“The crowd in the lounge at Glenmoor Country Club was thinning out when a woman near Meredith burst out, “My God! Who is that? He’s absolutely gorgeous!”
That remark, made in a louder tone than she’d intended, caused a ripple of interest, not only among the entire group Meredith was with, but with several other people who’d overheard her exclamation and were turning around.
“Who are you talking about?” Leigh Ackerman asked, peering about the room. Meredith, who was facing the entrance, glanced up and knew instantly exactly who had caused that awed, avaricious expression on Shelly’s face! Standing in the doorway, with his right hand thrust into his pants pocket, was a man who was at least six feet two, with hair almost as dark as the tuxedo that clung to his wide shoulders and long legs. His face was sun-bronzed, his eyes light, and as he stood there, idly studying the elegantly dressed members of Glenmoor, Meredith wondered how Shelly could ever have described him as “gorgeous.” His features looked as if they had been chiseled out of granite by some sculptor who had been intent on portraying brute strength and raw virility—not male beauty. His chin was square, his nose straight, his jaw hard with iron determination. All in all, Meredith thought he looked arrogant, proud, and tough. But then, she’d never been very attracted to dark, overly macho men.
“Look at those shoulders,” Shelly rhapsodized, “look at that face. Now, that, Douglas,” she teased, turning to Doug Chalfont, “is pure, undiluted sex appeal!”
Doug considered the man and shrugged, grinning. “He doesn’t do a thing for me.” Turning to one of the other men in their party whom Meredith had met for the first time tonight, he asked, “How about you, Rick? Does he turn you on?”
“I won’t know until I see his legs,” Rick joked. “I’m a leg man, which is why Meredith turns me on.”
At that moment, Jonathan appeared in the doorway, looking a little unsteady on his feet, and looped his arm around the newcomer’s shoulders while glancing about the room. Meredith saw the triumphant little smile he fired at his friends when he spotted all of them at the end of the bar, and she realized instantly that he appeared to be semi-drunk, but she was completely baffled by the groaning laugh that issued from both Leigh and Shelly. “Oh, no!” Leigh said, looking from Shelly to Meredith with comic dismay. “Please don’t tell me that magnificent male specimen is the laborer who Jonathan hired to work on one of their oil rigs!”
Doug Chalfont’s burst of laughter had drowned out most of Leigh’s words, and Meredith leaned closer to Leigh. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”
Speaking quickly so that she could finish before the two men reached them, Leigh explained, “The man with Jonathan is actually a steelworker from Indiana! Jon’s father made him hire the guy to work on their oil rig in Venezuela.”
Puzzled not only by the laughing looks being exchanged among Jonathan’s other friends, but Leigh’s explanation as well, Meredith said, “Why is he bringing him here?”
“It’s a joke, Meredith! Jon’s angry with his father for forcing him to hire the guy, and then holding him up to Jon as the latest example of what he ought to be. Jon brought the guy here to spite his father—you know, to force his father to meet him socially. And you know what’s really funny about all this,” she whispered just as the two men arrived. “Jon’s aunt just told us that his father and mother decided at the last minute to spend the weekend at their summer place instead of coming here—”
Jonathan’s overloud, slurred greeting made everyone within hearing turn and stare, including his aunt and uncle and Meredith’s father. “Hi, everyone,” he boomed, waving an expansive arm to include all of them. “Hi, Aunt Harriet and Uncle Russell!” He waited until he had everyone’s attention. “I’d like all of you to meet my buddy, Matt Terrell—no, F-Farrell,” he hiccuped. “Aunt Harriet, Uncle Russell,” he continued, grinning widely, “say hello to Matt, here. He’s my father’s latest example of what I ought to be when I grow up!”
“How do you do?” Jonathan’s aunt said civilly. Tearing her icy glance from her drunken nephew, she made a halfhearted effort to be courteous to the man he’d brought with him. “Where are you from, Mr. Farrell?”
“Indiana,” he replied in a calm matter-of-fact voice.
“Indianapolis?” Jonathan’s aunt said, frowning. “I don’t believe we know any Farrells from Indianapolis.”
“I’m not from Indianapolis. And I’m certain you don’t know my family.”
“Exactly where are you from?” Meredith’s father snapped, ready to interrogate and intimidate any male who went near Meredith.
Matt Farrell turned and Meredith watched in secret admiration as he met her father’s withering glance unflinchingly. “Edmunton—south of Gary.”
“What do you do?” he demanded rudely.
“I work in a steel mill,” he retorted, managing to look and sound just as hard and cold as her father had.
Stunned silence followed his revelation. Several middle-aged couples who’d been hanging back, waiting for Jonathan’s aunt and uncle, looked uneasily at each other and moved away. Mrs. Sommers obviously decided to make an equally hasty exit. “Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Farrell,” she said stiffly, and headed off to the dining rooms beside her husband.
Suddenly everyone was in motion. “Well!” Leigh Ackerman said brightly, looking around at all the people in their group except Matt Farrell, who was standing back and slightly to the side. “Let’s go eat!” She tucked her hand in Jon’s arm and turned him toward the door as she pointedly added, “I reserved a table for nine people.”
Meredith did a fast count; there were nine people in their group—excluding Matt Farrell. Paralyzed with disgust for Jonathan and all his friends, she remained where she was for the moment. Her father saw her standing in the general proximity of Farrell and stopped on his way to the dining room with his own friends, his hand clamping her elbow. “Get rid of him!” he spat out loudly enough for Farrell to hear, and then he stalked off. In a state of angry, defiant rebellion, Meredith watched him leave, then she glanced at Matt Farrell, not certain what to do next. He’d turned toward the French doors and was gazing out at the people on the terrace with the aloof indifference of someone who knows he is an unwanted outsider, and who therefore intends to look as if he prefers it that way.
Even if he hadn’t said he was a steelworker from Indiana, Meredith would have known within moments of meeting him that he didn’t belong. For one thing, his tuxedo didn’t fit his broad shoulders as if it had been custom made for him, which meant it was probably rented, nor did he speak with the ingrained assurance of a socialite who fully expects to be welcomed and liked wherever he is. Moreover, there was an indefinable lack of polish to his mannerisms—a subtle harshness and roughness that intrigued and repelled her at one and the same time.
Given all of that, it was astonishing that he should suddenly remind Meredith of herself. But he did. She looked at him standing completely alone, as if he didn’t care about being ostracized—and she saw herself when she was at St. Stephen’s school, spending every recess with a book in her lap trying to pretend she didn’t care either. “Mr. Farrell,” she asked as casually as she could, “would you like something to drink?”
He turned in surprise, hesitated a moment, and then nodded. “Scotch and water.”
Meredith signaled a waiter who hurried to her side. “Jimmy, Mr. Farrell would like a Scotch and water.”
When she turned back, she found Matt Farrell studying her with a slight frown, his gaze drifting over her face, her breasts and waist, then lifting again to her eyes, as if he were suspicious of her overture and trying to figure out why she’d bothered making it. “Who was the man who told you to get rid of me?” he asked abruptly.
She hated to alarm him with the truth. “My father.”
“You have my deepest and most sincere sympathy,” he mocked gravely, and Meredith burst out laughing because no one had ever dared criticize her father, even indirectly, and because she suddenly sensed that Matt Farrell was a “rebel,” just as she’d decided to be. That made him a kindred spirit, and instead of pitying him or being repelled by him, she suddenly thought of him as a brave mongrel who’d been unfairly thrust into a group of haughty pedigrees. She decided to rescue him. “Would you like to dance?” she asked, smiling at him as if he were an old friend.
He gave her an amused look. “What makes you think a steelworker from Edmunton, Indiana, knows how to dance, princess?”
“I think I can manage.”
That was a rather unfair assessment of his ability, Meredith decided a few minutes later as they danced outside on the terrace to the slow tune the little band was playing. He was actually quite competent, but he wasn’t very relaxed and his style was conservative.
“How am I doing?”
Blissfully unaware of the double meaning htat could be read into her lighthearted evaluation, she said, “So far, all I’ve been able to tell is that you have good rhythm and you move well. That’s all that really matters anyway.” Smiling into his eyes to take away any taint of criticism he might mistakenly read into her next words, she confided, “All you actually need is some practice.”
“How much practice do you recommend?”
“Not much. One night would be enough to learn some new moves.”
“I didn’t know there are any ‘new’ moves.”
“There are,” Meredith said, “but you have to learn to relax first.”
“First?” he repeated. “All this time, I’ve been under the impression that you were supposed to relax afterward.”
It hit her suddenly, what he was thinking and saying. Giving him a level look, she said, “Are we talking about dancing, Mr. Farrell?”
There was an unmistakable reprimand in her voice, and it registered on him. For a moment he studied her with heightened interest, reassessing, reevaluating. His eyes weren’t light blue as she’d originally thought, but a striking metallic gray, and his hair was dark brown, not black. When he spoke, his quiet voice had an apology in it. “We are now.” Belatedly explaining the reason for the constraint she’d sensed in his movements, he said, “I tore a ligament in my right leg a few weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said, apologizing for asking him to come out here. “Does it hurt?”
A startling white smile swept across his tanned face. “Only when I dance.”
Meredith laughed at the joke and felt her own worries begin to fade into the background. They stayed outside for another dance, talking about nothing more meaningful than the bad music and the good weather. When they returned to the lounge, Jimmy brought their drinks. Goaded by mischief and resentment for Jonathan, Meredith said, “Please charge these drinks to Jonathan Sommers, Jimmy.” She glanced at Matt and saw the surprise on his face.
“Aren’t you a member here?”
“Yes,” Meredith said with a rueful smile. “That was petty revenge on my part.”
“For—” Belatedly realizing that anything she said now would sound like pity or embarrass him, she shrugged. “I don’t like Jonathan Sommers very much.”
He looked at her oddly, picked up his drink, and tossed down part of it. “You must be hungry. I’ll let you go and join your friends.”
It was a polite gesture intended to excuse her, but Meredith had no desire to join Jon’s group now, and as she looked around the room, it was obvious that if she did leave Matt Farrell there, no one else was going to make the slightest effort to befriend him. In fact, every one in the lounge was giving both of them a wide berth. “Actually,” she said, “the food here isn’t all that wonderful.”
He glanced at the occupants of the lounge and put his glass down with a finality that told her he intended to leave. “Neither are the people.”
“They aren’t staying away out of meanness or arrogance,” she assured him. “Not really.”
Slanting her a dubious, disinterested look, he said, “Why do you think they’re doing it?”
Meredith saw several middle-aged couples who were friends of her father’s—nice people, all of them. “Well, for one thing, they’re embarrassed about the way Jonathan acted. And because of what they know about you—where you live and what you do for a living, I mean—most of them simply concluded that they don’t have anything in common with you.”
He obviously thought she was patronizing him because he smiled politely and said, “It’s time for me to go.”
Suddenly the idea of having him leave with nothing but humiliation to remember the evening didn’t seem fair at all. In fact, it seemed unnecessary and . . . and unthinkable! “You can’t leave yet,” she announced with a determined smile. “Come with me, and bring your drink.”
His eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“Because,” Meredith declared with stubborn mischief, “it helps to have a drink in your hand to do this.”
“Do what?” he persisted.
“Mingle,” she declared. “We are going to mingle!”
“Absolutely not!” Matt caught her wrist to draw her back, but it was too late. Meredith was suddenly bent on ramming him down everyone’s throat and making them like it.
“Please humor me,” she said softly, her gaze beseeching.
A reluctant grin tugged at his lips. “You have the most amazing eyes—”
“Actually, I’m terribly nearsighted,” she teased with her most melting smile. “I’ve been known to walk into walls. It’s a pitiful thing to watch. Why don’t you give me your arm and guide me out into the hall so I don’t stumble?”
He wasn’t proof against her humor or that smile. “You are also very single-minded,” he replied, but he chuckled and reluctantly offered her his arm, prepared to humor her.
A few steps down the hall Meredith saw an elderly couple she knew. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Foster.” She greeted them cheerfully as they started to stroll past without seeing her.
They stopped at once. “Why, hello, Meredith,” Mrs. Foster said, then she and her husband smiled at Matt with polite inquiry.
“I’d like you to meet a friend of my father’s,” Meredith announced, swallowing her laughter at Matt’s incredulous glance. “This is Matt Farrell. Matt is from Indiana, and he’s in the steel business.”
“A pleasure,” Mr. Foster said genially, shaking Matt’s hand. “I know Meredith and her father don’t play golf, but I hope they told you we have two championship courses here at Glenmoor. Are you going to be here long enough to play a few rounds?”
“I’m not certain I’m going to be here long enough to finish this drink,” Matt said, obviously expecting to be forcibly evicted when Meredith’s father discovered she was introducing Matt as his friend.
Mr. Foster nodded in complete misunderstanding. “Business always seems to get in the way of pleasure. But at least you’ll see the fireworks tonight—we have the best show in town.”
“You’re going to tonight,” Matt predicted, his narrowed gaze focused warningly on Meredith’s guileless expression.
Mr. Foster returned to his favorite subject of golf, while Meredith struggled unsuccessfully to keep her face straight. “What’s your handicap?” he inquired of Matt.
“I think I’m Matt’s handicap tonight,” Meredith interceded, slanting Matt a provocative, laughing look.
“What?” Mr. Foster blinked.
But Matt didn’t answer and Meredith couldn’t, because his gaze had fixed on her smiling lips, and when his gray eyes lifted to hers, there was something different in their depths.
“Come along, dear,” Mrs. Foster said, observing the distracted expressions on Matt and Meredith’s faces. “These young people don’t want to spend their evening discussing golf.” Belatedly recovering her composure, Meredith told herself sternly she’d had too much champagne, then she tucked her hand through the crook of Matt’s arm. “Come with me,” she said, already walking down the staircase to the banquet room where the orchestra was playing.
