A Promise of Seduction
By Sandra Owens
I won’t do it,” Lady Carolyn Westerly said, glaring at the man standing too close. She stomped her foot for extra emphasis. The earl, heir to a dukedom, arched one dark brow, clearly unconcerned about her little tantrum.
The man needed to step away, far enough to where she couldn’t catch his scent. Sidetracked—something her father claimed happened too often to her—she took a furtive sniff, trying to determine if it was bergamot he wore. Whatever it was, she liked it.
“Today, I’m wearing my favorite scent, one made for me by my own recipe.”
What, he could read minds? Or had he caught her smelling him? Heat slid up her neck, and she didn’t have to look in a mirror to know there were slashes of bright red coloring her cheeks. She didn’t blush a pretty rosy pink like a proper lady should. No, when embarrassed, her cheeks blotched with streaks of uneven shades of orange-red.
Amusement danced in his eyes, their color that of a blue sky. She debated stomping on his toes. If she thought her slippered foot could do any damage to his booted one, she would do just that. “Have you not heard a word I’ve said, my lord? I. Will. Not. Marry. You.”
Oh, but she wanted to. Her silly heart had danced a jig the first time she laid eyes on him a month ago at the Carringtons’ ball. Unfortunately, his eyes had been on the bosom of the scandalously clad, dainty Lady Cooper-Tarkington.
Later that evening, Carolyn’s mother—the matchmaking fiend—had dragged Marcus Huntley, the Earl of Falconbridge, to the corner where Carolyn was at that very moment attempting to discreetly slide herself behind a potted plant.
She had been there for two hours and not once been asked to dance, even with the impressive dowry her father dangled over her head. Why couldn’t her parents just accept that men took one look at her five-foot, ten-inch frame and widened their eyes before turning an adoring gaze on some petite, simpering, golden-haired—bred just for them—silly girl?
The earl had sought her out for one dance at each ball following the Carringtons’ before spending the remainder of his evening with Lady Tarkington-Cooper draped over his arm. Without so much as a walk in the garden, a stolen kiss on a dark path, or any conversation not weather related, he’d had the nerve to meet with her father prior to stepping into the room and offering his hand in marriage. She didn’t have to seek out her parents to know they’d already approved the match.
Well, she wasn’t having it. She would marry for love or not at all. The ways things were progressing, it would likely be the latter.
In her investigation—if one could call listening to gossip an investigation— of Lord Falconbridge, she’d learned his father, the duke, had emptied the family’s coffers by wildly investing in schemes that promised untold riches. The earl’s only interest in her was her fifty thousand pound dowry. Her next-in-line to marry sisters had only twenty thousand pounds to offer a future husband. A clear message that her parents believed her blue-eyed, golden-haired, normal-sized sisters would have no problem finding a mate. Unlike poor Carolyn. Poor Carolyn, who had often wondered if someone had left her as a baby on her parents’ doorstep.
“I’ll make a wager with you, Carolyn.”
Carolyn jerked her gaze to the earl. Oh, botheration, she’d sidetracked herself again. Not a wise thing to do around this man, she chided herself. But a wager?
“A daring one?” she asked, hopefully.
He leaned toward her until his mouth was near her ear. “Quite so.”
His warm breath tickled her skin and her heart sped up, whether from his nearness or because he was offering her an adventure, she didn’t know. Belatedly realizing he’d called her Carolyn, she mustered the displeasure she should have expressed before she’d been…Well, sidetracked.
“I didn’t give you leave to address me familiarly, my lord. I am Lady Carolyn to you.”
A muscle flexed in his left jaw, then his beautiful mouth curved into a wicked smile. “No. That won’t do for what I have in mind, Carolyn.”
The last, her name, he’d spoken with an intimacy that had Carolyn squeezing her legs together. That confused her and she wondered if there was something wrong with her down there. Oh, she hoped not. How would she ever speak of such a thing to her prone-to-swoon mother? And to have a doctor look at her there…No, that didn’t bear thinking of. Something wasn’t right though, as now she felt damp.
Perhaps she just had to make use of the retiring room. Although, the urge to do so had never felt like this before. “No, this was something different.”
“What is something different?”
Had she spoken aloud? Mortified, she tried to step back, but her over-sized feet tangled together and she fell forward, right onto the chest of Lord Falconbridge. Any other man and she would have toppled them both onto their bottoms but this one, oh heavens, this one was apparently nothing but muscles made from boulders.
His hand splayed over her lower back, one finger tracing lazy circles. “I’m beginning to think I shall enjoy our wager more than I first thought, Carolyn.”
