly numb, Mary fought to make conversation.
Drew returned with Lady Kilbride twenty minutes after he’d left, and Lady Kilbride clutched his handkerchief in her fingers.
Mary had been talking but the words slipped from her mind as tears filled her eyes. She wiped them away quickly, the void of pain inside her filling with anger.
“Mary, what is it?” Daniel looked over his shoulder, following her gaze.
But Drew was already hidden by the dancers.
Would he do that? Would he make love to her yesterday afternoon and this woman now?
I was warned.
Daniel looked back to her.
“Mary, what is it?” Emily queried her silence.
“Nothing is wrong, sorry I lost my thread.”
The set ended,thank God,and their friends returned before either Daniel or Emily could pursue their questions.
Mary turned away, speaking to someone else as she looked for Drew again.
He’d returned to his friends and stood with Lord Brooke. Lady Kilbride had walked away.
As Lord Brooke spoke Drew’s gaze caught hers, reaching across the room, hard and fixed. A bitter smile twisted his lips.
He knew she’d seen him, Lord Brooke must have seen her watching.
I will not be his puppet.
“Emily.” Mary turned back to her friend.
Emily was uncertain of her place in society and she hated to offend, she made a good confident. Mary caught her elbow and whispered. “There is someone I wish to talk to, a group of gentlemen I met the other night. Mama will skin me alive if she thought I was being so forward, but you will keep me company won’t you? There is safety in numbers after all. There will be no harm in me speaking to them if you come with me. I’m sure your Papa will thank me for introducing you to Lord Framlington and Lord Brooke.”
Emily’s naivety and newness to their group meant she would not know Drew and Lord Brooke were to be avoided.
Emily nodded, conceding rather than actively agreeing.
Mary added another sin and another lie to her list, threaded her arm through Emily’s and drew her across the room.
Lord Brooke noticed Mary approaching before she reached them and turned to Drew.
“You had better look sharp. You are about to become the victim of your fiancée’s wrath. The lady bears daggers in her eyes.” Peter smiled, then laughed.
Drew’s friends had joined him tonight not at his asking but of their choosing, insisting he should be given the opportunity to converse with his future wife.
Really they’d come to watch Drew demean himself before her and act the lover. To laugh at him.
Of course he had not told them, his affection, to whatever degree, was genuine. That was for Mary to know and no one else. He would not make himself vulnerable and declare his affections to the damned world.
But his friends’ presence was welcome, especially as Peter had been able to warn Drew that Mary had seen him leave with Caro. Mary had clearly misunderstood.
Drew turned as she approached. The pale blue satin she wore enhanced her eyes and made her hair and eyelashes look even darker, while the skin above her neckline and the pearls about her neck, made his fingers itch to touch her.
His gaze met hers.
Peter was right, a thunderstorm raged in her eyes. She probably didn’t even know Caro was his sister, only a few people knew of their relationship. His family never acknowledged either of them in public.
Kilbride had been up to his vicious games again and Caro had needed a shoulder to weep on. The poor girl had been desperate.
Ever since childhood they’d turned to each other and neither of them spoke to any other members of their family.
He’d promised to intervene in her marriage a dozen times but she was too afraid of Kilbride. But soon he would have the money to both get her away from Kilbride and hide her, and then he intended to be very insistent.
Drew held Mary’s gaze as she walked the final steps, laughter tight in his throat. He smiled.
Her family be damned. The girl had courage, to come across the room and tackle him.
He liked it.
But the poor little mouse of a woman on her arm…
“Lord Framlington.” Mary dropped a shallow insulting curtsy, her friend lowered much further. Then Mary turned to Peter and dropped deeper too, saying. “Lord Brooke.”
Bless the girl, she was mocking him before his friends. The little firebrand.
His future wife had a spirit beyond his hopes.
She acknowledged Mark and Harry too, then introduced the mouse she’d used as her cover. “May I introduce Miss Emily Smithfield.”
It was like tossing a lamb into a dog pit. The poor child curtsied again. She was no match to Mary’s magnificent beauty, but she was pretty, with brown hair and brown eyes. She would be of interest to his non-fussy friends.
“Lord Framlington.” Mary ruthlessly dragged his attention back to her.
His smile broadened as he contemplated fighting over who wore the trousers in his wedded bliss.
“Miss Marlow.” He bowed as insultingly as she’d curtsied to him.
She opened her mouth to speak—
“Before you begin, Lady Kilbride is my younger sister.” He kept his pitch cold, for the benefit of his friends’ ears.
The storm in her eyes blew out instantly.
“Yes, my dear, my sister. You may wish to rescue your friend. It is rather rash of you to throw her to the wolves, Mary.”
She glanced at Miss Smithfield, then back to him. Then she stuttered. “Forgive me, I’m sorry, I…”
His smile lifted. “I am not sorry. Your jealously heartens me. It bodes well for our future, darling – that you care so much.” A rakish pitch rang in his voice, but he cursed internally when he saw her eyes cloud with uncertainty – yet his friends were in earshot.
She blushed and his fingers itched to stroke a curl back from her brow to reassure her – but he could not touch her here.
The first notes of a waltz began. Peter asked Miss Smithfield to the floor. The poor girl didn’t stand a chance.
Drew looked at Mary, longing to ask, he thrived on risk but he’d be a fool to take such a step now. His gaze lifted to catch her father’s glare; it stretched across the room.
Exactly why he should not take the risk. Her father had seen them.
Drew looked back at her and said quietly to avoid Mark and Harry hearing. “Your father is watching, you had better go, but tell me one thing first. Are your family busy any days in the next week or so?”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Not that I know.”
Drew caught Harry glancing at him, but continued. “I think it best if we leave after breakfast so we can travel during the day. Contact me when you know your absence will go unnoticed from morning until at least the dinner hour?”
She bit her lip and nodded, her gaze searching his expression, looking for proof of his loyalty.
A part of her still urged her to be cautious then.
His fingers lifted and touched the bare skin above her long evening gloves, his action hidden by her body so her father could not see.
“You may trust me. I love you.” He was desperate for her to believe him, even though he did not believe himself…Who knows what love is.But if I do not have you as my wife now, I would rather not live…
She nodded. “I’m sorry, I mis—”
“It does not matter.” The whole world misjudged him. “Things will be good between us. I promise…” It would be true.
Mark moved closer. Drew threw a look at him to say stay away.
“I will organise something,” she answered.
Drew nodded. “When you have a date, I’ll send you the arrangements. But let’s not wait too long, sweetheart… I want to be with you.” The last he said in a hoarse whisper.
A shallow smile touched her lips. “Yes.”
The look in her eyes said she would kiss him if she could.
Glancing past her shoulder Drew saw her father striding towards them. “Your Papa is coming, darling.”
She did not look back nor turn away, as if she was reluctant to leave him.
Something clenched hard in his chest. “Go, sweetheart; write soon and set a date; then no one can separate us.”
“Goodbye, I love you.” she whispered as she gripped her dress. Then as the words struck his gut like a punch, she span away sharply as if she’d been insulted and had just given him a scalding.
The words sank into his soul and pride bloomed – good God, someone loved him. Someone who understood those words to their full depth. Lord, he adored her strength and resourcefulness.
He smiled, his gaze following her movement, then he met her father’s glare.
The man could fume all he wished, he’d lost, wherever they hid Mary now Drew could reach her.
Her father turned to follow Mary back; to guard her and his wife.
The man could hardly judge. Marlow was a second son who’d married money. He’d taken the daughter of a duke.
Mary’s mother was no better, she’d eloped, but not with Marlow, with Pembroke’s father, Captain Harding. Harding had been another lower son. The old Duke had cut her off then. How she’d come back into her wealth after her first husband’s death, and married Marlow no one knew. But neither of them had a right to judge him and he would take the greatest pleasure in giving her family’s arrogance a hard kick.
“I am wondering who has seduced who.” Harry leaned to Drew. “Are you smitten?”
Drew turned. “I have to look smitten; the girl wants a love match. Was that not the whole point of our letter writing? I need to convince her I am affected or she will not have me.” Harry’s needling cut. What Drew felt, or did not feel, was his own business, he did not like people knowing who he was beneath the rogue’s façade. Beneath the rogue’s façade was the boy who’d only known rejection as a child, and had become a toy and a thing to be hated.
Mark grinned. “Well, I was convinced.”
“Think what you will.”
Laughing, Mark and Harry walked off, probably to find somewhere to play cards, or a woman to torment.
Marlow’s judgement irked more than Drew cared to admit. Pembroke had cause to be against him, but her parents had none. Marlow’s views were based on hearsay; he ought to wait until he knew Drew to make a judgement. It was another seed thrown to grow in the bitterness that was a tangled forest inside him. He hated being rejected by people who thought themselves better than him. Marlow was not even trying to look for good. He’d judged Drew on ill-founded gossip.
Drew glimpsed his elder sister Lady Elizabeth Ponsonby across the room.
His reputation had been sealed before his birth. His damned name had dictated it – his family. Their reputation had preceded him and become his. He’d never had a choice. Failure and wickedness were expected of him.
While Mary’s family tended towards happy-ever-after his family raced towards hellfire and Elizabeth was one of the worst.
She sat on a sofa, set in an alcove, with her latest adoring youth beside her. She collected young men like other women collected hats. The poor child leaned over the arm of the sofa handing her a drink. While the tip of her fan slid up and down his crotch. Drew’s elder sister was crass, but no doubt the boy thought himself in love as Pembroke had once.
It was no wonder Pembroke judged Drew ill when he’d been entrapped by Elizabeth’s games in France. But Drew was not like Pembroke, Pembroke had arrived in Europe sheltered and blind – Drew had known from birth that promiscuity was not about love.
Nor was he like Elizabeth. He never spoke to her but he was tarred with her brush and his mother’s, and scarred by his father and brothers and ruined by his mother’s friends.
Faithlessness, uncaring, arrogance and self-gratification, were all expected of him and he had lived up to every expectation until he’d met Mary and been rejected by Pembroke’s duchess.
He wanted to be different now; he just did not know how to be different.
Looking at Marlow again Drew saw Mary being subjected to an interrogation. She shook her head again and again, clearly denying everything.
A vicious anger, which had plagued Drew since childhood, sliced into his gut.
He liked her lying through her teeth on his behalf and fighting with her father – standing up forhim. A satisfying surge of pride gripped in his chest. He was important to her, he had become most important. It was a sense of domination. Control. He would ram Marlow’s ill opinion down his throat.
Mary would be Drew’s to protect and care for. Her family could go to hell if they did not accept him. Mary had accepted him, and if Marlow wished to throw stones then, he would be throwing them at Mary too. That would teach the man to judge – when it was his daughter he judged. Maybe then Marlow would open his bloody eyes and look for the truth.
Peter returned, a broad smile cutting his usual devil-may-care expression. “Damn she’s a gem, that pretty Miss Smithfield. I shall have to thank your future spouse for the introduction. I’m taking her driving tomorrow. Her Papa is as rich as Croesus. Perhaps it’s time I considered a leg shackle too.”
“You are rich yourself, you don’t need her money.” Drew shook his head at his friend’s foolishness. He’d lay heavy odds Peter had no inclination to marry the girl.
“True, but when a woman is so ripe for the picking…”
Drew laughed. “Well, you can save your courtship until tomorrow. I vote we vacate and head for a club, the others are already playing cards I’ll wager.”
“It’s not cards I am in the mood for. I’d rather search out more women.”
“While my aim for tonight is spirits. I need a drink,” Drew concluded.
Peter wrapped an arm about his shoulders. “My friend, a woman would ease your anxiety better…”
Mary sat at her writing desk, her hand trembling so badly the quill tip scratched across the paper leaving a spider track instead of her usual neat hand.
John had business to attend to at his main country residence. He expected to be out of town for a couple of days. His house was within a day’s travel from London and so her parents had chosen to accompany him, to give the children some fresh air.
Most families left their younger children at home during the London season but her parents never had.
Mary had told her mother she would stay with Emily’s family. Of course she would not. Emily knew about the elopement. Mary had agreed her silence and then told her everything, knowing Emily would be too timid to judge or tell. The guilt of using a friend was another burden to add to her list.
Of course her parents assumed Mary would not lie and so they’d accepted an invitation Emily had written as proof and not questioned Emily’s family. People would think it lapse when they discovered the truth, but it was not lapse it was love that made them trust her.
Even after her father had seen her speaking with Drew, he’d assumed Drew had approached her. He’d chastised her and warned her to cut Drew, repeating all the reasons why Lord Framlington was unsuitable.
He’d not for one moment considered she would choose to speak to Drew.
Heat had burned her cheeks as she’d listened and declared he’d done nothing wrong.
She knew Drew. Her father did not.
He’d be disappointed with her when he found her gone, and her mother would be distressed and her aunts and uncles and cousins – and John – would all judge her badly.
Tears filled her eyes as she finished the note but she would not change her mind. She had not seen Drew for over a week but he’d written, passing her letters through the stable lad. He’d said he’d not attended entertainments to stop her father suspecting.
She desperately wanted to see Drew. Her thoughts constantly hovered on him.
Folding the letter, she sealed it.
Her heart raced. The emotional pendulum inside her swinging from expectation and excitement to guilt.
This would tear a rift in her family.
She even felt guilty for feeling happy.
She loved her family, desperately. She did not want to hurt them, but she was old enough to make her own choices. They would not allow her to marry Drew. This was the only way.
Mary left the letter on her desk, rose and walked to the window. She looked down on the street. Life carried on as normal, people hurried past and carriages rolled over the cobbles, the sound of the horses’ iron hooves ringing on stone, seeping through the glass.
It would be the same in five days when she had gone.
The world would not change – but her life would change.
She’d have a new home.
He’d said they’d live in his rooms until he received her dowry and then he would look for a property out of town.
She’d start a family with Drew.
Her arms folded over her chest and her vision clouded, then a tear escaped on to her lashes and ran down her cheek.
She was happy, it was just that so much would change.