For nearly an hour she guided him from one group to another, her eyes twinkling at Matt with shared laughter while she smoothly told outrageous half-truths about who he was and what he did for a living. And Matt stood beside her, not actively helping her, but observing her ingenuity with frank amusement.
“There, you see,” she announced gaily as they finally left the noise and music behind and walked out the front doors, strolling across the lawn. “It isn’t what you say that counts, it’s what you don’t say.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” he teased. “Do you have any more of them?”
Meredith shook her head, distracted by something she’d subconsciously noted all evening. “You don’t talk at all like a man who works in a steel mill.”
“How many of them do you know?”
“Just one,” she admitted.
His tone abruptly shifted to a serious one. “Do you come here often?”
They’d spent the first part of the evening playing a kind of silly game, but she sensed that he didn’t want any more games. Neither did she, and that moment marked a distinct change in the atmosphere between them. As they wandered past rose beds and flower gardens, he started asking her about herself. Meredith told him she’d been away at school and that she’d just graduated. When his next question was about her career plans, she realized that he’d erroneously assumed she meant she’d graduated from college. Rather than correcting him and risking some sort of appalled reaction when he discovered she was eighteen, not twenty-two, she sidestepped the problem by quickly asking him about himself.
He told her he was leaving in six weeks for Venezuela and what he was going to be doing while he was gone. From there, their conversation shifted with astonishing ease from one subject to another, until they finally stopped walking so that they could concentrate better on whatever was being said. Standing beneath an ancient elm on the lawn, oblivious to the rough bark against her bare back, Meredith listened to him, completely entranced. Matt was twenty-six, she’d discovered, and besides being witty and extremely well-spoken, he had a way of listening intently to what she said as if nothing else in the world mattered. It was disconcerting, and it was very flattering. It also created a false mood of complete intimacy and solitude. She’d just finished laughing at a joke he’d told her, when a fat bug dived past her face and buzzed around her ear. She jumped, grimacing and trying to see where it had gone. “Is it in my hair?” she asked uneasily, tipping her head down.
He put his hands on her shoulders and inspected her hair. “No,” he promised. “It was just a little June bug.”
“June bugs are disgusting, and that one was the size of a large hummingbird!” When he chuckled, she gave him a deliberately smug smile. “You won’t be laughing six weeks from now, when you can’t walk outside without tripping over snakes.”
“Is that right?” he murmured, but his attention had shifted to her mouth, and his hands were sliding up the sides of her neck to tenderly cradle her face.
“What are you doing?” Meredith whispered inanely as he began slowly rubbing his thumb over her lower lip.
“I’m trying to decide if I should let myself enjoy the fireworks.”
“The fireworks won’t start for another half hour,” she said shakily, knowing perfectly well she was going to be kissed.
“I have a feeling,” he whispered, slowly lowering his head, “they’re going to start right now.”
And they did. His mouth covered hers in an electrifyingly seductive kiss that sent sparks exploding through Meredith’s entire body. At first the kiss was light, coaxing; his mouth shaped itself to hers, delicately exploring the contours of her lips. Meredith had been kissed before, but always by relatively inexperienced, overeager boys; no one had ever kissed her with Matthew Farrell’s unhurried thoroughness. His hands shifted, one of them drifting down her spine to draw her closer, while the other slid behind her nape, and his mouth slowly opened on hers. Lost in the kiss, she moved her hands inside his tuxedo jacket, up his chest, over his broad shoulders, and then she wrapped her arms around his neck.
The minute she molded herself against him, his mouth opened farther, his tongue tracing hotly across her lips, urging them to part, and then demanding it. The moment that they did, his tongue plunged into her mouth, and the kiss exploded. His hand covered her breast, caressing it through her bodice, then restlessly swept behind her, cupping her bottom and pulling her tightly against him, making her vibrantly aware of his aroused body. Meredith stiffened slightly at the forced intimacy, and then for no explainable reason on earth, she laced her fingers through his hair and crushed her parted lips to his.
It seemed like hours later when he finally dragged his mouth from hers. Her heart racing like a trip-hammer, she stood in the circle of his arms, her forehead resting on his chest, while she tried to cope with the turbulent sensations she’d felt. Somewhere in her drugged mind it began to occur to her that he was going to think she was behaving very oddly about what had, in reality, been only a simple kiss. That embarrassing possibility finally made her force her head up. Fully expecting to see him watching her with puzzled amusement, she raised her gaze to his chiseled features, but what she saw there wasn’t derision. His gray eyes were smoldering, his face was harsh and dark with passion, and his arms tightened automatically, as if unwilling to let her go. Belatedly, she realized his body was still rigidly aroused, and she felt a peculiar sense of pleasure and pride that he had been, and was still, as affected by the kiss as she was. Without thinking what she was doing, her gaze dropped to his mouth. There was bold sensuality in the mold of those firm lips, and yet some of his kisses had been so exquisitely gentle. Tormentingly gentle . . . Longing to feel that mouth on hers again, Meredith lifted her gaze to his, an unconscious request in her eyes.
Matt understood the request, and a sound that was half groan, half laugh tore from his chest, his arms already tightening. “Yes,” he answered hoarsely, and seized her lips in a ravenous, devouring kiss that stole her breath, and drove her mad with pleasure.
Some time later, laughter rang out, and Meredith jerked awkwardly out of his arms, whirling around in alarm. Dozens of couples were strolling out of the club to watch the fireworks—and well ahead of them was her father who was stalking toward her with rage in every long, ground-covering stride. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Matt, you have to leave. Turn around and walk away! Now.”
“Please!” she almost cried. “I’ll be fine, he won’t say anything to me here, he’ll wait until we’re alone, but I don’t know what he’ll do to you.” A moment later Meredith knew the answer to that.
“There are two men on their way out here to escort you off the grounds, Farrell,” her father hissed, his face contorted with fury. He turned on Meredith and caught her arm in a viselike grip. “You’re coming with me.” Two of the club’s waiters were already walking across the driveway. As her father gave her arm a jerk, Meredith appealed once more to Matt over her shoulder. “Please, please go—don’t make a scene.”
Her father pulled her two steps forward, and Meredith, who had no choice but to walk or be dragged, was relieved almost to tears when both waiters who had been coming toward Matt slowed and then stopped. Matt had apparently started walking toward the road, Meredith realized with relief. Her father evidently reached the same conclusion, for when the waiters looked uncertainly to him for further instructions, he said, “Let the bastard go, but call the gate and make sure he doesn’t come back.”
As they approached the front doors, he turned to Meredith, his expression livid. “Your mother made herself the talk of this club, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to do it too. Do you hear me!” He flung her arm down as if her skin were contaminated by Matt’s touch, but he kept his voice low. Because a Bancroft, no matter how great the provocation, never aired family grievances in public. “Go home and stay there. It will take you twenty minutes to get to the house; in twenty-five minutes I’m going to call you, and God help you if you aren’t there!”
With that he turned on his heel and stalked into the clubhouse. In a state of sick humiliation, Meredith watched him go, then she went inside and got her purse. On the way to the parking lot, she saw three couples standing out in the shadows of the trees, all of them kissing.
Her vision blurred by tears of futile rage, Meredith had already driven past the solitary figure who was walking with a tuxedo jacket hooked over his right shoulder before she realized it was Matt. She braked to a stop, so consumed with guilt for the humiliation she’d caused him that she couldn’t immediately look at him.
He walked up to her side of the car and bent slightly, looking at her through the open window. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” With a halfhearted attempt at flippancy, she glanced at him. “My father is a Bancroft, and the Bancrofts never quarrel in public.”
He saw the unshed tears shimmering in her eyes. Reaching through the open window, he laid his callused fingertips against her smooth cheek. “And they don’t cry in front of other people either, do they?”
“Nope,” Meredith admitted, trying to absorb some of his wonderful indifference to her father. “I—I’m going home now. Can I drop you somewhere on the way?”
His gaze shifted from her face to the death grip she had on the steering wheel. “Yes, but only if you’ll let me drive this thing.” He spoke as if he merely wanted a chance to drive her car, but his next words made it obvious he was concerned about her ability to drive in her state of mind. “Why don’t I drive you home, and I’ll call a cab from there.”
“Be my guest,” Meredith said brightly, determined to salvage what little pride she had left. She got out and walked around to the passenger side.
Matt had no trouble mastering the gearshift, and a minute later the car glided smoothly out of the country club drive and shot out onto the main road. Headlights flew past in the dark and the breeze blew through the windows as they drove in silence. Far off to the left some other fireworks display came to a grand finale in a spectacular cascade of red, white, and blue. Meredith watched the brilliant sparks glitter and then slowly fade as they drifted downward. Belatedly recalling her manners, she said, “I want to apologize for what happened tonight—for my father, I mean.”
Matt shot her an amused sideways look. “He’s the one who should apologize. It hurt my pride when he sent those two flabby, middle-aged waiters to throw me out. At least he could have sent four of them—just to spare my ego.”
Meredith gaped at him, amazed because he obviously wasn’t the least bit intimidated by her father’s wrath, and then she smiled, because it felt wonderful to be with someone who wasn’t. With a jaunty look at his powerful shoulders, she said, “If he really wanted to get you out of there against your will, he’d have been wiser to send six.”
“My ego and I both thank you,” he said with a lazy grin, and Meredith, who would have sworn a few minutes ago that she’d never smile again, burst out laughing.
“You have a wonderful laugh,” he said quietly.
“Thank you,” she said, startled and pleased beyond proportion to the compliment. In the pale light from the dashboard she studied his shadowy profile, watching the wind ruffle his hair, wondering what it was about him that could make a few simple, quiet words seem like a physical caress. Shelly Fillmore’s words floated through her mind, providing the probable answer . . . “pure, undiluted sex appeal.” A few hours earlier she hadn’t thought Matt was extraordinarily, attractive. She did now. In fact, she was certain women drooled over him. No doubt they were also the reason he knew how to kiss as well as he did. He had sex appeal, all right—and a whole lot of experience kissing. “Turn in here,” she said a quarter of an hour later when they approached a pair of huge wrought-iron gates. Reaching forward, she pressed a button on the dashboard and the gates swung open into her driveway.
“This is home,” Meredith said as he pulled to a stop in front of the house.
He looked up at the imposing stone structure with its leaded glass windows while Meredith unlocked the front door. “It looks like a museum.”
“At least you didn’t say mausoleum,” she said, smiling over her shoulder.
“No, but I thought it.”
Meredith was still smiling at his blunt quip as she showed him into the darkened library at the back of the house and turned on a lamp, but when he went directly to the phone on the desk and picked it up, her heart sank. She wanted him to stay, she wanted to talk, she wanted to do anything to fend off the despair that she knew would overwhelm her again when she was alone. “There’s no reason for you to leave so soon. My father will play cards until the club closes at two A.M.”
He turned at the note of desperation in her voice. “Meredith, I’m not a bit worried about your father for my own sake, but you have to live with him. If he comes home and finds me here—”
“He won’t,” Meredith promised. “My father wouldn’t let death interrupt his card games; he’s an obsessive card player.”
“He’s damned obsessive about you too,” Matt said flatly, and Meredith held her breath while he hesitated before finally hanging up the phone. This was probably going to be the last pleasant evening she would have for months, and she was determined to make it last. “Would you like a brandy? I’m afraid I can’t offer you anything to eat because the servants are already in bed.”
“Brandy will be fine.”
Meredith went over to the liquor cabinet and took out the brandy decanter. Behind her, he said, “Do the servants lock the refrigerator at night?” She paused, a brandy snifter in her hand. “Something like that,” she evaded.
But Matt wasn’t fooled—she realized it the moment she brought his glass over to the sofa and saw the amusement gleaming in his eyes. “You can’t cook, can you, princess?”
“I’m sure I could,” she joked, “if someone showed me where the kitchen is, and then pointed out the stove and refrigerator.”
The corners of his mouth deepened into an answering smile, but he leaned forward and purposefully put his glass on the table. She knew exactly what he intended to do even before he caught her wrists and firmly pulled her toward him. “I know you can cook,” he said, tipping her chin up.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because,” he whispered, “less than an hour ago you set me on fire.”
His mouth was a fraction of an inch from hers when the shrill ring of the telephone made her lurch out of his arms. When she answered it, her father’s voice was like an arctic blast. “I’m glad to see that you had sense enough to do as I told you. And Meredith,” he added, “I was on the verge of permitting you to go to Northwestern, but you can forget about that now. Your behavior tonight is living proof that you can’t be trusted.” He hung up on her.
With shaking fingers, Meredith replaced the receiver. Her arms began to tremble and then her knees, until her whole body was quaking with futility and rage, and she braced her palms on the desk to steady herself.
Matt came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “Meredith?” he said, his voice deep with concern. “Who was that? Is anything wrong?”
Even her voice shook. “That was my father checking to make certain that I came home as ordered.”
He was silent for a moment, and then he said quietly, “What have you done to make him distrust you like this?”
Matt’s thinly veiled accusation tore at her heart, hacking away at her rapidly disintegrating control. “What have I done?” she repeated, her voice rising with hysteria. “What have I done?”
“You must have given him some reason to think he has to guard you like this.”
Savage resentment boiled up inside of Meredith, erupting into a mass of churning rage. Her eyes bright with tears and some half-formed purpose, she swung around on him and slid her hands up his hard chest. “My mother was promiscuous. She couldn’t keep her hands off other men. My father guards me because he knows I’m like her.”
Matt’s eyes narrowed as she wrapped her arms fiercely around his neck. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“You know what I’m doing,” she whispered, and before he could answer, she pressed herself against his full length and kissed him long and lingeringly.
