Authors: Grace Burrowes
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Highlanders, #love story, #Scotland, #England, #Literature & Fiction, #Historical, #Scottish, #Regency Romance, #Scotland Highland, #Victorian, #Romance
The arrangement was perfect. Despite the clothing, despite the surrounds, despite the discord Altsax had tried to sow, as Mary Fran wrapped her arms around her lover, all she felt was pleasure and the sweet, sweet privilege of making love at long last with the right man.
Matthew’s hands traveled over her slowly, touching her face and hair, tracing the line of her collarbone then easing lower to cup her breast in a caress that could only be described as cherishing. Better than that, even, was the time he gave Mary Fran to learn him in similar fashion.
She tasted the pale scar on the side of his jaw, used her lips and tongue to explore the contour of his small male nipples. His scent was clean all over, like sunshine and cool forests.
And then the feel of him, ah, the hard, warm feel of him, pushing intimately into her body. He was careful at first, a soft nudge, a sigh, another easy little push. The sun had never coaxed a snowy little crocus to open to its warmth as gently as Matthew Daniels joined his body to hers.
“Matthew, you’re killing me. Killing—”
“Then we’ll die together.”
She could not rush him, could not affect his damnably tender pace one bit. She tried, tried to recapture their previous frenzy with hot kisses, except he somehow turned them into lazy, hot kisses.
She dragged her nails down his muscular back, urging him faster, but by the time her hands reached his buttocks, her harrying had turned into a caress.
He was relentless in his tenderness and patience, a one-man onslaught of caring who would neither be dictated to nor distracted from his intention to devastate her with pleasure.
Mary Fran was practical woman, a woman who knew when she’d met her match, so she did something she would have never have considered doing with any other man: she surrendered and let herself be loved.
Mary Fran was heaven, and Matthew was a devil. He stored up the sounds of her sighs and groans, saved back the memory of her heathery-flowery scent, made a miser’s hoard of the pleasure of slow, deep thrusts into her heat.
He was wrong to abuse her trust like this, wrong to let her think Altsax had been spewing lies, wrong to make love to her for the first time in a damned stable—except it would be their only time, of that, Matthew was certain.
Mary Fran locked her ankles at the small of his back—her booted ankles. The clutch of her legs felt marvelous. The strength in her, the need, made a wicked, lovely contrast to the impersonal couplings he and his wife had shared.
Damn duty anyhow.
When Mary Fran started trying to scoot into Matthew’s thrusts, he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face against her neck. Her fingernails dug in low on his back, a fierce, unrelenting grip. Her breath came more harshly against his skin, and the sounds she made threatened to obliterate his control.
He kissed her to stop her from begging verbally, though her body was shameless in its demands, and even more shameless in their satisfaction. As she seized around him, hard, repeatedly, her kiss became a plundering of his reason, her pleasure his complete undoing.
He tried to pull away, but her legs were scissored around his waist, and she would not allow it. He growled her name and made another attempt to withdraw, but she held him, her arms and legs a vise, and the struggle itself only heightened his arousal.
“Surrender, damn you, Matthew.”
A command. Matthew understood about taking orders, and his body understood opportunity. Pleasure flooded him body and soul, a wracking release that had him pounding into his lover until his legs threatened to give out and he had to hold on to Mary Fran for both balance and sanity.
He managed to remain standing, if only to bask in the way her hand winnowed through his hair in a slow caress. She kissed his throat, nuzzled his breastbone, and still did not drop her legs from around his waist.
“We need…” His voice was hoarse, as if he’d been shouting for too long. “My handkerchief is in my left pocket.”
Thank God she obliged and dug into the breeches sagging around his hips. Matthew did not want to turn her loose from his embrace, not ever.
Though he would. Altsax had seen to that handily enough.
“The next time we do this,” Mary Fran said, “we’re going to have a damned bed. My bum can’t—”
His cock slipped from her body, slunk away in defeat more like. “There will not be a next time, Mary Fran, not unless you agree to marry me.”
She stopped dabbing at him with his handkerchief. Her head came up, and the smile disappeared from her well-kissed lips. “Are you trying to trap me, Matthew Daniels?”