She sighed wondering how his family would receive her. She had not even known he had a sister until the other night. Would they like her? The butterflies took flight in her stomach. She unfolded her arms and wiped away the tear.
A knock struck the door of her room, she’d left it ajar.
Mary turned to the desk and stood before it, to hide the letter. “Come in.”
A maid entered, she bobbed a curtsy, then rose, “Miss Marlow, Lady Marlow asked if you would come down to the sitting room. Lady Barrington and Lady Wiltshire have called.”
Two of Mary’s aunts.
As the maid left, Mary turned to the desk. There would be no going back once she’d sent the letter. Drew would make the arrangements and in five days’ time she’d leave her family and her home.
Her heart pounding, Mary reached for her shawl and wrapped it about her shoulders then concealed the letter beneath.
She took it to the stables before going to her mother.
* * *
Drew opened the door of his apartment and his gaze dropped to a letter lying at his feet. It must have been pushed beneath the door. He bent and picked it up.
The stable boy must have delivered it.
Drew had spent the day with his friends, sparring in a boxing club, then they’d eaten luncheon at Whites, before going on to Tattersall’s to look at horses.
The letter could have been lying here for hours.
He lifted his hat from his head and tossed it onto the cabinet by the door. Then broke the seal on the letter and read it as he walked across the room.
His heart thumped.My parents are going away. A chill swept over his skin even though the day was warm.
They’d be gone for two days and two nights – plenty of time to get her away and irreversibly change the course of both their lives. After that long in his company, her family would have to approve the match.I have told my parents I will stay with Miss Smithfield, but I shall not go there, and Emily knows that. So you may send a carriage to collect me. I shall say it is from Mr Smithfield, and then we can leave in the morning, when my parents and John leave. Emily has promised me she will not say a word to anyone…
It was perfect. Her plan could not have come together better.
He folded the letter and slipped it into his inside pocket, his heart still beating hard, and a smile pulling at one corner of his lips.
His gaze caught on the pile of bills lying on the cabinet beside his hat. They would be paid soon. No more borrowing from his friends and dodging the duns. He would have money…and he would have Mary.
* * *
“Papa, I love you,” Mary hugged her father as they stood in the hall.
Their luggage had been loaded on the four carriages standing before the house. One for John and Kate, their son and her eldest sisters. Mama and Papa were to travel in the second, with the boys and her youngest sisters, and the senior servants were to travel in the third.
The fourth was an unmarked hackney carriage Drew had sent.
This was her final goodbye, although her family did not know it.
Tears filled her eyes as her father held her. “We will only be gone two days, sweetheart.”
When she pulled away her tears clouded his reassuring smile.
He reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. She accepted it and dabbed at her tears, but her tears did not cease.
“Are you upset over Lord Farquhar? There will be other men, and one who is right for you.”
She shook her head.
She’d not tried to convince them they were wrong about Lord Farquhar, it seemed easier to let them think her odd behaviour linked to that. “I am being silly, Papa. I’ll miss you that is all. Robbie and Harry spend months at a time away at college and here I am crying over two days.”
He hugged her firmly again. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder.
What if he despised her when he found out she’d lied?
Guilt cutting at her heart she drew away and kissed his cheek. He kissed hers too.
She turned to her mother.
Her mother’s eyes shimmered with tears also, as though she knew this was really goodbye.
Mary embraced her.
“I know you’re sad about Lord Farquhar but time will ease the pain, you’ll see, be patient. You are young. There will be other men.…”
“I know.” Mary wiped her nose with her father’s handkerchief. Her mother’s palms framed Mary’s face. Mary looked down, unable to hold her gaze.
“Sweetheart, one day you will be happy and settled, with your own family to care for.”
Noise came from the stairs, the voices of Mary’s younger siblings. She and her mother looked up, her mother’s hands slipped away.
The children’s governess appeared at the top of the stairs with a nursery maid who carried Mary’s youngest sister.
The children were all excited.
Mary turned as John walked into the hall from the library.
“I’m sorry you’re not joining us.” He gave her a considerate smile.
She smiled too. John had been her hero from birth, despite his starchiness as he’d grown older.
She hugged him.
He’d be disgusted with her.
When she pulled away, she smiled brightly. “I’m sure you don’t care a jot whether I am there or not, you have Paul and Kate to absorb what time you have to spare.”
He laughed. “But Katherine does not chastise me as much as you do. You keep my feet firmly on the ground.”
“John!” His gaze lifted to the stairs, to Kate, his eyes glowing with adoration.
Mary hoped one day Drew would look at her like that.
John’s gaze returned to her. “Be careful, Mary.”
When Kate reached the hall, Mary said goodbye to her, numbness setting in. Then in a daze she said farewell to her brothers and sisters before they were herded into the street to climb into the carriages.
Her father offered his arm. She took it.
When she stepped into the warm sunlight, her heartbeat raced.
She wished her eldest brothers, Robbie and Harry, had been at home too, so she could say goodbye, especially Robbie, the next in age to her. Robbie would never forgive her for keeping him in the dark.
What if her mother and father refused to let her into their home again?
That awful thought hit her as her foot touched the pavement.
She clung to her father’s arm.
He walked her to the carriage Drew had sent, while the footmen helped her brothers and sisters up into their carriages and John helped Kate with Paul.
What will I do if they never speak to me again?
“Mary.” Her father took her hand as they reached the carriage. “Are you sure you would not prefer to come with us? I’m sure Miss Smithfield would not—”
“No, Papa, I cannot let her down.” It had become too easy to lie.
Love shone in his eyes, but it became clouded by the tears in hers.
She hugged him, then rose onto her toes and kissed his cheek, before saying, “I’ll miss you.”
“And I you, but we shall see you in two days.”
His hand gripped hers tightly as she climbed up into the carriage.
When she sat, her hands settled over her reticule in her lap. Shaking. The metal lock securing the door clicked shut.
As she held her father’s gaze through the window her heart jolted into a rapid rhythm.
This was it.
No going back.
She lifted her hand and waved as her carriage lurched into motion, the first to leave, leaving them behind.
Her father lifted his hand. Her mother and her elder sisters waved. Kate and John were looking the wrong way, but at the last moment John turned and lifted his hand. Then they were all out of sight, unless she leaned forward to look back. She did not.
Her heart pounded and tears spilled from her eyes as a sob left her throat.
This was too hard.
She wiped her eyes with her father’s handkerchief, and then curled her fingers about it.
The horses pace picked up to a trot and the carriage turned into a side street. She could hear the strike, strike pattern of their stride.
Her heart thundered as the distance between herself and her family grew.
When the carriage finally drew to a halt in St James, she looked from the window but she could not see Drew. The vehicle rocked as the driver climbed down, and her heart raced anew. Clutching at her dress she prepared to get out as the driver came to the door to set down the carriage step.
What if Drew was not here? But when the door opened she saw him move forward, smiling broadly.
Her stomach flipped, warmth flooding from her heart. She smiled reaching a hand out to him, but he did not take it, instead he gripped her waist, and lifted her from the step.
Once she was on the ground he gave her a hearty kiss.
Her nervousness erupted as a laugh when he pulled away.
It was done. The tears in her eyes became tears of joy. They would be married.
His hazel eyes danced with shifting colours of emotion as he gripped her hand, then he lifted it. His fingers had closed about the hand which bore her father’s handkerchief. “You have been crying?”
“I’m sorry. I love my family, Drew. I will miss them…”
This was not the jubilation he’d pictured. Drew wished her joyful. But the girl was attached to her family, he knew it. The ability to love was one of the qualities he’d picked her for, so he could hardly chastise her for it. Yet it clawed into his skin, that she may love her family more than him. He wished to always be higher in her regard than her family. He could not bear to be second best to her, when she would be everything to him.
He took the handkerchief from her fingers. “You’ll not need this now.”
He saw uncertainty suddenly restrain her smile.
“We’re taking my phaeton.” He looked from her to the driver, and handed the man the other half of his payment.
The driver had left her bag on the pavement. Drew picked it up. This was it.
He looked back at Mary. Her lower lip had caught between her teeth.
Damn… He hoped she was not having second thoughts. “This is your chance to speak up if you have changed your mind?” Why the hell had he asked her that? He did not wish her to withdraw, it would rip him apart if she did. But perhaps it was better he had, at least then he’d know the truth and not forever wonder.
Her pale blue eyes shone, beautiful, even in the shadow of the narrow brim of her straw bonnet.
The bonnet had a large lavender bow tied at one side of her chin and her light spencer matched the shade of the ribbon, while her dress was a muslin three shades lighter.
She made his heart ache.
Her lip slipped from between her teeth and she smiled. “I have not changed my mind. I want to be your wife.”
His free hand cupped her jaw. “Good, because, I want you for my wife.”
She lifted to her toes and pressed a kiss on his lips. It was placation. It annoyed him, that she’d seen his weakness. He did not like it. He did not wish her to know he was a weak scarred man within. But no matter, as long as she did not change her mind.
He gripped her hand and led her to his phaeton, nodding at the groom who held the horses’ heads. The man was from the mews where Drew stabled his horses.
Drew handed her up. The tall racing curricle was not designed with a lady’s ascent in mind, and he saw a flash of a narrow stocking clad ankle as she climbed the steps. He would soon see it in the flesh.
When she sat, he looked up, a surge of need, to protect her, rushing in his blood. She had become his responsibility.
His heart thumped as he walked about the carriage.
He set her bag under the seat, then climbed up.
She held the carriage’s frame with one hand and the other gripped her reticule.
Drew picked up the reins and the groom let the horses go on Drew’s nod.
Drew flicked the reins.
He’d told the stables he’d be gone a couple of days and he’d borrowed money from Peter for the journey. He planned to take the main routes and ensure they were noticed at the toll gates, so Marlow could find them.
A smile pulled at his lips, he had her, and soon he’d no longer need to fear the duns taking his horses.
Mary didn’t speak.
He didn’t either. He had no idea what to say to her.
He concentrated on driving.
The sounds of tack, hoof beats and the roll of steel-rimmed wheels absorbed his thoughts. He’d lived in London for so long, and before that in cities abroad, these sounds were like a mother’s heartbeat to an infant in the womb.
When they reached the outskirts, the traffic thinned, then they progressed into open countryside and the world expanded to distant horizons.
The only sound now was that of his carriage and horses, as they rocked and rolled along the track, the carriage springs creaking and the horses’ hooves thudding on the dry mud track.
Drew raised the horses pace to a canter with a flick of the reins. He felt good.
“Do you like the countryside?” Mary asked, making drawing room conversation.
“I was a boy once, boys love trees to climb and rivers to swim or fish in. I loved the countryside then, but now I am a town gentleman I’m afraid. I cannot even recall the last time I left town.”
“My parents have taken my brothers and sisters to Pembroke Place to enjoy the park. It’s John’s estate. It’s not far from London. The children get so bored in town. I like London when we are here, I enjoy the season, but I prefer to be at home. My father’s estate is in Berkshire. It’s peaceful there.”
He’d looked at the road as she spoke, yet he didn’t need to see her face to know she was wistful and thinking of the things she’d left behind.
He felt awkward with her now. Clumsy. He could not speak of families. He could not imagine the things she was thinking. He didn’t say anything.
“Where is your family’s home?”
He glanced at her, a bitter smile catching his lips. He did not wish to speak of his family, but he answered none the less. “Shropshire, just south of Shrewsbury.”
He looked back at the road.
“And your parents are there?”
He did not look at her this time. “Yes, they are there. My eldest brother lives with them. I do not visit.”
“No darling, so do not expect to go there. It was a lifetime ago that I promised myself I would never go back and said to hell with them.”
He glanced at her. She was looking at him. “Believe me, you do not wish to know them.”
He faced the road again, avoiding the questions in her eyes. Of course she would not understand a family like his, any more than he understood her past.
“Do your parents always bring the whole family to town?” He only spoke to crack the ice that had formed over their conversation.
“Yes, always. They cannot abide leaving any of us behind. We used to stay at Uncle Robert’s and that was bedlam because he has a large family too. We would all run riot all season. But since grandfather died and the title passed to John we stay with John.”
“Is he happy about that?” He glanced at her again, genuinely surprised Pembroke took the children in. Drew could not imagine Pembroke abiding noisy children, he was so stiff-upper-lipped.
She smiled, but not at him, she was thinking about her brother. “When he came home from Egypt, I think he was a little irritated by us all. But now he has Paul he plays as rough with the boys as Papa does, they are always play fighting.”
Drew could not imagine it, not of Pembroke, or even her father for that matter. He’d never known a man play with children. When he and his brothers had fought, it had been for real and there had been bloody noses, black eyes, and bruised knuckles. The outcome had been a beating with a cane and several days’ isolation in a locked room with bread and water for his pains.
Out of sight and out of mind had been his parents’ policy for rearing their unwanted brats.
“My aunts and uncles bring their families to town too, and my cousins who are married are now beginning their families and bringing their young ones with them also. We are like a hoard when we gather at Pembroke Place, which is at some point in the summer and often over Christmas.”
He looked at her again, for longer this time. He supposed she’d want him to take her there. He could let her go alone. That was if her family would still invite her. They may well simply turn their backs.
A sharp pain pierced his chest, like someone had stabbed him with a blade. She would be devastated if her family chose to cut her completely. He’d not really thought of this from her view.
“You know your family are not going to like this.”
Her blue gaze shimmered with unshed tears and she nodded.
“It may mean—”
“I know they may not speak to me again, but I think they love me enough not to cut me.” It was said with hope.
A smile pulled Drew’s lips apart, and the same sensation of pride and joy cut across his heart. He wished to be first in her affections, and did that not say he was. She had taken the risk of leaving her family for him. But… “This is a gamble for you then,”and… Lord…“What if you are wrong? Can you bear it?” He drew the horses to a halt suddenly. He wished her to be sure of this. Why the hell did he keep giving her the chance to back out?