He wanted her—Meredith knew it the moment his arms encircled her, pulling her tightly against his hardening body. He wanted her. His mouth seized hers in a hungry, consuming kiss, and she tried to do her best to make certain he didn’t change his mind—and that she couldn’t change hers. Her fingers clumsy and urgent, she tugged the studs loose from his shirtfront and opened his shirt, sliding her hands up his chest, spreading the white cloth wide apart, baring what looked to be an acre of bronzed muscle with springy dark hairs, then she closed her eyes tightly, reached behind her back and started tugging on the zipper of her dress. She wanted this, she’d earned it, she told herself fiercely.
His quiet voice made her head jerk up, but she didn’t have the courage to lift her gaze above his chest.
“I’m flattered as hell, but I’ve never actually seen a woman rip off her clothes in the throes of passion, particularly after only one kiss.”
Defeated before she’d begun, Meredith leaned her forehead against his chest. His hand slid over her shoulder, long fingers curving around her nape, his thumb stroking, while his other hand slid around her waist and moved her closer. Then his fingers moved down her bare back to the zipper of her dress. The bodice of a very expensive chiffon gown came loose.
Swallowing audibly, she started to lift her arms to shield herself from view, and hesitated. “I’m . . . not very good at this,” she said, raising her eyes to his.
His lids drifted down, his gaze shifting to the tops of her breasts. “Aren’t you?” he whispered huskily as he bent his head.
Meredith wanted to find nirvana; she sought it in that next kiss. And she found it. Her fingers flexing against the corded muscles in his back, she kissed him with blind need, and when his parted lips moved insistently against hers, she welcomed the suggestive invasion of his tongue. She returned it, and made him gasp and clench her tighter. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t in control anymore; she wasn’t aware of anything except sensations. His mouth seized hers in stormy desire, her clothes came loose and a cold draft hit her. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, freed by his hands, and the room tilted as she was brought down onto the sofa beside a hard, demanding, naked male body.
And then it stopped, and Meredith surfaced a little from a dark, sweet world where she felt only his mouth and the stirring stroking of his hands over her flesh. She opened her eyes and saw him leaning up on his forearm, studying her face in the mellow glow of the desk lamp. “What are you doing?” she whispered, but the thin, wispy voice didn’t sound like hers.
“Looking at you.” As he said it, his gaze moved down along the sides of her breasts past her waist, then down her thighs and legs. Embarrassed, Meredith stopped him from what he was doing by touching her lips to his chest. His muscles flinched reflexively as she brushed her lips over his skin, and his hand sank slowly into the hair at her nape, lifting her forward. This time when she raised her gaze to his, he bent his head. His mouth captured hers almost roughly, his tongue parting her lips and driving into her mouth in a fiercely erotic kiss that sent flames shooting through her entire body. Leaning over her, he kissed her until she heard herself moaning softly, and then his mouth was at her breasts, making them ache while his fingers explored and tormented and made her back arch against his hand. He moved, his body shifting on top of her, his hips insistent, his lips rough and tender against the curve of her neck and cheek. His mouth returned to hers again, parting her lips; his legs wedged between hers, parting her thighs, and all the while his tongue was tangling with hers, withdrawing and plunging deep. And then he stopped.
Cradling her face between his palms, he ordered hoarsely, “Look at me.” Somehow Meredith managed to surface from her sensual daze; she forced her lids open and looked into his scorching gray eyes. The moment she did, Matt drove into her with a force that tore a low cry from her throat and made her body arch like a bow. In that split second he recognized he’d just taken her virginity, and his reaction was more violent than hers. He froze, his eyes clenched shut. His shoulders and arms taut, he stayed there inside her, unmoving. “Why?” he demanded in a raw whisper.
She shivered at the accusation she thought she heard and misunderstood his question. “Because I haven’t done it before.”
That answer made his eyes open and what she saw wasn’t disappointment or accusation, it was tenderness and regret. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have made this much easier for you.”
Spreading her fingers over his cheek, Meredith said with a soft, reassuring smile, “You did make it easy. And perfect.”
That accomplished what nothing else had. It made him groan. He covered her lips with his and, with infinite gentleness, began to move inside her, withdrawing almost all the way and slowly plunging deep, steadily increasing the tempo of his driving strokes, giving and giving and giving until Meredith was wild beneath him. Her fingernails bit into his back and hips, clutching him to her, while the passion raging inside her built into a holocaust, and still it went on and on, until it finally exploded in long soul-destroying bursts of extravagant pleasure. Gathering her into his arms, Matt shoved his fingers into her hair, kissing her with fiery urgency, and drove into her one more time. The deep raw hunger of his kiss, the sudden surge of liquid from his body into hers, made Meredith clasp him tighter and moan with the exquisite sensation.
Her heart beating frantically, she moved onto her side with him, her face pressed against his chest, his arms tight around her. “Do you have any idea,” he whispered in a shaken, hoarse voice, his lips brushing her cheek, “how exciting you are, and how responsive?”
Meredith didn’t answer, because the reality of what he’d done was beginning to seep through her, and she didn’t want to let it. Not now, not yet. She didn’t want anything to spoil this. She closed her eyes and listened to the lovely things he continued to say to her while he laid his hand against her cheek, idly brushing his thumb over her skin.
And then he asked something that did need a response and the magic faded, receding beyond her reach. “Why?” he asked her quietly. “Why did you do this tonight? With me?”
She tensed at the difficult, probing question, sighed with a feeling of loss, and pulled out of his arms, wrapping herself in the afghan lying over the end of the sofa. She’d known about the physical intimacy of sex, but no one had warned her about this strange, uneasy aftermath. She felt stripped bare emotionally; exposed, defenseless, awkward. “I think we’d both better get dressed,” she said nervously, “and then I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I’ll be right back.”
In her room, Meredith put on a navy and white robe, tied the belt around her waist, and went back downstairs, still barefoot. As she passed the clock in the hall, she glanced at it. Her father would be home in an hour.
Matt was on the phone in the study, fully dressed with the exception of his tie, which he’d shoved into his pocket. “What’s the address here?” he asked. She told him and he relayed it to the cab company he had called. “I told them to be here in a half hour,” he said. Walking over to the coffee table in front of the sofa, he picked up his abandoned brandy glass.
“Can I get you anything else?” Meredith asked, because that question seemed like something a good hostess normally asked a guest when the evening neared its end. Or was that what a waitress asked, she wondered a little hysterically.
“I’d like an answer to my question,” he said. “What made you decide to do this tonight?”
She thought she heard a tautness in his voice, but his face was completely expressionless. She sighed and looked away, self-consciously tracing an inlaid square on the desk. “For years my father has treated me like a . . . a closet nymphomaniac, and I’ve never done anything to deserve it. Tonight when you insisted he must have some reason for ‘guarding me,’ something just snapped inside of me. I think I decided that if I was going to be treated like a tramp, I might as well have the experience of sleeping with a man. And at the same time, I had some insane idea of punishing you—and him. I wanted to show you that you were wrong.”
After several moments of ominous silence, Matt said curtly, “You could have convinced me I was wrong by simply telling me that your father is a tyrannical, suspicious bastard. I would have believed you.”
In her heart, Meredith knew that was true, and she glanced uneasily at him, wondering if anger had been her only reason for instigating what had just happened, or if she’d simply used anger as an excuse to experience intimately that sexual magnetism she’d felt from him all night. Used. That was the operative word. In a strange sort of way she felt guilty for using a man she had liked enormously to retaliate against her father.
In the lengthening silence, he seemed to evaluate what she’d said, and what she hadn’t said, and to guess what she was thinking. Whatever conclusions he drew from all that obviously didn’t please him very much, because he abruptly put down his glass and glanced at his watch. “I’ll walk down to the end of the drive.”
“I’ll show you out.” Polite sentences spoken between two strangers who’d been doing the most intimate possible things together less than one hour ago. That incongruity registered on her as she straightened from the desk. At the same moment his gaze riveted on her bare feet, shot back to her face, and then ricocheted to her hair tumbling loose about her shoulders. Barefoot, hair down, and in a long robe, Meredith did not look quite the way she did in a strapless evening dress with her hair in a sophisticated chignon. She knew before he asked the question what it was going to be.
“How old are you?”
“Not . . . quite as old as you think.”
“How old?” he persisted.
She expected some sort of reaction to that. Instead, he looked at her for a long, hard moment, and then he did something that made no sense to her. Turning, he went over to the desk and wrote something on a slip of paper. “This is my phone number in Edmunton,” he said calmly, handing it to her. “You can reach me there for the next six weeks. After that, Sommers will know how to get in touch with me somehow.”
When he left, she walked upstairs, frowning at the scrap of paper in her hand. If this was Matt’s way of suggesting she give him a call sometime, it was arrogant, rude, and completely obnoxious. And a little humiliating.
For most of the following week, Meredith jumped every time the phone rang, afraid that it was going to be Matt. Just the recollection of the things they’d done made her face burn with embarrassment, and she wanted to forget it and him.
By the following week she didn’t want to forget it at all. Once the guilt and fear of discovery had receded, she found herself thinking about him constantly, reliving the same moments she’d wanted to forget. Lying in bed at night, with her face pressed into the pillow, she felt his lips on her cheek and neck, and she recalled each sexy, tender word he’d whispered to her with a tiny thrill. She thought about other things too, like the pleasure of being with him while they talked on the lawn at Glenmoor, and the way he’d laughed at the things she said. She wondered if he was thinking about her, and if he was, why didn’t he call . . .
When he didn’t phone the week after that, Meredith realized she was obviously very forgettable and that he hadn’t thought her “exciting” or “responsive” at all. She went over and over the things she’d said to Matt just before he left, wondering if something she’d said was the reason for his silence now. She considered the possibility that she might have hurt his pride when she told him the truth about why she’d decided to sleep with him, but she found that very hard to believe. Matthew Farrell wasn’t the least bit insecure about his sexual attraction—he’d carried on that sexual banter with her within minutes of meeting her, when they first danced. It was more likely he hadn’t called because he’d decided she was too young to bother with.
By the end of the following week, Meredith no longer wanted to hear from him. Her period was two weeks overdue, and she wished to God she’d never met Matthew Farrell at all. As one day drifted into the next, she couldn’t think about anything except the terrifying possibility that she’d gotten pregnant. Lisa was in Europe, so there was no one to turn to or help make the time go faster. She waited and she prayed and she promised fervently that if she wasn’t pregnant, she’d never have intercourse again until she was married.
But either God wasn’t listening to her prayers or He was immune to bribery.
“A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride!”
Under normal circumstances, this call for a wedding toast would have caused the lavishly dressed ladies and gentlemen assembled in the great hall at Merrick castle to smile and cheer. Goblets of wine would have been raised and more toasts offered in celebration of a grand and noble wedding such as the one which was about to take place here in the south of Scotland.
But not today. Not at this wedding.
At this wedding, no one cheered and no one raised a goblet. At this wedding, everyone was watching everyone else, and everyone was tense. The bride’s family was tense. The groom’s family was tense. The guests and the servants and the hounds in the hall were tense. Even the first earl of Merrick, whose portrait hung above the fireplace, looked tense.
“A toast to the duke of Claymore and his bride,” the groom’s brother pronounced again, his voice like a thunderclap in the unnatural, tomblike silence of the crowded hall. “May they enjoy a long and fruitful life together.”
Normally, that ancient toast brings about a predictable reaction: The groom always smiles proudly because he’s convinced he’s accomplished something quite wonderful. The bride smiles because she’s been able to convince him of it. The guests smile because, amongst the nobility, a marriage connotes the linking of two important families and two large fortunes—which in itself is cause for great celebration and abnormal gaiety.
But not today. Not on this fourteenth day of October, 1497.
Having made the toast, the groom’s brother raised his goblet and smiled grimly at the groom. The groom’s friends raised their goblets and smiled fixedly at the bride’s family. The bride’s family raised their goblets and smiled frigidly at each other. The groom, who alone seemed to be immune to the hostility in the hall, raised his goblet and smiled calmly at his bride, but the smile did not reach his eyes.
The bride did not bother to smile at anyone. She looked furious and mutinous.
In truth, Jennifer was so frantic she scarcely knew anyone was there. At the moment, every fiber of her being was concentrating on a last-minute, desperate appeal to God, Who out of lack of attention or lack of interest, had let her come to this sorry pass. “Lord,” she cried silently, swallowing the lump of terror swelling in her throat, “if You’re going to do something to stop this marriage, You’re going to have to do it quickly, or in five minutes ’twill be too late! Surely, I deserve something better than this forced marriage to a man who stole my virginity! I didn’t just hand it over to him, You know!”
Realizing the folly of reprimanding the Almighty, she hastily switched to pleading: “Haven’t I always tried to serve You well?” she whispered silently. “Haven’t I always obeyed You?”
“NOT ALWAYS, JENNIFER,” God’s voice thundered in her mind.
“Nearly always,” Jennifer amended frantically. “I attended mass every day, except when I was ill, which was seldom, and I said my prayers every morning and every evening. Nearly every evening,” she amended hastily before her conscience could contradict her again, “except when I fell asleep before I was finished. And I tried, I truly tried to be all that the good sisters at the abbey wanted me to be. You know now hard I’ve tried! Lord,” she finished desperately, “if you’ll just help me escape from this, I’ll never be willful or impulsive again.”
“THAT I DO NOT BELIEVE, JENNIFER,” God boomed dubiously.
“Nay, I swear it,” she earnestly replied, trying to strike a bargain. “I’ll do anything You want, I’ll go straight back to the abbey and devote my life to prayer and—”
“The marriage contracts have been duly signed. Bring in the priest,” Lord Balfour commanded, and Jennifer’s breath came in wild, panicked gasps, all thoughts of potential sacrifices fleeing from her mind.