Oh, he really should stopped saying her name like that. Pressed against him, she peered up, mesmerized by the amazingly blue eyes focused on her. And wasn’t it wonderful to be able to look up to a man when her sight of most of them was the top of a balding head? She was certain this one had all his hair. Without thinking, she reached up to brush back the black lock that had fallen over his forehead. Catching sight of her wayward hand as it moved upward, she snatched it back. What in the world was wrong with her?
She glared at her hand. “Behave.”
“I wasn’t speaking to you, my lord.”
After a quick glance around the room as if ascertaining there was no one else, he gave her an amused grin. “Then I don’t have to behave?”
Carolyn tried to find outrage for a man she was fascinated by, even though he only wanted her for a wife because of her dowry. Unfortunately, his fascination was for the Lady Tarkington-Cooper’s breasts. And yes, she was saying that word. Breasts. Breasts. Breasts. Granted, she hadn’t said the word aloud, but she’d certainly thought it. Surely thinking the word was as good as saying it, making her a forward thinking woman. One who wouldn’t fall for a rake’s charms.
She wished she could be more certain of that.
“If you’ll just unhand me, my lord, I will show you and your aunt out.” Carolyn glanced at his aunt—his deaf aunt—who sat in a corner of the room, her nose buried in a book. What kind of parents allowed a woman who couldn’t hear his suggestive remarks to chaperone their daughter? The kind who wanted their oldest daughter married so they could start on the next girl, and hopefully, she was sure, have all seven of them married and out of the house as soon as possible.
“Marcus,” he said, not unhanding her. “And you’ve yet to hear our wager.”
Against every instinct screaming at her to run from the room and barricade herself inside her chamber, she felt her mouth open. She tried to stop the words eagerly dancing on the tip of her tongue. She truly did.
“Will this wager promise an adventure, my lord?”
Something strange happened to his eyes, their color changing from a bright blue to the velvety dark color of the blue bells in the woodlands of her father’s country estate. What would it be like to walk with his lordship along a shaded path there as he quoted poetry to her? Perhaps, he would even write a poem by his own hand just for her.
“Say it, Carolyn. Say my name.”
Botheration! Pay attention, Carolyn, and stop dreaming of things never meant to be.
Say his name? Oh, she truly shouldn’t. “Marcus,” she said, her eyes widening at how breathless one simple word sounded to her ears.
Marcus bit his cheek to keep from giving a victory yell. With that one word, his name spoken with a quiver in her voice, she was his. She just didn’t know it yet. With her came her dowry. He had a moment of regret for what he planned to ensure Lady Carolyn would indeed marry him. No, if he was going to be honest with himself, he would call it true. Guilt was the correct word. But his father had made a promise. If Marcus married, His Grace would turn the management of their estates over to him.
In order to repair the damage Southerly had done with his reckless gambling on dubious schemes, Marcus needed money. Desperately. The commodity was scarce among the nobility these days. Lady Carolyn’s dowry was the highest of all the girls on the marriage mart, thus she’d become his mark.
Enduring mindless talk of the weather each time he’d danced with her, he had occasion to wonder if the sacrifice was worth it. But it was. It had to be.
He did like, however, how her height brought her closer to eye level. By the end of their dances, his neck wasn’t sore from looking down at a girl whose nose barely rose above his navel. He also liked how the gold flecks in her brown eyes had seemed to glitter when she’d finally said his name. He hadn’t noticed the gold in them before, or that her eyes were actually the color of warm, melted chocolate. If she was going to be his wife, he probably should start noticing these things about her.
“About our wager,” he said, watching in fascination as her eyes lowered to his lips. Did she even realize she had settled into his embrace? When her pink tongue licked the corner of her mouth, desire shot straight down to his southern most regions. Well, wasn’t that interesting? Not to mention more than he’d dared hope for.
“Wager?” she said in that same breathiness he was beginning to like.
With a lighter heart than when he’d arrived, Marcus nodded. “Yes, would you like to hear it?” She’d asked earlier if it would be daring, wanting to know if it would be an adventure. If an adventure was what it would take to put a ring on her finger, that was what she would get.
When she didn’t respond, he lifted her chin to get her attention away from his mouth. “Say, ‘Yes, Marcus.’”
“Yes, Marcus,” she dutifully said, and he felt his lips twitch.
The devil but he was beginning to enjoy himself. He darted a glance at his Aunt Janny, who appeared to be sleeping now, but he knew better. She could also hear better than she pretended.
Never married, she had stepped into the role of mother the day her sister had died when he was four, taking a young boy devastated by the loss of his Mama into her heart. He loved her as much as he remembered loving his own mother. Aunt Janny knew what was at stake, and he had her full support in this endeavor. She’d also made a strange comment in the carriage on their way to Lady Carolyn’s home.
“If I didn’t believe that ultimately you and Lady Carolyn will be a perfect match, I wouldn’t agree to this.”
