Authors: Christine Warren
Gideon's Bargain: A Regency Tale,
© 2003 by Christine Warren
He had the look of Lucifer, and the reputation of something darker.
Sarah Victoria Spencer stepped out of the shadows that had concealed her form and her fear, and shivered.
Sarah Spencer Marsh, she reminded herself, her skin chilling at the thought. A married woman now, bought and paid for. She hoped her father would be happy with her price. Now that he had disposed of her, the Spencer family had nothing left to sell. Not even their souls.
"Closer. I want to see you."
His voice raised gooseflesh on her arms, the sound deep and rough and rasping, like the purr of a great cat. In the firelight, that was what her husband most resembled. He lounged in an enormous leather chair, his muscular legs stretched out before him, his eyes dark and narrowed. His presence, a thing so palpable and forceful she thought she might reach out and trace its shape with her hands, unnerved her. She stepped forward.
"Closer, madam. I wish to look at what my thirty thousand pounds have bought me."
She raised her chin. "Do you? You did not look at the wedding ceremony."
He had never looked, not once despite the fascinated stare she had been unable to control. His eyes had remained on the vicar, the guests, or perhaps on the stained glass window beyond. Whatever had held his attention, it had not been his bride.
"I saw no reason to. You father and I struck the bargain between us, madam. It was no concern of yours." He raised a snifter to his mouth and drank. When he lowered it, she saw the sheen of brandy on his lips. "Your concern is merely to realize that the service you attended this morning has indeed bound you to me under the laws of
He spoke too softly, too casually. It pulled her tighter than a roar would have. She chose not to wonder if her tension came from the idea of being bound to him, or the idea that her presence affected him so little. Those were dangerous thoughts. "I realize it."
He raised one dark, slashing eyebrow. "Do you? How very interesting. I thought your reluctance to obey my commands might have resulted from some ignorance on your part of the reality of our relationship."
"I am not ignorant of our relationship, my lord," she said with a silent curse for the trembling she could not control, the dangers she would not acknowledge. She had come too far to surrender now to nerves. "I am your wife. You are my husband."
In the glow of the firelight, his black eyes sharpened. "Ah yes, your husband. And tell me, wife, what does it mean that I am your husband?"
Restriction and isolation, if you are as other men. A chance, if you are not. "I am afraid I do not follow, my lord."
"Really. And I had been told you were an uncommonly intelligent woman." He brushed a thumb along his stubbled jaw and considered her for a long minute. "You have addressed me this evening always as 'my lord.' Why is that, wife?"
He led up to something. She knew it. She felt it yawning open before her like a trap, and she stepped carefully around the steely jaws. "Because it is your title. Marquis of Blackenham. You should be addressed as 'my lord.'"
He was shaking his head before she finished. "No, Sarah. A title is not the reason a wife should address her husband so. It is a wife's duty to submit to her husband, madam. A wife's duty to please and obey. A wife should realize that in marriage, her husband is her lord." His tone darkened, smoothed, took on the texture of silk and the menace of iron. He leaned forward. "Am I not your husband, Sarah? Am I not your master?"
Her spine stiffened in the manner of prey, cornered and wary. "You are indeed my husband," she said, not knowing his game. "But I would question your mastery, sir. I am my own woman."
His eyes flashed bright in the darkened room. "No, Sarah. You are my woman."
Was she? The idea made her tremble. She had heard rumors about him and his women, dark whispers of dark practices that made her breath hitch and her stomach clench. They said he was more than a forceful man, that he dominated lady and whore alike in ways more than metaphorical. They said he made his women submit to his darkness.
They said his women gloried in it.
She drew in a swift breath as another wave of cold swept her. She shivered and called herself ten kinds of fool. Were those rumors not the reason she was here? The reason she had not fled her father's house the moment he announced the transaction that had sealed her future? The dark whispers called Gideon Marsh a different kind of man. A man who wanted a woman's passion, not reviled it.
He held out his hand. "Come closer. I still cannot see you, and you are chilled. Come nearer the fire."
She hesitated for one long moment while thoughts of heat and flesh swirled through her mind, warring with thoughts of escape and independence. Instinctively, she knew that if she turned and ran, she would find her husband fast on her heels, and the knowledge made her hesitate. Her subconscious mind acknowledged what a lifetime of society's rigid teachings had failed to suppress: the hot, wild curiosity to know if there might be a greater sweetness than freedom.
She stepped nearer.
Her husband laughed, soft and dark. "Closer. Must I coax you with each step, like a newborn kitten unsure of her legs?" He pointed to the carpet just before his booted feet. "Here, madam. Stand before me, so that I might see your face."
Her legs were unsteady, she thought, unsteady and unfamiliar. They trembled beneath her skirts and tightened against the melting warmth between them.
Sarah drew one deep breath, swallowing the cold knot of her anxiety, and stepped into the firelight. She felt the heat of the flames brush over her skin, ignored the heat of his body, now nearly close enough to touch. The fire warmed the heavy silk of her gown, but the heat never penetrated the surface. Beneath it, she remained cold and tense. The hand he extended held steady, without a hint of tremor or uncertainty. She ignored it, pretended it wasn't there. It was too soon. He was too much.
