Authors: Karen Ranney
She arranged herself on the edge of the bed, fisted her hands on either side of her, and closed her eyes to spare them the sight of the Chinese red silk on the walls.
She’d simply have to endure this wedding night, that’s all.
Garrow Ross surveyed himself in the mirror, pleased with his appearance. Growing older held no terrors for him. He’d disliked his youth, for the most part. Like all young men, he’d spent several years floundering, searching for a reason, a purpose in life.
From the moment he was conscious of his identity, he’d known that his older brother would be the heir to the title and would inherit Ambrose. That knowledge had ticked at him like an invisible clock hanging from his neck. That his brother would have been happier to be a scholar and not an earl was also something of an annoyance.
Garrow’s path had been clear before he reached his twenties—he would need to do something, become something, or he would be a poor relation dependent on his brother Aidan’s charity for the whole of his life.
Luckily, however, he’d stumbled upon a way to make money, and money, it had turned out, was the great equalizer.
He no longer spent any time regretting the fact that Ambrose had been entailed to his nephew. Nor did he care, overmuch, that he’d never be the Earl of Lorne. Oh, there were times when he thought about it, but almost immediately assuaged any envy with the thought
of what he’d accomplished. He owned two beautiful homes, one in Edinburgh and one outside London. His clipper ships were renowned for their speed, and his warehouses were stocked with anything an avid and wealthy shopper could desire.
He slipped the leather straps of his brushes over each hand and vigorously brushed his silvery white hair. Like his brother, he had a full, thick head of hair. Unlike his brother, his health was excellent. But then he hadn’t spent years in the Egyptian desert investigating tombs and crating up mummies to bring home to Ambrose. Poor Aidan. Had he died of the cough he’d brought back from the last season? Or had he felt a stirring of human emotion toward the last, and missed his wife?
Garrow spared a thought for dear Julianna. He missed his sister-in-law, but perhaps it was best that she was no longer alive. She wouldn’t be witness to the wreck her son had become.
He leaned forward in the mirror and inspected his teeth. Finally he stood back and surveyed himself fully in the mirror, tucking a finger into his snug waistcoat. He was growing a little portly, and should take care to avoid his new cook’s sauces. But food, like good wine, was a reward for dedication and diligence. He had no intention of sparing himself his rewards.
Perhaps he should give some thought to his own nuptials. For years he’d never considered marriage, being too occupied with his own future. But now that that was settled, and he was comfortably wealthy, perhaps he should begin to think seriously of sharing his remaining years with a wife.
He moved to the desk and opened the top right-hand drawer, extracting a file that had come to him that very night, the messenger being unobserved in the general merriment in the dining hall. He knew exactly what the letter and the papers within the file would contain, but he read them again, just to make certain. His smile broadened as he scrawled his name to the bottom of the letter and added a sentence of instructions. The
would sail within the week, and when her voyage was done, he’d be even wealthier than before.
He put the file in the desk, sealed the letter, and inserted it in the leather pouch. Tomorrow the same messenger, who was tucked away in one of the servants’ rooms, no doubt with a bottle of wine and a willing maid, would return to Perth.
He was not a man who enjoyed irony. All the same, Garrow couldn’t help but be amused at the incongruity of these circumstances. His fortune, immense as it was, had begun due to opium, looked upon in some circles as necessary and in others as morally corrupting. Yet that same substance was probably the cause of Marshall’s insanity.
Night had fallen, softly draping Ambrose in shadows. Here and there pockets of light and bursts of laughter reminded Marshall that his home was filled with strangers. But while his guests were still entertaining themselves, they expected him to be with his bride.
Marshall stood in front of the door to the countess’s suite. His fingers flexed once, twice, and then clenched
into a fist. He stared at the gilt framing of the door, a creation of a carpenter employed more than a hundred years ago. Had the man known, when he crafted such a delicately carved frame, that an earl would stand motionless, staring at it in turmoil a hundred years later? Had he ever thought, this long-ago carpenter, that the door would come to represent a barrier greater than painted wood?
Beyond that door was temptation. Not simply a temptation of the flesh, although there was that. But Davina offered forgetfulness for a few hours. With her he wouldn’t be the hermit lord, the Devil of Ambrose, the Earl of Lorne, his honor stained and shriveled by the actions of the past. With his bride he would simply be a bridegroom.