Ha, a perfect match? Lady Carolyn was not his idea of a perfect match, but he now had hope they could manage to form some kind of friendship. Once he had his heir and spare, if she wished to remove herself to one of his estates, he was perfectly agreeable to the idea. That was for later consideration though. Now, he had to seduce a woman who’d said not minutes ago she would never marry him into doing that very thing.
“The wager, my dear, is that one week from today, on Valentine’s Day, you will agree to marry me.” Suddenly, he didn’t like the idea of a marriage between them based on a wager. “No, I would like to reword that. I promise you that on Valentine’s Day, you will say yes to my proposal.” Promise sounded so much better than wager.
Serious brown eyes stared back at him. “How are you going to entice me to marry you?”
Entice. A good word that, although he doubted she understood the images it put into his head. As her head was still in reach, he leaned forward and whispered into her ear. “I’m going to seduce you into saying yes.”
As if suddenly remembering she was still in his arms, she pushed away as if insulted. He would have thought so too if the gold in those chocolate eyes of hers weren’t shimmering with interest.
After a quick glance at his aunt—still pretending to sleep—she tapped a finger over the middle of her lips, drawing his attention to them. They were nice lips, kissable lips, something else about her he hadn’t noticed.
“No, Marcus, that won’t do. This is how our wager…promise, rather, will work. You have one week to convince me to ask you for your hand in marriage.”
The minx stared back at him, a satisfied gleam in her eyes at what he was sure was shock clearly showing on his face. If anyone learned of anything said here today, it would make a delicious scandal. He was a man who shied from anything nearing a scandal. His father managed more than his fair share of talk, and Marcus steadfastly refused to add to gossip involving the Southerly name.
But he needed this woman to wed him. Because of the guilt he felt at doing so only for her money, he vowed then and there he would attempt to make her happy. And she did intrigue him, something he’d not expected or prepared himself for. And that in itself was unexpected because he prepared for every possibility.
What depths had she been hiding behind insipid talk of the weather for the past month? More than he’d wanted anything in a long time, he wanted to peel the layers from her and learn just who Lady Carolyn really was.
But to risk all on the chance she would ask him to marry her? It was a gamble equal to that of putting everything the family owned that was not entailed on a game of cards. He never played games of chance, but it seemed that was about to change. And he did only moments before admit to himself that she fascinated him. Either he would get everything he needed, or he would end up a step away from falling into the pits of hell.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” he murmured before stepping forward. She stepped back. He grinned and stalked her until her back was against the wall. “All right, Carolyn. On Valentine’s Day, one week from today, you will ask me to marry you. That I promise you. Now that we have an agreement, we will seal it with a kiss.”
Because suddenly all he wanted to do was kiss her. He had to bloody kiss her. Her gaze never left his as he leaned toward her, allowing him to watch her gold flecks turn molten, and he liked that. When her eyes slid closed as their lips touched and she sighed, he very much liked that too.
Blessed saints, if he’d known how soft her lips were, how warm and welcoming they were, he would have danced her right out of the French doors and into the garden at one of the balls—all of them actually—and kissed her long before this. A possible lifetime passed before he lifted his head and stared down at her, wondering how she’d bewitched him so easily.
“Do you often make promises you can’t keep, Marcus?”
After a kiss that shook his world, she could calmly say such a thing? All the good will he’d felt toward her fled as rage—at her, at his circumstances, at everything life had thrown at him—threatened to consume him. As he opened his mouth to say what, he didn’t know, Janny tugged on his arm.
“Time to go, Marcus.”
Yes, time to go. Before words flowed from his mouth that couldn’t be taken back. Before he lost everything.
At the door of the parlor, he turned. “I will call on you tomorrow after luncheon, Lady Carolyn. Be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“For the first day of your seduction. I did promise you that, did I not? And I assure you, I am a man of my word.”
With that, he allowed Janny to pull him out of the room. He refused, absolutely refused, to feel any softness for the woman who’d implied he wasn’t a man of his word. If she’d said such a thing to Southerly, Marcus would have applauded her. To say it to him? His entire life had been built on being everything his father was not.
Marcus Huntley, the Earl of Falconbridge, and heir to the Duke of Southerly, was a bloody man of his word. The lady would soon learn the truth of that when she asked for his hand in marriage in seven days.
It could be no other way, or all would be lost.
Carolyn was dressed and sitting demurely in a chair in her chamber waiting to be told the earl had arrived. Demure she didn’t do well, and she tried not to fidget as her mother fussed over her hair, sticking more pins in that Carolyn’s maid had apparently missed.
“You will marry him, Carolyn.” Her mother yanked on a strand of hair as if to emphasize what Carolyn would do.