Because he did not wish to be hurt by her rejection if it came later, if her family turned her away, and then she turned against him… He needed to be sure that she was sure; that whatever they were building together would be on a firm foundation, one that could withstand the battle he knew would come soon.
He could not bear to give his heart to her completely and then be rejected.
Twisting about in the seat, to face him, her pale blue eyes looked intently into his as both her hands gripped her reticule. “Are you asking if I am sure again? Do you think I made this decision on a whim?”
He had; he’d thought it the outcome of their physical encounter. He did not anymore.
She constantly showed him new depths to her character.
“I will not change my mind, Drew. I will miss my family. I will be hurt if they cut me. I hope they do not. But we will have each other, and build our own family. God willing. I have made my choice.”
Lord, what a speech. Drew turned to the road and flicked the reins.
She had chosen him, he should be smiling again, whooping with joy, yet suddenly the weight of such a notion settled on his shoulders. She did not know who he really was, inside. Who she had chosen. He did. A worthless barren soul – a man whose heart had been kicked so hard, so many times, he was unsure it knew how to function. He had no clue how to build a family. He’d no idea how to be a husband or a father. But he did wish to make her happy – to make her constant, and be constant – and he did care for her. He knew that.
Perhaps the country estate he intended to buy would be enough to make her happy. She had said she loved the country, she could make a home there, with any children they had, and perhaps the children would make her happy; even if the man she lived with ended up to be an inept husband.
She slid across the carriage seat and rested a hand on his thigh. The sensation did odd things to his stomach, but he did not look her way as he urged the horses into a faster motion.
After a moment her cheek rested on his shoulder, and her fingers gripped his upper arm.
Had she sensed his turmoil and offered comfort. He hoped she had not, he did not want her to know who he really was. She would definitely hate that weak, rejected man.
Then she kissed his cheek, and it jolted the world’s axis.
God, he treasured this woman. He utterly adored her. Who else could look beyond all his faults and say they loved him regardless, and would commit themselves to him and leave a perfectly good life behind. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, or the one after that, but surely by then, she would be his wife.
His grip on the reins had become over tight. He loosened it.I love you. The words slipped through his thoughts as her head lay against his shoulder and the pressure of her slender fingers clutched about his arm.
Did he?Am I capable of it then?
Devil take it. But if this was love, it felt good, it felt right. Now she had come closer all his fears slid away.
He wanted her to be proud of him, as proud as she’d sounded when she spoke of her family. Lord he felt as though he must compete with them for her affections.
He sighed. In a few days she would be his wife, though, and then she would definitely be his, not theirs. But tonight she’d be his partner in the flesh.
They rode on in silence, she with her fingers about his arm, and her head against his shoulder.
He would make this night special. This would be their wedding for him.
Good God.Since when did I become a sentimental man?
Why the hell do I feel in bits over this woman?He could not think straight with her next to him. No woman had sat like this with him.
Movement in a solitary tree at the edge of the road grasped his attention. A large buzzard landed on a branch and its sharp eyes surveyed the field beyond, searching for carrion. Its predatory nature visible.
Life held up a metaphorical mirror for him to see himself.
That was who he was – what he was. A hunter. An opportunist. A man who ruled the world about him, rather than let it rule him. He was not sentimental and Mary was his carrion; life’s flotsam and jetsam thrown to his shore.
He pitied her.
No woman would be proud of him.
He was conjuring up dreams. It was her effect on him. He was not like her; not accepted in the world.
She would be humiliated, friendless, and family-less when she realised it. God help her. He should stop raising foolish expectations and be prepared to comfort her when her family turned their backs.
Yet he would do what he could to make their marriage good. He would strive to make her happy out of affection and gratitude, whether he had any finer feeling or not – gratitude, affection and admiration would be enough. He hoped.
When Drew stopped at an inn for luncheon, after hours of travel, Mary’s bottom and back were sore, her neck stiff, and mental exhaustion swept over her.
They’d shared that one brief conversation and then he’d been silent again.
She’d told him she was committing herself to him and he’d said nothing since.
The day was hot, but Mary felt cold. Her reticule dangling from her wrist, Mary clasped her arms, gripping her elbows as Drew spoke to the ostler taking care of the horses.
“You will treat them well. Let no strangers near them. Ensure they are fed…” Drew moved with assurance and strength. She doubted anyone would dare naysay him.
The ostler lifted his cap.
The muscle in Drew’s jaw looked taut and his hazel eyes promised retribution if the man did anything wrong.
An ache clutched about her heart and her stomach teemed with butterflies.
He was handsome, tall, athletic – but vulnerable today too. His external severity seemed to protect and shelter whatever lay beneath. With crystal clear clarity she realised how little she knew the man she had committed herself to.
She’d thought she’d met the real man in the summerhouse. But he was not that man today and he’d been different among his friends too.
Drew checked the legs of the animals he’d chosen to replace his. Then glanced at her before looking at his horses as they were led into a stable. He said something to the groom before he turned back to her
When he approached her he had a look of determination setting his jaw, yet beneath it there was something sorrowful and grim.
Did he not wish to leave his horses? “They will look after them, I’m sure.”
A smile touched his lips. “My horses are the most expensive thing I own, I don’t leave them with any ease, Mary, darling. I’m sorry if I look troubled, I have my weaknesses, and my horses are one of them.”
He offered his arm. She gripped his bicep through the cloth of his coat, rather than laying her fingers on his forearm and they turned towards the inn.
Gripping Drew’s arm felt more intimate somehow; she walked with her father and John like this.
His arm lowered as they walked inside.
“What are the others?” she prompted.
“Others?” Awkwardness flooded the air between them as he glanced at her.
“Oh. I shall wait until we’re wed to share them. I would hate to put you off.” He said the words with humour.
A man in livery stood in the inn’s hallway which was full of travelling cases. It was a posting inn.
“A private parlour, please, for myself and my wife.” Drew reached into his pocket and withdrew a card, which he gave to the man. “We’ll want luncheon, and I will take a tankard of ale. My wife, I assume, will want tea.”
Mary nodded when Drew glanced at her, heat burning her skin.
She was not his wife yet, but in that case she should not be alone with him, and so he’d had to say something like that.
He smiled, as though sensing her insecurity but the smile twisted to a roguish lilt when he looked back at the man.
The man bowed, then bid them follow. He led them past the busy taproom to another door which opened into a small rectangular parlour. An armchair stood in each corner and in the middle a circular dark oak table with four chairs about it.
“Make yourself comfortable, my Lord, my Lady.”
Once he’d bowed deeply again he shut the door and was gone.
Drew took off his hat and gloves, tossed both into one of the armchairs then smiled at her. “Please tell me you will take off your bonnet and your spencer, its sweltering out there. We can surely have a break from being baked like kippers when we are alone.”
She smiled, though her stomach wobbled like aspic, and pulled loose the ribbons securing her bonnet with shaking fingers.
Leaving her bonnet, gloves and spencer in the chair with his articles, she turned back.
A dark heat burned in his gaze as he came towards her, and then his lips were on hers, brushing hers slowly.
Her hands lifted to his shoulders, as his rested on her back, urging her against him as his tongue dipped into her mouth.
A delicious curling sensation, twisted low in her stomach and slipped to pool between her legs.
A sharp knock rang on the parlour door and her arms fell as he stepped back. He caught her elbow, steadying her.
“Come!” Drew’s voice sounded unsteady.
When the door opened Mary caught sight of herself in a mirror above the mantle. Her cheeks shone red and her lips were dark.
She turned her back on the maid and crossed to the window. It looked out upon a broad valley. She could see for miles. Her arms crossed over her chest as she absorbed the view and listened to the maid set the tea and ale down on the table.
Drew thanked the maid, then the door closed.
Mary heard and felt Drew move behind her, her senses tingling, then his arms came about her, clasping over hers. For a moment he just held her, and she rested back against the hard muscle of his chest.
His lips brushed her neck, and she shut her eyes as his hands fell to her hips.
Hers gripped over his.
She had been looking out the window at a new horizon, now she looked at an inner one. Her new life.
His head lifted and he pressed one last kiss behind her ear, before saying in a husky voice. “There was no need to blush, they think you are my wife. It will be true soon.”
She opened her eyes, and turned, smiling.It would be true soon.
His lips pressed to hers and her fingers slipped through his hair as his gripped her bottom through her gown.
When another knock struck the door she had become breathless and her heartbeat raced.
The maid who carried the first tray glanced at them, but then her eyes turned to the task of unloading the tray. The second maid cast Mary a sly look, though, before setting down her tray.
Drew lifted Mary’s hand and kissed the back of it. Denying the woman’s judgement. Then he moved to pull out a chair.
Mary sat as the maids finished laying everything out.
The second maid looked at her again, then glanced at Mary’s hands.
She wore no ring.
Mary slipped her hands to her lap, beneath the table, and gave the maid a hard condemning look, the same her deceased grandfather, the former duke, and now John, used if he was unhappy.
It made the woman blush at least.
Both maids bobbed curtsies then left and shut the door.
Drew laughed as he sat. “I did not know you could set a person in their place so easily, Mary.”
“There are some things you cannot help but learn when you live in the company of dukes.” She smiled at him.
“Do I need to beware then? Are there other things I should know about you?”
She reached for the teapot. “You may be warned I am stubborn. Papa often complains I will never give in.”
He grinned at her. The look speaking of pride as well as amusement. “So you are stubborn and I am wary. We have both discovered one thing new about each other.”
“What do you wish for?” She indicated the food.
“I’ll serve myself, I am quite capable. You select what you wish.”
As he helped himself to a piece of rabbit pie, awkwardness descended again and Mary wondered when she would become used to being constantly in his company.
She cut herself a slice of bread, but when she lifted it to her plate her gaze caught with his. The roughish glint in his eyes said he was laughing at her. She saw the man he’d been among his friends.
“You are very bad, you do not care what anyone thinks do you?”
“And you adore me for it, it is what enchants you.”
“I take bad back, you are devilish.” It was a joke, but when he had that dangerous look in his eyes a part of her did fear he could be wicked.
Steel gripped at his jaw, as it had done when he’d parted from his horses. “I will take that as a compliment, all women love a rogue and the devil is one better.”
“The devil is one worse.” She wished she had not said it. It made his eyes even darker.
“I suppose you expect me to be an angel when we are wed?”
Why did his words sound bitter?
Turmoil racing inside Mary struggled to redeem the conversation. “Well, the devil is a fallen angel… Perhaps there is hope for you yet…” A strange look caught in his eyes. Pain? Reaching across the table she laid a hand over his. It jolted beneath her touch as if he did not care for comfort.
She looked away from him, cut some cheese and changed the subject. “Tell me what you were like as a child?”
He laughed and she looked up. He was not looking at her as he lifted a slice of cold ham to his plate, but when he did his eyes glinted with an odd dismissive light. “Well there you have me…” He picked up his knife and fork, humour ringing in his voice. “When I was a child I behaved so badly the servants removed the ‘an’ from my name and cut it short with a capital ‘D’ for devil. To save them having to say, ‘you devil Master Andrew’, they just yelled D-rew, the nickname has stuck, even my mother uses it.”
She did not find his story amusing at all, she found it sad.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” She skewered a piece of the pie with her fork.
“I have three brothers, and two sisters.” He cut a mouthful of ham.
“Are they all married?”
“No, two of my brothers are not.”
“But you are not close to them, you said…”
He set his knife and fork down. “No, Mary, I am not.” He reached for bread.
“I cannot imagine it. I have always looked up to John. Our entire generation admire him, not just my brothers and sisters, but my cousins too, and Robbie is my closest brother, in age and friendship, he is eighteen months younger than I. We were thick as thieves when we were young until he went to school. When he hears I am married he will hate it that I did not write and tell him what I planned.”
“Eighteen is an awkward age. It is good he’s away. If you had told him he would have been torn between whether to tell your parents or tackle me himself, I doubt he would have been happy for you… Most young men have an unrealistic view of the world.”
His gaze met hers. “I was different, I had a very real view.”
“Believe me, you do not wish to know.” There was that hard look in his eyes, again. It warned her away from the subject.
“Tell me what you do with your days in town.”
His eyebrows lifted. “I thought by eloping I was avoiding an interview with your father…”
His words stung. “I am marrying you. I need to know more about you than the colour of your eyes and that you care for your horses.”
“The colour of my eyes; you like them then?” His eyes lit up now, dancing with deviltry and humour.
The awkwardness returned. “Yes.”
He smiled. “And I like yours. The blue is so pale your eyes shine like jewels. Your beauty kicks me in the gut each time I see you, Mary.”
Embarrassment flooding her, Mary looked at her meal.
She’d never cared to be complimented on her looks, her entire family had the same appearance. Gentlemen always looked. She found their interest vulgar. She wished to be liked for who she was within, anything else was shallow.
His knife and fork hit his china plate. “I’m sorry. I forgot you do not care to be complimented on your appearance.”
Her gaze lifted.
“You may compliment me.” As long as he loved her for more than her appearance.
“Then I consider myself honoured. But believe me if any other man compliments you now I shall knock him down. You wished to know more about me, then this another thing – I will not be played.”
“Played?” She did not understand.
“No games, Mary, no beaux, no flirting and no frolics. I will not be made a mockery of. I will not be cuckolded.” His eyes were burning with dark heat now.
She was being warned.
Yet there was something else, something deeper in the jet at the heart of his eyes.
“I would not—”
“I know you will not. I shall not allow it.”
“I would never consider such a thing anyway.” She picked up her tea, her hand shaking as she sipped from it, hiding her disquiet, no longer able to look at him. Beneath his mask of self-assurance, Drew was very different, vulnerable, but that was the man who’d come to the summerhouse. He was the one she’d agreed to marry. She wished he would let his guard down entirely.
She looked up, determination flooding her. “I will not call you Drew. I shall call you Andrew, your real name.”
His eyes widened but he did not look displeased.
He was not a devil. He was a man, a man who could make mistakes, had faults and felt fear. He was Andrew beneath Drew’s sharp edges; the rogue was simply a layer upon that, a layer that she hoped would disappear when they were wed.
