Authors: Sara Bennett
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
“Poor Mr. Little,” Charles muttered, his mouth full.
Tina was watching Margaret and her American. “It’s just—he’s so old, I can’t imagine . . .”
“You can’t imagine what?” asked Charles, one eyebrow raised.
“Never mind. I’m sure he’ll make a very good husband.”
ichard had been upstairs to check on Sir Henry. He’d encountered Branson lurking about outside the door, but the neighbor seemed merely curious about the current state of Sir Henry’s health.
“Terrible accident, terrible,” he kept saying, shaking his head.
Richard agreed and suggested he return to the ballroom. Something about the way the man glanced at him as he scuttled away struck him as odd, but he couldn’t decide why that was. Branson hadn’t been on his list of suspects, but now he remembered overhearing some comments made by the man and the cloak of bitterness that seemed to envelop him.
Mr. Branson might bear further investigation.
Sir Henry was propped up in his bed and restless, wanting to get up and take part in the entertainments—keep an eye on Isabelle, more likely—but he knew he had to stay here if they were to spring the trap they’d laid to catch his attacker.
“Have you found any clues?” he asked grumpily.
“Will is going to question the other shooters in the morning, sir. We might know more then.”
“Humph. What fool would take a shot at me on my own dung heap? I’d have thought the Captain was smarter than that, Richard.”
Richard agreed, but as he explained to his superior, they couldn’t take any chances.
Downstairs again, Richard seemed to have caught Sir Henry’s restlessness. He wandered about, and eventually found himself in the supper room. There was Tina and her brother, enjoying themselves, laughing. He liked watching Tina laugh.
She has the most exquisite mouth,
He wanted to walk over and kiss her there and then. In front of everyone. Claim her so that no other male in the room could have her. He leaned against the wall and wished he could have a brandy, but he’d denied himself any drink until later tonight. For now he needed his wits about him.
How in God’s name was he going to come to her room and keep his hands off her? Was he deceiving himself even imagining he could? He’d be better staying away; he could make some excuse.
Then she looked over and caught him watching. She smiled, and he knew that nothing was going to stop him coming to her tonight, no matter the risks he was taking. It was fate or destiny or whatever you wanted to call it.
It was simply meant to be.
ina sat on the window seat in her room, drinking in the perfumed night air. There was a sliver of moon hanging low in the sky, reflected in the ripples of the river. She’d been watching it move slowly against the arc of velvet darkness and knew that soon it would slip below the horizon, leaving her alone.
It was very late now, and he still hadn’t come.
Perhaps he’d had second thoughts? Well she couldn’t blame him for that, but she would forever regret the loss of their one night together. Because she knew he wasn’t coming to her to talk, things had gone too far for talking, and if he did come, then there would be no going back.
Tina wrapped her robe more closely about her and tried not to shiver. Maria had removed Tina’s ball gown and helped her into her nightgown with the darned sleeve, and now she wondered if she would ever wear the ball gown again or whether it would become a ghost in the attic, full of lavender bags and memories.
Or more likely it would be sold to pay some outstanding bill.
Maria had brushed and braided her hair before leaving her to sleep—as she thought. Tina glanced over at the comfortable bed, considered retiring, but didn’t move. She knew she wouldn’t sleep. The day had been a long and exhausting one, but excitement hummed through her, tingling over her skin, making her nerves jump. Without her corset and underwear, she felt free, her body unrestrained by convention, and with the shedding of her grand clothing had come a similar shedding of her doubts about Richard.
Where was he? Please come, please . . .
She wriggled against the cushions on the window seat, trying to get comfortable, and then froze.
There was someone out there.
A light flickered in the darkness, darting like a firefly among the shrubs of the garden. Tina watched it, leaning forward intently. Surely it was the lighted tip of a cigar? One of the gentlemen enjoying the night air, that must be it.
With a soft release of breath, she relaxed and leaned back. And nearly let out a scream.