No, she wouldn’t. Not unless she could make Marcus fall in love with her in seven days. The odds of that were…Well, near impossible. Willing down the tears from the too enthusiastic tugs on her hair, she tried not to remember the hurt she had seen in his eyes when she had all but called him a liar. At the time, feeling as if she’d fallen under his spell, she’d said it to hopefully gain a measure of equal footing with him. She hadn’t meant to insult him, but she had.
Pulling her head away while she still had hair left, Carolyn stood and checked her appearance in the mirror. Marcus was a clever man, that much she had discerned in the short time she’d known him. Would it occur to him the plain brown gown covering her from chin to toe was a figurative gauntlet? If he intended to seduce her, she wouldn’t make it easy, even if every curious bone in her body disagreed with this plan.
Three taps on her bedroom door signaled the Earl of Falconbridge had arrived. Her silly heart thought this was good news and sped up in anticipation. Her stomach, however, thought otherwise and Carolyn eyed the chamber pot, wondering if she’d make it that far. After insulting him, he hated her, and she wasn’t sure she could face him.
“I don’t know why you don’t trust me to choose your gowns,” her mother said just before pushing Carolyn out of the room with the determination only a woman intent on dumping her daughter into another’s care could.
“Lady Carolyn,” Marcus said, his voice clipped and cold. When he sketched a perfect bow, that same lock of hair fell across his forehead.
Had that been a sneer she’d caught when his gaze traveled over her gown? Yes, without doubt, any warmth he’d had for her had vanished. Or perhaps she’d only imagined it had been there in the first place. The creak of the door sounded behind her as her mother left the room, again leaving the earl’s aunt as chaperone. Lady Janny, as Carolyn had been asked to call her during the introductions the day before, again occupied her little corner of the room. After sending a kind smile Carolyn’s way, she opened her book.
“Lord Falconbridge,” Carolyn acknowledged, attempting to ignore the strand of black hair curling itself just above the loveliest blue eyes she’d ever seen on a man. And those eyebrows. Goodness, but they were perfect black arches of hair even she envied. She tried to think of another man’s eyebrows she’d ever noticed and came up blank. Maybe Lord Bentley’s…No, his had stray hairs sticking out.
“Marcus. My name is Marcus.”
Was there even a woman she knew who had—
“What?” Oh, botheration, she’d sidetracked herself again, and there went the fire to her cheeks.
The earl heaved an impressively manly sigh. “Where do you go?”
Go? “I don’t understand, my lord.”
Hands clasped behind him, he rocked back on his heels. “I’ve noticed it before. You seem to leave. Well, your body is still here, but your mind is not. I suppose the correct question then is where does your mind go?” He arched one beautiful brow.
Oh yes, her cheeks were surely blotched orange-red. It made her angry that he could cause her face to turn its ugliest so easily. Very well. Along with the brown gown, the truth of her mind problem as her family often referred to it would surely discourage him so he would go away, and then these strange feelings he caused down there would go away, and she could have peace again. Because it was him causing those uncomfortable throbbings. It had happened again the minute she’d walked into the room and seen him. “The question then, what shall I do about it?”
“Do about what, Carolyn?”
Botheration! She’d spoken aloud again. A bit of deviltry drove her to mimic him. Clasping her hands behind her back, she rocked back on her heels. The ploy would have worked if she’d not caught the heel of her half-boot in the hem of her gown. Oh, this would certainly cause him to wash his hands of her, she thought as she headed for a landing on her bottom.
Instead, she found herself wrapped in his arms, her nose pressed against his chest, inhaling his delicious scent. Mercy, but the man was quick on his feet. How had he moved fast enough to catch her? And wasn’t it interesting how she kept finding herself in his embrace?
“I’m a hoyden,” she muttered.
“You intrigue me, Carolyn. Did you know that?” he breathed into her ear, something he seemed to like doing.
No, she could honestly say she hadn’t a clue. Did it mean he didn’t hate her then?
“You’re not like any woman I’ve known.”
That wasn’t such a good thing, was it?
“You’re mysterious, amusing, and you fit me perfectly.”
All right. Perhaps it was a good thing after all.
“And your eyes, they’re quite beautiful, you know.”
No, she didn’t know that as no one had ever said so.
“But I think it’s your mind that fascinates me the most. You are a puzzle I want to solve.”
As far as she was concerned, he could solve her to his heart’s content. Botheration, what was the meaning of the dampness between her legs? It must have something to do with him, but who could she ask? Her mother would take to her bed for a week if Carolyn dared to ask her. Could she ask Marcus? It did seem to be his fault after all. Would he even know about a woman’s body and why it did the things it did?
“Carolyn, your mind has left us again. Perhaps this will return it to its proper place.”
He lowered his mouth and covered hers. Oh, mercy. How often had she wondered how it would feel to be kissed? This was nothing like her experiment of kissing herself against the mirror. This was…This was…Oh God, this was…
“Stop thinking,” he growled against her lips, sending fire to all parts of her body.