She knew nothing of him, and that was both disconcerting and a cause for rejoicing. He could be anyone he wished with her: kind and temperate, distant or caring. Or he could simply be the man he’d always known himself to be, only recently damaged and incapable of becoming himself again.
He should leave her alone. He should turn around and walk down the hall to his own suite. There he could forget about his bride by the judicious application of several glasses of wine. He could sleep, finally, and not require the touch of another human being. No one needed to hold him, or kiss him, or promise him any physical pleasure.
Wine would work well enough; it had before.
Ah, there was the temptation again. The world expected him to be with his bride. The world exonerated
him for this night above others. Tonight he might be here to fulfill the obligations his rank and his birthright demanded. Never mind that he hated nightfall and dreaded his dreams. Never mind that he wondered if his bride might ease the transition from sanity to madness.
Perhaps he wasn’t consumed by lust at all but simply melancholia, and was standing here in a misguided attempt to make amends for forcing her into marriage without being totally honest to her.
Forcing? He raised his right hand and placed his fingers in the middle of the gilded panel, stroking the delicate pattern of leaves and roses. Not quite forcing her, perhaps. But neither did he offer her honesty. Perhaps earlier, in the chapel, he could have halted the ceremony by simply holding out his hand. He could have taken her into the vestibule, and they would have spoken for a few moments, long enough for him to acquaint her with certain salient facts of their union.
“I’m known as the Devil because word has spread to Edinburgh of my screaming fits. When the madness is upon me, I see the very demons of hell. I have nightmares as well as visions that haunt my days. I am not entirely certain I’m of this world any longer, although I cannot quite dismiss the feeling that I am part of it. I am well on my way to becoming a madman, and yet I crave the touch of an innocent the way I crave my wine.
“Marry me and you’ll have no lack of anything except for my company, perhaps. I’ll use you when I will, and do so for as long as I’m strong enough to push aside my madness and perhaps my compassion.”
She would have scurried back to Edinburgh as fast as her carriage could travel. She might have even regaled the whole of society with his strange confession so that no other woman would ever look at him with wide eyes and inquire about his soubriquet.
What a fool he was. As much, perhaps, as his bride. He allowed his hand to fall to his side.
The door suddenly opened, a sliver of light appearing first, and then her face.
“Are you lost, Your Lordship?” Davina inquired. But she didn’t open the door further, and most definitely didn’t welcome him inside. Instead she stared out at him, her face pinkened by her blush.
Perhaps she was as uncertain as he. Did she feel as if they tiptoed on shattered glass? Or on the thinnest ice after the first freeze of the season? Delicate, toe-first steps that measured the danger beneath them.
“Perhaps I am,” he said, honesty restoring some of his equilibrium. Now to find the words to leave her. Sleep well? Would that be seemly in such a circumstance as a wedding night?
Perhaps he’d be better off saying something vulnerable, revealing the extent of his need.
Take me to your bed. Touch me
. No, that would be too revelatory.
He might promise to leave her alone as long as she offered him comfort of another sort.
Let me watch you sleep and marvel at the simple beauty of it. Or hear the sound of your breathing and coax the next breath with each inhalation of my lungs.
For a few hours there would be nothing hideous about the night. Davina would not transform to another
creature, would not become bloody and snarling. She’d remain just as she was, beautiful and sane.
“Are you lost?” she asked again, and this time she stood back and opened the door wider.
Another man might see this as an invitation, but he was somewhat wise in the ways of women and recognized it as a test. She would judge him in the next few minutes. If he placed his hand on the door and pushed it open, she’d label him a barbarian. Yet if he stood where he was and allowed her to dictate the pace, he’d be seen as weak. So he opted for a third course, one that suited his nature better and perhaps the circumstances as well. He simply spoke to her.
“I’m not lost, Davina, but I wondered if I’ve given you enough time to prepare.”
“To become a wife and not simply a bride?”
At his smile, she continued. “My aunt says I am not tactful enough. My father would agree with her, I think. But I’ve never seen the virtue in hiding behind words, Your Lordship.”
“Marshall,” he corrected. “At this juncture, I think we should dispense with formality, don’t you?”
“We do not know each other, Your Lordship. Would calling you by your Christian name delude you into thinking that we are friends? If so, I shall be glad to call you Marshall.”