Drew did not force the horses but kept them at a steady pace. They had two days or more before her father would find them and he did not wish to get too far ahead. At each tollgate he struck up a conversation when he paid so they would be remembered and when they reached Banbury, Drew asked the man at the toll gate to recommend an inn. If Marlow caught up with them earlier than expected he wanted the man to know where they were.
When he pulled into the stable yard of the Black Bull, it was five in the evening. He could have driven for another three hours but there was little point.
A young lad ran out to take the horses heads. The animals whinnied.
Drew looped his reins over the vehicle’s bar, then leapt down. An ostler came forward. He told the man they would be staying the night, and to stable the horses and his carriage. Then turned back to Mary.
She’d slid across to his seat. She was looking anxious again. They’d been mostly silent since luncheon, though she’d gripped his arm as he’d driven.
He should have spoken but he disliked the clinical dissection she’d made of him as they’d eaten.
He did not like remembering his childhood or looking inward. He lived for now, and now he lived for her… She was all he wished to think of.
She climbed down, her slender fingers gripping his firmly to steady herself as her gaze clung to the cobbled floor of the inn’s yard, as though she was too anxious to look at Drew.
When she reached the ground he tugged her close and kissed her lips. It was the only way he knew how to ease her anxiety.
She blushed, sucking in a sharp breath.
In a couple of hours they would be in bed…
Heat flared in his stomach and his breath caught in his lungs… The surge of emotion he was becoming used to, in her presence, ripped through him. Only today it was a dozen times stronger. Lust. Need. Responsibility. Caring. Hope. Fear.
Do I love her?His heart rate thundered.
Turning away, still holding her hand he drew her after him.
He ordered dinner served in their room and French wine to accompany it.
Their room was the first off the landing. It faced the street and the broad four poster dark aged-oak bed within it stood against the wall, its canopy and covers the colour of port.
He’d take her there.
Her hand slipped from his.
The uneven floor boards creaked as she walked over to the window and looked down at the street.
He smiled. He was avoiding her questions. She avoided the bed.
Two leather winged armchairs stood before the hearth, with a small table between them, and on it, a three arm candelabrum. Another unlit branch of candles stood on a chest beside the bed. Then against the wall there was a set of drawers, with a basin and a jug.
Drew’s gaze drifted back to the bed. Then turning he lifted off his hat and walked over to the table to leave it there.
A knock struck the door. “Y’ur bags, m’ lud.” A man’s voice breached the wood.
He tipped the man with coins from his pocket then shut the door behind him.
Drew pulled off his gloves and threw them down beside his hat.
There was another knock.
The maid informed him it would be an hour until dinner.
When the door shut again, he stripped off his coat, watching Mary.
She’d not moved.
Noises permeated the glass of the window, voices, vehicles, horses, even birds. This was no solitary haven and yet it felt like a private island in a lake. Mary was his sanctuary.
She walked back across the room, stripping off her bonnet. She set it down beside his hat. His gaze was drawn to the curve of her nape, then dropped to the arch at the base of her spine. She had such a delicate feminine frame.
His heart thundered, as the turmoil of emotion gripped in his chest.
He turned to uncork the wine, poured a little and drank it.
It was hard to be patient and wait until after dinner. But she was a virgin. He could not hurry this. He’d heard women bled their first time, that a man had to tear a membrane within her body and it hurt the woman. He did not wish to hurt her.
He refilled his glass, and poured some for her.
He felt her behind him, it was a whisper passing through his senses the instant before she touched him.
Her small hands slipped about his waist, over his waistcoat, and her cheek pressed to his shoulder.
Whatever the emotion in his chest, it fisted and gripped harder. He wanted this woman physically, more than he had wanted any other. His mouth dried.
“Will we share the bed tonight?” she asked quietly.
“We will. Does the idea frighten you?” He stared at the wall. It was a stupid question, of course it must.
“A little.” She let him go then moved past him to stand on the other side of the table. Her wide pale blue eyes watched him sip the wine.
God, I love her. He did not heed the thought. He was still unsure he knew what love was.
He held out her glass.
She took it. “How will it be?”
He swallowed another sip of wine. A bride’s mother usually explained these things, he’d avoided an interview with her father but she’d lost the opportunity to ask questions of her mother.
“It will be beautiful, I hope. But I believe there will be some pain for you this time. I shall do my best to make the pain brief, and even if the first time is not good for you I will make it wonderful in the future.”
Her glass touched her lips as she blushed but once she’d swallowed the wine, she said, “Wonderful? You have a high opinion of yourself, Andrew.”
Lord.The way she spoke his name was as if her fingertips touched his innards.
He gave her a wicked grin. “It is not my opinion.”
Damn… That had been the wrong thing to say, he should not have boasted, he saw in her eyes she was now thinking of him with others.
She was not like the other women he’d known, and he should remember that. They would have been thrilled by his boast.
He put down his glass, then took Mary’s from her hand. “And now my skill is all for you.”
His hand braced the curve of her nape and pulled her into a kiss.
Her fingers slid into his hair.
Impatience ripped through him as he pressed his tongue into her mouth and she accepted it. He did not wish to wait but he must. He needed to think of her and not himself.
It would be the first time he’d put anyone’s needs before his own, except perhaps Caro’s.
He broke the kiss, picked up her glass and gave it back to her.
There was a tremor in her hand.
She wanted him too but she was afraid.
Remember it Drew!
* * *
The room span as Mary sipped her wine. She’d drunk four glasses through dinner. The conversation had been easier, though. They’d spoken of their friends, sharing stories, while Andrew continually refreshed her glass.
She’d drunk quickly, using the wine to calm her nerves, but she was sure she’d been babbling inanely for an hour.
She had not eaten much, her stomach had fluttered with too many butterflies and the bed had shouted its presence behind her.
He’d said it might hurt.
Her mother had not mentioned pain when Kate had given birth to Paul months ago, and they’d discussed such things. Her mother had said the marriage bed need not be unpleasant.
The things she and Andrew had done in the summerhouse had not been unpleasant.
She’d let their conversation ebb.
The stem of her glass dangling through her fingers, she leaned back in her chair.
“Do you want any more to eat?”
She shook her head, her heartbeat thundering in her ears.
His plate was empty, hers was still full.
This was nothing to him.
Her palms were sweaty. “I am not really hungry.”
“And nervous…” His gaze held hers.
“A little, can you blame me?”
“No, sweetheart, I do not blame you.” He rose and something sliced through her middle cutting to the point between her legs, but he did not come towards her, he turned to the bell pull and rang for a maid.
Her mouth dried. She sipped more wine, her fingers gripping about the glass.
“I think you have had enough of that, I do not wish you unconscious.” He lifted the glass from her fingers and set it on the table.
Her hand shook as it fell to her lap.
“When they clear the table I’ll ask them to send up a maid to help you undress, and I shall go outside for a smoke to give you time to prepare.”
His fingers touched her cheek. “Smile sweetheart, this is meant to be a happy thing.”
She licked her dry lips, wanting the wine again.
His light brown eyes held the depth she’d seen in the summerhouse; Andrew’s eyes, not Drew’s. Her focus fell to his mouth. He smiled. The room span again.
A light knock struck the door.
Andrew turned and she stood, gripping the table as the floor swayed a little.
A maid entered and loaded a tray with the empty dishes and her leftovers.
“Could someone come and help my wife undress.”
“Of course my Lord.” The maid looked at Mary, “I will return to help you my Lady.”
Mary’s heart raced so hard she thought she might faint when the maid left.
“I shall go outside for a walk and give you time to undress,” Drew stated before leaving her completely alone.
Mary did not move until the maid returned a little while later. After the maid had lit the candles and drawn the curtains, she helped Mary unbutton the back of her gown and undo her corset, then left.
Once Mary was in her nightgown, she could not decide whether to climb into the bed.
When Andrew returned she stood at the end of it – still undecided.
His gaze dropped to her naked toes peeping from beneath the hem of her nightgown, then rose again. Darkness had gathered in his eyes, a darkness implying deep unfathomable seas of emotion.
He turned and locked the door.
Her heartbeat raced. This was her wedding night, but not her wedding night.
The butterflies in her stomach flew so raucously it made her nauseous when he turned and began slipping the buttons of his evening coat free.
He slid it off and draped it over the back of a chair, then with his back to her he unbuttoned his waistcoat too.
When he sat down to remove his boots, her fingers gripped the carved oak bedpost.
He looked up and smiled at her, then stood again, his feet now bare but his shirt and trousers still on. But when he came towards her, he pulled his shirt from his waistband and lifted it up over his head stripping it off.
Her breath caught in her lungs. His chest was contoured with muscular ridges and hollows. He was beautiful. Her fingers gripped the bed post tighter.
His shirt fell on the floor behind him. Then he was there before her, and his hand was in her hair, pulling her mouth to his.
Her fingers left the bedpost and gripped his shoulders instead, clinging as fear swayed around like the room.
His tongue slipped into her mouth and his hand touched her waist over her nightgown, then slid upwards.
The touch was not intimate and yet it felt intimate because she had nothing on beneath the fine cotton.
He broke the kiss and smiled.
The candlelight from the candelabrum beside the bed reflected in his eyes.
He gripped her nightgown and drew it upwards.
Her breath trapped in her lungs.
“Don’t be afraid, Mary, it will be good.”
Was it possible for butterflies to stampede, if so that is what they did within her stomach as the cotton slid up across her thighs, and her body shook as she lifted her arms so he could slip her nightgown over her head.
The air in the room touched her skin and made her shiver.
His head bent as he dropped her nightgown on the floor, then he kissed her shoulder and her neck, his hands at her waist.
The trembling in her limbs slipped through her body to the place between her legs. She was afraid and yet she still ached for his touch there.
Her body arched towards him and her head tilted back as he continued kissing her neck and then across her chest.
Perhaps the wine had helped because with the room spinning, it was hard to be too conscious of anything but the sensations he stirred inside her.
His thumb brushed over her breast, teasing her nipple.
She sighed, the air leaving her lungs in a rush.
He looked hazy through her wine tinted gaze.
She nodded and sat back on the bed, then slid backward as he undid the buttons of his falls. At least she had seen that part of him before. But that did not stop the heat burning in her cheeks.
He slid off his trousers and underwear all in one go.
Her stomach tumbled over at the sight of his naked thighs and buttocks andthatpart of him. He was statuesque.
She swallowed, to clear the dryness from her throat.
“Lie back,” he said, as he climbed onto the bed.
She swallowed again and did so, one knee bent upright, and one knee slack, as her fingers clutched at the covers.
She nodded, though her muscles refused to.
He knelt above her, on hands and knees, just looking, his gaze skimming over her body. “You’re perfect,” he whispered.
Again she nodded, like a fool.
The candles beyond the bed flickered, as his head lowered and he kissed her breast. Tremors raced through her body, beneath her skin.
He sucked, then licked her nipple, without touching her anywhere else, his body hovering above her.
The feeling was exquisite, then his hand touched her breast and his fingers shook too.
“Andrew.” Her hands came down on his head, then it lifted and he kissed her mouth.
It was the most beautiful feeling in the world as she sensed his naked body above her, and his hand massaged her breast.
She arched upwards.
His kiss left her lips and travelled over her face then touched her jaw and her neck, as the room span.
When his hand left her breast it slid to her hip, and his mouth followed, kissing down her middle to her stomach.
Her fear became lost in the spinning room and the warmth of his lips on her skin.
When his kiss touched her intimately between her legs, her fingernails dug into his shoulders, gripping hard. Sensation ripped through her. She laughed a little. Nervously. But he did not stop. His tongue swept out to taste her.
“Relax.” The heat of his breath burned her there, before he licked again.
A part of her could not believe she was doing this, it must be the wine which made her allow it and not speak, she was too languid. He sucked her there too, like he had sucked her nipple, causing sharp sensations to spin up through her body.
“Andrew.” His name came out on a tide of want.
Then his fingers were within her as they had been the other day, only now it was no slight invasion, it was a deep intrusion, a claiming, as his lips claimed her too.
His other hand still gripped her hip, gently.
Her head pressed back into the bed, and her body lifted to his touch as her fingers gripped in his hair. The sensation he had first taught her in the darkness, swelled.
“Please,” she whispered at last, not even knowing what she was asking for. She was so hot. She just wanted to be completed.
“Not yet.” His breath brushed against her. “Not until you have reached the little death.”
Her vision glazed as though she looked through hazy glass as her fingers clung in his hair, holding on to sanity, to reality, while he continued trying to steal her away with his wickedness. Oh, but then… “Andrew…” There was that rush of intoxicating, overwhelming, sensation. It broke over her…
Sweat glimmered on Mary’s skin and her nectar filled Drew’s mouth as the spasm of her release pulled at his fingers and pulsed on the tip of his tongue.
Emotion gripped in the back of his throat and caught tight in his stomach.
He’d known she was beautiful, but… naked… she outshone any other woman, there was not a single blemish on her skin. Her body was truly like porcelain.
“Mary.” He moved over her as her eyes tried to focus on his face. They were glazed by the wine and her limbs lay slack and moved awkwardly to accommodate him between her legs.
She was young and innocent, pure and beautiful – and any moment now she would be his. He would be the first. The very first. The only. He would marry and protect her, and keep her for himself. The emotion he felt overwhelmed him.I… love… her…
He positioned himself carefully above her, feeling his tip at the moist juncture between her thighs.
Her blue eyes were wide and luminous and fear hung there again now, as it had earlier, but it was best to get this over with. He could not delay it in case her father discovered her absence earlier than they thought. He did not want to delay it anyway.
“It will hurt, just for a moment…” he whispered to reassure her, and then he plunged, hard and quick.
She cried out as his penetration pierced her barrier. A high gasp.
Buried inside her he held still, watching her bite her lip as he breathed hard and fought against the emotion damming in his throat.
Then he kissed her brow, her nose, her cheekbone. He wanted to take the pain from her.I love her, I do– he’d never felt this way about a woman or known anything so precious.