She had never swooned in her life, but she might decide to do so this very minute. No, then she would miss his kissing her. Better to take his advice and stop thinking.
Carolyn leaned over the mare’s neck and urged her on. She was only a half-length behind Marcus and she wanted to win. One thing she could say about her father was he indulged her love for horses, as she was the only daughter of his seven who loved them as much as he did. He claimed Carolyn could ride as well as any man.
Marcus glanced behind him, and she was sure she caught admiration in his eyes at her riding skill. He hadn’t expected that, and it pleased her that she’d surprised him. Well, it was only fair as he’d certainly surprised her with that kiss. Her lips still tingled even after a day had passed. They had strolled in Hyde Park after the kiss, and upon returning home, she’d gone straight to her chamber and stared at her lips for a good hour. She hoped he would kiss her again.
At the stand of trees they had chosen for the finish line, Marcus glanced to the right and grinned at seeing her at his side. He pulled his horse up, and she stopped Astra. Without a word, he trotted his mount ahead of her onto a wooded path. Carolyn glanced behind her to see her groom had stopped yards behind them. He tipped his cap, and nodded. The man probably had instructions from her parents to give her and the earl privacy.
So be it.
When she looked back, Marcus and his horse had disappeared. A nervous tingle skittered through her at seeing the shadowed path ahead of her empty. If she were wise, she would turn Astra and head back to the safety of an open field. But she wanted an adventure, and she was sure one awaited her if only she had the courage to seek it. One more glance behind her assured her the groom was still within shouting distance if need be.
As the trees thickened over her, the sunlight dimming as Astra walked ahead, Carolyn wondered at the wisdom of following a man she barely knew into the dark woods. Just as she decided it was best to turn Astra and trot them back out, she came around a curve and there he was. The man leaning back against a tree, his intense gaze trained on her, suddenly seemed wonderfully, irresistibly dangerous.
She’d wanted an adventure and it seemed she was about to have one.
Marcus had almost decided Carolyn had turned around. He breathed a sigh of relief at her appearance. If he had figured her out, she wanted excitement in her life. Being the oldest of seven daughters, she likely got lost in the crowd. Especially as the other six were perfect little English beauties. The kind of women he’d once thought appealed to him. The last few days, however, his interest was spiked by an unconventional woman with gold flecks in her eyes whose mind seemed to wander at will. He couldn’t deny he would love to be privy to her thoughts, to know what paths her brain traveled.
Surprised by his interest in her? Bloody hell, yes. And no longer just because of her dowry. She sat her horse as if she were in the most comfortable chair in the world, staring back at him, eyes wide. As he returned her stare, he waited for her to make a decision. Would she stay or leave?
Swallowing his smile when she urged the mare forward, he lifted her from the horse when she reached him. Not giving her a chance to speak or for her mind to meander off, he backed her up to the tree he’d been leaning against, and braced his hands on a limb, caging her in.
“What is your heart’s desire, Carolyn? What do you want the most?” And yes, he truly wanted to know.
She flicked her tongue across her bottom lip, a nervous gesture he was sure. Nevertheless, it was almost as if he could feel her licking him, and the instant arousal took him by surprise. “Tell me,” he said.
She looked him straight in the eyes. “This isn’t a proper conversation to be having with you, but no one’s ever asked what I wanted before. Likely I’ll never have the opportunity again to speak of my desires, so I shall throw proper to the wind and tell you.” She glanced to the side as if searching for said wind.
Her gaze returned to his, and he almost kissed her then. Wanted to. Needed to, but she had touched his heart with her admission that no one cared enough about her to ask such a simple question. He reined in his lust and waited. He would have a lifetime to kiss her if his plan was successful. And he did mean to taste that lovely mouth of hers again before they left the privacy of the woods.
“I want to ride Astra astride. Like a man. I think it would be…I don’t know, freeing?”
His semi-hard cock came to full attention at the image of seeing her long legs, encased in breeches, hugging the flanks of her horse. “Freeing, yes,” he said, barely managing his voice above a whisper. “What else?”
“I want to ride her astride in the moonlight.”
Bloody hell. If she knew what she was doing to him by painting such erotic pictures in his mind, she would slap his face. He pressed his arousal against her, just the slightest touch, even though what he wanted was to rip off their clothes and discover all her treasures.
“What else?” he rasped.
“I want to sneak out of a ball with a man of my choosing and be kissed on a dark garden path.”
“And who would you choose, Carolyn?” The answer suddenly seemed one of the most important of his life.
Her golden flecks shimmered inside their chocolate pools. “You, Marcus.”
There had been no hesitation in naming him, and he felt a rare smile steal over his face as a bit of happiness stole into his heart. A foreign feeling that, but one he could easily get used to.