A hand had closed over the nape of her neck. Warm and strong, it held her as she tried to turn, and then with a mere whisper of sound he stepped even closer, his thighs hard against her back.
“Richard?” she sounded uncertain as it occurred to her it might not be him.
“Who else were you expecting?” His soft teasing caused her to slump with relief. Gently his fingers caressed her nape, and she felt as if she might melt like butter.
“You took so long,” she said, and then silently reprimanded herself for giving herself away.
“I had a great deal to do.”
“What did you have to do?”
He began to release her braid, fingers raking out her hair until it lay in soft, dark tresses over her back and shoulders. “I cleared the ballroom, and then I tidied the supper room and washed up the crystal and crockery, but Lady Isabelle said the glasses weren’t clean enough so I did it again, and—”
“Richard,” she said between laughter and irritation.
“What? Don’t you believe me, Miss Smythe?”
She tilted back her head, and this time he let her. He was without his waistcoat or jacket, the buttons of his shirt undone at his throat, his hair rumpled. Rather like he’d been the first time she had seen him.
“Kiss me,” she commanded.
He bent down, taking his time, closer and closer. His gray eyes were warm and smiling beneath his dark brows, and she could smell fire smoke and brandy on him. Where had he been?
He stopped just before his smiling mouth reached hers.
“Richard”—she sighed—“don’t be cruel.”
“Aren’t you supposed to pretend you’re indifferent to me? To increase my ardor?”
“I don’t need a lesson. This isn’t part of our business arrangement,” she retorted, and turning on the seat slid her arms about his neck and pulled him down beside her.
He did kiss her then, their lips clinging, their mouths hot and eager. But it wasn’t enough. He slipped his hand inside her robe and enclosed her breast in his big, warm palm.
Tina gasped, aware of sensations she’d only dreamed about until now, and a hot, tight feeling building low in her belly.
“May I?” he said huskily, and before she could find the wits to answer he drew the edges of her robe apart and bared her upper body to his gaze.
Tina made no attempt to cover herself or play the coy innocent. She
innocent, but this seemed so right she didn’t feel the need to act any part but being herself.
“Beautiful,” he groaned.
He bent to press his mouth to the curve of one breast while his hand was busy with the other. His lips trailed down until he was able to envelop an engorged nipple, his finger flicking the other one, stroking her over and over again until it felt more pain than pleasure, but she did not want him to stop.
Tina’s gasps turned to soft cries. She pressed his head to her hot skin, wanting more, much more, because something was building within her, and she could not go back now. The need, the sensation of his mouth on her made her frantic, and she tugged his shirt from his trousers, her hands exploring his bare chest and hard belly. His skin was so warm, and different from her own soft curves, and she licked her tongue over it, tasting him, unable to resist.
But there was more, there must be more, and she wanted to experience it all. She must know what it was his body was promising to show her.
“Tina,” he said hoarsely, catching her hands as they moved lower to the fastening of his trousers. “No, stop it.”
She looked at him as if he were insane, still completely immersed in her desire. “Stop?”
“I will not take your virginity.”
The bluntness of his words confused her even more, and she blinked up at him. “I thought you . . . I thought we . . .”
“Not because I don’t want to,” he added, answering the unspoken question in her eyes, “but because I have made a promise. I’ve sworn I will not marry until I have fulfilled that promise.”
She shook her head with a spurt of anger. “But what has that to do with us? I don’t care about marrying you, Richard. Don’t you understand? I am sick to the stomach of spending my every waking moment trying to make men marry me!”
His eyes lit with laughter, but he bit his lip to stop it spilling from him. Just as well, Tina thought darkly. She wouldn’t be laughed at, not tonight.
“Tina, I don’t want to compromise you, do you understand?”
“No, I don’t understand.”
“I don’t want to take your virginity until I know I can secure our future—if that is what you want. If that is what we both want.”