When her expression relaxed he withdrew slowly. He had not been with a woman for a year, a whole year, not since he’d decided Mary was his choice. He’d waited a long time for this moment.
God his friends would be laughing if they knew how important she’d become to him. They had no idea he’d entirely abstained. But he was committed to her, as he wished her to be to him.
He was the first man inside her body.
The only man who would ever be inside her body.
Pressing back in, he relished every sensation, preserving it to memory.
Her fingers released the covers and lifted to his back as her body relaxed a little.
Her eyes had shut.
He moved out and pressed in, cautiously, over and over again, trying not to hurt her any more than he had, but knowing the best cure for her pain was pleasure.
Every contour in her face and her body was beautiful. The candlelight flickered over her skin.
She opened her eyes and met his gaze after a while, and now the glaze looked more from desire than wine. But he could see she did not understand this.
Lord…He did not understand this. The emotion inside him made him feel like he would split in two as he held her gaze and swallowed back the lump in his throat.
“Mary.” Her name was a supplication, a promise – he idolised her.
Her fingers gripped his shoulders.
She had such a gentle, caring touch.
“Come again for me, sweetheart,” he urged her vocally as he moved. A flame burned inside him for her, drying his throat.
It had burned for a year.
The breath slipped from her mouth. Her blue irises shone like glass.
“I love you,” he whispered, his throat constricting with the emotion he could no longer hold back. Maybe it was true. Maybe it was not. He thought it was. But it was what she wished to hear and he would give her anything she wished, his heart was brim-full of her.
“Mary, it will be right between us. Everything will be good”
She nodded, her eyes clouding with tears.
“I love you,” he repeated.
“And I you,” she answered pressing her hips up against his next invasion as her fingers slipped to his back.
Oh, God, she was beautiful.
“Mmm…” The sound escaped her lips and her heels pressed into the mattress.
If this was pain for her, it was heaven for him.
She licked her lips.
He worked determinedly, with more skill. “Does it feel good now?”
Her blue eyes looked at him through a cloak of dark eyelashes and she nodded.
The muscles in her thighs gripped his hips.
“Can you bear it if I go a little faster?”
She nodded. Her eyes closing completely.
He increased his intensity pushing deep, fast and hard, forgetting her virginity and seeking bliss for them both as her breasts rocked with the force of his thrusts.
Her breath came in pants and her fingernails clawed into his back as her thighs fell open wider for him. She sighed with a whimpering sound. Then…
“Andrew?” Her eyes opened and her gaze clung to his, terrified for an instant as he took her to the edge. She hid nothing as she broke, crying out, her fingers clawing, her body arching into pleasure as sweat glistened gold in the candlelight dancing over her skin.
Lord.Once, twice more, he thrust in hard losing all restraint and thought. A third time, and then… he came to pieces – a wave crashing over the shore, a burst of rolling power.
God in heaven.Sex had never been like this before. He held still, buried deep inside her as sensation ripped through him. He bit his tongue and shut his eyes.God.
When it was over, he laughed and tumbled to his back, pulling her over him. “Mary, you are my dream.”
“I love you,” she whispered to his neck as he drifted into sleep with her as his blanket.
Ellen Marlow rolled over in the bed she shared with her husband Edward. It was still dark and Edward lay stretched out beside her, one of his hands beneath her hip. The other slid from her waist as she turned. They’d dined and retired early. She’d been glad of a break from the season’s late hours.
A light knock rapped on the bedchamber door.
Ellen sat up unsure if she’d imagined it. It was surely nowhere near dawn.
“My Lord! My Lady!” Mr Finch, John’s butler.
Ellen shook Edward’s shoulder. “Something is wrong.”
He rolled to his back, his eyes opening.
“Mr Finch is knocking.”
When he did not immediately rise Ellen slid from the bed and picked up her nightgown from where Edward had thrown it to the floor when he’d stripped it off her earlier.
She slipped it over her head, letting it fall and sheath her body as she crossed to the door.
She opened it a little. “What is it Finch? Is it one of the children?”
He held out a folded sheet of paper. “No, Lady Marlow. This. A servant delivered it a few minutes ago, I’m told it is from Lady Eleanor.”
“So I was told.”
Ellen took the letter.
“Were you told any more?” Edward’s fingers touched Ellen’s waist. She stepped aside and he opened the door a little wider. “Why would Eleanor send a message in the middle of the night?”
“I cannot say, Lord Marlow, I was not told.”
Edward leaned past Ellen to light the single candle he’d collected from the bedside, touching the wick to the one Finch held.
Ellen turned, her shaking fingers opening the letter as Edward held the candle close. He had dressed in a loose silk robe which shone a ruby colour in the candlelight.Dear Aunt Ellen,I am only writing because I thought. Oh, there is no way to say this to you with any ease. But I thought, I am sure you told me, Mary was not going with you to Pembroke Place but staying in town with the Smithfields. Only I saw that family tonight at a ball and she was not with them. When I asked after Mary they looked at me as though I were mad, saying she was not staying with them and that there had been no intention for her to do so. I hope I was wrong. Did I mishear, or did Mary change her mind. Is she with you?
An ice cold sensation gripped in Ellen’s chest. “No.”
“What is it?” Edward asked.
She could not breathe.
She looked up. “What has she done?”
“Mary?” Ellen breathed her daughter’s name, as tears clouded the words of Eleanor’s letter.
Edward took the letter.
Edward’s heart pounded. Mary had hugged him and cried when she had said good-bye. She would not have done anything wrong.
“She must be at John’s. There must be a misunderstanding. We will go back now.”
“What about the children?”
“We will leave them with John and Kate. We can return tomorrow.”
Ellen nodded, her eyes expressing the same emotion which gripped in his chest.
He turned to the bell pull and called for Ellen’s maid, not even wishing to wait for Finch to fetch the woman. “If you dress, I’ll go and tell John.” He looked back at the half open door, where Finch still stood. “Have the grooms ready a carriage immediately; we wish to be gone as soon as we can.”
Elopement. The word whispered through Edward’s head but he refused to believe it. Yet there was the image in his mind of her speaking with Framlington only days ago.
Mary had said, “It was nothing, Papa. He stopped me that is all, and I argued with him and told him to stay away.”
But there had been the day she’d said she’d seen him in the park too. The day she’d unusually disappeared for an early morning ride.
Yet Mary was sensible – level headed… She would not.Lord, I pray… She would not.
He walked along the hall to John’s rooms, fear gripping at his stomach.
He knew elopement was Ellen’s fear too. But Mary had been fixed on Lord Farquhar and hurt by him… hadn’t she?
She would not have…
Or, was her distress caused by something else, someone else?
He knocked on the door of John’s rooms.
Lord.“Mary what have you done?” Edward whispered in a bitter voice as he pictured his first child in his mind’s eye as an infant in his arms.
“Come!” John called.
* * *
Mary believed Andrew loved her. He’d made physical love to her again in the darkness just before dawn, kissing her throughout, his pace excruciatingly slow, as he’d whispered endearments over her lips, saying “I love you,” again and again.
But it was not just his words, it was the gentleness with which he touched her that had convinced her of his affection.
He’d been mindful of her soreness, and at the end he’d stroked her hair back from her forehead and said, “You are beautiful, Mary.”
He had gone back to sleep but Mary had been unable to.
When he’d woken it had been full light and he’d got up, washed, dressed and then he’d helped her dress and kissed her nape while she’d pinned up her hair.
He’d said I love you again, against her skin, and she’d turned and said it to him too. Then they’d kissed for a long time before going down to breakfast.
She’d eaten lots, her stomach was calmer, and he’d teased her over her sudden appetite. But when he’d risen he had come about the table, kissed her hard and then licked the taste of bacon from her lips.
His vitality, beauty and tenderness had wrapped around her, but she felt as if it was made of glass and at any moment everything would break as she pressed her thigh to his and gripped his arm, while he drove the curricle on steadily through the greenery of England’s landscape.
Perhaps it was because she could not quite forget that her parents did not even know she had gone yet. They would discover her deceit soon.
* * *
A tight pain bit hard in Edward’s gut when the carriage drew to a halt before John’s ostentatious townhouse.
If Mary was not here?
That was a question he had refused to consider.
Glancing back at John who’d chosen to accompany them, leaving Kate with the children, Edward opened the door to alight. One of John’s footmen was already there, setting down the step.
Edward jumped down, then turned to take Ellen’s hand. She descended hurriedly. John followed. Edward left them behind him, rushing towards the open door.
Dawn had broken as they’d travelled, flushing the sky pink. Now it was full light, and the sky an azure blue.
“Is my daughter here?” Edward thrust the words at the porter who’d opened the door. “Miss Mary. Is she here?”
The man looked blankly at him, as though Edward was a fool.
“Is she here!”She had to be.
“Miss Marlow left with you, my Lord, a day ago, she has not returned. I did not think she was expected.”
The answer hit like a fist in Edward’s stomach.
“She has not come back here!” Edward called across his shoulder to Ellen and John, a chasm opening in his chest.
Edward looked to the footman who held the coach door. “Have the stables saddle myself and His Grace horses, as quickly as they can.” Perhaps Mary was at Smithfield’s after all and Eleanor mistaken.
The footman had not moved. “Horses! Now! Run!”
The man did.
Edward looked at John. “We shall ride to Smithfield’s. If she is not there perhaps his daughter will know where she is.”
Ellen looked pale. “I will go to her room.” She pushed past him. “Perhaps she has left a letter.”
If Mary had left a letter it could only mean one thing – she had eloped.
Edward followed Ellen as she crossed the black and white chequered marble floor. Then he hurried up the stairs beside her, his hand at her back as she gripped her dress lifting her hem from her feet, John followed behind them.
Edward walked through limbo – riven from reality. Someone had tied his hands so he could not reach out or do anything.
This was his precious daughter.
The child who had been a light in his life ever since her birth.
Moments illuminated his thoughts; the moment she had walked, the way as a baby she had rubbed his earlobe when she was tired. Her fingers gripping his leg to get his attention as she had grown. The beauty of her smile when she had come out.Mary?
There was no sign in her room that anything was amiss. Everything was still where it ought to be.
Two days ago he’d handed her up into a carriage, where the hell had it taken her.
“The writing desk?” John pointed.
Edward turned to look. He’d bought it for her, as a gift. It was mahogany and had a delicate inlaid pattern of roses carved from rosewood, walnut and apple woods.
Pain gripped about his heart when he opened the lid and saw a muddled pile of letters, some written by a hand he knew, but others…
The letter which lay on the top was the one Edward had seen from Smithfield’s daughter, confirming her parents’ agreement for Mary to stay. Was that a lie? Had he not even known his daughter? How many times had she lied?
John leaned past him and took out some letters.
Edward took a pile too and passed some on to Ellen. They all began scanning the words. Those that Edward read were inconsequential. These were letters from her female friends, young women’s chatter. “There is nothing here.”
“DF?” Ellen said.
Her eyes shone with fear. “Mary received a letter. She said it was from Daniel. That is why I thought she had a liking for him. These are all love letters signed DF or D. Most are dated after Daniel’s engagement… Why would I disbelieve her? Mary never lied. Never…” Tears dripped on to the letters Ellen held.
Nausea gripped at Edward’s stomach. “They are not from Daniel Farquhar…”Damn…would Mary really be so foolish.
“They speak of meeting her, Edward. Who has she been meeting? I thought her silence and distraction a symptom of a broken heart. These letters urge her to trust him. Why did she not speak of this to me?”
Edward cast the letters he held down on the desk behind him, and moved to comfort Ellen, though he felt no comfort himself. “Because they are from a man we told her to avoid…”
“Drew Framlington!” John growled. “She would not have been so foolish!”
“It looks as though she has been…” Cold fear raced beneath Edward’s skin.
“They have been passing these letters through a stable boy.” Ellen pulled away, anger in her voice now. “If we find who it was…”
John growled and turned away.
“She has eloped,” Ellen said when John left the room. “We do not even know him, Edward. How could she? Why did she not at least try to persuade us? We have always told her she may choose her husband.”
“Because both John and I would have told her no, Ellen. My guess is she feared that speaking would only alert us to the possibility. I would not have condoned this match. The man is a manipulator, he’s charmed her. He will have told her not to speak to us.”
“If he has hurt her—”
“I will kill him.” Edward growled. What had Framlington said to her, done to her, to persuade her? Damn it. Edward wished he had challenged her harder the other day, he could have prevented this.
He held Ellen as she wept.
“Mama!” Edward turned as John came back. He held a young lad by the shoulder and the boy looked scared. “I found Mary’s little messenger. Tell Lord and Lady Marlow, what you told me.”
“I didn’t do nothin’ other than what m’lady told me to.”
Edward glared at the boy. “Then tell us what she told you to do.”
“She gave me letters an’ said no one else should know. She made me swear.”
“Where did you deliver the letters to, to whom?”
“I don’t know the gent’s name, m’lord, ’e was just some toff who lives in the Albany. I took letters there, an’ ’e sends ’em back and one time ’e came ‘ere.”
A knife lanced into Edward’s chest. “The man was here?” Had Mary lost her mind. What had happened then? What was happening now?
“Framlington lives in the Albany,” John stated in a bitter pitch. “He has probably been playing her for weeks…”
“Damn.” Edward could not look at Ellen. “We had better go there to begin our search. I saw her speaking with Lord Brooke and Framlington only days ago at a ball.”
“Brooke is Framlington’s best friend,” John stated, “and he rarely goes to such things—”
“Well he has attended balls recently, twice, he danced with Mary,” Ellen interjected. “Oliver had introduced one of his friends. I never thought to question…”
“And Oliver clearly never gave a damn,” John growled.
“It hardly matters now,” Edward stated. “What is done is done. Now we must simply find them…”
Mary had no idea how many miles they’d travelled but it seemed a considerable distance, although they’d stopped at a busy posting inn for luncheon and he’d not hurried the horses. But her bottom was sore from being bounced about on the seat of his curricle over rutted tracks and due to the change in her status last night she ached in other places too.