“And I want to know what this feeling I get low in my belly means whenever you are near.”
“Pardon?” Her cheeks flushed, and he’d noticed before that she didn’t blush prettily. But when she did, he was strangely reminded of the pink and orange hues of a beautiful sunset. Regretting his surprised outburst when she lowered her head, hiding her lovely eyes in obvious embarrassment, he put a finger under her chin and lifted her face.
“My apologies. I wasn’t expecting that particular…ah, information, shall we say?” He put his hand on the belly in question. “Here?”
She shook her head. “Lower.”
The woman was killing him, the first ever to even put such a thought in his head. He lowered his hand to just above where he knew her feminine curls would begin. “What happens to you here when I’m near, Carolyn?”
She muttered something he couldn’t catch, but he could guess. “Are you damp, love?”
Startled eyes blinked at him. “How did you know?”
“It’s what desire does to you. It’s your body’s way of preparing yourself for me.” Biting back a chuckle at her bemused look, he considered how much he should explain to her. It would be better to show her, however, and much more enjoyable.
“I want to be kissed. Now, Marcus.”
Marcus eyed the window Carolyn’s groom had pointed out as hers. He hadn’t even had to slip the man any coins for the information, and that made him angry. Her parents should be protecting her, but her father had made it clear he wanted his daughter married post haste. No doubt the groom had been instructed to help things along.
It had been a long time since he’d climbed up to a lady’s bedroom window, but as he slipped the pack over his shoulder, he considered the woman above worth the risk of a broken leg. She had obviously bewitched him, there was no other explanation.
The climb had been made easy by a large tree, and her window was partially open to allow fresh air into the room, allowing him to effortlessly slip inside. Moonlight lit the room enough to keep him from stumbling over furniture as he approached the bed. The empty bed. Had he been directed to the wrong chamber?
It was only by chance that he heard a floorboard creak and turned in time to keep from being bashed over the head by a poker.
“Caroline!” he hissed. “It’s me, Marcus.” He wrenched the weapon out of her hands.
“In the flesh.”
“What are you doing in my room?”
“I’m here to take you on an adventure.” He removed the pack from his shoulder, and pulled out a pair of breeches and a white shirt he’d borrowed from one of his servants who appeared to be about her size. “But first, you will have to change into these.”
She eyed the clothing as if he were attempting to hand her a snake.
“You did say you wanted to ride your horse astride in the moonlight, did you not?”
Wide eyes lifted to his, and a big smile lit her face. She snatched the breeches and shirt from him as if she feared he might be bamming her. With a bounce in her steps, she practically danced to her bedside table and lit a candle, and then held the breeches up, inspecting them.
“These will do,” she pronounced with enthusiasm. “Turn around.”
The devil, but he was hoping she would more or less forget he was in the room while she changed. Obeying her, he turned, only to find he faced a mirror and couldn’t resist giving his reflection a satisfied smirk. It was his turn to widen his eyes when she tugged her nightrail over her head, exposing a body he’d not even begun to imagine. Mouth dry, his gaze traveled over the most perfect breasts he’d ever had the pleasure of seeing, down to a firm stomach that flared into hips he ached to dig his fingers into as he pulled her against him.
His hands itched to unbraid her hair, to see it fall over her shoulders and down her bare back. In the candlelight, there appeared to be streaks of gold to match the flecks in her eyes. If she were straddling him, her hair would fall around them like a curtain, hiding them from the world.
Their eyes met in the mirror. Caught! Expecting a tongue lashing for his spying on her, what he got instead was a secretive smile only a woman who knew a man admired her could give. The minx!
She oh so slowly turned her back to him, bent over and slipped a foot into a leg of the breeches. Sweet baby Jesus, what a fine ass she had. And those long, long legs! How would they feel wrapped around him?
Marcus adjusted his breeches before he turned to face his future wife. Please, God. “Shall I take you out the way I came in?”
Her gin was adorably mischievous. “I’ve been climbing trees since I was old enough to evade my parents’ attention. Doing it with you will be even better.”
Marcus fell in love. He held out his hand. “Then come climb a tree with me.”
Carolyn pressed her legs against Astra’s flanks as she raced Marcus over the soft earth of a deserted Hyde Park, lit only by moonlight. He’d made her wishes…No her desires come true. Did that mean he loved her? As much as she wished such a thing were true, she doubted it. She’d seen the way he’d stared down at Lady Tarkington-Cooper’s breasts, and although to her inexperienced eyes, he’d stared back at her through the mirror with that same look, she could never be the siren the other woman was. More’s the pity.
All too soon, he pulled up his horse, tipping an imaginary hat. “If you had a horse equal to Thunder here, you would have beat me, Carolyn.”