“God,” she silently pleaded, “why are You doing this to me? You aren’t going to let this happen to me, are You?”
Silence fell over the great hall as the doors were flung open.
“YES, JENNIFER, I AM.”
The crowd parted automatically to admit the priest, and Jennifer felt as if her life were ending. Her groom stepped into position beside her, and Jennifer jerked an inch away, her stomach churning with resentment and humiliation at having to endure his nearness. If only she had known how one heedless act could end in disaster and disgrace. If only she hadn’t been so impulsive and reckless!
Closing her eyes, Jennifer shut out the hostile faces of the English and the murderous faces of her Scots kinsmen, and in her heart she faced the wrenching truth: Impulsiveness and recklessness, her two greatest faults, had brought her to this dire end—the same two character flaws that had led her to commit all of her most disastrous follies. Those two flaws, combined with a desperate yearning to make her father love her, as he loved his stepsons, were responsible for the debacle she’d made of her life:
When she was fifteen, those were the things that had led her to try to avenge herself against her sly, spiteful stepbrother in what had seemed a right and honorable way—which was to secretly don Merrick armor and then ride against him, fairly, in the lists. That magnificent folly had gained her a sound thrashing from her father right there on the field of honor—and only a tiny bit of satisfaction from having knocked her wicked stepbrother clean off his horse!
The year before, those same traits had caused her to behave in such a way that old Lord Balder withdrew his request for her hand, and in doing so destroyed her father’s cherished dream of joining the two families. And those things, in turn, were what got her banished to the abbey at Belkirk, where, seven weeks ago, she’d become easy prey for the Black Wolf’s marauding army.
And now, because of all that, she was forced to wed her enemy; a brutal English warrior whose armies had oppressed her country, a man who had captured her, held her prisoner, taken her virginity, and destroyed her reputation.
But it was too late for prayers and promises now. Her fate had been sealed from the moment, seven weeks ago, when she’d been dumped at the feet of the arrogant beast beside her, trussed up like a feastday partridge.
Jennifer swallowed. No, before that—she’d veered down this path to disaster earlier that same day when she’d refused to heed the warnings that the Black Wolf’s armies were nearby.
But why should she have believed it, Jennifer cried in her own defense. “The Wolf is marching on us!” had been a terrified call of doom issued almost weekly throughout the last five years. But on that day, seven weeks ago, it had been woefully true.
The crowd in the hall stirred restlessly, looking about for a sign of the priest, but Jennifer was lost in her memories of that day.
At the time, it had seemed an unusually pretty day, the sky a cheerful blue, the air balmy. The sun had been shining down upon the abbey, bathing its Gothic spires and graceful arches in bright golden light, beaming benignly upon the sleepy little village of Belkirk, which boasted the abbey, two shops, thirty-four cottages, and a communal stone well in the center of it, where villagers gathered on Sunday afternoons, as they were doing then. On a distant hill, a shepherd looked after his flock, while in a clearing not far from the well, Jennifer had been playing hoodman-blind with the orphans whom the abbess had entrusted to her care.
And in that halcyon setting of laughter and relaxation, this travesty had begun. As if she could somehow change events by reliving them in her mind, Jennifer closed her eyes, and suddenly she was there again in the little clearing with the children, her head completely covered with the hoodman’s hood . . .
“Where are you, Tom MacGivern?” she called out, groping about with outstretched arms, pretending she couldn’t locate the giggling nine-year-old boy, who her ears told her was only a foot away on her right. Grinning beneath the concealing hood, she assumed the pose of a classic “monster” by holding her arms high in front of her, her fingers spread like claws, and began to stomp about, calling in a deep, ominous voice, “You can’t escape me, Tom MacGivern.”
“Ha!” he shouted from her right. “You’ll no’ find me, hoodman!”
“Yes, I will!” Jenny threatened, then deliberately turned to her left, which caused gales of laughter to erupt from the children who were hiding behind trees and crouching beside bushes.
“I’ve got you!” Jenny shouted triumphantly a few minutes later as she swooped down upon a fleeing, giggling child, catching a small wrist in her hand. Breathless and laughing, Jenny yanked off her hood to see whom she’d captured, mindless of the red gold hair tumbling down over her shoulders and arms.
“You got Mary!” the children crowed delightedly. “Mary’s the hoodman now!”
The little five-year-old girl looked up at Jenny, her hazel eyes wide and apprehensive, her thin body shivering with fear. “Please,” she whispered, clinging to Jenny’s leg, “I—I not want to wear th’ hood—’Twill be dark inside it. Do I got to wear it?”
Smiling reassuringly, Jenny tenderly smoothed Mary’s hair off her thin face. “Not if you don’t want.”
“I’m afeert of the dark,” Mary confided unnecessarily, her narrow shoulders drooping with shame.
Sweeping her up into her arms, Jenny hugged her tightly. “Everybody is afraid of something,” she said and teasingly added, “Why, I’m afraid of—of frogs!”
The dishonest admission made the little girl giggle. “Frogs!” she repeated, “I likes frogs! They don’t sceer me ’tall.”
“There, you see—” Jenny said as she lowered her to the ground. “You’re very brave. Braver than I!”
“Lady Jenny is afeart of silly ol’ frogs,” Mary told the group of children as they ran forward.
“No she isn—” young Tom began, quick to rise to the defense of the beautiful Lady Jenny who, despite her lofty rank, was always up to anything—including hitching up her skirts and wading in the pond to help him catch a fat bullfrog—or climbing up a tree, quick as a cat, to rescue little Will who was afraid to come down.
Tom silenced at Jenny’s pleading look and argued no more about her alleged fear of frogs. “I’ll wear the hood,” he volunteered, gazing adoringly at the seventeen-year-old girl who wore the somber gown of a novice nun, but who was not one, and who, moreover, certainly didn’t act like one. Why, last Sunday during the priest’s long sermon, Lady Jenny’s head had nodded forward, and only Tom’s loud, false coughing in the bench behind her had awakened her in time for her to escape detection by the sharp-eyed abbess.
“ ’Tis Tom’s turn to wear the hood,” Jenny agreed promptly, handing Tom the hood. Smiling, she watched the children scamper off to their favorite hiding places, then she picked up the wimple and short woolen veil she’d taken off in order to be the hoodman. Intending to go over to the communal well where the villagers were eagerly questioning some clansmen passing through Belkirk on their way to their homes from the war against the English in Cornwall, she lifted the wimple, intending to put it on.
“Lady Jennifer!” One of the village men called suddenly, “Come quick—there’s news of the laird.” The veil and wimple forgotten in her hand, Jenny broke into a run, and the children, sensing the excitement, stopped their game and raced along at her heels.
“What news?” Jenny asked breathlessly, her gaze searching the stolid faces of the groups of clansmen. One of them stepped forward, respectfully removing his helm and cradling it in the crook of his arm. “Be you the daughter of the laird of Merrick?”
At the mention of the name Merrick, two of the men at the well suddenly stopped in the act of pulling up a bucket of water and exchanged startled, malevolent glances before they quickly ducked their heads again, keeping their faces in shadow. “Yes,” Jenny said eagerly. “You have news of my father?”
“Aye, m’lady. He’s comin’ this way, not far behind us, wit a big band o’ men.”
“Thank God,” Jenny breathed. “How goes the battle at Cornwall?” she asked after a moment, ready now to forget her personal concerns and devote her worry to the battle the Scots were waging at Cornwall in support of King James and Edward V’s claim to the English throne.
His face answered Jenny’s question even before he said, “ ’Twas all but over when we left. In Cork and Taunton it looked like we might win, and the same was true in Cornwall, until the devil hisself came to take command ’o Henry’s army.”
“The devil?” Jenny repeated blankly.
Hatred contorted the man’s face and he spat on the ground. “Aye, the devil—the Black Wolf hisself, may he roast in hell from whence he was spawned.”
Two of the peasant women crossed themselves as if to ward off evil at the mention of the Black Wolf, Scotland’s most hated, and most feared, enemy, but the man’s next words made them gape in fear: “The Wolf is comin’ back to Scotland. Henry’s sendin’ him here with a fresh army to crush us for supportin’ King Edward. Twill be murder and bloodshed like the last time he came, only worst, you mark me. The clans are making haste to come home and get ready for the battles. I’m thinkin’ the Wolf will attack Merrick first, before any o’ the rest of us, for ’twas your clan that took the most English lives at Cornwall.”
So saying, he nodded politely, put on his helmet, then he swung up onto his horse.
The scraggly groups at the well departed soon afterward, heading down the road that led across the moors and wound upward into the hills.
Two of the men, however, did not continue beyond the bend in the road. Once out of sight of the villagers, they veered off to the right, sending their horses at a furtive gallop into the forest.
Had Jenny been watching, she might have caught a brief glimpse of them doubling back through the woods that ran beside the road right behind her. But at the time, she was occupied with the terrified pandemonium that had broken out among the citizens of Belkirk, which happened to lie directly in the path between England and Merrick keep.
“The Wolf is coming!” one of the women cried, clutching her babe protectively to her breast. “God have pity on us.”
“ ’Tis Merrick he’ll strike at,” a man shouted, his voice rising in fear. “ ’Tis the laird of Merrick he’ll want in his jaws, but ’tis Belkirk he’ll devour on the way.” Suddenly the air was filled with gruesome predictions of fire and death and slaughter, and the children crowded around Jenny, clinging to her in mute horror. To the Scots, be they wealthy noble or lowly villager, the Black Wolf was more evil than the devil himself, and more dangerous, for the devil was a spirit, while the Wolf was flesh and blood—the living Lord of Evil—a monstrous being who threatened their existence, right here on earth. He was the malevolent specter that the Scots used to terrify their offspring into behaving. “The Wolf will get you,” was the warning issued to keep children from straying into the woods or leaving their beds at night, or from disobeying their elders.
Impatient with such hysteria over what was, to her, more myth than man, Jenny raised her voice in order to be heard over the din. “Tis more likely,” she called, putting her arms around the terrified children who’d crowded against her at the first mention of the Wolf’s name, “that he’ll go back to his heathen king so that he can lick the wounds we gave him at Cornwall while he tells great lies to exaggerate his victory. And if he does not do that, he’ll choose a weaker keep than Merrick for his attack—one he’s a chance of breeching.
Her words and her tone of amused disdain brought startled gazes flying to her face, but it wasn’t merely false bravado that had made Jenny speak so: She was a Merrick, and a Merrick never admitted to fear of any man. She had heard that hundreds of times when her father spoke to her stepbrothers, and she had adopted his creed for her own. Furthermore, the villagers were frightening the children, which she refused to let continue.
Mary tugged at Jenny’s skirts to get her attention, and in a shrill little voice, she asked, “Isn’t you afeert of the Black Wolf, Lady Jenny?”
“Of course not!” Jenny said with a bright, reassuring smile.
“They say,” young Tom interjected in an awed voice, “the Wolf is as tall as a tree!”
“A tree!” Jenny chuckled, trying to make a huge joke of the Wolf and all the lore surrounding him. “If he is, ’twould be a sight worth seeing when he tries to mount his horse! Why, ’twould take four squires to hoist him up there!”
The absurdity of that image made some of the children giggle, exactly as Jenny had hoped.
“I heert,” said young Will with an eloquent shudder, “he tears down walls with his bare hands and drinks blood!”
“Yuk!” said Jenny with twinkling eyes. “Then ’tis only indigestion which makes him so mean. If he comes to Belkirk, we’ll offer him some good Scottish ale instead.”
“My pa said,” put in another child, “he rides with a giant beside him, a Go-liath called Arik who carries a war axe and chops up children . . .”
“I heert—” another child interrupted ominously.
Jenny cut in lightly, “Let me tell you what I have heard.” With a bright smile, she began to shepherd them toward the abbey, which was out of sight just beyond a bend down the road. ‘7 heard,” she improvised gaily, “that he’s so very old that he has to squint to see, just like this—”
She screwed up her face in a comical exaggeration of a befuddled, near-blind person peering around blankly, and the children giggled.
As they walked along, Jenny kept up the same lighthearted teasing comments, and the children fell in with the game, adding their own suggestions to make the Wolf seem absurd.
But despite the laughter and seeming gaiety of the moment, the sky had suddenly darkened as a bank of heavy clouds rolled in, and the air was turning bitingly cold, whipping Jenny’s cloak about her, as if nature herself brooded at the mention of such evil.
Jenny was about to make another joke at the Wolf’s expense, but she broke off abruptly as a group of mounted clansmen rounded the bend from the abbey, coming toward her down the road. A beautiful girl, clad as Jenny was in the somber gray gown, white wimple, and short gray veil of a novice nun, was mounted in front of the leader, sitting demurely sideways in his saddle, her timid smile confirming what Jenny already knew.
With a silent cry of joy, Jenny started to dash forward, then checked the unladylike impulse and made herself stay where she was. Her eyes clung to her father, then drifted briefly over her clansmen, who were staring past her with the same grim disapproval they’d shown her for years—ever since her stepbrother had successfully circulated his horrible tale.
Sending the children ahead with strict orders to go directly to the abbey, Jenny waited in the middle of the road for what seemed like an eternity until, at last, the group halted in front of her.
Her father, who’d obviously stopped at the abbey where Brenna, Jenny’s stepsister, was also staying, swung down from his horse, then he turned to lift Brenna down. Jenny chafed at the delay, but his scrupulous attention to courtesy and dignity was so typical of the great man that a wry smile touched her lips.
Finally, he turned fully toward her, opening his arms wide. Jenny hurtled into his embrace, hugging him fiercely, babbling in her excitement: “Father, I’ve missed you so! ’Tis nearly two years since I’ve seen you! Are you well? You look well. You’ve scarce changed in all this time!”