Their future? Promises? What did any of that matter to her now? Tina shook her head, her long, dark hair whipping wildly about her. “I don’t care about that,” she told him decisively. “You don’t understand, Richard. It was all a lie. I have nothing to offer you or any man, nothing apart from myself. I am poor, my family is bankrupt. We have lost everything, and by the time I go home, we will have lost our home. No one will want me when that is known. I will vanish into the shadows. This night . . .” Her mouth trembled, but she firmed it, refusing to feel sorry for herself. “This night is all I have.”
She would have climbed to her feet then, brushing by him, fleeing with her misery to some small, quiet place. But he caught her and held her, gripping one of her hands firmly in his and placing it against his body. Her surprise at the touch of that hard piece of flesh contained by only a thin piece of cloth made her stop.
“Oh.” She looked back at him, eyes wide and dark in the moonlight from the window, her face full of amazement. “Does that mean . . . ?”
“That I want you?” he rasped. “Yes it does. I want you more than anything else in the world. But I won’t take your virginity, Tina, not until I know I can offer you a future you deserve.”
“There are other ways.”
Tina tried to read his face, and he smiled a smile that made her heart turn over. “Show me,” she whispered. Slowly, his fingers still entwined with hers, he drew her toward him.
It seemed natural to kiss him, and when his hand brushed aside her robe and skimmed over the curve of her belly and down between her legs, she groaned into his mouth. She was hot and achy, and his fingers played with her, teasing another groan from her as they slid deep inside her slick body.
For a moment she lost herself in sensation, aware of nothing but his mouth on hers and his fingers inside her. Was this it? Was this what drove women like Lady Isabelle to madness? Well, no wonder . . .
“Touch me, too,” Richard said hoarsely, bringing her back to herself, and Tina didn’t need him to ask twice. Her hand reached down between them and pressed against him, eagerly exploring, and when she didn’t find that satisfactory, she unfastened his trousers and slipped her fingers inside, causing him to catch his breath.
He was big and hard, but with a velvety softness. She wanted to lick the tip of him, where she could feel a drop of moisture, but when she tried he jerked against her and pulled her away, his hands shaking as he held her upright. “My willpower is growing weaker by the moment,” he said.
He laughed breathlessly, then laid her down on the window seat, kneeling before her open thighs, and began to use his tongue on her in exactly the same way. The sensation was so exquisite. The pleasure building inside her rose like a bright light, and she almost touched the stars, but he stopped before she could reach them and lay down beside her.
“Touch me now,” he whispered against her ear, his fingers replacing his tongue. She could smell her own scent on him, and, somehow, that was exciting, too. His own touch between her legs grew more deliberate, stroking her, flicking the hard little bud so swollen and aching for attention. Tina could feel excitement building again, but she didn’t stop her own attentions to him, and he placed his hand over hers and taught her how to hold him, how to apply just the right pressure around his shaft.
Her lack of experience didn’t matter, they were both caught up in the heat and need of the moment, and when the pleasure lifted them high, they both cried out, mouths fusing, bodies rocking, as if they really were joined as one.
ou did what?” The Captain’s voice rose in fury, and he only just managed to stifle the shout that would give away their meeting place in the garden at Arlington Hall. There was no one about, but he couldn’t take the risk.
“I held up their coach and took their blunt. A nice pearl necklace, too.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this. You robbed Sir Thomas and Lady Carol Smythe?”
Sutton rolled his eyes. “I rob lots of folk, Captain. It’s how we finance our little rebellion, remember?”
The Captain strode forward a few steps and then back again, hands clenched in fury at his sides. He felt as if he might do Sutton some serious violence, and he was capable of it. He always had been, but he had learned over the years to hide it behind his affable face.
“Bring it to me,” he said, “so I can return it.”
Sutton laughed as if he didn’t believe him. The Captain slapped his face, swinging the oaf’s head around with the power of the blow. Sutton put a hand to the reddening mark, his pale blue eyes full of hatred.