That any man, but especially one of the earl’s standing would admit such a thing was astonishing. Carolyn fell in love with him then, and that frightened her. He could hurt her like no other. He also brought excitement into her life and that, she could not resist.
“If we marry, will you buy me a horse that will beat you, Marcus?” Botheration, where had she found the nerve to say such a thing?
Eyes so blue she could see their color even on a moonlit night focused on her. “Is a horse all that it will take to gain a proposal from you?”
How had she forgotten she’d wagered she would have to propose to him? At a loss for words, she turned Astra away, or intended to. Before she knew what was happening, she was straddled across his legs. On his horse!
“Propose to me,” he demanded in a tone that only a future duke would know how to use.
She almost did, right there on the spot. But something unforgiving of his attention on another woman’s breasts seemed to sew her mouth shut. At her lack of response, his eyes turned stormy, and that strange thing in her stomach happened. Again.
Finding her voice, she shook her head. “You gave me until Valentine’s Day on our wager.”
“Not a wager. A promise.”
Something flashed in his eyes, and not knowing the workings of a man’s mind, she wasn’t sure if it was disappointment in her or anger. So she let her heart talk for her.
“Then give me a reason to propose.”
Faster than a rabbit could disappear into his hole, she found herself on the ground with a large body covering hers.
“Damn you, Carolyn. You are playing with fire.”
“I’ve always loved fire,” some other woman responded, because surely it couldn’t have been her speaking those words.
He grinned then, a wolfish, wicked grin that promised he planned to eat her alive. His hand slid under her shirt and she moaned when his fingers caressed a breast, a place no man had ever touched.
“Are you wet for me, love?”
“I don’t understand.” How was she even able to talk with him doing those magic things, much less supposed to think?
“Damp. Wet. Doesn’t matter. Just words. Pick one.”
Because he sounded as bothered as she did, Carolyn gave in to her need to touch him. She pulled his shirt from the waist of his breeches and began an exploration of his back, then his sides, then his chest, marveling at the heat sizzling up from his skin.
“Yes, touch me,” he said, then kissed her.
Distracted by the tongue tangling with hers, she didn’t notice he’d unbuttoned her breeches and pushed them down until she felt a foreign invasion down there. “Marcus!” She tried to squeeze her thighs together, but he put a muscled leg between them and nudged them apart.
“I’ve fulfilled all your desires, love, but this one. Now I’m going to show you why you get…Did you choose a word?”
Her brain had gone on holiday apparently, and she hadn’t a clue what nonsense he spouted.
“Are you damp, or are you wet?”
Oh, that. “Damp. I’m damp.”
“That is a beginning, but I want you wet, love. For me,” he added as if that was an important distinction. “See how my finger slides so easily into you, then back out? That is why you are damp. This is what I meant when I said your body is preparing yourself for me.”
“More,” she said.
He’d put his mouth on her nipple, and his chuckle reverberated through her. He lifted so that his face hovered over hers. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Marcus.” What she was sure of she wasn’t quite sure. But her body needed something more, and he would know what that was.
“That will mean you are mine. Do you understand me?”
Such fierce eyes he had. “Yes.” She didn’t understand, but if she admitted it, he would stop. She didn’t think she could bear for him to stop whatever came next.
“So be it,” he said, and then she felt his hand fumble with his breeches.
Something bigger than his finger invaded her body and she tensed, suddenly wanting him to stop after all.
“Easy, love. The first time it will hurt, and I’m sorry for it, but it can’t be helped. I promise it won’t be for more than mere seconds, then I shall take you to heaven.”
Oh, mercy, it did hurt. She tried to push him away, but he melded their mouths together, and as he kissed her, the pain receded. As he moved inside her, it still seemed as if he didn’t belong, as if she’d allowed the end of a broom to burrow into her.
Then, miracle of miracles, it began to feel good. Good turned to better, and better turned to spectacular when his fingers joined in the play, rubbing over a little spot she’d found while bathing.
While one of his hands remained down there, his other one slipped behind her neck, and the way he splayed his fingers, cradling her head from the hard ground, made her feel protected and maybe even loved.
Stars began to pop into her vision, more appearing as something inside her threatened to shatter her into a thousand pieces. Surprising her, her body began to move, as if she’d known the steps to this dance all along. She needed…something.
“You are so close, love. Let it go. I will stay with you all the way.”
Yes, let go, that was what she must do. The stars brightened to a blinding light, and pleasure so great she was sure she would die took her body by storm as wave after wave of something so carnal she didn’t have words for crashed over her.
Marcus gave a low growl, thrust into her hard, then went as still a statue. She felt a shudder travel through him and wondered if he’d had the same life-altering experience as she.
“My God,” he said before rolling over, taking her with him. Finding herself lying over his chest, she peered down at him, unsure what to say.