Gently disentangling her arms from about his neck, Lord Merrick set his daughter slightly away from him while his gaze drifted over her tousled hair, rosy cheeks, and badly rumpled gown. Jenny squirmed inwardly beneath his prolonged scrutiny, praying that he approved of what he saw and that, since he’d obviously stopped at the abbey already, the abbess’s report had been pleasing to him.
Two years ago, her behavior had gotten her sent to the abbey; a year ago, Brenna had been sent down here for safety’s sake while the laird was at war. Under the abbess’s firm guidance, Jenny had come to appreciate her strengths, and to try to overcome her faults. But as her father inspected her from head to toe, she couldn’t help wondering if he saw the young lady she was now or the unruly girl she’d been two years ago. His blue eyes finally returned to her face and there was a smile in them. “Ye’ve become a woman, Jennifer.”
Jenny’s heart soared; coming from her taciturn father, such a comment constituted high praise. “I’ve changed in other ways too, Father,” she promised, her eyes shining. “I’ve changed a great deal.”
“Not that much, my girl.” Raising his shaggy white brows, he looked pointedly at the short veil and wimple hanging forgotten from her fingertips.
“Oh!” Jenny said, laughing and anxious to explain. “I was playing hoodman-blind . . . er . . . with the children, and it wouldn’t fit beneath the hood. Have you seen the abbess? What did Mother Ambrose tell you?”
Laughter sparked in his somber eyes. “She told me,” he replied dryly, “that ye’ve a habit of sitting on yon hill and gazing off into the air, dreaming, which sounds familiar, lassie. And she told me ye’ve a tendency to nod off in the midst of mass, should the priest sermonize longer than you think seemly, which also sounds familiar.”
Jenny’s heart sank at this seeming betrayal from the abbess whom she so admired. In a sense, Mother Ambrose was laird of her own grand demesne, controlling revenues from the farmlands and livestock that belonged to the splendid abbey, presiding at table whenever there were visitors, and dealing with all other matters that involved the laymen who worked on the abbey grounds as well as the nuns who lived cloistered within its soaring walls.
Brenna was terrified of the stem woman, but Jenny loved her, and so the abbess’s apparent betrayal cut deeply.
Her father’s next words banished her disappointment. “Mother Ambrose also told me,” he admitted with gruff pride, “that you’ve a head on your shoulders befitting an abbess herself. She said you’re a Merrick through and through, with courage enough to be laird of yer own clan. But you’ll no’ be that,” he warned, dashing Jenny’s fondest dream.
With an effort, Jenny kept the smile pinned to her face, refusing to feel the hurt of being deprived of that right—a right that had been promised to her until her father married Brenna’s widowed mother and acquired three stepsons in the bargain.
Alexander, the eldest of the three brothers, would assume the position that had been promised to her. That, in itself, wouldn’t have been nearly so hard to bear if Alexander had been nice, or even fair-minded, but he was a treacherous, scheming liar, and Jenny knew it, even if her father and her clan did not. Within a year after coming to live at Merrick keep, he’d begun carrying tales about her, tales so slanderous and ghastly, but so cleverly contrived, that, over a period of years, he’d turned her whole clan against her. That loss of her clan’s affection still hurt unbearably. Even now, when they were looking through her as if she didn’t exist for them, Jenny had to stop herself from pleading with them to forgive her for things she had not done.
William, the middle brother, was like Brenna— sweet and as timid as can be—while Malcolm, the youngest, was as evil and as sneaky as Alexander. “The abbess also said,” her father continued, “that you’re kind and gentle, but you’ve spirit, too . . .”
“She said all that?” Jenny asked, dragging her dismal thoughts from her stepbrothers. “Truly?”
“Aye.” Jenny would normally have rejoiced in that answer, but she was watching her father’s face, and it was becoming more grim and tense than she had ever seen it. Even his voice was strained as he said, “ ’Tis well you’ve given up your heathenish ways and that you’re all the things you’ve become, Jennifer.”
He paused as if unable or unwilling to continue, and Jenny prodded gently, “Why is that, Father?”
“Because,” he said, drawing a long, harsh breath, “the future of the clan will depend on your answer to my next question.”
His words trumpeted in her mind like blasts from a clarion, leaving Jenny dazed with excitement and joy: “The future of the clan depends on you . . .” She was so happy, she could scarcely trust her ears. It was as if she were up on the hill overlooking the abbey, dreaming her favorite daydream—the one where her father always came to her and said, “Jennifer, the future of the clan depends on you. Not your stepbrothers. You.” It was the chance she’d been dreaming of to prove her mettle to her clansmen and to win back their affection. In that daydream, she was always called upon to perform some incredible feat of daring, some brave and dangerous deed, like scaling the wall of the Black Wolf’s castle and capturing him single-handedly. But no matter how daunting the task, she never questioned it, nor hesitated a second to accept the challenge.
She searched her father’s face. “What would you have me do?” she asked eagerly. “Tell me, and I will! I’ll do any—”
“Will you marry Edric MacPherson?”
“Whaaat?” gasped the horrified heroine of Jenny’s daydream. Edric MacPherson was older than her father; a wizened, frightening man who’d looked at her in a way that made her skin crawl ever since she’d begun to change from girl to maiden.
“Will you, or will you no’?”
Jenny’s delicate auburn brows snapped together. “Why?” asked the heroine who never questioned.
A strange, haunted look darkened his face. “We took a beating at Cornwall, lass—we lost half our men. Alexander was killed in battle. He died like a Merrick,” he added with grim pride, “fighting to the end.”
“I’m glad for your sake, Papa,” she said, unable to feel more than a brief pang of sorrow for the stepbrother who’d made her life into a hell. Now, as she often had in the past, she wished there were something she could do to make him proud of her. “I know you loved him as if he were your own son.”
Accepting her sympathy with a brief nod, he returned to the discussion at hand: “There were many amongst the clans who were opposed to going to Cornwall to fight for King James’s cause, but the clans followed me anyway. Tis no secret to the English that ’twas my influence which brought the clans to Cornwall, and now the English king wants vengeance. He’s sendin’ the Wolf to Scotland to attack Merrick keep.” Ragged pain edged his deep voice as he admitted, “We’ll no’ be able to withstand a siege now, not unless the MacPherson clan comes to support us in our fight. The MacPherson has enough influence with a dozen other clans to force them to join us as well.”
Jenny’s mind was reeling. Alexander was dead, and the Wolf really was coming to attack her home . . .
Her father’s harsh voice snapped her out of her daze. “Jennifer! Do you ken what I’ve been saying? MacPherson has promised to join in our fight, but only if you’ll have him for husband.”
Through her mother, Jenny was a countess and heiress to a rich estate which marched with MacPherson’s. “He wants my lands?” she said almost hopefully, remembering the awful way Edric MacPherson’s eyes had wandered down her body when he’d stopped at the abbey a year ago to pay a “social call” upon her.
“Couldn’t we just give them to him in return for his support?” she volunteered desperately, ready— willing—to sacrifice a splendid demesne without hesitation, for the good of her people.
“He’d not agree to that!” her father said angrily. “There’s honor in fighting for kin, but he could no’ send his people into a fight that’s no’ their own, and then take your lands in payment to him.”
“But, surely, if he wants my lands badly enough, there’s some way—”
“He wants you. He sent word to me in Cornwall.” His gaze drifted over Jenny’s face, registering the startling changes that had altered her face from its thin, freckled, girlish plainness into a face of almost exotic beauty. “Ye’ve your mother’s look about ye now, lass, and it’s whetted the appetites of an old man. I’d no’ ask this of you if there was any other way.” Gruffly, he reminded her, “You used to plead wi’ me to name you laird. Ye said there was naught you wouldna’ do fer yer clan . . .”
Jenny’s stomach twisted into sick knots at the thought of committing her body, her entire life, into the hands of a man she instinctively recoiled from, but she lifted her head and bravely met her father’s gaze. “Aye, father,” she said quietly. “Shall I come with you now?”
The look of pride and relief on his face almost made the sacrifice worthwhile. He shook his head. “ ’Tis best you stay here with Brenna. We’ve no horses to spare and we’re anxious to reach Merrick and begin preparations for battle. I’ll send word to the MacPherson that the marriage is agreed upon, and then send someone here to fetch you to him.”
When he turned to remount his horse, Jenny gave into the temptation she’d been fighting all along: Instead of standing aside, she moved into the rows of mounted clansmen who had once been her friends and playmates. Hoping that some of them had perhaps heard her agree to marry the MacPherson and that this might neutralize their contempt of her, she paused beside the horse of a ruddy, red-headed man. “Good day to you, Renald Garvin,” she said, smiling hesitantly into his hooded gaze. “How fares your lady wife?”
His jaw hardened, his cold eyes flickering over her. “Well enough, I imagine,” he snapped.
Jenny swallowed at the unmistakable rejection from the man who had once taught her to fish and laughed with her when she fell into the stream.
She turned around and looked beseechingly at the man in the column beside Renald. “And you, Michael MacCleod? Has your leg been causing you any pain?”
Cold blue eyes met hers, then looked straight ahead.
She went to the rider behind him whose face was filled with hatred and she held out her hand beseechingly, her voice choked with pleading. “Garrick Carmichael, it has been four years since your Becky drowned. I swear to you now, as I swore to you then, I did not shove her into the river. We were not quarreling—’twas a lie invented by Alexander to—”
His face as hard as granite, Garrick Carmichael spurred his horse forward, and without ever looking at her, the men began passing her by.
Only old Josh, the clan’s armorer, pulled his ancient horse to a halt, letting the others go on ahead. Leaning down, he laid his callused palm atop her bare head. “I know you speak truly, lassie,” he said, and his unceasing loyalty brought the sting of tears to her eyes as she gazed up into his soft brown ones. “Ye have a temper, there’s no denyin’ it, but even when ye were but a wee thing, ye kept it bridled. Garrick Carmichael and the others might o’ been fooled by Alexander’s angelic looks, but not ol’ Josh. You’ll no’ see me grievin’ o’er the loss o’ him! The clan’ll be better by far wit’ young William leadin’ it. Carmichael and the others—” he added reassuringly, “they’ll come about in their thinkin’ o’ you, once they ken yer marrying the MacPherson for their sake as well as your sire’s.”
“Where are my stepbrothers?” Jenny asked hoarsely, changing the subject lest she burst into tears.
“They’re comin’ home by a different route. We couldn’t be sure the Wolf wouldn’t try to attack us while we marched, so we split up after leavin’ Cornwall.” With another pat on her head, he spurred his horse forward.
As if in a daze, Jenny stood stock-still in the middle of the road, watching her clan ride off and disappear around the bend.
“It grows dark,” Brenna said beside her, her gentle voice filled with sympathy. “We should go back to the abbey now.”
The abbey. Three short hours ago, Jenny had walked away from the abbey feeling cheery and alive. Now she felt—dead. “Go ahead without me. I—I can’t go back there. Not yet. I think I’ll walk up the hill and sit for a while.”
“The abbess will be annoyed if we aren’t back before dusk, and it’s near that now,” Brenna said apprehensively. It had always been thus between the two girls, with Jenny breaking a rule and Brenna terrified of bending one. Brenna was gentle, biddable, and beautiful, with blond hair, hazel eyes, and a sweet disposition that made her, in Jenny’s eyes, the embodiment of womanhood at its best. She was also as meek and timid as Jenny was impulsive and courageous. Without Jenny, she’d not have had a single adventure—nor ever gotten a scolding. Without Brenna to worry about and protect, Jenny would have had many more adventures—and many more scoldings. As a result, the two girls were entirely devoted to each other, and tried to protect one another as much as possible from the inevitable results of each other’s shortcomings.
Brenna hesitated and then volunteered with only a tiny tremor in her voice, “I’ll stay with you. If you remain alone, you’ll forget about time and likely be pounced upon by a—a bear in the darkness.”
At the moment, the prospect of being killed by a bear seemed rather inviting to Jenny, whose entire life stretched before her, shrouded in gloom and foreboding. Despite the fact that she truly wanted, needed, to stay outdoors and try to reassemble her thoughts, Jenny shook her head, knowing that if they stayed, Brenna would be drowning in fear at the thought of facing the abbess. “No, we’ll go back.”
Ignoring Jenny’s words, Brenna clasped Jenny’s hand and turned to the left, toward the slope of the hill that overlooked the abbey, and for the first time it was Brenna who led and Jenny who followed.
In the woods beside the road, two shadows moved stealthily, staying parallel with the girls’ path up the hill.
By the time they were partway up the steep incline, Jenny had already grown impatient with her own self-pity, and she made a Herculean effort to shore up her flagging spirits. “When you think on it,” she offered slowly, directing a glance at Brenna, “ ’tis actually a grand and noble thing I’ve been given the opportunity to do—marrying the MacPherson for the sake of my people.”
“You’re just like Joan of Arc,” Brenna agreed eagerly, “leading her people to victory!”
“Except that I’m marrying Edric MacPherson.”
“And,” Brenna finished encouragingly, “suffering a worse fate than she did!”
Laughter widened Jenny’s eyes at this depressing remark, which her well-meaning sister delivered with such enthusiasm.
Encouraged by the return of Jenny’s ability to laugh, Brenna cast about for something else with which to divert and cheer her. As they neared the crest of the hill, which was blocked by thick woods, she said suddenly, “What did Father mean about your having your mother’s ‘look about you’?”
“I don’t know,” Jenny began, diverted by a sudden, uneasy feeling that they were being watched in the deepening dusk. Turning and walking backward, she looked down toward the well and saw the villagers had all returned to the warmth of their hearths. Drawing her cloak about her, she shivered in the biting wind, and without much interest, she added, “Mother Abbess said my looks are a trifle brazen and that I must guard against the effect I will have on males when I leave the abbey.”
“What does all that mean?”