In that instant he capitulated to temptation. Raising his left hand, he pushed against the door gently. Davina stepped back, allowing him to enter her chamber, turn, and close the door.
Only then did Marshall allow himself to look at her completely. The furnishings of the room paled in drama and beauty to her.
She was attired in a white frothy material that swathed her from the throat to toe. She looked like a delicious French confection, the impression only strengthened by the fact that the fabric hinted at shadows, the darkness of her aureoles and the hair at the juncture of her thighs.
Someone had misjudged her and furnished her with a perfume that was too strong for her, hinting at spices from the Orient. Or perhaps the perfume was part of his madness, and she smelled only of her soap.
“You should have married long ago,” he said. Was he blaming her for being here, for being his wife, for being vulnerable to his insanity? “You should have married and found love, either before the union or from it.”
She blinked at him, and then frowned. “My father used to say that the past could not be changed, and the future may never come. I can only live in the present, Your Lordship.”
This time he didn’t correct her. Perhaps he wanted that extra bit of formality between them. But how formal was it when she stood half naked in front of him?
“Then shall we, too, begin to live in the present, lady wife?” He extended his hand to her, and she, looking bemused, took it with all the eagerness of a felon being led to the gallows.
nstead of leading her to the bedchamber, he remained in the sitting room, selecting an overstuffed chair beside the fireplace.
She’d stood beside him in the chapel and sat with him at dinner. But in neither place had he looked quite so large. He seemed to dominate the sitting room, to the extent that she forced herself to stand erect, chin up, shoulders back. Her combative look, her aunt would have said.
Was she being combative? Or was she simply protecting herself? And what a horrid thought to have on her wedding night.
There was something about him that radiated power. Perhaps it was being an earl. Perhaps it was having been on so many diplomatic missions when he spoke for the Crown. Whatever quality it was, she felt it now, almost as if it traveled from him in waves. Or perhaps it wasn’t power at all.
“Are you an evil man, Marshall?”
His small smile indicated approval of the use of his name.
“An interesting question,” he said. “If I were evil I doubt I’d know it. Evil normally doesn’t recognize itself. Shall I answer no, Davina? Would that reassure you?”
“Must we do this?” she asked abruptly, glancing toward the bedchamber. A single gas lamp was lit behind the closed door. Would he extinguish it before completing the act?
“I’m afraid we must,” he said. “Otherwise it will be like being thrown from a horse. You’ll never want to ride, and for the rest of your life you’ll be curious and perhaps a little regretful.”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Have you just equated bedding me to riding a horse?”
“There are those who say that the act is not dissimilar,” he said.
There were tall blue and white porcelain urns at each corner of the fireplace, and a small mahogany table beside the chair where he sat. A green jade dragon with red ruby eyes sat on the mantel, its long tail undulating across the mahogany surface.
Marshall looked entirely too much at home in this very strange room.
She came and sat on the adjoining chair. She folded the nightgown around her legs modestly in an attempt to hide the fact that the material was diaphanous and too revealing.
He glanced at her and then away, and for that unconscious act of kindness, she felt a little warmth toward him. Not only was he handsome, but he possessed a sense of chivalry.
He clenched his hand repeatedly. Was he as nervous
as she? He turned his head and looked at her again as if he’d heard the question.
They stared at each other for several long moments.
“Then shall we do it?” she asked, standing. This act was going to happen; she might as well get it done. Without waiting for an answer, she crossed to the connecting door and opened it, revealing the bedchamber with its very large bed.
She didn’t turn to see if he followed her as she walked to the three steps at the side of the bed. Only then did she take off the wrapper, tossing it to the foot of the mattress. The nightgown was a sheer and delicate column of snow-colored fabric that was gathered at the neck and left her shoulders bare. The garment clung to her breasts and the curve of her hips and buttocks before falling to swirl around her ankles.
There was not one degree of modesty left her, and for that reason, Davina covered herself up with the sheet. She lay back against the pillow, her gaze on the crimson silk above her.
“It’s not truly like this,” he said.
She turned her head to find him standing beside the bed, a look on his face that she’d not seen before. Was it kindness she saw in his eyes, or tenderness? Or did he simply pity her ignorance?
Perhaps she could tolerate kindness, and even welcome tenderness, but she would not be pitied, even by an earl.
She sat up, folding her arms in front of her, the better to hide her nearly bare breasts.
