Authors: Sandra Heath
he candle trembled in her hand, but then a tall figure in hussar’s uniform came into the faint arc of moving light. It was Geoffrey Lawrence.
He smiled up at her, placing a gleaming, spurred cavalry boot on the lowermost tread of the staircase. His dark-blue dolman was braided with silver, and his tight white breeches might have been molded to his figure. A pelisse trimmed with black fur was fixed casually over his left shoulder, and a red-and-white-striped sash accentuated his slender waist. His dark-brown hair was thick and luxuriant, and he wore it with side whiskers and a mustache, as did all fashionable young hussar officers. He was twenty-seven years old, and only too aware of how attractive he was; but there wasn’t anything remotely attractive about the knowing way he allowed his gaze to rake over her, taking in the outline of her figure through the flimsy muslin of her gown. She felt as if she were naked.
He smiled again. ‘Good evening, Miss Cherington,’ he said softly.
‘I trust I didn’t startle you.’
‘I didn’t realize anyone had returned.’ She looked past him, half-expecting to see Sir Ashley and Lady Lawrence as well.
He interpreted the glance correctly. ‘I’m alone, my father and stepmother are still basking in the royal presence at Devonshire House. I grew bored with the company.’ Bored indeed, his dear stepmama was becoming tiresome and he thirsted for pastures new, pastures like the delightful governess. Seduction was very much on his mind, more so than ever now he’d seen again the soft curves beneath the so-revealing muslin she wore so innocently. He hoped she was as vulnerable as she seemed, for his kind preyed upon such vulnerability. His smile didn’t falter, he was all that was agreeable and charming. ‘You seem a little uneasy, Miss Cherington, I promise you’re quite safe.’
She hadn’t liked him from the moment he’d returned to the house, and she certainly distrusted his facile and rather superficial charm. ‘I didn’t for one moment think otherwise, sir,’ she replied a little coolly.
‘Tell me, Miss Cherington, are you much given to wandering around the house at night?’
‘I’m going to get a glass of milk for Emma.’
‘There are servants to do that.’
‘They don’t answer bells rung by governesses, sir.’
‘No, I don’t suppose they do,’ he murmured, and she could see by his eyes that he was well aware of how the servants behaved because of the situation his return had brought about. He studied her. ‘Why is Emma still awake?’
‘She’s afraid of the storm.’ Another rumble of thunder chose that moment to roll overhead, rolling away into the distance for some time before becoming silent again.
‘Afraid? And so you rush to comfort her with glasses of milk – and stories, no doubt. No wonder she worships the ground you tread, trilling constantly about her beloved Cherry.’ His glance moved over her again. ‘Mind you, I suppose I cannot blame her, for to be sure you’re a truly delightful person, Miss Cherington, and had I known before that you were residing beneath the parental roof, I vow I’d have returned sooner.’
She wished he wouldn’t speak to her like this, and she remained cool and unresponsive. ‘You wouldn’t have returned earlier, sir, you’d still have come for Cowes.’
‘Ah, cruel heart, determined to dash my romantic aspirations.’ His eyes were warm and dark, inviting so much. ‘But nothing will dash the fact that I find you a most enchanting diversion, my sweet Miss Cherington.’
She drew warily back. ‘Sir, you shouldn’t—’
‘Say such wickedly improper things? Probably not, but then I’m a wickedly improper fellow.’
She said nothing to this, and her silence was eloquent.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘You have surprising spirit, for a governess. You intrigue me, for you’re obviously from a good family and yet you’re reduced to seeking a position. What happened? Did your father lose all on the turn of a card?’
She flushed. She hadn’t said anything to anyone about her family background, for to do so would be like being disloyal to her brother Tom, who may have been at fault but was still loved very much. ‘My parents are both dead, sir, and neither of them was at fault.’
He noted the emotion he’d accidentally tapped. Maybe he could throw her off guard by pressing the point. ‘Was it your brother, then? Or maybe a cousin? Who was it, Miss Cherington? I know it was the turn of a card, it always is. Devil take it, I should know the truth of that.’
‘I don’t wish to discuss it, Captain Lawrence.’
‘You may not, Miss Cherington, but I’m afraid I do. Come now, satisfy my vulgar curiosity. Who was the selfish bounder who squandered it all and robbed you of your chance to make an advantageous match?’