Relief overrode every other emotion when they booked into another inn for the night.
Andrew had said it would take three or four more days to reach Gretna. But tomorrow her parents would discover her gone and follow. What had been done could not be undone, though. Her fate was fixed. She’d lain with Andrew.
Mama will be heartbroken.
Andrew’s fingers clasped her elbow guiding her upstairs to their bedchamber.
They had eaten dinner in a parlour downstairs.
Papa will be hurt and angry and John will be disappointed.
She wished they’d find her before she reached Gretna, then they would be at her wedding. But she was not foolish enough to think anything could have been done differently. Papa and John would not have let her marry Andrew by choice.
The soft light of a vibrant sunset flooded the small room and it cast Andrew in gold, gilding his features.
He was so starkly handsome. Her heart melted a little more each time she looked at him.
“You’re silent. A penny for them?” Andrew asked as he closed the bedroom door behind them and turned the key in the lock. His eyes gleamed with a dark honey colour. “What are you thinking, tell?”
Ah. Why must tears come? They burned in her eyes and her teeth caught her lip to stop them tumbling over, but failed.
“You are not regretting…” His expression twisted to pain. “Mary?” He caught her hand, and would have pulled her to him, but she pressed her other hand against his chest to stop him, before swiping away her tears.
“I am not regretting. I was thinking of my parents. They will know tomorrow.”
His thumb, brushed another tear from her cheek, then he let her hand go and turned away; a bitter sigh escaping his lips as he moved to pour a glass of wine from a decanter by the bed. “Must we go back to this? Must you think of them now? I thought you were past leaving them; that we had left them behind where they belong.” His voice rang with impatience and a note of anger. It was as though something had snapped inside, as he barked out his bitter words. “We have become something of our own, I thought.”
He did not understand. He was not close to his own family and clearly he did not realize how much she cared for hers. Or because he did not understand he simply did not care. She did not try to explain or persuade him to understand. The emotion made finding the words too difficult.
Instead she went to him and hugged his waist, her fingers gripping across his stomach as she pressed her cheek to the fabric of his coat at his back.
He didn’t touch her and his body was stiff; nothing in his stance yielded as she held him.
“I wish Papa to walk me up the aisle, and Mama to watch us, that is all…”
A condescending sound left his throat as he turned, forcing her to let him go and step back.
“Your father would drag you away from the aisle.” Anger and annoyance echoed in his pitch.
She felt a frown crease her forehead. “I should have tried to persuade them to accept you…”
His eyes narrowed. “You could not have persuaded them. Nothing would have made them allow it.”
Mary opened her mouth to speak, but no words came as he sipped from his wine glass, his hard gaze told her he did not wish to discuss her parents’ point of view. After he’d drunk he held the wine glass to her lips and tilted it as if daring her to refuse to drink.
It was like he offered a poison chalice, or a potion – the devil in him shining in the black hearts of his eyes which had crowded out the honey colour.
When she had taken a sip, he put the glass down, and then his hands gripped her hips pushing her back against the wall as his lips came down hard on hers. The kiss felt like a brand burning into her – claiming her.
No one else would ever have been enough for her, no one else would have cared with the passion and intensity that he did.
When he broke the kiss, his hazel eyes were like treacle not honey, his pupils were so wide. Her bones were as weak as aspic.
“I love you. You know that.” It did not sound like a statement, but a question.
“I know.” Her words lacked breath. She believed him, but she knew he could not understand how much it hurt her to hurt her family. Yet it seemed as though when she spoke of caring for her family she hurt him.
He’d said in his letter, the day she had met him in the summerhouse, he did not know love. He did not – but she would teach him what it meant, what it was. “I love you too, Andrew.”
A guttural sound escaped his throat and then he kissed her, urgently. Then he spoke into her mouth. “I love you calling me Andrew, no one else does…”
He kissed her again, and she kissed him back, her arms bracing his neck as her body remembered his touch.
Then she realised he was drawing up her dress.
She broke the kiss, her fingers gripping his shoulders and her gaze meeting his dark eyes, but before she could speak he threw her his rogue’s lilting smile.
“Let me come into you now, here, no foreplay, no procrastination, let us make love now as we are.”
Her lips trembled as her next breath faltered.
He gripped her hand taking it from his shoulder and pressing it against the column in his trousers. “See how ready I am.”
He pressed a kiss against her temple, keeping the pressure on her hand, then he kissed her cheek.
She tilted her head as sensations of longing spiralled through her and she let him kiss her neck as he pressed the heel of her palm to his arousal. Then he let her hand go, and left her to touch him, as his hands returned to the task of raising her gown.
Yesterday he’d been tender; tonight he was being wicked. But his wickedness made something lurch low in her stomach as her body recalled how it had held him inside her.
In moments his fingers pulled at the bow securing her drawers and then he pushed the flimsy garment to the floor, and in another his fingers released the buttons of his flap. It was as if he’d touched a flame to tinder and they ignited as he lifted her feet from the floor, wrapped her legs about his waist and pushed into her.
There was heat, in flashes, and pain as he pulsed into her and her arms clung about his neck while her head and back hit the wall behind her over and over.
“Andrew?” she said, meeting his gaze as his fingers gripped even harder at her thighs.
“Am I hurting you?”
The urgency in his voice caught at her heart. He was, but it was pleasure as well as pain. He loved her passionately. It was the thing that made him so addictive. “No.” She shook her head and bit her lip as he continued moving even harder and faster, the sounds releasing from his throat animal like growls and cries.
“Andrew!” When the ecstasy of their union struck, it was in a rush that knocked her senses to the floor, and it span through her nerves to her fingertips.
“Hush, darling,” he growled in her ear as he carried on, and on… Her fingernails clawed into the back of his neck, and she panted out her breath, crying at the pleasure while her back hit the wall over and over, until suddenly he growled hard by her ear, and then he held still, as she felt her body tremble around him, and he pulsed with the pace of his heartbeat inside her.
“This is how I wanted you last night, just like this, quick and hard,” he said over her lips before kissing her. She kissed him too; her arms about his neck. She felt as if he really needed her…
He broke the kiss, but he did not set her down as his forehead pressed against hers. “Say you love me.”
Mary smiled, there were so many layers beneath his surface. “I love you.”
“And I you, Mary. More than you can ever know,” his husky voice seemed full of unspoken words. The grip on her thighs eased, then he set her down as if she was glass.
When her parents came she would make them understand and like him.
If she could see the good in him they must be able to see it too.
* * *
Drew could not sleep. She lay beside him, naked. But it was not only her body that was naked, it was her soul and her heart too and her openness and her innocence had cleansed him. Even the air drawing into his lungs felt different. Clean. He felt clean. He felt… blessed, and hopeful. He wanted to touch her. He did not, because he did not wish to wake her. The candle had burnt to a stub and the flickering light cast differing shadows across her face. She was more than beautiful. Her beauty was indescribable, because it was soul deep.
She was as clean and white as snow within.
But she was not innocent now. He had cut the first footprint, and he would keep walking with her, and cut the last too.
If the sensations within him were love, then love was possessive, and all consuming.
Her dark eyelashes flickered against her pale skin as her eyes moved beneath her eyelids, as if she was dreaming.
She had cried when they came upstairs after dinner. She missed her family. He’d feared she’d changed her mind when it was too late for that, but she had kissed him with all of herself still, and made love to him with every part of her being.
He had never known anyone do that before.
He did not wish to lose her. But the storm was coming. Soon.
Her father and brother would come. He knew they would. Then would come Mary’s trial. He felt as though she still loved her family more. He wished for all of her to be his. Jealousy roared inside him.
He had sought to charm her with his body – to win her back, to hold on to her. The candle flickered one last time, then went out. The room was entirely dark, but he could still feel her breath on his skin, and imagine her face.
He was afraid that her father and Pembroke would turn her against him.
Now that he had this, her, he could not bear to lose her.
She would have to marry him, there was no doubt of that, but he did not want a hollow heartless marriage. He wished for a love match. A true love match. She could give him that, teach him how to live like that. Life would become the two of them together against the world, he would be her defender and she his…and this evening… when she had her second night with him to look forward to… she had cried for want of her family. He had been unable to dwell on what it meant. Yet he feared it had meant that despite leaving with him she still thought more of them.
He wanted her now.
He needed her now.
He only had hours to win her soul and keep it.Please, Lord let her lean towards me for comfort and protection. Let me be who she cries her tears for…
His hand reached out and touched her hip, then slid up her side and down again. Her skin was like silk.
He wished to be inside her, to claim her; to calm the fear in his head, and appease the possessiveness in his soul… He did not know how to be what she needed. He was terrified of failing her – of her rejection. Of failing himself. How could he win against the affection of her family, if she still cried for them, now?
She moved beneath his hand, rolling to her back. He gripped her breast, rose up and leant to kiss her shoulder.
This was all he knew, he knew how to please her in a bed, let that be enough… Let his physical love wrap around her heart and form a wall that would hold against her father and her brother when they came.
Andrew had made love to her three more times through the night. The second time, like the first, had been rough and vigorous. She’d woken up as he’d touched her, arousing her, then he’d moved over her as she’d lain on her stomach, her fingers and toes gripping the sheet.
The third time, he’d pulled her over him, and moved her legs up so she’d knelt then bid her to rise up and lower over him. She’d felt uncomfortable and exposed, but then she’d fallen into ecstasy and forgotten her pride, her body hot and fluid like lava.
The fourth time she’d felt like an earthly Goddess half awake and half asleep as the first light of dawn had flooded the room. He’d made love to her with his lips, tongue and teeth, until she was panting and fighting to catch a breath, begging him to come into her. Then he’d settled between her thighs and ridden her deeply and slowly rocking into her with an adoration that made her mindless.
It was as if he wished to teach her everything about physical pleasure in one night.
She smiled when she woke again, blissfully happy, her muscles trembling from a night of adoration, ashes glowing warm beneath her skin.
His thigh lay over her legs, weighting her down and his broad palm rested on her stomach as she lay amidst tangled sheets.
The air was heavy with the scents of their bodies.
Shouts ran from the courtyard outside, urgent, angry masculine voices, along with a clatter of horseshoes.
Mary slid from Andrew’s embrace and began sleepily gathering up her underwear and dressing as the commotion outside grew in intensity. People shouted.
Clothed in her drawers and chemise Mary turned to the window, but now the sound of the commotion came from within the inn, as heavy strides struck the stair-boards, reverberating through the internal walls.
Andrew woke stretching as the aggressive, hurrying, strides drew nearer. Then he sat up, no longer languid, and looked to the door then at her. He smiled but it was not his normal smile, it looked odd. It was like the smile tried to speak to her, it looked uncertain, and his eyes said something she could not read. Something she had never seen there before.
The footsteps stopped outside their door and someone banged a fist against it, making the wood jolt against the lock. “Mary!”
“Papa,” she whispered towards Andrew, rushing to grab her clothes. Andrew’s expression immediately changed, it became the expression of the man she had first met in London, the man of the ballrooms. The defiant rogue. “Andrew.” She wished for him to get up.
The door jolted at another strike. “Framlington! I know you are here! Open this door!”
Mary feared the door would break as she clutched her clothes to her chest, her fingers shaking and her stomach nauseous with fear.
“A moment, Papa!” Mary shouted, as Andrew rose.
He was in his stupid arrogant mood; his movement was languid, again, and his lips twisted in a roguish smile, as if he did not care that they had been caught like this. But he did care; she had glimpsed the defiance in his eyes as he’d risen. It denied that he cared, and the fact he needed to deny it proved he did. What could be seen of Andrew never seemed to be what lay beneath. Yet this was not the moment for his roguery, or his devil to rebel.
“Let me in!” Her father roared.
Mary had never heard him sound so angry.
Her heart pounded as Andrew crossed the room and collected his shirt, then slid it over his head as her father hit the door again.
Andrew walked to the door, wearing only his shirt, which hung open across his chest, without even looking back at her.
He would not open the door until he’d dressed… He—
He turned the key in the lock…
The door flew open and bounced back against the wall as Andrew stepped out of the way.
The air left her lungs as she stood motionless holding her clothes against her.
Her father’s fist was already raised and he struck Andrew’s jaw with a swift hard punch. Andrew stumbled back against the wall but he did not fall.
“Papa!” Dropping her clothes Mary ran across the room, to stop them fighting.
Her father’s gaze did not even acknowledge her. “I will kill you!” he growled at Andrew. She moved between them.
She had never seen her father like this. “Please, Papa…”
He looked at her…His eyes accusing… “Why would you do this? You have hurt your mother! Do you know how terrified we were to find you gone?”
“Sorry.” The word leaked from her throat on a torrent of pain.
“Mary?” John stood at the open door. His fingers curled to fists.
“Don’t hurt him,” Mary begged looking back at her father. “I love him, Papa.”
“You love him?” Mary’s father growled. “You fool, Mary!” Contempt and condemnation burned in his voice. “He’s charmed you.”
Drew looked at Mary without lifting his weight off the wall.Hold by me.He said it with his eyes, but she did not see, she was glaring at her father. Relief gripped in Drew’s chest regardless, she was taking his side.
Marlow looked at Mary.
Drew had not expected her father to catch them for another day, but his timing was perfect; to arrive when they’d been in bed made the situation absolutely clear.
Mary caught hold of Drew’s arm and pulled him away from the wall, then wrapped her arms about him as she stood at his side, in only her underwear, defending him.
Her hair brushed his chest, catching on his open shirt, as her chin tilted upward. “He loves me, too, Papa.”
It was surely true, he’d lived under her spell for two days; he did not wish it broken.
Her father’s sharp slate coloured eyes looked his accusation and judged Drew wicked.
Marlow had a hard edge when he wished to reveal it. But Drew was not cowed. He smiled in condemnation, pride burning like fire in his chest.
Mary had stood with him. Against them.
Her family could go to hell.