“You were lying there like a sacrifice,” he said. “I can understand how you might think so, but it needn’t be that way. I don’t want you to fear me.”
At her silence, he continued. “You’ve never harmed me, Davina. I shall not harm you.”
From the moment she’d met him he had not done or said anything she expected. She didn’t like feeling uncertain, and it made her irritated, but when she frowned at him, he only smiled in response.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Who is Marshall Ross, Earl of Lorne? I don’t think I understand you.”
“It’s not an entirely bad thing to have a beautiful woman confused.”
She tried to ignore the warmth she felt at his words, but it was impossible. He’d called her beautiful. Did he truly think she was, or was he only being the diplomat?
He suddenly leaned over the bed and kissed her, a gentle, sweet kiss on the lips. He straightened before she could draw away, and then climbed the three steps to sit beside her on the bed.
Outside, she could hear the wind whistling around the windows, fighting the building, roaring against the brick and mortar of Ambrose as if it were in a fierce winter battle. Inside, the room was so quiet, she could hear both of them breathing.
“I hadn’t expected you to be innocent,” he said, obviously picking his words with care. “Do you know what will happen?”
“I’m not innocent,” she said. “I know quite well what will happen. You will put your member in me.
A moment or two later it will be over. You’ll feel compelled to repeat the act periodically. Something about a man’s dominant urges.”
He glanced at her. “All that?”
“Have I amused you in some way?” she asked.
“Not at all, Davina.”
“Am I?” he asked.
His eyes were crinkling at the corners, amusement seeming to color them even darker than normal.
“I don’t think it’s that entertaining, Your Lordship,” she said. She couldn’t decide if she was annoyed or hurt, and the very fact that she was vacillating between the two emotions irritated her even further.
“I didn’t know you were so well versed, Davina,” he said, still smiling.
Before she could comment, he leaned over her. Without warning her of what he was about to do, he pushed her down on the bed. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said. “Consider it one of my dominant urges.”
She lay there bared to his gaze, naked except for one very thin layer of fabric. The material clung to her body, leaving no doubt as to the contours beneath. She clenched her hands at her sides and closed her eyes and prayed for dignity, that she would not voice a whimper or a moan or a complaint. A Scotswoman was brave. A McLaren was valorous.
But he didn’t plunder her body. Instead she felt a very gentle breath on her mouth just before he kissed her again. And this kiss was curious enough that she peered from beneath her lashes to look at him when it was finished.
He was smiling, but he did nothing more than reach out his hand to pull one of her curls free.
Instead of teasing her with words, or continuing their conversation, he pulled her to a sitting position and then kissed her again. He induced her to open her mouth to breathe into his, to allow his tongue to touch hers in the most intimate way. But the curious thing was the feeling such a touch evoked. Her face warmed, and her fingers tingled as well as her toes. Her heart began to beat rapidly, almost as if a kiss had some bearing on it.
Her mind darted from one topic to another, and then circled back to concentrate on the touch of his lips on her cheek, her nose, her closed lids, and then her chin.
He touched her breast with his hand, cupping the fabric around it. The effect was so startling that she gasped and opened her eyes simultaneously.
His smile had gone, and in its place was a sober gaze.
“I sent my solicitor to Edinburgh to pick a bride for me,” he said conversationally. “He returned with news of you. He neglected to mention, however, that you were exquisite. Or that you had the tongue of an asp.”
A laugh escaped her. “Surely you shouldn’t say such things,” she said. “Not on our wedding night.”
He smiled. “Or that you had a mouth like a sorceress, one that tempts me to kiss you silent.”
“Should I be flattered or shamed, Your Lordship?”
Or should she just close her eyes and pretend that this whole experience was over, done, and complete? Somehow, that didn’t seem sensible at all. She’d always been curious, and this could be a very informative and interesting interlude.
This time, when he bent down to kiss her, she found herself turning toward him, and when he would have drawn away, she placed her palm against his cheek.
The look they shared was disturbingly intimate. As if he knew what she was feeling, and felt the same: confusion, pleasure, surprise, and a curious yearning. She wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but she wanted something, some basic need that must be satisfied. The strangest feeling of all was that she knew he could satisfy it.
Her hands slid down to rest on his clothed arms, her gaze on his face. Somehow it didn’t seem important anymore that she was nearly naked or that he was a stranger.
