T’is said that a certain older lady who runs the ton is now enamored of a certain young military hero. That cannot be, can it?
I say, I wave my fan at the very idea. How can a lady purport to be one if she encourages a younger man to call upon her in the middle of the night and give her outrageous gifts?
Although I too would really like a fine new pair of horses and a newer phaeton. I say! Wouldn’t you?
She’d spent so many years acting like a proper lady, she’d forgotten how to be a woman.
He’s determined to help her remember.
EXCERPT: COPYRIGHT 2022 CERISE DELAND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
“You avoid me,” he told her with a small smile easing his handsome lips. He brought her a glass of cool white wine and settled beside her in a double chair far aft.
They’d been out to sea an hour or more. The day was pleasant, the sea calm, the air balmy.
Not so her heart to have him grace her with his presence.
Only two others sat near them. Most were fore listening to the Rensfords discuss the construction of the yacht.
“You rattled me the other night,” she admitted freely. “We knew each other too young to be obtuse in our older age.”
“Don’t look so satisfied.” She cast him quelling glance, yet couldn’t help but laugh at his insouciance.
He took a drink of his wine. “I’m not only pleased you confess I ruffled your fine feathers, but you are still miffed with me.”
“Angry is the word, Magnus.”
He mashed those fabulous lips of his together. “If you say so.”
“I do.” She took a hearty drink of the wine he’d had the good sense to bring her for this conversation.
“I would think my intentions would be a great compliment.” He lifted his glass in the direction of the Countess of Huntington and her friend. “Some would definitely welcome similar statements.”
She snorted. “What they’d welcome would be a proposal to be indiscreet.”
“I could give you that too if it would bring you closer to the prospect of accepting my desire to make an honest woman of you.”
“I am already an honest woman.”
He looked her over with the careful compassionate eyes of a lover. “I know you are, darling.”
She thrilled to his ardent words and fumed at his audacity. “What I mean is—“
“I know what you mean, Cass. You are a widow. Of independent means. With a sterling reputation. Wealth. All the freedom and power of a dragon of the ton. And you have no need of me. Not my title. My money. My name. Or my hand in marriage.”
“What you do need is the man I am.”
She opened her mouth to continue to argue…but halted, stumped over that last.
He stared straight into her eyes. “I know about William.”
That took her aback. “He was a good husband.”
He looked off to the horizon, licked his lips then took a sip of his wine. Finally, he faced her. “How good?”
“He was kind.”
“Left you to your own devices.”
“He was considerate.”
“And gave you all the money you needed to furnish the house, throw tea parties, visit your modiste and go south to the sea.”
She emptied her glass. He was right. How he had learned this was beyond her. Gossip, she supposed. Heaven knew, no one was free from it. But when what the ton knew was true, it could wound and make one bleed and want and cry.
She got to her feet. The pitch of the boat did not help and she thrust out a hand to catch hold of her chair. “I must go.”
She managed to get across the deck to head down on the steps to go below. She’d found the ladies’ retiring room there minutes ago, but the first door was that to the map room. There she hoped for privacy. It contained one small desk, two chairs and a round flat table. Small enough to compose herself and wipe her tears.
Except right behind her came Magnus.
“No, no.” She put up her hands to ward him off as he closed the door behind him. “Go back up. Leave me.”
“I did not mean to make you cry.” He shook out a large white handkerchief that he’d extracted from inside his coat.
She grabbed it and dabbed at her cheeks. “Well, you did.”
“I want you to allow me to court you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He shot backward. “I am many things. Proud, determined. Never that.”
“I apologize. I mean…” She waved the handkerchief. “I am beyond the age of courting. I will look ridiculous.”
“I don’t care. I want you to have it.”
She glared at him as if he had two heads. “Now you are, pardon me, delusional.”
“Never. I want you to have the joy of it. Dancing and flirting. Being treasured and chased.” He took a step toward her and in that tiny room, they stood together, flesh to solid flesh. He put his hands on her shoulders and smiled down at her. “William never gave you any of that. You should have had it, Cass. Young and beautiful as you were, you would have had a host of young men drooling to dance attendance on you. Be your beau, your beloved. But you never had the pleasure.”
“Oh, you can sweet talk among the best of men.”
“Not so sweet was what you did have.”
The truth bit deep. “Papa had no money for his youngest daughter to debut. William knew it, learned it somehow. He saw me. William saw me. At church one Sunday when we were in town and he offered to Papa for me.”
She remembered the lazy Sunday afternoon her father had called her into his study and he’d told her of her future. A day so much like today, bright and tranquil. “I was sixteen when William decided I was to be his wife. He’d told my father then, but they both waited two years to inform me. Imagine.”
Magnus put his arms around her and drew her against him. His hands stroking her spine, she rested her head on his shoulder as if it were the most natural pose in the world. She felt the rough wool of his uniform and the point of a medal on her cheek, but she welcomed the succor as she had never embraced any before.
“He paid my father to marry me.”
Magnus grunted. “Cass,” he murmured and held her more dearly to him.