Just like that, she’d emotionally come about and swung her gun ports open, which was fortunate, because for the hash he’d made of things, Matthew deserved to be sunk at sea.
Gordie had done the same bloody thing—started spouting off about marriage before he’d even stuffed his pizzle back in his knickers.
His relatively unimpressive pizzle, come to that.
And Matthew did not look smug or even nervous. He looked so very, very serious, even with his shirt hanging open and his breeches not properly fastened.
“I owe you an explanation, Mary Frances. I’d rather you hear it from me, because Altsax seems all too willing to give you his version of events.”
“Put yourself to rights,” she said, reaching under her skirts to make use of his handkerchief. She hadn’t understood why he was trying to pull out until the instant he’d given up the effort. She’d come again, unbelievably hard, when he’d spent in her body.
Marriage wasn’t out of the question, if the damned man but knew it.
“I can put my clothing to rights,” he said, tucking himself up, “but to untangle what’s between us…”
He ran a hand through hair Mary Fran herself had put in thorough disarray. She tidied herself up as best she could and scooted to one side of the trunk. “Sit with me, Matthew, and let’s have none of your English dramatics.”
This earned her the smallest smile, the smallest, saddest smile, but he sat beside her. He didn’t take her hand, so she took his.
“I am the corrupt colonel.” He recited this like a penitent’s catechism.
“And I was Gordie’s Highland whore. Did you lose a shipment of the cavalry’s horse blankets, then? Slip them off to some orphanage?”
“I do love you, Mary Fran.”
“Must you make it sound like this dooms you to misery?” Her attempt at a light moment failed utterly, and where a rosy, even optimistic glow had tried to take root in Mary Fran’s heart, dread began to form.
“I love you for your fierce heart, for your courage, for your passion,” he went on. “And because I love you, you must know the truth: I publicly compromised my general’s daughter, and I did so while my wife of less than two years lay dying. My disgrace took place”—he kissed her fingers and then deposited her hand back in her lap—“my disgrace took place at the regimental ball.”
Cold shivered over Mary Frances, a cold even worse than when, after deflowering her, Gordie had poured himself a drink and toasted their future.
“You would not do such a thing.” She wanted to reach for his hand, but his posture was so calm, so self-contained, she stifled the impulse.
“I did such a thing. The girl—she was only twenty-two—went home under a cloud of scandal. I resigned my commission and put it about that my father was demanding my return. Ask anybody billeted to the Crimea, and they’ll tell you all about the corrupt colonel. They have worse names for me too, of course…”
The cold became something worse, something like panic, dread, and rage, all rolled into Mary Fran’s middle and jammed against her heart. “I don’t believe you.”
“You must believe me. It is the truth. We were found in a shocking embrace by no less than the girl’s mother. Had I been single, the girl would very likely be my wife now.”
“Did you make love with her?”
Why this should matter, Mary Fran did not know. For most men, particularly aroused men, the difference between kisses, caresses, and coitus was simply a few more minutes of privacy.
“I kissed her thoroughly, had my hands where a gentleman’s hands do not belong, had my tongue—”
“But not your cock.”
He reared back a bit, as if he’d just walked in on a scene such as the one he was describing. “Not my cock, but you have only my word for that, and the word of a cad should never be trusted.”
Except he wasn’t cad. Could not be.
She’d had the same argument with herself over Gordie. Told herself he would never take advantage of her curiosity, never proceed if she decided to call a halt. Gordie had made no pretense of withdrawing, and Fiona was the result. Matthew had tried to protect them from such consequences, and Mary Fran had prevented him.
“Tell me the rest of it, Matthew. If I can put this in context…”
He rose from the trunk and straightened a bridle hanging on the opposite wall. “I compromised a decent woman. What context could possibly excuse that?”
“You were grieving.” Mary Fran hunched in on herself, the very idea of making excuses for him rankling—he would never make excuses for himself. “Maybe the girl grabbed you and threatened to scream if you didn’t oblige her. Maybe you were drunk—very drunk. Maybe you were trying to distract her from a fellow who would make her miserable or give her diseases.”
He shook his head and tidied another bridle, but in his very silence, another idea tried to crowd into Mary Frances’s misery, more a feeling than an idea.