He drew away from her touch, and just when she thought he might leave her, he merely removed his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.
She wasn’t prepared for him to undress in front of her. At first she didn’t know where to look, but he didn’t appear disturbed by her curiosity.
Before he removed his shirt he divested himself of his shoes, and then let his kilt drop to the floor. She concentrated on the tester above her for a few moments before she felt the mattress give, a sign that he’d returned to her side. Only then did she look in his direction again. His shoulders were bare.
Her glance raced down his chest.
Davina realized she’d never seen so much bare skin at one time. Certainly not masculine skin. Even when she’d bedded Alisdair, she’d done so with most of her clothes on. Nor had he undressed at all.
Marshall was naked. Dear God, he was naked.
Nor had he extinguished the lamp.
Perhaps she should have remained maidenly and reticent and kept her eyes closed, but curiosity kept them open. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscled in a way that hadn’t been revealed by the shirt. His hips were narrow, but that was all she had a glimpse of before he kissed her again. Now there was no choice of keeping her eyes open or not. Her lashes fluttered down along with her senses. She went spiraling out of control, to a land of darkness and delight.
He touched her again, but this time she was naked. How very odd that she couldn’t remember how her gown had been removed. Her arms were raised over her head and then placed around his neck, as if he somehow knew that she needed to hold on to him as a point of reference, an anchor.
Her breathing came faster, as if to keep up with the pounding of her heart. The world seemed to swirl around her in waves of color. He deepened the kiss, or she could have been the one who insisted upon touching his tongue with her own.
How deliciously he kissed. How utterly wonderful she felt.
When he kissed her throat, it felt as if it were right and proper. She arched her head back to give him room to trail a path of kisses from her ear down to her collarbone and across to her shoulders and then, blessedly, delightfully, wantonly, and wonderfully, to her breasts. When his mouth surrounded her nipple, she gasped.
His hands were everywhere, his fingers skimming across the flesh of her stomach, her thighs. His palm
pressed against her left hip, and she wondered at the sensation. How could she feel so many things at once? He kissed her right breast and tongued the nipple, and then pulled at it gently.
Surely that sound didn’t come from her?
He pulled back and looked at her. What other sight in this garish room was as beautiful as Marshall Ross? His brown eyes flashed with light; his mouth was smiling slightly; his cheeks were bronzed with color.
She reached out her hand and pressed her fingers against his lips. He responded by kissing them, and then smiling at her.
Words felt almost forbidden in those silent, enchanted moments. Her breath felt tight in her chest, and her blood felt as if it were beginning to boil, heating in her body and causing all manner of curious sensations. She wanted to smile. Then to lay her cheek against his and extend her arms around his shoulders, the better to hold on as this feeling buoyed her.
How did she explain what she felt to him? Or would he even care to know? Did he want her to share her thoughts? Or was a wedding night only for a bridegroom’s pleasure?
Daringly she leaned forward and placed her lips on his. His mouth was shockingly warm. As she savored the sensation, his lips curved into a smile beneath hers.
Was he mocking her?
She tilted her head just slightly to the right and deepened the kiss. Without warning, his tongue touched her bottom lip, sending an intense spear of
delight through her entire body. She drew back and looked at him.
His smile had faded, and there was not a hint of amusement in his expression. She bent forward and kissed him again, partly because she wanted to and partly because she didn’t want to face that intense gaze any longer. There were too many questions in his eyes. Questions that he’d no doubt ask her soon, and in doing so break this spell.
He reached up with one hand and held her by the nape of her neck, pulling her forward. His other hand went to her throat, fingers splayed. A second later his fingers were on her face, his thumb at one corner of her lips. She made a sound at the back of her throat, a low protesting murmur. She wasn’t in pain, but confusion mixed with delight swept through her body so strongly that it was like a fierce wind. Everything she thought she knew about passion had simply been wrong.
How wonderful that he could turn her warm with a kiss. How fascinating that her palms ached to smooth over his bare skin, feel the texture of it, measure his muscles, be heated with his warmth. What was that, unless it was passion?
Were wives supposed to feel passion?
This, then, was the answer to her earlier curiosity. This was what she’d thought to feel, this slightly wild sensation, this temptation of the flesh, this succumbing of the will and the sacrifice of self. She didn’t care, right now, if he was her husband or her lover or if they were in public or in a bedroom lit only by a small lamp.