The color still stained her cheeks. ‘Please, sir, I really don’t wish to discuss it.’
‘Humor me, Miss Cherington,’ he said softly, giving her not an inch. ‘Name the black sheep.’
She knew he had no intention of dropping the subject. Perhaps it would be wiser to say. ‘It was my brother, and please don’t call him a black sheep.’
‘Your brother, eh? And is this disreputable sibling still with us? Or has he passed into the hereafter as well?’
‘He’s still alive, sir, and he most certainly isn’t disreputable.’ She was stiff and on the defensive.
‘Why, I do believe you’re still fond of the wretch. My dear Miss Cherington, the knave doesn’t deserve your affection, he deserves to be castigated for his sins, because instead of protecting you, he’s failed in his duty in every way.’
‘That isn’t so!’
‘No? Does he visit you? He doesn’t, does he? I’ve made it my business to inquire about you, and I’ve ascertained that you haven’t received a single visitor in the year you’ve been here.’
Her eyes flashed at that. ‘Sir, you had no right to pry into my affairs.’ Her anger made her forget for a moment that she was only the governess, whereas he was the son of the house.
‘On the contrary, Miss Cherington, I had every right. You are, after all, employed in this house.’
She colored, looking quickly away. Another echo of thunder rolled in the distance.
He watched her. Dear God, how tempting she was, so virginal and fresh, just waiting to be aroused. And that spirit, oh, how satisfying it would be to master it, to master everything about her….
She made to go on down the staircase. ‘Please, sir, I must get the glass of milk.’
He remained firmly in her way. ‘We haven’t finished yet, Miss Cherington. I believe we were discussing your brother. Why doesn’t he visit you? Is he ashamed of having reduced you to this?’
Her tongue passed nervously over her lips. How was she going to escape from him? She glanced back up the staircase.
‘My sister’s asleep, I’m sure of it,’ he said. ‘You haven’t answered my question, Miss Cherington. Why does your brother ignore you?’
‘He doesn’t ignore me, sir; we write regularly and meet in Brentford whenever we can. We hope to meet in two days’ time, if Lady Lawrence will allow me to.’
‘Which is hardly likely, under the circumstances.’
‘The circumstances aren’t my fault, sir,’ she replied stiffly.
‘Oh, but they are, Miss Cherington. You shouldn’t be so desirable, should you?’
Her cheeks were aflame, and her heart was beating more swiftly again. Please let someone come. But all was silent, except for the distant rattle of thunder.
‘Don’t look so frightened, Miss Cherington. I’m a gentleman and would no more dream of thrusting unwelcome attentions upon you than I would of flying.’
‘You’re forcing your attentions upon me now, sir, by not allowing me to pass.’
‘But I only wish to talk to you, Miss Cherington,’ he said reasonably, spreading his hands innocently, but nevertheless remaining squarely in her way. ‘We haven’t finished discussing your brother.’
‘I don’t intend to discuss him, sir, not with you or with anyone else.’
‘Why not? Have you something to hide?’
‘Then tell me about him. Does he reside in luxury in London while you exist here in a miserable room on the top floor?’
‘He’s sharing a friend’s apartment in New Bond Street.’
‘Ah, so the cad’s living at someone else’s expense. No doubt he’s still frittering things away at the green baize.’
‘Don’t judge others.…’ She bit the words back.
‘By myself? Why not, for it’s my experience that others are like myself, willfully going their own sweet way no matter what the consequences.’
‘My brother isn’t like that, he didn’t willfully lose everything; it just happened, and there’s no one more saddened by his dereliction of his family duty than he is.’ Her eyes were angry as she met his. ‘Did you willfully bring about the situation that now requires you to sell the
or risk imprisonment for debt?’
He seemed to find this amusing. ‘Of course I did, Miss Cherington. I continued to play even when I knew my hand couldn’t possibly win, just as your worthless brother continued and thus lost you everything. He thought only of his own pleasure, and family duty couldn’t have been further from his mind.’
Who was Captain Geoffrey Lawrence to pronounce upon family duty? He didn’t even begin to understand what it meant. She was suddenly determined to end the conversation, making once again to pass him. ‘Please let me go, sir, Emma will be—’
‘Emma’s asleep,’ he replied, moving to bar her way. ‘Come now, it isn’t often that we’re at liberty to talk like this.’ Without warning, he put out his hand to touch her cheek.