“It sounds hideous, primitive. I was bought. Paid for. Papa took the money to pay his debts. I never knew until William told me years later just before he died. He sought redemption, I suppose, or wished to clear his conscience before he drew his last breath. By then, I had cut myself off from my family and I had no one to scream out my misery or my insult. I vowed then no one would ever disparage me so, not ever again. And they haven’t.”
“They respect you,” he said, drawing back to regard her with sympathy.
She huffed. “My due for being a dutiful wife. Yet William was good to me.” She looked up into this man’s starkly handsome face. “He never asked more than that I be a good hostess.”
Magnus caressed her cheek. “For his political ambitions.”
She dropped her gaze to the red of his uniform. “I did it. That was easy. To check menus and make seating charts. To ensure there was always brandy in the crystal and port on the sideboard.”
“And for you, there were all the comforts.”
“Oh yes, every one.”
“But he was not a friend.”
She bit her lower lip.
“Or a companion.”
She shook her head.
He raised her chin and delved into her eyes. “Or a lover.”
She considered the fact that with this man she could be totally honest as she had never been with any other person in her adult life. “I am not a virgin, Magnus.”
“He had you.”
Those were definitely the right words. Simple possession without any emotion. “He did.”
He lowered his face to hers, his lips a breath away. “Did he kiss you?”
Those enchanting blue eyes of his narrowed on her. His lips brushed across hers. “Did he make you want?”
At his words, the world spun and she was giddy with a need she’d known only once before. Forbidden then. But now hunger fueled curiosity and carelessness. She put her mouth near his and whispered, “Let me see.”
The grin he gave her was in his gaze and the rapture erupted in his fierce embrace. His arms around her bending her over the table, he took her down and spread her upon the cool wood. His hands holding hers, he put his lips to hers in the gentlest of claims. A butterfly’s kiss made her sigh. A marauder’s kiss had her gasping.
His kisses became long luxurious explorations, his tongue insistent, probing and thorough. Her hat fell off, the pins pulling her coif with it. But he was ardent, reverent and she cared for nothing but his tender lips and ravenous fingers.
He bit her earlobe and laughed at her shiver. He licked his way down the column of her throat to her cleavage. She arched in abandon, her desire for more, a compulsion she could not sate. He swept two fingers inside her bodice and pulled at the fabric. She wiggled beneath his heavy weight and rejoiced at the urge to find fulfillment.
But he was no novice at seduction or ladies’ gowns. He had the silk down, his hot mouth upon the hard begging point of her breast. She moved and he gave her what she wanted and shoved the fabric beneath her other heaving breast. With both his hands on her naked flesh, he spread wet lavish kisses from one to the other.
A knock came at the door.
Fright blasted her bliss.
He grumbled about intrusions as he pulled her upright. “We will have more of this. Soon.”
She and he tugged her gown back to its original position. Her heart hammering, she told herself to be grateful to whomever was on the other side of that portal. Yet the adventurous girl in her—shocking as it was—did not wish to be saved.
She stared at him as he ran his fingers through her disheveled hair and pulled at her little curls over her ears.
Then he bent and dusted off her broad-brimmed chip hat, quite crushed. His smile was totally evil as he pushed the thing into her hands. “Here, before you go, don this.”
In the hallway, people conversed.
“Good god, how many are out there?” she said as she fought with her hair and her hat.
“Whoever it is, we will stare them down and dare them to babble about this.”
Should she laugh or cry? “You have not been in society very long.”
“You have not seen how frightening I can be.” He chucked her under her chin. “Ready now?”
“No! Button your coat.” She righted him as best she could, then tried to get nearer the door so that she did not appear to hide behind it. Even that was silly. She would either look like a young girl compromised alone with a man—or a complete coward. “Now. Do it.”
He nodded and yanked open the door.
“Ladies,” he greeted whomever stood there while Cass figured her future in London now would be selling fish on the docks.
As if he were in this room merely consulting on navigation of the seas, he gave their intruders a most courtly bow, then ran two meaty hands through his long tousled golden locks. “The cousins, I see. Good of you to find us.”
Cass nearly fainted with delight that those outside were Adelaide and Laurel.
He paused, threw them a half smile and turned toward Cass. “Breathe, my darling. You’re saved.”
He swung wide the door and the two young ladies to whom she had appeared only as a regimented fire-breathing dragon gaped at her. She could picture the image they saw. Her eyes dreamy. Her cheeks aflame. Her lips swollen from kisses. Her bodice awry and skirts rumpled.
Welles pulled his coat to, then threw her a wink.
Addy and Laurel rushed inside and shut the door. They did not ask her anything nor did they comment on her disarray. They went to work to straighten her gown and pin her hair so that minutes later, the three emerged and rejoined the party on deck.
The Countess of Huntington, that bird of rumor, was—blessedly—nowhere in sight.
Lady William Downs revels in her reputation as a Society dragon, a Diamond (still!) at her age, too—and a widow of independent means.
Colonel Lord Magnus Augustus Welles is home from the savagery of the wars. Heir to his ailing father the Duke of Ruscombe, Magnus wants a wife. He knows just who that will be. But the lady doth protest far too much.
To woo her is easy.
To win her he’ll persuade her with the best gifts of all—a new phaeton, horses—and, yes, himself. In all the racy ways she’s never enjoyed!
THE AUTHOR, CERISE DELAND