Marlow’s fist lifted as though he would strike again.
“Papa, it is not his fault.” Mary moved in front of Drew, acting like a shield.
“Whose fault is this then? Yours?” Marlow growled at her. “Who approached who? Was this elopement your idea? You love him because he wants you to love him! He’s been playing with you! You’ve been seduced! You’re innocent and he’s manipulated your lack of understanding!” Marlow gripped Mary’s wrist, to pull her away.
She pulled it free and turned to cling to Drew.
Marlow’s palm hit Drew’s shoulder with a hard shove.
The force knocked Drew back against the wall and Mary fell with him. Drew’s arms surrounded her and held steady. “How can you know? Have you ever spoken to me? You cannot know!” Drew spat the words at Marlow. He spoke lies. Marlow was wrong.
“I know you,” Pembroke stated from behind his father, his silver eyes so like Mary’s but without the softness, flashing blue fire. “I’ve seen you manipulate women. You are selfish and greedy! You bastard!”
The insult hit. It was the one insult that always hit, because it was true. Drew’s hands fisted, but he did not strike out.
Drew pushed Mary out of the way. Pembroke’s fist hit Drew’s jaw.
His mouth filled with bitter blood.
Mary screamed and her father shouted.
Then Drew was slammed against the wall and Marlow’s hand was at his neck. Marlow thrust a sharp punch to the side of his lower back. The air rushed from Drew’s lungs. Her father threw another vicious punch.
Something snapped in Drew’s side and a sudden lancing, excruciating pain had him bending forward and fighting to breathe.
“Stop!” Mary yelled.
Marlow let Drew go and stepped back, breathing hard.
Drew doubled over, falling on to his hands and knees. He spat the blood out of his mouth.
They would not have killed him. That would have left Mary in an impossible position; unmarried and possibly with child. He’d planned their flight as it was for a reason.
Getting control of his breathing and ignoring the pain which roared like a demon, Drew stood, one hand clutching his side, the other wiping the blood from his mouth onto the sleeve of his loose open shirt.
He glared at Marlow.
They had an audience in the hall now too, he saw faces looking in to watch and as Drew only wore a shirt the reason for this argument shouted itself from the room.
Pembroke slammed the door shut as Mary wrapped her arms around Drew. “We are to be married.”
“But I see he could not wait until then.” Her father accused glaring at Drew’s nudity.
Drew smiled, disparaging her father’s ill-judgement.
But then he felt Mary’s tears against his chest. He had known there would be a fight for her ownership, yet he had not wished her upset by it. He was a naïve fool when it came to love – more naive than she was in other things, he had not considered what this scene would mean to her.
“Do you really think he intends taking you to Gretna?” Marlow snarled at Mary his gaze challenging her.
“He is.” Her chin lifted, tears still streaking her cheeks as her hair brushed against his chest.
“He is not taking you to Gretna Green.” Her brother responded in a bitter pitch. “He does not even have the money to get you there. The duns were at his apartment when we called there, they’d heard he’d disappeared.”
Bless her, Mary still believed.
“He is not,” her father said, his pitch falling, deflated. “Mary, listen to us, if he wished to reach Gretna and not be found, why are you still here at nearly eleven?” He withdrew Drew’s card from his pocket and threw it so it spiralled to the floor at Mary’s bare feet. “And why would he leave his calling card at the last inn and ensure you were noticed at every toll gate. He asked the last gatekeeper to recommend this inn so we would know where you were. He’s been leaving a trail, he wanted us to follow. He cannot afford to keep you. He does not even have enough money to elope with you, he cannot have the funds to reach the border. He wants me to pay for your wedding, and simply wishes to obtain the funds he seeks.” He said the last on a sigh.
Drew straightened denying the sharp pain in his side, preventing him from breathing deeply. “Being without funds is no crime.”
Marlow and Pembroke ignored him.
“Mary, he does not love you. He loves the wealth you will bring him.” Her brother said. “He’s used you.”
Her hair swayed against Drew’s chest catching on his open shirt, again, as she shook her head, but her confidence was failing, Drew felt it slipping away as she clung to him less aggressively.
She was like the hemp rope in a tug of war, they were pulling but Drew had a hold and he was not letting go. They could not pull her free anyway now, not fully, she had to become his wife.
“But it is pointless us arguing now. It is too late.” Marlow looked at the tangled covers on the bed. “You have made your choice.”
“He does love me,” Mary stated in trembling defiance.
Her brother laughed, and the sound caught like a fist in Drew’s gut. He hated Pembroke.
“I doubt he knows how to love,” Pembroke mocked. “But he knows how to lie. I know how men like him work. He’s no good, he asked Kate to bed him, the same night he danced with you last season…”
Damn Pembroke…Drew could not deny that. But Pembroke had cuckolded husbands too, he could hardly talk.
Mary’s arms fell and she stepped away.
The pain in Drew’s side sharpened for an instant, but another, different sought of pain, bit into his chest.
If Mary loved him, she ought to trust him… She should not judge him.
She looked at her brother, her arms limp at her sides. Then she looked at Drew. “Is that true?” Her voice held her confusion… her fear.
“It is true. Yet…” What? He would not explain before her brother and her father.“It occurred over a year ago. It meant nothing.”
She turned away.
The devil take it… He would not demean himself and beg for her understanding.Mary!
Pembroke glared at Drew. “It would serve you well if I withheld her dowry. But I cannot leave her in poverty, which I presume you guessed.” Pembroke looked at Mary. “That is why he’s bedded you, to make sure we have no choice but to agree the match and pay him your dowry.”
Mary’s body was stiff, as she listened to Pembroke.
Pembroke came nearer and touched her arm. “Mary, you cannot trust him. I’m sure he’s seduced you with kisses and words of love, but they are false. I’m sorry.”
Drew’s muscles stiffened. He wished to hit Pembroke, but there was no point in that, Marlow would join in and the two of them would knock him down. Yet, Mary was listening.
Damn her, why was she listening to this? She should be loyal to him! Drew’s instinct was to reach out and grip her hand, to cling to her, but it would make him look weak before her.
“Mary, he chose you, because you were innocent, easily moulded and deceived. I warned you…”
She leant against her brother, seeking Pembroke’s comfort and Pembroke’s hold.
Mary! They are wrong. You know they are wrong!Drew closed his mouth on the words as a bitter anger flooded him. He wished to grab her back and shake her. But he had pride.
Her rejection stung even more as she sobbed against Pembroke’s shoulder.
Drew turned away to pick up his underwear from the floor.
The pain in his side burned as he slipped them on. Already there was a dark red, almost black, bruise staining his side.
He looked at Marlow as he picked up his trousers and pulled them on. “You will want to obtain a special licence, or perhaps you’d prefer to wait for the bans and have a public wedding so that society believes this was not clandestine.” He picked up his boots without looking at Mary, his eyes still on Marlow’s expression which said, I’d like to kill you. “I’m sure you wish to protect her reputation. But remember a child may arrive early if we wait for the bans to be read.” Drew punched them with his words; as they had punched him.
Marlow glared. But he had no choice.
“A license or bans,” Drew stated in a mocking pitch as he sat to pull on his stockings and boots, “they are your choices.”Fuck them and their lies.
“Choice?” Marlow growled. “She has no choice, you took that from her.”
Drew could say,I love her. He could promise he’d protect and care for her. He did not. Why should he make promises to a man who’d no respect for him? Let Marlow sweat. Let him fear for his child. Let him believe what he liked.
Drew stood and tucked in his shirt.
“What do you wish for?” Marlow looked at Mary.
Drew looked at her too, as he picked up his waistcoat. Her pale gaze struck his as if she looked at a stranger. There was doubt in her eyes not love.
A sour taste filled his mouth. He was even more convinced he loved her, because his need for her was mindless. He wanted to be everything to her. She was all to him.
Anger and jealousy twisted inside him as his soul screamed out.None of what they said is true! You ought to know that!But he would not vocalise it still. He had never pleaded to anyone in his life, for anything. But God her rejection kicked.
Drew looked away and buttoned his waistcoat.
“Obtain a special licence, Papa.”
“I’ll hire a carriage here. A groom can drive your rig back, Framlington. I want you where I can see you. I will send up a maid to help you dress, Mary.” Marlow left.
Drew picked up his coat. Pembroke hovered near the door his eyes on Mary. “You’re a fool. None of us can help you now.” Pembroke walked out then too, leaving them alone.
Mary sobbed her shoulders shaking as she turned to pick up her clothes.
Their love was only days old and it had been ripped in two.
Damn it, when Drew had imagined this scene, he had not only not thought about how it would hurt her, he’d never imagined how her turning away would hurt him.
She did not bother trying to secure her corset, but instead stepped into her gown as tears streamed down her cheeks and her fingers shook.
He was still angry with her, he wished to growl at her.Why side with your family? Why believe them and not me?His anger screamed for him to yell and make her understand, but he refused to heed it. He would not plead. Yet her tears moved him… But what did he say to her…He was not sorry for anything he had done. He wanted her. He had chosen Mary the night he’d danced with Pembroke’s wife. He loved Mary, and he needed her money. At least he would have that.I am not sorry. Everything he’d told her was true. Did she not love him now? Was love that fleeting? Only for him; because of who he was.
He sighed and went to her, then began securing the buttons at her back. She stood still, her body stiff. Last night it had been pliant.
When all the buttons were secure he turned away and moved to the washbowl to shave, tipping water from the jug into the bowl as in the mirror he watched Mary pull on her stockings. She did not look at him.
* * *
Mary’s fingers shook as she packed everything back into her travelling bag. Her tears had dried but she felt morose and empty.
Had everything he’d said been false?
He’d not denied propositioning Kate… John had never told her that.
How many women had he been intimate with as they were last night?
The room was warm but she was cold. Her fingers rubbed her temple as more tears longed to escape and nausea threatened. They’d not eaten this morning, but she could not eat now.
Had this been a plan merely to obtain her dowry?
She glanced at Drew as he finished shaving, and then wiped his face. He looked as impenetrable as stone.
Yet, last night, she’d thought herself loved. He’d said I love you, numerous times. But the words were easily said.
He turned and looked at her. He was not saying them now.
Tears blurred his contours.John is right. I am a fool.
Within half an hour she sat in a hired carriage opposite her father, who’d not spoken to her beyond growls as he’d directed their departure. John had not even ridden in the carriage, he’d chosen to ride a horse.
Andrew sat beside her, his shoulders against the squabs and his arms crossed over his chest while one of his booted feet rested on the cushion opposite. He’d tilted his hat forward so it covered his eyes and stared out the window without speaking.
She looked out of the window beside her at the passing fields. How much further to London? How long before this agony was over?
But what if when they arrived Mama would not speak to her either.
Her gaze spun to her father as an ache gripped in her chest. “Do you not love me anymore, Papa, is there only hate now?” It was a childish question, but she did not care, she could not bear his silence.
His gaze met hers the slate blue depths unreadable. She loved her father so much. “I do not hate you, Mary, never that. I am angry, surely you can understand why.” He leaned forward and gripped one of her hands as it rested in her lap. “I will always love you. But at this moment I am… furious.” He glanced at Andrew, then back at her. “I am in no mood to talk.” He sat back and looked from the window a muscle flickering in his cheek as if his jaw clenched.
Andrew had not turned to look at them. But she sensed irritation bristling from his body, as if he sulked, as if he had not liked her speaking to her father.
She folded her arms across her chest and looked back out the window.
She was angry too, and it seemed there was nothing to do but be silent.
They’d travelled for a day and night, breaking only to change horses. She’d slept intermittently in the carriage, as had Andrew. But her father had not appeared to sleep at all.
She’d wished to speak to Andrew but not before her father.
She wished to ask if he did love her and if so why had he not told her father and she wanted to know why he had said what he’d said to Kate.
When London’s skyline came into view relief flooded her.
“I’ll take you to John’s, Mary, to your mother. You may wait for us there while Lord Framlington and I obtain a licence.”
“I’m not a child, Papa, you do not need to tell me to stay with Mama.”
A note of humour rumbled in Andrew’s chest as he sat upright and straightened his hat. Mary ignored it.
“I wish that I had done so these past weeks.” her father growled, ignoring Andrew too.
Mary looked out the window as the carriage negotiated London’s busy streets, watching the familiar scenes of town.
The carriage drew to halt outside John’s house —it is the same street, the same house,but I am not the same.I’ve made love with a man and this will not be my home.
A footman opened the door and dropped the step. Mary did not wait on the men to help her but stood and took the footman’s hand. Her father descended in her wake and Andrew followed. Mary’s gaze caught his. A half smile stirred his lips but it was condescending.
Why was he being horrible?
She turned and climbed the stairs to John’s front door but before she reached it Andrew’s fingers gripped her waist, in a loose embrace. The sensation made her jump.
“At least pretend you are happy to have me,” he growled in her ear. “You wished me to touch you a day ago, as I recall.”
Her father looked at them, but she did not think he’d heard, certainly Andrew had not intended him to.
“And I agree you are not a child. I know you are a woman. Besides, do not worry, within hours you’ll have no need to listen to him barking orders.”
Mary stiffened her spine against the warm sensation engendered by his gentle touch and ignored his churlish stabs.
John stood in the hall. He must have ridden ahead to have arrived before them. Her mother stood with him in the formation of a receiving line – cold and formal. John didn’t even smile at her and her mother’s face was set with pain, her eyes red rimmed from hours of tears. Mary wanted to hug her but she hesitated.
“I am sorry, Mama… I did not mean to—”
“Fall in love?” Andrew interjected.
When Mary looked back at him, he threw her a belligerent grin before looking at her mother.
“I am Lord Framlington, Lady Marlow.” Andrew offered her mother a hand in a forceful gesture without waiting for an introduction from someone else. He had that look of deviltry in his eyes, and when her mother took his hand he lifted it and kissed the back of her fingers. Then he let her hand fall, glancing at Mary’s father.
Mary saw her mother stiffen, she had a way of dressing herself in solid steel when she was angry.