“You’ll regret that,” he said icily.
“I regret I can’t cut your head off so I don’t have to look at your stupid face anymore. Now do as I say.”
Sutton slunk off through the shrubs and down to the river, where he’d moored his boat. The Captain waited a moment, trying to still the fury in his heart. He seemed to be surrounded by fools. It wasn’t like that in the early days—then they’d all been fired by righteous zeal—but something had changed. Sometimes he wondered whether they would ever succeed. Well, when Sir Henry’s fate was clear, he would be able to plan his next step. He had no fears about the interview with Will Jackson in the morning—he’d shot no one—but there was still Branson.
The Captain yawned. He needed to sleep, to keep a clear head. He began to make his way back to the house, lighting up another cigar as he went.
ush, they will hear us,” Archie whispered, as he drew Maria deeper into the garden, tugging her along by her hand as she tried not to giggle.
They had arranged to meet at midnight, sneaking from their separate quarters and into the moonlit night. Maria found her heart beating with excitement and more, a desire she had not felt in a very long time. It was almost as strong as her desire for home, and suddenly she was afraid that Archie would become more important to her, that she would wake up one day and feel trapped.
“What is it?”
He’d sensed her unease.
They were at the river now, and dark and smooth, it flowed past them. A fish jumped and vanished again beneath the surface with barely a ripple.
“Nothing,” she whispered.
He waited a moment more, then sat down on the path and began to take off his shoes and stockings. Maria watched in bemusement and when he removed his jacket and began to pull his shirt over his head, she realized what he was intending and laughed.
“Can you swim, Archie?”
“Like that fish,” he said, and began to unfasten his trousers. “Can you?”
“A little,” she admitted.
“I will hold you up,” he said.
It seemed that he was saying one thing and meaning another, and for a moment she gazed into his eyes, trying to understand. “Why not?” she said at last, suddenly reckless. She might not get this chance again, to swim in a river with a man she had come to love.
And she did love him.
But did she love him enough?
Archie unfastened her dress, helping her to remove it and her petticoats. Her corset was barely laced—she hadn’t wanted to wear it at all but convention had caused her to put it on. And then she was as naked as he, and they looked at each other in the moonlight and liked what they saw.
Archie reached for her hand again, his fingers entwining with hers.
“Come on,” he said, “swim with me.”
Maria smiled and let him lead her into the water.
ina woke to the sound of birds singing outside the bedroom window. She was in her bed, and Richard was beside her, his arm heavy across her body, a curl of his hair hanging over his eyes, and his mouth slightly open as he slept.
As she watched him she remembered the things they had done, things she could hardly believe, and how much she had enjoyed them. There was a delicious ache throughout her body, a sensation of languid completion. When he had kissed her in the juncture of her thighs, using his tongue and his mouth, he had brought her to such delight, and then he had showed her how to do the same to him.
Tina shivered at the memory, and when she glanced at Richard again she saw that his eyes were open, and he was remembering, too. He smiled that smile that promised her so much pleasure. It had been there all along, that promise, she just hadn’t been able to read it.
“I should go back to my own room,” he said, his voice deep and husky.
“Yes,” she said, and waited.
He reached for her instead, and with a gasp, she went into his arms, naked as he was. Her body was already opening for him like a flower, and her heart fluttered as he began to work his way down with lips and tongue. By the time he reached the place she wanted him, she could hardly bear it, and her body jolted with the shock of contact.
“Richard,” she moaned, and then cried out with a shockingly fast climax.
But it wasn’t enough for him. He kissed her and delved into her, working leisurely, until her excitement had built all over again, and this time when she came it was long and intense, with ripples of sheer bliss that spread through her body. Finally she opened her eyes, and he was grinning down at her from where he knelt at her side, and his cock was clearly begging for her to lean over and take it into her mouth.
