“He was generous and kind, and I was beyond grateful. It was the best three years of my life in many ways.”
Stuart wasn’t sure he could take it if Piero the elderly count also turned out to be a magnificent lover. “A love match?”
She laughed. “Oh, no. A mercy match. And, I suppose, a gratifying one. He was a collector of beautiful things, and I was simply one of them. Lucia says I was his doll, his excuse for buying fine silks and jewels and feminine things a man wouldn’t need. He had exquisite taste.”
Again he wondered about the paste jewels, but said nothing. “So he was a good husband.”
“I suppose. He was ... incapable. The doctor said it was his heart, but I thought it was his lungs. He had a cough that never completely went away, and his skin would turn blue at times. It was clear he was dying.”
“What a horrible way to die,” Stuart said.
She nodded, her eyes growing sad. “He wasn’t in much pain, he said, but when he was confined to a chair it was difficult for him.”
“I meant being married to you and yet incapable,” Stuart said, leaning forward to kiss her lightly. “I would cut my own throat within a month.”
She blushed, pleased. She blushed beautifully, and Stuart realized he had never seen it before. “But he ... Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say, as he’s gone to his final rest, but he did feel that loss keenly. He didn’t require me to be faithful. In fact, he preferred otherwise. He ... He liked to watch.”
“And he wasn’t carried away by an apoplexy immediately?” Stuart couldn’t stomach the thought of Charlotte making love to another man, let alone contemplate watching it. Even thinking about it made him want to spit on the old lecher’s grave. “Did the others know he watched?”
Her face was scarlet now. “Some. Some liked it. Some did it to flaunt their abilities in front of him.”
“Charlotte.” He hesitated. “Did you like it?”
The sadness returned. “Not especially. Because I knew he watched, it became a performance, a duty I owed him. He would point men out and ask if I wanted to seduce them, and after a time I felt obliged to say yes. It became his only joy in life, the last few weeks. No one ever seduced me.”
“The Italians are mad,” he declared, deciding he’d had enough. Her past was her past, and no one could change it now; there was little point in worrying about it, and even less reason to hear the details. “I’ve thought of absolutely nothing but seducing you since the moment I saw you, and if anyone else wanted to watch, I would gouge out his eyes.”
“It’s quite different,” she agreed shyly, winding her arms around his neck. “Knowing it’s only between us.”
It always will be
, he promised her silently. She lifted her face and he kissed her, then gathered her close. It felt so right, simply lying here with her, and Stuart admitted to himself he wanted that almost as much as he wanted to make love to her. Which was highly unusual for him, especially in light of their wager for one night only and the fact that his fantasies about her now numbered in the thousands.
No one ever seduced me
, she had said; perhaps, if someone did, she would stay with him. And of all Stuart’s problems, keeping Charlotte was becoming the most pressing.
She awoke to fingers moving over her back. For a moment, Charlotte lay perfectly still, relaxed and half-asleep, feeling his fingers drifting over her spine. It was a gentle touch, but not a caress, as if he were touching her just for the joy of it. She opened her eyes the tiniest bit; her hair had fallen in a tangle over her face and shoulder, and with her head pillowed on her arms, she could see him without his knowledge. Stuart’s expression was open and almost wondering as he smoothed one palm over her bare shoulder. It wasn’t the smug expression of a man who had triumphed in his desires; it was the expression of a man amazed at his good fortune.
She closed her eyes. One night, he had said of their wager. What if he asked for more? What if he didn’t? Was it better to end it now, before she fell any harder, or should she stake everything and continue with him? It was a terrible choice; every fiber of her being yearned to see where this curious friendship and powerful attraction might lead. But all reason and propriety dictated that she put an end to it as soon as possible, before Susan could know of or be tainted by her actions.
Of course, Susan hasn’t been found yet, and no one need know about this
, her heart whispered.
Why deny yourself for no reason? Especially since you’ve already come this far ...
She gave a soft moan, stretching a little. His fingers paused, then resumed, this time with bolder purpose. “It isn’t evening yet, is it?” she mumbled.
“No, it’s not,” he said at once, easing closer to her. His erection slid over her hip, and Charlotte stretched again, arching her back. He felt so good against her.
“Are you sure?” She pushed hair away from her face. “It’s dark out.”
“It’s cloudy.” He traced the furrow of her spine, all the way down and under. She caught her breath as his fingers became gently but surely more intimate.
Charlotte lifted her head, tossing her hair over her shoulder. He was leaning on one elbow, a smile on his lips and raw desire in his eyes. She cocked her head toward the window. The drapes had never been drawn, and she could see the pale moon, hanging low in the sky. “You lit the lamps.”
“I wanted to see you,” he said, a note of laughter in his voice. “Since it’s grown so cloudy.” He moved on top of her, sweeping aside her hair to press a kiss on the back of her neck as his knee pushed her thighs apart. “I swear it’s still day.”
“Stuart, it’s evening,” she said, trying and failing to keep the regret from her voice. “We can’t pretend ...”
“Yes, we can,” he said with authority, pushing her face back into the pillows. “Keep your eyes closed, and you’ll never know the difference.” His weight lifted off her, and then he grasped her hips and pulled her onto her knees, her head still on the pillows. With one hard thrust, he entered her, and Charlotte moaned, fisting her hands on pillows.
His fingers ran over her back as he controlled the pace. When she tried to speed up, he slowed her with a firm hand at the small of her back, and when she resisted, he pinned her shoulders down, holding her still beneath him. As his thrusts grew harder and deeper, and Charlotte began to feel herself quake inside, he leaned over, sliding one hand down to where they became one.
Charlotte gasped, jolting up onto her hands and trying to move with him. He forced her gently but relentlessly back onto her elbows.