A moment ago Mary had wished to hug her mother; she would not receive any comfort now Andrew had played rogue.
His arm reached about Mary’s shoulders. The gesture was possessive not supportive.
Her father coughed, clearing his throat in disapproval.
Mary looked her apology, but her father no longer looked at her. He went to her mother and lifted her bare hand in his gloved one, then pressed it against his cheek. They often shared such gestures of affection and support.
Mary had always assumed she’d have the same with her husband…
“Has John told you,” her father said to her mother, “we’ve agreed to obtain a special licence? I will take Lord Framlington now—”
“I’ve spoken to a minister,” John interrupted. “He’s agreed to undertake the ceremony. His church is in Whitechapel. Do you wish me to come with you?”
“Not unless you wish to, he’s hardly likely to run.” Her father spoke of Andrew as though he was not there. “He would not have her dowry, and we both know that is all he wants.”
“Not all…” Andrew stated, throwing her father his rogue’s grin and squeezing her shoulder. Mary blushed.
“We’re leaving,” her father barked, looking back at her mother with a conciliatory smile. “We will be back as soon as we can.” Then he looked at John. “Have a coach prepared, one with no insignia.”
John’s answer was a growl of agreement.
Andrew’s hand left her shoulder. Even though she knew he’d only held her to annoy her father she still regretted the loss of the assurance his touch gave.But if he does not love me, I cannot trust in his surity.
Andrew turned away.
Her father nodded. “We will not be long.” Then they walked from the hall, out into the street.
“Why?” John said the moment the door shut. “Have you run mad?”
“I…” she began, but no explanation came. The hall of his town house always seemed cold, but today it was freezing.
“I suppose he lured you with a kiss or two. What else?”
“John.” Her mother stopped him. “Mary has already learned her mistake, it will do no good rubbing salt into the wound. But, Oh, Mary, why did you not speak to me? I would not have judged. I would have helped you think this through.”
Tears blurred Mary’s vision as her mother touched her arm… Mary turned to her. “You would have told me not to speak to him again.” Mary sobbed as her mother’s arms came about her.
“For good reason!” John shouted.
Anger screamed inside her as she spun away from her mother’s hold. “Except that you never told me the reason! You never said he’d asked Kate—”
“I didn’t think I needed to spell it out to you! I thought you’d trust my word!”
“He was nice to me…” Mary’s anger became pain.
“I’m sure he was,” John growled, “but I do not wish to know how nice!”
“John,” her mother challenged, “you will solve nothing by condemning her. It is too late for this. I just wish, I wish…” Her mother’s voice broke and Mary turned to offer comfort, as much as to receive it.
“Mama, I’m sorry—”
“I’m not angry with you.” Her mother swiped the tears away. “I’m sad because you will suffer from this choice, if Lord Framlington is as bad as John thinks.” Her voice broke, her last words slipping out on a whisper. “It is not an easy choice to elope, I know – and I know you must love him. Just… does Lord Framlington love you, Mary?”
Mary’s mother waved her hand before her face as if putting off the tears.
“Anyway, whatever the outcome, unlike when I eloped, you are not leaving your family. We are here. Come.” With that she took Mary’s hand and began leading her upstairs.
A lump caught in Mary’s throat and to hide her distress she looked back at John, as he followed “Is Kate not here?”
“No, she’s at Pembroke Place with the children. We left in haste at night—”
“At night?” Her gaze spun to her mother.
“Eleanor sent word to me. She saw Miss Smithfield at a ball. She knew you were supposed to be with them and you were not…”
Mary sighed, “So they know. Does everyone know? Oh Emily will be in so much trouble…”
“I’m sure she shall, Mary. We have always trusted you. I am appalled by all these machinations. Why did you not trust us?”
“She was charmed, Mama. I would lay odds he told her not to speak.”
“I would also lay odds he used physical inducement, promised her devotion and claimed he loves her. It is very easy to say the words. It does not mean he feels them.” John’s words echoed about the stone stairs in the marble lined hall.
Andrew had done all of those things…
“Men like him lie, Mary. I suppose he said you were special and precious…”
He’d used such words when they’d made love.
“It was all lies.”
She did not want to believe what John said but Andrew had been cold towards her, and angry, since her family had found them.
Drowning in emptiness when she reached the top of the stairs, she let go of her mother’s hand. “I shall change. Will you call for a maid, Mama.”
When Andrew returned to Pembroke’s house he stood in Pembroke’s opulent Palladian hall, awed, but not by his future brother-in-law’s home; by his future wife. She’d changed clothes and she outshone the gilded splendour of Pembroke’s hall.
The girl is gorgeous, and mine.
She wore a pale dove-grey muslin dress, shot through with silver thread. It shimmered as it caught the daylight from the long window above the door. The dress made her appear ethereal – ghost like. The colour engaged with her eyes; and her pale skin and dark hair made a perfect frame for it.
A vision of her naked before him, with smooth, flawless, porcelain skin, made his throat dry. He knew the body beneath that dress now.
The bonnet she wore was a slightly darker grey, and at the edge of its brim were small white rose buds. She looked like a virginal bride. She was not that.
The air left his lungs, when she looked at him. A few ebony curls framed her face beneath the brim of her bonnet.
I love you, the thought spun through his head. He was certain of it now. The ground had shifted, tilted, beneath his feet when she’d faced him, his feelings were strong and no other word came to him to describe it but love.
Her gaze met his, but the look did not say, I love you too. It was cold.
Drew looked away, trying to swallow the knot tied in his throat.
“Are you ready?” Marlow asked his wife who’d followed Mary downstairs.
The man had given Drew a lecture on the way to the bishop’s palace to obtain a licence to be wed without bans. The return journey had been threats. If Drew hurt her; if he did not look after her; if he treated her false; if Marlow heard that Drew was behaving inappropriately, setting up a mistress or having an affair… Marlow had found a hundred different reasons to threaten Drew, promising castration at least, murder at the most.
Unfortunately for Marlow, Drew did not care. The only thing he did care for was Mary, and sadly, judging by her stiffness and her look – she no longer cared for him. He felt as if she lanced his chest with a knife. He would not be able to bear it if she turned her back on him.
He’d informed Marlow it was a mistake to tell him no, because he was a contrary man. He’d also told Marlow that his daughter was equally contrary and that if Marlow had not warned her off she’d probably never have gone near him. Then ignoring the pain of his broken rib, he’d patted Marlow’s shoulder with a smile and laughed. He refused to let these people ridicule him and set him down.
Marlow’s hand had fisted, and Drew had readied himself not to flinch if the man hit him. But Marlow’s arm had not swung, he’d gritted his teeth and growled, “You are not worth fighting.”
Drew lifted his arm offering it for Mary to take. His rib hurt like hell but he did not show it, he did not wish to look weak.
Pembroke glowered as Mary laid her fingers on it.
Drew disregarded him, and focused his attention on Mary. “I suppose Pembroke has been cursing me again,” he said to her quietly.
Her gaze flicked up to meet his, then darted away.
She was not admiring Drew’s attractiveness; he sported a black eye and a bruised jaw. So Pembroke had been speaking of Drew and voicing more lies.
Damn it. Yesterday, he’d been everything to her, and he’d told her a dozen times how he felt, but clearly his words counted as nothing compared to Pembroke’s. Her family still came first.
“And you’ve been lapping it up… Am I the villain now then?”
She looked at him but didn’t answer. Her gaze saying, be quiet, as her fingers rested on his arm, light and unmoving, not really there at all, as though she’d rather not touch him.
Never tell me not to do something,it is like a red rag to a bull.
“What did he say then? Am I charged with something new or is it still seduction? Perhaps I should get a pistol and shoot him so he has a decent challenge to make. Or I could—”
“This is not a game, Andrew,” she whispered harshly as they led the little wedding party out on to the street.
“Am I laughing?” he answered on a low growl before looking over his shoulder at Permbroke. “Have you the cheque?”
Mary flinched even though the hit was for Pembroke. It was the only way he could hit the man back. Pembroke would hate signing Mary’s dowry over.
Drew held Mary back when they reached the carriage so the others could enter first. He did not wish to hurt her, but he did not know how to manage this, and she was hurting him.
A footman held the door of Pembroke’s unmarked carriage and two grooms held the horses’ heads. The coachman was already in his seat, while another two grooms hovered by the footplates at the rear of the glossy black beast. All were dressed in Pembroke’s livery.
Hell, if this was the service Mary was used to she would find life sparse at the Albany. Drew had no staff.
Pembroke’s pale impenetrable gaze was no more than a mirror as he looked at Drew before entering.
The man must be good at cards; no one would guess what was in his hand. But Drew grinned, he knew the strike had hit. Let them think he was taking Mary just for their money. Let them hurt too.
After her mother and father had entered, Drew handed Mary up, then climbed in after her. She sat in the far corner. He sat beside her and slid up close, only because she’d sought to move away. He was not in the mood to let her shut him out.
He took her hand and wove his fingers through hers, before resting them on his thigh, in clear view of her father, mother and brother sitting opposite.
God, from their dire looks anyone would think she was heading to prison. Surely society did not think him that bad?
He looked out the window, as the door slammed shut and the lock clicked home.
But then society had tarnished him from birth with prophetic words and he’d never done anything to dispel their prophecy.
Why the hell should he? He only cared for the thoughts of those who really knew him – his friends.
The carriage pulled into movement and silence reigned.
Drew glanced at Marlow, he and Pembroke stared out the windows while Mary’s mother looked at her daughter, a picture of concern.
Mary was also looking out the window – doing her utmost to pretend Drew did not exist.
She had known he existed the night before last. He rubbed his thumb across her wrist above her glove to remind her of his presence. She did not move, not even a single muscle in her face twitched. He supposed she’d learned that stony expression from her brother.
When the carriage reached Whitechapel, Drew looked beyond Mary to the narrow street as the stench of the city’s less affluent area assaulted his nostrils. The houses became crowded and the buildings more crooked.
Drew supposed Marlow and Pembroke had brought them here to avoid the world believing Mary had been forced to marry him. Yet the state of Drew’s face was testimony of that.
Reputation was all in high society – but it never mattered what people did behind closed doors, just as long as no one actually saw.
When the coach pulled up before a small church, Drew sneered at Marlow, opened the door and leapt out before the footman could set down the step. Then he knocked down the step and helped Mary down.
When Marlow descended Drew said, “So, what do I call you once we are wed? Papa?” A vicious vane had cut through him today. He owned her now. Sod them and their lies.
Marlow scowled. “You may call me, Lord Marlow, and it will always be so.”
Mary sent Drew a quelling look and whispered, “Please put down your stirring spoon?”
Drew shot her a smile, saying without words, do I have to. He was enjoying making Pembroke and Marlow uncomfortable. They deserved to feel bad after the things they had said of him.
She shook her head at him as her fingers slipped from his, then she turned to her father.
The rejection kicked Drew in the gut, making his ire burn harder. He hated rejection, he had endured enough of it in his life. In general, now, he did not give people a chance to do it. But this was Mary.I love you, you foolish girl…Do you not care for me?
She walked beneath the church’s carved wooden lynch gate gripping her father’s arm. Drew followed. Pembroke and her mother behind him.
Drew’s hands slipped into the pockets of his trousers, his patience wearing thin.
The vicar appeared in the stone porch beckoning them in.
Drew took off his hat and gloves.
The dark glass in the church only let a little light in, wreathing it in shadows.
Their footsteps echoed on the glazed stone tiles as the vicar led them along the aisle to the altar.
The vicar bid Mary and her father, to stand on the left, and Pembroke and his mother to sit. Then looked at Drew, his eyes bearing disapproval. “Stand here, Lord Framlington.”
Drew gritted his teeth and set his hat and gloves on the end of a pew. If he did not hit someone, or something, soon, he was liable to explode.
The vicar let his leather-bound book fall open where a red ribbon marked a page and held it in one hand. Then he looked from the book to Drew, then Mary, and began reciting words in a dirge-like voice.
Aggression hovered in the air as Marlow stood beside Mary on the other side and Pembroke threw daggers at Drew’s back.
When they came to the point where Marlow had to hand Mary over to him and lay her hand on Drew’s. Drew grinned at him.Fuck you she is mine now.
When it came to their vows Drew forgot her family, staring only at her, looking into her eyes, speaking to her face with a firm intonation. He wanted her to hear and believe.
She looked at the knot of his cravat, and when it was her turn to speak and mumbled the reply with no conviction.
It was no romantic memory to hold dear for the rest of his life.
“Have you a ring, Lord Framlington?” The Reverend asked.
Lifting his right hand to his mouth, Drew gripped the signet ring on his smallest finger between his teeth.
His mother, or rather his father, whoever he was, had given it to him. A thank you gift for a night’s entertainment, and an unwanted son. The gift had become his compensation for his undesired life.Fitting, he thought.
He looked at his unwilling wife as he slid the ring off with his teeth. Then he took it from his mouth and polished it on his coat, before sliding it on her finger.
She did not lift her gaze even then.
This was not how he’d pictured his wedding. He’d thought her feelings for him would hold. He’d thought she would think more of him than her father and brother, because surely, love, which included the physical kind, was a greater bond.
He sighed as her hand trembled in his, love lodging like a spear through his heart.
Finally she looked up.
He smiled, genuinely, offering reassurance as the vicar continued reciting words, then Drew echoed them holding her gaze. It was as though the hours which had passed since her father had entered that room at the inn slipped away – had never been. It was just the two of them in the church, her pale eyes shining with intensity as they had when they were alone.
Then the vicar said, “I now pronounce you man and wife. What God has united, let no man set asunder.” His book snapped shut, and the echo of it bounced back off the stone walls.
Drew bent to kiss Mary. She looked away. His kiss fell on her cheek.
Straightening, Drew looked at the vicar, as Mary’s fingers slid from his. No one said a word. You could have heard a bloody pin drop in the silence of their acclamations.
Turning to her family, he declared. “Is no one going to wish us happy?”