This time it was Richard who groaned and begged and shuddered. And afterward, they lay, exhausted and very pleased with themselves, gazing into each other’s eyes until they fell asleep.
When Maria came to wake her mistress an hour later, she found them both still asleep, bold as brass, in the big bed. She froze inside the doorway, her hand over her mouth as if to keep her heart from jumping right out of her throat.
Lady Carol would be furious, and Maria would more than likely get the blame for not protecting her darling adequately. But even so, Maria was more concerned for her young mistress than herself—she was very fond of Tina, and what she was seeing here was not a good thing.
Eventually, when she felt her emotions were under control, she crept to the bed and bent to whisper in her mistress’s ear. “Miss Tina? Wake up!”
Tina smiled, the naughty puss, and then opened her eyes. When she realized what was happening, she sat up like a jack-in-the-box, but although she tried to appear ashamed and repentant before Maria, Maria could see she was neither.
“Oh dear, is it morning already?”
“The household are up and about, Miss Tina. What have you done?”
“Richard?” She was shaking him, and he blinked and yawned and then with a curse leaped from the bed. Maria might have laughed if the situation was not so precarious.
“I must get back to my room,” he said, holding his clothing before him as if Maria had never seen a man’s body before. And quite recently, she thought, with a warm inner tremble, remembering Archie’s arms about her. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t quite castigate her young mistress as she should.
But their cases were entirely different. Miss Tina’s whole life could be destroyed if this was discovered, and Maria would do everything in her power to prevent that from happening.
“I’ll see if anyone is out there,” she said, and hurried to the door, opening it to peer out.
Behind her she could hear them whispering to each other and a kiss or two. Then she saw someone coming and jumped back inside the room, shutting the door behind her.
“Mr. Charles is out there!”
Tina’s green eyes grew very big, and Richard Eversham began to pull on his clothing with incredible speed. Maria thought she must tell Archie about this when she saw him again and wondered if he’d be shocked or whether he would laugh. Both, perhaps.
There was a knock on the door, and a familiar voice called, “Tina?”
Now Tina tumbled out of bed and pulled her gown around her. She went to the door and cracked it open an inch or two. “Charles? What on earth are you doing here?”
“Anne and I are going sailing and we wondered if you wanted to come. Oh, and Sir Henry is awake and calling for his breakfast.”
“Thank goodness he’s all right,” Tina said, genuinely relieved.
“Yes. What about the sailing? I’ve been questioned about the hunt so I’m free to go. No prison for me,” he added jovially.
Tina thought it was too early in the morning for Charles’s jokes. “I don’t think I’ll come, Charles. You and Anne go. I’m sure you’ll enjoy being alone together.”
Charles looked thoughtful. “Do you think it’s proper if we go alone? I wouldn’t want to ruin her reputation.”
“You are guests at a country weekend party, Charles. It is perfectly proper to go sailing together.” Tina wasn’t certain of this, but it seemed the right thing to say, and Charles was pleased to hear it. Besides, who was she to offer advice on what was proper after last night?
“I’ll be off then,” he said, and strode away.
Tina closed the door, but a moment later Richard set her to one side and opened it again, peering out nervously. As he slipped out and closed the door behind him, he caught Tina’s eye, and she felt the thrill of being with him. It didn’t matter if he meant it when he spoke about a future with her. She didn’t care. For now, just being with him was enough.
“Miss Tina, what are we going to do?” Maria said worriedly.
“Don’t worry, Maria. I’m not.”
Maria sighed. “You have lost your wits, Miss Tina. This is a dreadful situation. You will be completely ruined and never allowed into society again.”
Tina went back to the bed and lay down, pressing her face into Richard’s pillow and breathing him in, before turning with a smile to her maid. “Do you know, Maria, I couldn’t care less. I am ruined already and poor as a church mouse. I have nothing left to lose, and I like it.”
Maria threw up her hands in despair and went to fetch warm water for her mistress to wash in before she started the day.