Jenny shrugged without concern. “I don’t know.” Turning and walking forward again, Jenny remembered the wimple and veil in her fingertips and began to put the wimple back on. “What do I look like to you?” she asked, shooting a puzzled glance at Brenna. “I haven’t seen my face in two years, except when I caught a reflection of it in the water. Have I changed much?”
“Oh yes,” Brenna laughed. “Even Alexander wouldn’t be able to call you scrawny and plain now, or say that your hair is the color of carrots.”
“Brenna!” Jenny interrupted, thunderstruck by her own callousness. “Are you much grieved by Alexander’s death? He was your brother and—”
“Don’t talk of it any more,” Brenna pleaded shakily. “I cried when Father told me, but the tears were few and I feel guilty because I didn’t love him as I ought. Not then and not now. I couldn’t. He was so—mean-spirited. It’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, yet I can’t think of much good to say of him.” Her voice trailed off, and she pulled her cloak about her in the damp wind, gazing at Jenny in mute appeal to change the subject.
“Tell me how I look, then,” Jenny invited quickly, giving her sister a quick, hard hug.
They stopped walking, their way blocked by the dense woods that covered the rest of the slope. A slow, thoughtful smile spread across Brenna’s beautiful face as she studied her stepsister, her hazel eyes roving over Jenny’s expressive face, which was dominated by a pair of large eyes as clear as dark blue crystal beneath gracefully winged, auburn brows. “Well, you’re—you’re quite pretty!”
“Good, but do you see anything unusual about me?” Jenny asked, thinking of Mother Ambrose’s words as she put her wimple back on and pinned the short woolen veil in place atop it. “Anything at all which might make a male behave oddly?”
“No,” Brenna stated, for she saw Jenny through the eyes of a young innocent. “Nothing at all.” A man would have answered very differently, for although Jennifer Merrick wasn’t pretty in the conventional way, her looks were both stiking and provocative. She had a generous mouth that beckoned to be kissed, eyes like liquid sapphires that shocked and invited, hair like lush, red-gold satin, and a slender, voluptuous body that was made for a man’s hands.
“Your eyes are blue,” Brenna began helpfully, trying to describe her, and Jenny chuckled.
“They were blue two years ago,” she said. Brenna opened her mouth to answer, but the words became a scream that was stifled by a man’s hand that clapped over her mouth as he began dragging her backward into the dense cover of the woods.
Jenny ducked, instinctively expecting an attack from behind, but she was too late. Kicking and screaming against a gloved male hand, she was plucked from her feet and hauled into the woods. Brenna was tossed over the back of her captor’s horse like a sack of flour, her limp limbs attesting to the fact that she’d fainted, but Jenny was not so easily subdued. As her faceless adversary dumped her over the back of his horse, she threw herself to the side, rolling free, landing in the leaves and dirt, crawling on all fours beneath his horse, then scrambling to her feet. He caught her again, and Jenny raked her nails down his face, twisting in his hold. “God’s teeth!” he hissed, trying to hold onto her flailing limbs. Jenny let out a blood-chilling scream, at the same moment she kicked as hard as she could, landing a hefty blow on his shin with the sturdy, black boots which were deemed appropriate footware for novice nuns. A grunt of pain escaped the blond man as he let her go for a split second. She bolted forward and might even have gained a few yards if her booted foot hadn’t caught under a thick tree root and sent her sprawling onto her face, smacking the side of her head against a rock when she landed.
“Hand me the rope,” the Wolfs brother said, a grim smile on his face as he glanced at his companion. Pulling his limp captive’s cloak over her head, Stefan Westmoreland yanked it around her body, using it to pin her arms at her sides, then took the rope from his companion and tied it securely around Jenny’s middle. Finished, he picked up his human bundle and tossed it ignominiously over his horse, her derrière pointing skyward, then he swung up into the saddle behind her.
Drawing a long breath, Elizabeth clasped her shaking hands behind her back and decided to try for a truce. “Mr. Thornton,” she began quietly, “must there be enmity between us? I realize my coming here is an . . . an inconvenience, but it was your fault . . . your mistake,” she corrected cautiously, “that brought us here. And you must surely see that we have been even more inconvenienced than you.” Encouraged by his lack of argument, she continued. “Therefore, the obvious solution is that we should both try to make the best of things.”
“The obvious solution,” he countered, “is that I should apologize for ‘inconveniencing’ you, and then you should leave as soon as I can get you to a carriage or a wagon.”
“I can’t!” she cried, fighting to recover her calm.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because—well—my uncle is a harsh man who won’t like having his instructions countermanded. I was supposed to stay a full sennight.”
“I’ll write him a letter and explain.”
“No!” Elizabeth burst out, imagining her uncle’s reaction if the third man also sent her packing straightaway. He was no fool. He’d suspect. “He’ll blame me, you see.”
Despite Ian’s resolution not to give a damn what her problems were, he was a little unnerved by her visible fright and by her description of her uncle as “harsh.” Based on her behavior two years ago, he had no doubt Elizabeth Cameron had done much to earn a well-deserved beating from her unfortunate guardian. Even so, Ian had no wish to be the cause of the old man laying a strap to that smooth white skin of hers. What had happened between them was folly on his part, but it had been over long ago. He was about to wed a beautiful, sensual woman who wanted him and who suited him perfectly. Why should he treat Elizabeth as if he harbored any feelings for her, including anger?
Elizabeth sensed that he was wavering a little, and she pressed home her advantage, using calm reason: “Surely nothing that happened between us should make us behave badly to each other now. I mean, when you think on it, it was nothing to us but a harmless weekend flirtation, wasn’t it?”
“Neither of us was hurt, were we?”
“Well then, there’s no reason why we should not be cordial to each other now, is there?” she demanded with a bright, beguiling smile. “Good heavens, if every flirtation ended in enmity, no one in the ton would be speaking to anyone else!”
She had neatly managed to put him in the position of either agreeing with her or else, by disagreeing, admitting that she had been something more to him than a flirtation, and Ian realized it. He’d guessed where her calm arguments were leading, but even so, he was reluctantly impressed with how skillfully she was maneuvering him into having to agree with her. “Flirtations,” he reminded her smoothly, “don’t normally end in duels.”
“I know, and I am sorry my brother shot you.”
Ian was simply not proof against the appeal in those huge green eyes of hers. “Forget it,” he said with an irritated sigh, capitulating to all she was asking. “Stay the seven days.”
Suppressing the urge to twirl around with relief, she smiled into his eyes. “Then could we have a truce for the time I’m here?”
His brows lifted in mocking challenge. “On whether or not you can make a decent breakfast.”
“Let’s go in the house and see what we have.”
With Ian standing beside her Elizabeth surveyed the eggs and cheese and bread, and then the stove. “I shall fix something right up,” she promised with a smile that concealed her uncertainty.
“Are you sure you’re up to the challenge?” Ian asked, but she seemed so eager, and her smile was so disarming, that he almost believed she knew how to cook.
“I shall prevail, you’ll see,” she told him brightly, reaching for a wide cloth and tying it around her narrow waist.
Her glance was so jaunty that Ian turned around to keep himself from grinning at her. She was obviously determined to attack the project with vigor and determination, and he was equally determined not to discourage her efforts. “You do that,” he said, and he left her alone at the stove.
An hour later, her brow damp with perspiration, Elizabeth grabbed the skillet, burned her hand, and yelped as she snatched a cloth to use on the handle. She arranged the bacon on a platter and then debated what to do with the ten inch biscuit that had actually been four small biscuits when she’d placed the pan in the oven. Deciding not to break it into irregular chunks, she placed the entire biscuit neatly in the center of the bacon and carried the platter over to the table, where Ian had just seated himself. Returning to the stove, she tried to dig the eggs out of the skillet, but they wouldn’t come loose, so she brought the skillet and spatula to the table. “I—I thought you might like to serve,” she offered formally, to hide her growing trepidation over the things she had prepared.
“Certainly,” Ian replied, accepting the honor with the same grave formality with which she’d offered it; then he looked expectantly at the skillet. “What have we here?’ he inquired sociably.
Scrupulously keeping her gaze lowered, Elizabeth sat down across from him. “Eggs,” she answered, making an elaborate production of opening her napkin and placing it on her lap. “I’m afraid the yolks broke.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
When he picked up the spatula Elizabeth pinned a bright, optimistic smile on her face and watched as he first tried to lift, and then began trying to pry the stuck eggs from the skillet. “They’re stuck,” she explained needlessly.
“No, they’re bonded,” he corrected, but at least he didn’t sound angry. After another few moments he finally managed to pry a strip loose, and he placed it on her plate. A few moments more and he was able to gouge another piece loose, which he placed on his own plate.
In keeping with the agreed-upon truce they both began observing all the polite table rituals with scrupulous care. First Ian offered the platter of bacon with the biscuit centerpiece to Elizabeth. “Thank you,” she said, choosing two black strips of bacon.
Ian took three strips of bacon and studied the flat brown object reposing on the center of the platter. “I recognize the bacon,” he said with grave courtesy, “but what is that?” he asked, eyeing the brown object. “It looks quite exotic.”
“It’s a biscuit,” Elizabeth informed him.
“Really?” he said, straight-faced. “Without any shape?”
“I call it a—a pan biscuit,” Elizabeth fabricated hastily.
“Yes, I can see why you might,” he agreed. “It rather resembles the shape of a pan.”
Separately they surveyed their individual plates, trying to decide which item was most likely to be edible. They arrived at the same conclusion at the same moment; both of them picked up a strip of bacon and bit into it. Noisy crunching and cracking sounds ensued—like those of a large tree breaking in half and falling. Carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, they continued crunching away until they’d both eaten all the bacon on their plates. That finished, Elizabeth summoned her courage and took a dainty bite of egg.
The egg tasted like tough, salted wrapping paper, but Elizabeth chewed manfully on it, her stomach churning with humiliation and a lump of tears starting to swell in her throat. She expected some scathing comment at any moment from her companion, and the more politely he continued eating, the more she wished he’d revert to his usual unpleasant self so that she’d at least have the defense of anger. Lately everything that happened to her was humiliating, and her pride and confidence were in tatters. Leaving the egg unfinished, she put down her fork and tried the biscuit. After several seconds of attempting to break a piece off with her fingers she picked up her knife and sawed away at it. A brown piece finally broke loose; she lifted it to her mouth and bit—but it was so tough her teeth only made grooves in the surface. Across the table she felt Ian’s eyes on her, and the urge to weep doubled. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked in a suffocated little voice.
“Yes, thank you.”
Relieved to have a moment to compose herself, Elizabeth arose and went to the stove, but her eyes blurred with tears as she blindly filled a mug with freshly brewed coffee. She brought it over to him, then sat down again.
Sliding a glance at the defeated girl sitting with her head bent and her hands folded in her lap, Ian felt a compulsive urge to either laugh or comfort her, but since chewing was requiring such an effort, he couldn’t do either. Swallowing the last piece of egg, he finally managed to say, “That was . . . er . . . quite filling.”
Thinking perhaps he hadn’t found it so bad as she had, Elizabeth hesitantly raised her eyes to his. “I haven’t had a great deal of experience with cooking,” she admitted in a small voice. She watched him take a mouthful of coffee, saw his eyes widen with shock—and he began to chew the coffee.
Elizabeth lurched to her feet, squared her shoulders, and said hoarsely, “I always take a stroll after breakfast. Excuse me.”
Still chewing, Ian watched her flee from the house, then he gratefully got rid of the mouthful of coffee grounds. Elizabeth’s breakfast had cured Ian’s hunger, in fact, the idea of ever eating again made his stomach chum as he started for the bam to check on Mayhem’s injury.
He was partway there when he saw her off to the left, sitting on the hillside amid the bluebells, her arms wrapped around her knees, her forehead resting atop them. Even with her hair shining like newly minted gold in the sun, she looked like a picture of heartbreaking dejection. He started to turn away and leave her to moody privacy; then, with a sigh of irritation, he changed his mind and started down the hill toward her.
A few yards away he realized her shoulders were shaking with sobs, and he frowned in surprise. Obviously there was no point in pretending the meal had been good, so he injected a note of amusement into his voice and said, “I applaud your ingenuity—shooting me yesterday would have been too quick.”
Elizabeth started violently at the sound of his voice. Snapping her head up, she stared off to the left, keeping her tear-streaked face averted from him. “Did you want something?”
“Dessert?” Ian suggested wryly, leaning slightly forward, trying to see her face. He thought he saw a morose smile touch her lips, and he added, “I thought we could whip up a batch of cream and put it on the biscuit. Afterward we can take whatever is left, mix it with the leftover eggs, and use it to patch the roof.”
A teary chuckle escaped her, and she drew a shaky breath but still refused to look at him as she said, “I’m surprised you’re being so pleasant about it.”
“There’s no sense crying over burnt bacon.”
“I wasn’t crying over that,” she said, feeling sheepish and bewildered. A snowy handkerchief appeared before her face, and Elizabeth accepted it, dabbing at her wet cheeks.
“Then why were you crying?”
She gazed straight ahead, her eyes focused on the surrounding hills splashed with bluebells and hawthorn, the handkerchief clenched in her hand. “I was crying for my own ineptitude, and for my inability to control my life,” she admitted.
The word “ineptitude” startled Ian, and it occurred to him that for the shallow little flirt he supposed her to be she had an exceptionally fine vocabulary. She glanced up at him then, and Ian found himself gazing into a pair of green eyes the amazing color of wet leaves. With tears still sparkling on her long russet lashes, her long hair tied back in a girlish bow, and her full breasts thrusting against the bodice of her gown, she was a picture of alluring innocence and intoxicating sensuality. Ian jerked his gaze from her breasts and said abruptly, “I’m going to cut some wood so we’ll have it for a fire tonight. Afterward I’m going to do some fishing for our supper. I trust you’ll find a way to amuse yourself in the meantime.”