“Just feel it,” he muttered, his breath short and harsh. “You don’t need to do anything this time but feel.”
Charlotte felt. She couldn’t escape feeling. Her nerves were raw, stripped bare and screaming for release. She closed her eyes and forgot about everything but the feel of his hands and the demands of his body. She rested her forehead on the mattress and rocked back, flexing her spine to take him even deeper, and climax burst over her. Dimly, she felt his hand tighten on her hip, and then he shuddered with his own release.
He fell to the side, holding her against him. Charlotte lay there, cocooned in his arms, happy and replete. She could stay with him; she had nearly convinced herself. There was no reason why two unmarried people couldn’t enjoy a discreet affair. Although ... where? She couldn’t very well invite him into her own bed when Susan would be sleeping next door. And Stuart had no permanent lodging of his own. Something niggled at the back of her mind, and she asked before she thought it through.
“What is Oakwood Park?”
He rested his cheek against the back of her shoulder. “Hmm? Where did you hear about that?”
“The night we went to the opera. Is it yours?”
He was silent for a minute. “No.”
“Why did Barclay think you would be there?”
Stuart flinched, then rolled away from her and got out of bed. “Leave it, Charlotte. I don’t want to discuss it.” He pulled on his dressing robe, never meeting her eyes. Charlotte sat up, holding the sheet to herself. “Who is Barclay? Why must you pay him? Are you in danger?”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “Not mortal.” He caught sight of her face and sighed. “Oakwood Park is a small estate I wanted to own, but cannot afford. Barclay is my banker.” He shook out her petticoat and laid it on the bed. “Are you hungry?”
Charlotte continued to stare at him in confusion. “But the Duke of Ware said Barclay had sent to Oakwood Park, looking for you. Why would he do that? Why must you pay your banker?” Comprehension hit her then, as Stuart continued sorting out clothing and saying nothing. “You own it, don’t you?” she said numbly. “You have to pay the banker because you already have a mortgage.”
“This conversation is over.” His tone was final. He knelt down and fished his boots from under the bed.
“If I had consented to your request for Susan’s hand, you would be able to afford it,” she said, unable to stop thinking out loud. No wonder he had been so furious with her. “Instead you might lose it, all because of me.”
“Charlotte.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Stop.”
“You would have been a good husband to her, wouldn’t you?” Her throat was tight. “And if she had married you, she wouldn’t have run away ...”
He jerked his head up, appalled. She turned away and started to scramble off the far side of the bed, but he grabbed her before she got there, flipping her onto her back and holding her down. “You did nothing wrong,” he said fiercely, his face mere inches from hers. “You were right about me—I wanted to marry her for her money, not for her charm or for her beauty or for love. You were right to mistrust me, to protect her. She ran away because she’s a girl, too young and impatient to see the sense behind your decisions. She would have been miserable with me, and I with her.” His voice fell. “Not the least because I couldn’t have looked at her without thinking of you.”
Charlotte scrunched up her face and clenched her jaw. She would
Stuart sighed, his shoulder sagging. “Yes, I bought it. I’ll be an old man before I inherit Belmaine, and I can’t face the rest of my life waiting upon Terrance’s pleasure for my every farthing. If the farms could be made productive, I would have an independent income, not to mention a home of my own.” He paused. “But it needs a great deal of work—the whole property’s been neglected for years—so I had to borrow from Barclay. And without my income from Terrance, I can’t afford to pay it back.”
“Oh, Stuart, I am so sorry,” she whispered. And she was, desperately. Not for refusing him Susan, although her reasons were more complicated now, but for spreading such tales about him to ruin his chance of marrying well. If only she hadn’t jumped to such terrible conclusions about him.
One corner of his mouth lifted. “It wasn’t your fault. I just ...” He sighed. “I misjudged Terrance. I didn’t expect he would react so strongly to the chattering of gossips, particularly since he always disdained them as idle tattlers who spun tales out of thin air.”
“But then he may reconsider,” she began, but Stuart was already shaking his head.
“I don’t think I can count upon Terrance to come to my aid.”
Something about his tone warned her not to pursue it. She wet her lips. “What will you do, then?”
Stuart didn’t say anything. He just looked at her, his eyes dark. With regret? Then he shrugged, his somber expression falling away. “I’ll manage somehow. Bad pennies stay in circulation forever, you know.”
Charlotte wanted to ask again, to press for a better answer, but didn’t. If he had wanted to tell her, he would have when she asked the first time. It really wasn’t any of her concern, she told herself. She was only his lover, after all, a temporary relationship—as she very well knew it had to be. Stuart had every right to solve his troubles in his own way ... including marrying an heiress.
When she tried to get out of bed this time, he didn’t stop her. When she slipped on her dress, he moved behind her to button it. She bit her lip at the feel of his hands on her back, fastening the buttons he had all but torn open a few hours earlier. Suddenly she was glad he hadn’t told her. She didn’t want to know. A heavily mortgaged estate, in need of extensive repairs, meant he needed a great deal of money, and she didn’t want to think of how a gentleman of no profession and no income might raise such a sum.
“It’s late,” she said to end the deafening silence. “I think I should go to a hotel.”
He sighed, his fingers pausing at the back of her neck. “Charlotte, that will make it look even worse. Why don’t you just announce to the world you spent the day in my bed?” She flinched. “Go back to my parents’ home. They want to think you came back as chaste as you left. Going to a hotel will only throw it in their faces that you didn’t. Everyone in town will know what it means.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Truly?”
“Truly.” He took her hand, and she met his eyes for the first time in several minutes. “My parents are sure to be out anyway, and shan’t notice your return.”
Charlotte let out her breath. “All right. But if your father says one word ...”
Stuart waved it off. “You handled him beautifully the other day. Terrance needs someone to cut him down to size now and then.”