Blue eyes glittered up at her. “You are mine, Carolyn.”
Not if he didn’t love her.
As Carolyn waited for Marcus to return with her punch, she marveled that she wasn’t searching for a potted plant to hide behind. He’d stayed by her side all evening, dancing with her twice, and the supper dance was reserved for him at his insistence. They were the talk of the Valentine’s Day ball. Oh, she’d overheard the whispers and the surprised looks sent her way. It appeared that no one could believe the Earl of Falconbridge, heir to the Duke of Southerly, had chosen her in his search for a wife. But she didn’t care.
The past week had been the best of her life, and she was sure Marcus was in love with her. Almost sure. The way his eyes softened when looked at her, the effort he’d taken to make her desires come true said he had feelings for her. But most of all was the way he loved her whenever they’d been able to steal private time together on a dark garden path. It couldn’t all be an act, could it?
She spied him returning from the refreshment room, a cup of punch in is hand. Her smile faltered when Lady Tarkington-Cooper stepped in front of him and placed her hand on his arm. Marcus leaned his head close to the lady’s mouth as she spoke. He said something back, then they walked together out the French doors leading to the balcony.
Carolyn imagined she could hear the sound of her heart ripping in two. It had been an act, all the special attention, all the smiles she’d thought belonged only to her, all the warmth in his beautiful blue eyes she’d believed meant for her. Lies, all of it lies. All that mattered to him was her dowry.
She would not cry. She would not! Nevertheless, tears blurred her vision. What would a forward thinking woman do? She wouldn’t stand for such treatment, would she? Carolyn determinedly blinked the tears away, stiffened her back and marched toward the balcony, fully intending to tell the bastard exactly what she thought of him. Yes, she’d thought the word bastard. She was a modern woman, after all. When she reached him, she would even say the word aloud!
“Surely, you jest, Marcus. You can’t possibly prefer the chit over me.”
Carolyn froze, part of her wanting to flee before he answered the witch, who really shouldn’t dress so indecently. The other part needing to hear him agree that he couldn’t possibly prefer a too-tall, scattered-brained woman who blushed a horrid shade of orange-red. If she stayed long enough to hear him say that, then her heart had a chance of surviving the attentions of a lying bastard. There, she’d thought the word again and was proud of it.
“Actually, Regina, I do prefer her over you.”
Marcus had his back to her, so Carolyn couldn’t see his face, but he sounded sincere. Dare she hope?
Lady Tarkington-Cooper laughed, a tinkling sound she had probably practiced until perfected. The woman glanced behind Marcus and when her gaze met Carolyn’s, something mean and nasty crossed her face before she quickly schooled it.
“Oh, Marcus, you dear, dear man. I understand now. You are sacrificing yourself for the good of your family and holdings. We won’t allow it to interfere with us, however. After you are married, you can send her off to the country, and we’ll be together as usual.”
She then lifted onto her toes and kissed Marcus. Was it true? Would he send her away, and carry on as if he didn’t have a wife hidden away?
“Regina! Stop this nonsense. I told you a week ago it was over between us. Yes, my intention was to marry her for her dowry in the beginning. Even then, I would have been faithful to my wife. If you didn’t understand that is the kind of man I am, then you never knew me. Funny thing is, I went and fell in love with her. I intend to marry her, dowry or no dowry.”
“Only if the lady in question asks you to marry her, my lord,” Carolyn said, stepping up next to him. “Remember our wager?”
“Promise,” he corrected. “And it’s Marcus. I thought we had established that.”
She slipped her arm around his, then turned a hard stare at Lady Tarkington. “This time I will ask you politely to leave my future husband alone. The next time, I will scratch your eyes out, my lady.”
Marcus grinned at her. “You’ve yet to ask me to marry you, Carolyn.”
Carolyn grinned back at him, her heart bursting with happiness. The man loved her, but she wasn’t exactly sure which of them had won the wager…ah, promise. “You are right, of course. Shall I rectify that?”
He turned to face her. “It is my most heartfelt wish that you would.”
“Only because I love you, am I doing this,” she said, then knelt in front of him. “Lord Falconbridge, will you marry me?”
“Marcus,” he growled, then pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly.
“There is a condition,” Carolyn said when he finally released her lips.
Marcus raised a perfectly shaped, questioning brow.
“The man I marry must promise me a lifetime of seduction,” she said while praying he could love a modern woman, one who would say such a thing.
A deviously wicked smile curved his lips before he leaned forward and as he was wont to do, and whispered in her ear. “Then I am your man, Carolyn. Have you any more desires we’ve not fulfilled?”
“Oh, yes. Pages and pages of them.”
“Then we had better get started, my love,” he said, taking her hand and wrapping it around his arm as he led her to a dark garden path.
She followed him willingly, modern woman that she was.