With a gasp, she recoiled. The candle fluttered and smoked, and some hot wax splashed onto her wrist. She was a little frightened now. ‘Captain Lawrence, we aren’t at liberty at
to speak like this,’ she cried.
‘This is 1811, Miss Cherington, not the Middle Ages.’
‘That makes no difference, sir, for there are barriers between us. Now, will you please allow me to pass?’
‘Only after you’ve paid a small forfeit,’ he replied. It was time to remove the kid gloves.
Her heart almost stopped. ‘F-forfeit?’ she asked very warily.
‘Just a little one,’ he said softly, reaching out to touch her cheek again.
With a quick intake of breath, she pulled sharply away, but he reached out swiftly to put his other hand to her waist, pulling her roughly toward him. The light in his eyes frightened her, as did the force he used, and momentarily her strength seemed to desert her. She was so shocked that she simply couldn’t move; he had her completely at his mercy.
As another roll of thunder growled through the night, he was oblivious to everything but the soft, pliant warmth of her body through the thin stuff of her gown. Desire rose sharply within him, arousing him to the point of madness. He had to possess her, he had to be the first to know the secret delights of her body. He succumbed to passion, forcing his lips down upon hers. He kissed her hungrily and without finesse, intent only upon slaking the desire that consumed him.
At last she began to struggle, trying to thrust him away, but he was too strong for her and nothing she did deterred him from his purpose. The candle slipped from her hand and the flame was immediately extinguished, engulfing them both in darkness. Still she struggled, trying to beat him with her fists, but then a new sound penetrated her fear – the patter of childish footsteps and muffled sobs as Emma Ieft her room and came tearfully to look for her.
‘Cherry? Cherry, where are you? I’m frightened!’
With a savage curse, Geoffrey started back from her, just as another flickering light appeared at the head of the staircase. Emma stood there in her white nightgown, a candle in her hand as she peered down toward them, calling Louisa’s name again.
Louisa needed no second bidding; she turned to dash up to the child, kneeling to gather her into her arms. ‘It’s all right, sweeting, I’m here.’ Her heart was thundering, her senses still in turmoil.
Emma saw Geoffrey. Her fear evaporated and she hurried down to him. ‘Geoffrey! You came back just like you promised!’
He was in no mood to be pleasant. ‘You should be in bed, Emma,’ he said shortly, his eyes furious still as he looked past her toward Louisa.
Emma’s steps faltered. ‘Are you angry with me?’
‘Yes, I am. Get back to bed, or I’ll tell Stepmama that you’ve been disobedient behind her back.’
The child’s eyes were wide with hurt.
‘Didn’t you hear me? I said you were to get back to your bed!’
With a choked sob, Emma turned to run back up the staircase, the candle streaming and smoking. She dashed past Louisa, who lingered a moment, looking contemptuously down at him. ‘I find you abhorrent and totally despicable,’ she said in a low, shaking voice.
He gave her a mocking, derisive bow, turned on his heel, and strode back toward the main doors. God damn Emma for interrupting. A few minutes more and he’d have succeeded. Now he’d have to wait, for he wasn’t deterred by the way it had gone; on the contrary, he was more fired than before to possess what was being denied him.
He emerged beneath the portico, where the approaching storm had brought a light breeze that whispered between the columns. Searching in his pockets, he took out a Spanish cigar and some lucifers, and a moment later the sweet smoke was curling up to be snatched at by the night breeze. He gazed down through the park toward the river, where a flash of lightning fleetingly picked out the mast and rigging of the
. Louisa faded from his mind as his thoughts turned to his financial difficulties. A plague on the old man for choosing to make a stand! Geoffrey drew on the cigar. Cowes had an added enticement this year, for Lord Rowe’s champion yacht, the
, had foundered on rocks off the island earlier in the year after taking foolish risks against Lord Highclare’s brilliant challenger, the
. Rowe’s vessel had gone down like a stone, taking five of her crew of ten with her, and Rowe’s bitter thirst for revenge was no secret – he’d voiced it many a time. Geoffrey gave a thin smile, pondering what might have been, for in the
’s absence he’d intended to challenge Highclare’s
himself and thus maybe snatch the crown. That had to go by the board now, for the
had to be sold.