Startled by his sudden brusqueness, Elizabeth nodded and stood up, dimly aware that he did not offer his hand to assist her. He’d already started to walk away when he turned and added, “Don’t try to clean the house. Jake will be back before evening with women to do that.”
“I WON’T DO IT, I tell you,” Alexandra burst out, her cheeks flushed with angry color. She glowered at the seamstresses who for three days and nights had been measuring, pinning, sighing, and cutting on the rainbow of fabrics which were now strewn about the room in various stages of becoming day dresses, riding habits, walking costumes, and dressing gowns. She felt like a stuffed mannikin who was permitted no feelings and no rest, whose only purpose was to stand still and be pinned, prodded, and poked, while the duchess looked on, criticizing Alexandra’s every mannerism and movement.
For three entire days she had repeatedly asked to speak with her future husband, but the duke had been “otherwise occupied” or so Ramsey, the stony-faced butler, had continually informed her. Occasionally she had glimpsed him in the library talking with gentlemen until late in the afternoon. She and Mary Ellen were served their meals in Alexandra’s room, while he apparently preferred the more interesting company of his grandmother. “Otherwise occupied,” she had now concluded, obviously meant that he didn’t wish to be bothered with her.
After three days of this, Alexandra was tense, irritable, and—much to her horror—very frightened. Her mother and Uncle Monty were as good as lost to her. Even though they were supposedly staying at an inn a few miles away, they were not permitted to call at Rosemeade. Life yawned before her, a lonely, gaping hole where she would be denied the companionship of her family and Mary Ellen and even the old servants who had been her friends since babyhood.
“This is a complete farce!” Alexandra said to Mary Ellen, stamping her foot in frustrated outrage and glaring at the seamstress who had just finished pinning the hem of the lemon-yellow muslin gown Alexandra was wearing.
“Stand still, young lady, and cease your theatrics,” her grace snapped frigidly, walking into the room.
For three days the duchess hadn’t spoken a single personal word to her, except to criticize, lecture, instruct, or command. “Theatrics—” Alexandra burst out, as rage swept through her, hot and satisfying. “If you think that was a theatric, wait until you hear the rest of what I have to say!” The duchess turned as if she intended to leave and, for Alexandra, that was the last straw. “I suggest you wait a moment and let me finish, ma’am.”
The duchess turned then, lifting her aristocratic brows, waiting.
The sheer arrogance of her pose made Alexandra so angry that her voice shook. “Kindly tell your invisible grandson that the wedding is off, or, if he chooses to materialize, you may send him to me and I’ll tell him so.” Afraid she would burst into tears, which she knew the old woman would only mock, she ran from the room, along the balcony and down the staircase.
“What,” asked the butler as he opened the front door for her, “shall I tell his grace—should he inquire as to your whereabouts?”
Pausing in her headlong flight, Alexandra looked Ramsey right in the eye and mimicked, “Tell him I’m ‘otherwise occupied.’ ”
An hour later, as she wandered through the rose garden, her hysteria had cooled to a steely determination. Irritably, she bent and plucked a lovely pink rose and raised it to her nose, inhaling its scent, then she began absently snapping the petals off, one by one, her thoughts in a turmoil. Pink rose petals floated down about her skirts, joining those of the red roses, the white, and the yellow which she had also unconsciously shredded.
“Based on the message you left for me with Ramsey,” said a deep, unperturbed voice behind her, “I gather you’re displeased about something?”
Alexandra whirled in surprise, her relief at finally being able to speak to him eclipsed by the growing panic she’d been trying unsuccessfully to stifle for days. “I’m displeased about everything.”
His amused glance slid to the rose petals strewn about her skirts. “Including the roses, evidently,” he observed, feeling slightly guilty for ignoring her these last several days.
Alexandra followed the direction of his gaze, flushed with embarrassment, and said with a mixture of distress and frustration, “The roses are beautiful, but—”
“—But you were bored with the way they looked when they had their petals on, is that it?”
Realizing that she was being drawn into a discussion about flowers when her entire life was in chaos, Alexandra drew herself up and said with quiet, implacable firmness, “Your grace, I am not going to marry you.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded her with mild curiosity. “Really? Why not?”
Trying to think of the best way to explain, Alexandra ran a shaky hand through her dark curls and Jordan’s gaze lifted, watching the unconscious grace of her gesture— really studying her for the first time. Sunlight glinted in her hair, gilding it with a golden sheen, and turned her magnificent eyes a luminous, turquoise green. The yellow of her gown flattered her creamy complexion and the peach tint glowing at her cheeks.
“Would you please,” Alexandra said in a long-suffering voice, “stop looking at me in that peculiar, appraising way, as if you’re trying to dissect my features and discover all my flaws?”
“Was I doing that?” Jordan asked absently, noting for the first time her high cheekbones and the soft fullness of her lips. As he gazed at that arresting, delicately carved face with its winged brows and long, sooty eyelashes, he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever mistaken her for a lad.
“You’re playing Pygmalion with my life, and I don’t like it.”
“I’m what?” Jordan demanded, his attention abruptly diverted from her fascinating face.
“In mythology, Pygmalion was—”
“I’m familiar with the myth, I’m merely surprised that a female would be familiar with the classics.”
“You must have a very limited experience with my sex,” Alexandra said, surprised. “My grandfather said most women are every bit as intelligent as men.”
She saw his eyes take on the sudden gleam of suppressed laughter and assumed, mistakenly, that he was amused by her assessment of female intelligence rather than her remark about his inexperience with women. “Please stop treating me as if I haven’t a wit in my head! Everyone in your house does that—even your servants are haughty and behave oddly to me.”
“I’ll instruct the butler to put wool in his ears and pretend to be deaf,” Jordan teased, “and I’ll order the footmen to wear blinders. Will that make you feel more at home?”
“Will you kindly take me seriously!”
Jordan sobered instantly at her imperious tone. “I’m going to marry you,” he said coolly. “That’s serious enough.”
Now that she had decided not to marry him, and had told him so, the sharp pain of her decision was lessened a little by the discovery that she no longer felt intimidated and uncomfortable with him. “Do you realize,” she said with a winsome smile as she tilted her head to the side, “that you become positively grim when you say the word ‘marry’?” When he said nothing, Alexandra laid her hand on his sleeve, as if he was her friend, and gazed into his unfathomable grey eyes, seeing the cynicism lurking in their depths. “I don’t mean to pry, your grace, but are you happy with life—with your life, I mean?”
He looked irritated by her question, but he answered it. “Not particularly.”
“There you see! We would never suit. You’re disenchanted with life, but I’m not.” The quiet inner joy, the courage and indomitable spirit Jordan had sensed in her the night they met, was in her voice now as she lifted her face to the blue sky, her entire being radiant with optimism, innocence, and hope. “I love life, even when bad things happen to me. I can’t stop loving it.”
Transfixed, Jordan stared at her as she stood against a backdrop of vibrant roses and distant green hills—a pagan maiden addressing the heavens in a sweet, soft voice: “Every season of the year comes with a promise that something wonderful is going to happen to me someday. I’ve had that feeling ever since my grandfather died. It’s as if he’s telling me to wait for it. In winter, the promise comes with the smell of snow in the air. In summer, I hear it in the boom of thunder and the lightning that streaks across the sky in blue flashes. Most of all, I feel it now, in springtime, when everything is green and black—”
Her voice trailed off and Jordan repeated blankly, “Black?”
“Yes, black—you know, like tree trunks when they’re wet, and freshly tilled fields that smell like—” She inhaled, trying to recall the exact scent.
“Dirt,” Jordan provided unromantically.
She dropped her gaze from the heavens and looked at him. “You think me foolish,” she sighed. Stiffening her spine and ignoring the sharp stab of longing she felt for him, she said with calm dignity, “We cannot possibly wed.”
Jordan’s dark eyebrows drew together over incredulous grey eyes. “You’ve decided that, merely because I don’t happen to think wet dirt smells like perfume?”
“You haven’t understood a word I’ve said,” Alexandra said desperately. “The fact of the matter is that if I marry you, you’ll make me as unhappy as you are—and if you make me unhappy, I’ll undoubtedly retaliate by making you unhappy, and in a few years, we’ll both be as sour as your grandmother. Don’t you dare laugh,” she warned when his lips twitched.
Taking her arm, Jordan walked with her along the flagstone path that separated the rose beds and led to an arbor filled with trees decked out in spring blossoms. “You’ve failed to take one vital fact into consideration: From the moment I carried you into the inn, nothing in your life could ever be the same again. Even if your mother was only bluffing about putting us both through a public trial, your reputation is already destroyed.” Stopping at the entrance to the arbor, he leaned against the trunk of an oak tree and said in a detached, impersonal voice, “I’m afraid you have no choice except to do me the honor of becoming my wife.”
Alexandra chuckled, diverted by his ever-present, courteous formality, even now when she was bluntly refusing his hand in marriage. “Marrying an ordinary girl from Morsham is hardly an ‘honor’ for a duke,” she reminded him with cheerful, artless candor, “and despite what you so glibly said when we last parted, you are not my ‘servant.’ Why do you say those things to me?”
He grinned at her infectious merriment. “Habit,” he admitted.
She tipped her head to the side, an enchanting, spirited girl with the wit and courage to spar with him. “Do you never say what you really mean?”
Alex nodded sagely. “Apparently, speaking one’s mind is a privilege reserved for what your grandmother disdainfully refers to as ‘the lower classes.’ Why do you always seem to be on the verge of laughing at me?”
“For some unfathomable reason,” he replied in an amused drawl, “I like you.”
“That’s nice, but it isn’t enough to base a marriage on,” Alexandra persisted, returning to her original concern. “There are other, essential things like—” Her voice trailed off in horrified silence. Like love, she thought. Love was the only essential.
Unable to choke out the word, Alexandra hastily looked away and shrugged noncommittally.
Love, Jordan silently filled in with a resigned sigh, longing to return to his interrupted meeting with his grandmother’s bailiff. Alexandra wanted love and romance. He’d forgotten that even innocent, sheltered girls of her tender years would undoubtedly expect a little ardor from their affianced husbands. Adamantly unwilling to stand out here like a besotted fool and try to persuade her to marry him with tender words he didn’t mean, he decided a kiss would be the quickest, most effective, and most expedient way to fulfill his duty and neutralize her misgivings, so that he could resume his meeting.
Alex jumped nervously when his hand suddenly lifted and cupped her cheek, forcing her to give up her embarrassed study of the entrance to the arbor.
“Look at me,” he said in a low, velvety, unfamiliar voice that sent tingles of apprehensive excitement darting up her spine.
Alexandra dragged her eyes to his tanned face. Although no one had ever attempted to seduce or kiss her before, she took one look at the slumberous expression in his heavy-lidded eyes and knew something was in the wind. Instantly wary, she demanded without preamble: “What are you thinking?”
His fingers splayed sensuously across her cheek, and he smiled—a slow, lazy smile that made her heart leap into her throat. “I’m thinking about kissing you.”
Alexandra’s fevered imagination promptly ran away with itself as she recalled the novels she’d read. When kissed by the man they secretly loved, the heroines invariably swooned, or abandoned their virtue, or blurted out professions of undying love. Terrified that she would make just such a cake of herself, Alexandra gave her head an emphatic shake. “No, really,” she croaked. “I—I don’t think you should. Not just now. It’s very nice of you to offer, but not just now. Perhaps another time when I—”
Ignoring her protests, and struggling to hide his amusement, Jordan put his fingertips beneath her chin and tilted her face up for his kiss.
He closed his eyes. Alexandra’s opened wide. He lowered his head. She braced herself to be overcome with ardor. He touched his lips lightly to hers. And then it was over.
Jordan opened his eyes and looked at her to assess her reaction. It was not the naively rapturous one he expected to see. Alexandra’s eyes were wide with bewilderment and— yes—disappointment!
Relieved that she hadn’t made a fool of herself like the heroines of the novels, Alexandra wrinkled her small nose. “Is that all there is to kissing?” she asked the nobleman whose fiery kisses purportedly made maidens despise their virginity and married women forget their vows.
For a moment, Jordan didn’t move; he studied her with heavy-lidded, speculative grey eyes. Suddenly Alexandra saw something exciting and alarming kindle in those silvery eyes. “No,” he murmured, “there’s more,” and his hands encircled her arms, drawing her so close that her breasts almost touched his chest.
His conscience, which Jordan had assumed was long dead, chose that unlikely moment to suddenly assert itself after years of silence. You are seducing a child, Hawthorne! it warned in acid disgust. Jordan hesitated, more from surprise at the unexpected presence of that long-forgotten inner voice than from guilt at his actions. You are deliberately seducing a gullible child into doing your bidding because you don’t want to bother taking the time to reason with her.
“What are you thinking now?” Alexandra asked warily.
Several evasions occurred to him, but recalling that she’d scorned polite platitudes, he decided to be truthful. “I’m thinking that I’m committing the unforgivable act of seducing a child.”
Alexandra, who was relieved rather than disappointed that his kiss had not affected her, felt laughter bubble up inside of her. “Seducing me?” she repeated with a merry chuckle and shook her head, sending her curly hair into fetching disarray. “Oh, no, you may put your mind at ease on that score. I think I must be made of sterner stuff than most females who swoon from a kiss and abandon their virtue. I,” she finished candidly, “was not at all affected by our kiss. Not,” she added charitably, “that I thought it was gruesome, for it wasn’t, I assure you. It was . . . quite nice.”
“Thank you,” Jordan said, straight-faced. “You’re very kind.” Tucking her hand firmly into the crook of his arm, he turned and led her a few steps into the arbor.
“Where are we going?” she inquired conversationally.