“You aren’t telling me the whole of it, Matthew Daniels.” She knew this the same way she knew when Fiona was lying or her brothers had done something they were uncomfortable with. “What do you think to spare me? I’ve been compromised. I’ve been labeled a whore. I’ve watched my family work themselves nigh to death just to keep up appearances. I’ve buried a husband I had no intention of grieving, only to find myself devastated by guilt. I’ve put up with groping old men and sly young ones…”
He did not look at her. He faced the whips lined up from longest to shortest on the side wall, though Mary Fran doubted he saw what was before him. “I wanted to dally with you, Mary Fran. I wanted to give you some pleasure, some relief and comfort.” More catechism, which only confirmed Mary Fran’s suspicion he was holding back.
“Oblivion and desire, Matthew?” She wanted to slap him, to slap the sadness off his handsome profile. “We’ve agreed that isn’t enough. When you’re ready to tell me the whole of your folly, then I’ll be ready to listen.”
She hopped off the trunk, her limbs protesting the sudden movement, her heart breaking to leave things thus.
“Mary Frances?” He did not touch her, but his gaze pleaded with her for—what?
“Why not Lady Mary Frances, if we’re to have so little trust to go along with our oblivion and desire?”
The damned wretched man smiled, a slow, gentle curving of his lips. “If I could tell you the whole of it, I would. That’s as much concession as I can make.”
a concession. She could see that in the caution lurking behind his smiling sadness. But it wasn’t concession enough.
“I’d marry a cad and a bounder—I’ve done it before, if you’ll recall—but I cannot marry a man who won’t trust me.”
“Break my sister’s heart, and I’ll kill you. Connor and Gilgallon will dig your grave, and the entire Deeside branch of the clan will dance at your funeral.” Balfour offered his promise cheerfully, sporting a grin that revealed even white teeth in abundant number. “A wee dram to ward off the chill, Mr. Daniels?”
Matthew nodded. They were alone in the library, and the earl’s warning was probably the Scottish equivalent of permission to court, which was ironic.
“And what if you break
sister’s heart, Balfour? I suppose I’ll have to see to both your execution and your burial myself? Dance you into the grave when I haven’t even a proper kilt to my name?”
Balfour’s dark brows rose, and then his expression became thoughtful. “Wearing a kilt takes a certain confidence. Try it before you mock us for it.”
“I have a kilt, not the full-dress business, but a McDaniel plaid.”
That had been a perfectly unnecessary admission, and it didn’t seem to make any impression on the earl.
Balfour poured out two stout servings of whisky. “The McDaniel dress plaid is a pretty pattern. You could wear it to the ball next week, and we’d kit you out in company style. I was serious about you breaking Mary Fran’s heart.”
Ian MacGregor held forth like a general, his speech—it wasn’t exactly conversation—leaping from one topic to the next without any pretension of manners. Matthew followed him easily.
“And I was serious about you breaking Genie’s heart.” Matthew lifted his glass slightly. “To the ladies.”
Balfour saluted with his whisky and took a sip. He served it neat, the way it deserved to be consumed. “Your sister Genie wants nothing to do with me. I can’t see how I’d break her heart, unless it’s by marrying her. I’ve reason to wonder why your dear papa has his heart so set on this match when the lady isn’t exactly willing.”
“Are you insulting my sister, Balfour? Implying she’s in some way tarnished goods?”
Balfour scrubbed a hand over his face. “And people claim the Scots have bad tempers. I would not insult your sister, Daniels. She’s sweet, pretty, endearingly stubborn, and scared to death of your father. That is not a sound basis for a marriage.”
Matthew filed that description away to apply to Mary Fran at some opportune moment. “Are you declining to court Genie because you’re concerned for her happiness?”
concerned for her happiness—also for my own. My family needs coin desperately, though we need our honor more.”
Made with such casual, weary assurance, the observation stung. “Genie has a notion she’ll marry only for love, Balfour. I don’t know where she came by it. Altsax thinks marrying for love is vulgar, stupid, and common.”
“Not common enough,” Balfour muttered. “I had some questions to put to you on another matter, if you’ve a moment.”