“Out of sight of the house,” he replied dryly, stopping beneath the branches of an apple tree covered with blossoms. “Chaste pecks are permissible between an engaged couple in the rose garden; however, more passionate kissing must be done with more discretion, in the arbor.”
Alexandra, who was misled by the matter-of-fact tone of this lecture, failed to instantly absorb the import of his words. “It’s amazing!” she said, laughing up at him. “There are rules for absolutely everything amongst the nobility. Are there books with all this written down?” But before he could answer, she gasped, “K-kiss me passionately? Why?”
Jordan glanced toward the entrance of the arbor to make certain they were private, then he turned the full seductive force of his silver gaze and lazy smile on the girl standing before him. “It’s my vanity,” he teased in a low voice. “It chafes at the idea that you nearly dozed off in the middle of my last kiss. Now, let’s see if I can wake you up.”
For the second time in minutes, Jordan’s heretofore silent conscience was outraged. It roared at him: You bastard, what do you think you’re doing?
But this time, Jason didn’t hesitate for even a moment. He already knew exactly what he was doing. “Now then,” he said, smiling reassuringly into her enormous blue-green eyes as he matched his actions to his words, “a kiss is a thing to be shared. I’ll put my hands on your arms, thus, and draw you close.”
Puzzled by so much fuss over a kiss, Alexandra glanced down at the strong, long fingers gently imprisoning her upper arms, then at the front of his fine white shirt, before she finally raised her embarrassed gaze to his. “Where do my hands go?”
Jordan squelched his shout of laughter, as well as the suggestive reply that automatically sprang to his lips. “Where would you like to put them?” he asked instead.
“In my pockets?” Alexandra suggested hopefully.
Jordan, who suddenly felt more in the mood for a hearty laugh than a seduction, was nevertheless determined to continue. “The point I was trying to make,” he explained mildly, “is that it’s perfectly all right for you to touch me.”
I don’t want to, she thought frantically.
You will, he silently promised with an inner smile, correctly interpreting her mutinous expression. Tipping her chin up, he gazed into those wide, luminous eyes of hers, and tenderness began to unfold within him—a sensation that had been as foreign to him as the voice of his conscience until he met this unspoiled, unpredictable, artless child-woman. He felt, for the moment, as if he was gazing into the eyes of an angel, and he touched her smooth cheek with unconscious reverence. “Have you any idea,” he murmured softly, “how enchanting you are—and how rare?”
The words he spoke, combined with the touch of his fingertips against her cheek, and the deep, compelling timbre of his voice, had the seductive impact Alexandra had dreaded his kiss would have. She felt as if she were beginning to melt and float inside. She couldn’t pull her gaze from his hypnotic grey eyes; she didn’t want to try. Without realizing what she was doing, she raised her shaking fingertips to his hard jaw, touching his cheek as he was touching hers. “I think,” she whispered achingly, “that you are beautiful.”
“Alexandra—” The softly spoken word contained a poignant tenderness she hadn’t heard in his voice before, and it made her want to tell him everything in her heart. Unaware of the stimulating effect of her caressing fingers and candid turquoise eyes, she continued in the same aching voice, “I think you are as beautiful as Michelangelo’s David—”
“Don’t—” he whispered achingly, and his lips took hers in a kiss that was nothing at all like the first one. His mouth slanted over hers with fierce tenderness, while his hand curved around her nape, his fingers stroking her sensitive skin, and as his other arm encircled her waist, moving her tightly to him. Lost in a sea of pure sensation as his lips tasted and courted hers, Alexandra slid her hands up his hard chest and wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support, innocently and unconsciously molding her body to his length. The moment she did, the seducer became the seduced: Desire exploded in Jordan’s body, and the girl in his arms became an enticing woman. Automatically, he deepened the kiss, his mouth moving with hungry, persuasive insistence on hers, while Alexandra clung tighter to him, sliding her fingers into the crisp hair above his collar, her entire body racked with jolt after jolt of wild pleasure. He kissed her long and lingeringly, then he touched his tongue to her trembling lips, coaxing them to part, insisting, and when they did, his tongue slid between them, filling her mouth. His hand shifted from her back to her midriff, sliding upward toward her breasts.
Whether from fear or desire, Alexandra moaned softly, and the sound somehow penetrated his aroused senses, dousing his desire and dragging him reluctantly back to reality.
Jordan dropped his hands to her narrow waist and raised his head, staring down into her intoxicating young face, unable to believe the passion she had unexpectedly evoked in him.
Dizzy with love and desire, Alexandra felt the heavy thudding of his heart beneath her hand. Gazing up at the firm sensual mouth which had gently, and then fiercely, explored hers, she raised her eyes to his smoldering grey ones.
And she knew.
Something Wonderful had happened. This magnificent, handsome, complicated, sophisticated man was her promised gift from fate. He was hers to love.
Bravely ignoring the painful memories of her equally complicated, handsome, sophisticated father’s treatment, Alexandra accepted fate’s gift with all the humble gratitude in her bursting heart. Unaware that sanity had returned to Jordan and the expression in his eyes had changed from desire to irritation, Alexandra raised her shining eyes to his. Quietly, without emphasis or shame, she softly said, “I love you.”
Jordan had been expecting something like that the moment she raised her eyes to his. “Thank you,” he said, trying to pass her statement off as a casual compliment rather than an avowal he did not want to hear. Mentally he shook his head at how incredibly, disarmingly romantic she was. And how naive. What she felt, he knew, was desire. Nothing more. There was no such thing as love—there were only varying degrees of desire, which romantic women and foolish men called “love.”
He knew he ought to end her infatuation with him right now by telling her bluntly that his own feelings did not match hers and, moreover, that he did not want her to feel as she did about him. That was what he wanted to do. However, his conscience, which was suddenly making a damned nuisance of itself after a silence of decades, would not let him wound her. Even he, callous and cynical and impatient with this nonsense as he now felt, was not callous enough, or cynical enough to deliberately hurt a child who was looking at him with the adoration of a puppy.
So much did she remind him of a puppy that he reacted automatically and, reaching out, he rumpled her thick, silky hair. With smiling gravity, he said, “You will spoil me with so much flattery,” then he glanced toward the house, impatient to return to his work. “I have to finish going over my grandmother’s accounts this afternoon and tonight,” he said abruptly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Alexandra nodded and watched him walk out of the arbor. In the morning, she would be his wife. He had not reacted at all as she’d hoped he would, when she told him she loved him, but it didn’t matter. Not then. Then she had enough love bursting into bloom in her heart to sustain her.
“Alex?” Mary Ellen rushed into the arbor, her face alive with eager curiosity. “I watched from the windows. You were in here ever so long. Did he kiss you?”
Alexandra sank down on a white, ornamental iron bench beneath a plum tree and chuckled at her friend’s avid expression. “Yes.”
Mary Ellen eagerly sat down beside her. “And did you tell him you love him?”
“What did he do?” she demanded gleefully. “What did he say?”
Alexandra shot her a rueful smile. “He said, ‘thank you.’ ”
* * *
Firelight danced gaily in the hearth, banishing the chill of a spring night and casting shadows that cavorted and bobbed on the walls like sprites at an autumn festival. Propped against a pile of pillows in her huge bed, Alexandra watched the entertainment, her expression pensive. Tomorrow was her wedding day.
Drawing her knees up, she wrapped her arms around her legs, staring into the fire. Despite her thrilling discovery that she had fallen in love with her husband-to-be, she was not foolish enough to think she understood him, nor was she naive enough to believe she knew how to make him happy.
She was certain of only two things: She wanted to make him happy and somehow, some way, she would discover the means to do it. The awesome weight of that responsibility was heavy on her mind, and she wished devoutly she had a better notion of what being the wife of a nobleman entailed.
Her knowledge of marriage was limited and not very helpful. Her own father had been like a charming, elegant, eagerly awaited stranger who, when he deigned to visit them, was greeted with eager adoration by his wife and daughter.
Propping her chin on her knees, Alexandra remembered with a pang of pain how she and her mother had fussed over him for as long as he remained, hanging on to his words and following him around, as eager to please him as if he were a god and they his willing worshipers. Humiliation shot through her when she imagined how dull and provincial and gullible she and her mother must have seemed to him. How he must have laughed at their eager adoration!
With brave determination, Alexandra shifted her thoughts to her own marriage. She was quite certain the duke wouldn’t like being treated by his wife with the extreme deference her own mother had shown her father. His grace seemed to enjoy it when she spoke her mind, even if she said something outrageous. Sometimes, she could make him laugh out loud. But how to go on for the next forty years with him?
The only other marriages she had witnessed firsthand were peasant marriages, and in those marriages the wife cooked and cleaned and sewed for her husband. The idea of doing those things for the duke filled her with quiet longing, even while she knew the notion was sheer foolish sentimentality. This house was crawling with servants who anticipated the occupants’ needs in advance and took steps to make certain their every wish was carried out almost before they thought of it.
With an audible sigh, Alexandra accepted the fact that the Duke of Hawthorne didn’t need her to look after his needs in the way ordinary country-bred wives looked after their husbands’. Even so, she couldn’t help conjuring up a wonderful vision of herself, seated across from him in a chair before the fire, her fingers nimbly adding stitches to one of his snowy white shirts. Wistfully, she imagined the look of gratitude and pleasure on his ruggedly handsome face as he watched her mend his shirt. How grateful he would be . . .
A smothered laugh escaped her as she reconsidered her utter lack of talent with a needle. If she didn’t prick her finger and bleed all over his shirt, she would surely sew the armhole closed or something equally disastrous. The picture of cozy marital bliss faded and her expression became determined.
Every instinct she possessed told her that the duke was a highly complex man, and she hated her youthful inexperience. On the other hand, she was not a featherbrain, despite the fact that his grace seemed to regard her as an amusing child. When necessary, she could draw on a wealth of common sense and practicality. Hadn’t she managed to hold her household together from the time she was fourteen?
Now she had a new challenge ahead of her. She needed to make herself fit to be the Duke of Hawthorne’s wife. His grandmother had already, in the last several days, made a hundred critical remarks about Alexandra’s manners and mannerisms, and although Alex had bridled over what seemed to her be an excessive emphasis on superficial matters of conduct and convention, she secretly intended to learn everything she needed to know. She would make certain her husband never had reason to be ashamed of her.
My husband, Alexandra thought as she snuggled down into the pillows. That huge, handsome, elegant aristocrat was going to be her husband . . .
Lounging in a big wingback chair the next morning, Anthony studied his cousin with a combination of admiration and disbelief. “Hawk,” he chuckled, “I swear to God, what everyone says about you is true—you don’t have a nerve in your entire body. This is your wedding day, and I’m more nervous about it than you are.”
Partially dressed in a frilled white shirt, black trousers, and a silver-brocade waistcoat, Jordan was simultaneously carrying on a last-minute meeting with his grandmother’s estate manager and pacing slowly back and forth across his bedchamber, glancing over a report on one of his business ventures. One step behind him, his beleaguered valet followed doggedly in his wake, smoothing a tiny wrinkle from his finely tailored shirt and brushing microscopic specks of lint from the legs of his trousers.
“Hold still, Jordan,” Tony said, laughing with sympathy for the valet. “Poor Mathison is going to drop dead in his tracks from exhaustion.”
“Hmm?” Jordan paused to glance inquiringly at Tony, and the stalwart valet seized his chance, snatched up a splendidly tailored black jacket, and held it up so Jordan had little choice but to slide his arms into the sleeves.
“Do you mind telling me how you can be so damned nonchalant about your own marriage? You are aware that you’re getting married in fifteen minutes, aren’t you?”
Dismissing the estate manager with a nod, Jordan laid aside the report he was reading, and finally shrugged into the jacket Mathison was still holding out to him, then he turned to the mirror and ran a hand over his jaw to verify the closeness of his shave. “I don’t think of it as getting married,” he said dryly. “I think of it as adopting a child.”
Anthony smiled at the joke and Jordan continued more seriously, “Alexandra will make no demands on my life, nor will my marriage to her require any real changes. After stopping in London to see Elise, I’ll take Alexandra down to Portsmouth and we’ll sail along the coast so that I can see how the new passenger ship we’ve designed handles, then I’ll drop her off at my house in Devon. She’ll like Devon. The house there isn’t so large as to completely overwhelm her. Naturally, I’ll return there to see her from time to time.”
“Naturally,” Anthony said wryly.
Without bothering to answer that, Jordan picked up the report he’d been reading and continued scanning it.
“Your beauteous ballerina is not going to like this, Hawk,” Tony put in after a few minutes.
“She’ll be reasonable,” Jordan said absently.
“So!” the duchess said tautly, sweeping into the room wearing an elegant brown satin gown trimmed in cream lace. “You truly mean to go through with this mockery of a marriage. You actually intend to try to pass that countrified chit off on Society as a young lady of breeding and culture.”
“On the contrary,” Jordan said blandly. “I mean to install her in Devon and leave the last part of that to you. There’s no rush, however. Take a year or two to teach her what she needs to know in order to take her place as my duchess.”
“I couldn’t accomplish that feat in a decade,” his grandmother snapped.
Until then, he had tolerated her objections without rancor, but that remark seemed to push him too far, and his voice took on the cutting edge that intimidated servants and socialites alike. “How difficult can it be to teach an intelligent girl to act like a vapid, vain henwit!”
The indomitable old woman maintained her stony dignity, but she studied her grandson’s steely features with something akin to surprise. “That is how you see females of your own class, then? Vapid and vain?”
“No,” Jordan said curtly. “That is how I see them when they are Alexandra’s age. Later, most of them become much less appealing.”
Like your mother, she thought.
Like my mother, he thought.
“That is not true of all females.”
“No,” Jordan agreed without conviction or interest. “Possibly not.”