She stood just beyond his reach, still and silent.
His hand dropped to his side, and he set his snifter on the table at his elbow, unconcerned and unhurried. With his hands free, he leaned forward in his chair, bracing his forearms on his knees and steepling his fingers together. Sarah bore his scrutiny with clenched teeth and clenched thighs. Her husband smiled and continued to examine her.
He watched her intently. His black eyes missed nothing about her person, she was sure. They raked her from head to toe, from the top of her slightly tousled, dark-honey curls to the tips of her satin slippers peeking out from beneath her long skirts. She found his regard disturbing, especially the way his eyes lingered on the smooth, pale skin of her throat and the soft curve of her elbow. She could have ignored a man who ogled her full breasts, or the rounded curve of her hip; she had plenty of practice at both. But she found herself helpless against the gaze of a man who looked as if he wanted to feast on the less intimate parts of her body. It made her speculate about the rumors. The rumors she tried to pretend had not brought her here.
His gaze dipped to her feet, then slid slowly back up to meet her shuttered regard. Black eyes clashed with hazel for a long, tense moment.
"Turn around," he ordered, his voice honey over gravel as it broke through the thick silence. "Slowly. I want to see all of you." He made a twirling motion with his fingers, and Sarah clenched her jaw.
He teased her, she was sure. Could he not see the fine tremors that wracked her body? Could he not see that she needed something to break this tension threatening to destroy her?
"Shall I open my mouth for you, my lord?" she asked with syrupy sweetness that disguised her instinctive need to obey. If she gave in to him and his darkness, he would know all her secrets. She would be laid bare, with nothing left to cover the ache of need inside her. "Would you care to inspect my teeth? I trust you are already familiar with my bloodlines and my breeding potential."
His lips twitched in a smile he quickly suppressed. "Yes, indeed. Your father made very sure I knew what a bargain I was getting in a wife and future mother of my children. Quite the merchant he is. But just a word of advice, madam. Most men prefer to see a woman with her mouth closed. Or at least occupied with something other than words." He again gestured for her to turn. "Now, if you please. A slow circle."
She felt her eyes narrow, weighing for a moment the bare seconds of freedom she would gain by running against his reaction to her flight. She knew he would come after her, would give chase like the cat she had compared him to. She wanted to think the indignity of being pursued through the halls of her new home stayed her, rather than the excitement the idea sent shivering through her. She pictured running, heart thumping in her chest, his footsteps pounding in her ears. She pictured being overtaken, being taken, pressed up against a wall, pinned between unyielding plaster and even more unyielding flesh…
His steady, black gaze never wavered, and instead of running, Sarah found herself turning, pirouetting slowly before him with her arms held stiffly from her sides. She had hoped that when she could no longer see his face, she would feel less threatened by him, less drawn to him. Now, with her back turned and her eyes on the shadowed corners of the gloomy library, she felt the threat of him more keenly. She sensed his eyes moving over her, felt him looming behind her like a beast from some childish nightmare. Only this time, she knew she would not wake snug in her girlhood bed.
His order fulfilled, she stopped once again facing him, her chin raised in defiance and her heart pounding in something else. Her husband sat back in his chair and reached for his brandy.
"You are nearly as pretty as your father promised," he mused, and Sarah had to wonder if he was actually talking to her. "Certainly not the antidote I had half-feared to see. Yes, I do believe you shall suit well enough."
Sarah stared hard at the wall beyond his chair, trying not to watch him from the periphery of her vision. "And for what purpose shall I suit, my lord? You have women enough to please you, I am certain."
A grin flashed across his face. Where it would have rendered another face softer, on this man it simply made him look more sinister, like a pirate. Or a devil. "Oh I have women," he murmured, in his voice as potent as brandy, "but until now I have not had a wife."
He drained his glass of the last of the brandy and stood, giving her the first real proof of the sheer size of him. He was a very large man, and he towered over her, huge and dark and harder than granite. She stepped back, a reflexive act of self-preservation, but it seemed to amuse him, for his mouth quirked with humor, and something infinitely darker.
"Until now, dear Sarah, I have not had you."
What made her any different, Sarah wondered? For a man such as this, what made a wife any different from a mistress? Unless he meant to send her off to molder in the country while some opera singer paraded through town on his arm. The thought disturbed her, though it had no right.
She felt sick to death of "rights."
"And with so many women, how will you keep up, my lord? Which of us shall suffer from this marriage? Me, or your mistresses?"
His brows shot up, and his smiled shifted with genuine amusement. "What do you know of my mistresses? A lady doesn't mention such things to anyone, let alone to her husband."
She felt sick to death of being good.
"I do not know anything," she said, finally raising her eyes to his and tilting her chin in defiance. "But I have heard-"
"Ah, you have heard." His eyes narrowed as he stepped closer. He was so much taller than she, so much larger. When he stepped in close, he made the room disappear and gave Sarah a sense of claustrophobia. She needed space, needed air, needed to get away from him. He offered her no such choice. "Would you care to tell me what you have heard, wife?"
She steeled herself not to run, not to fold aside and let him have his way. All her life, she had let others have their ways. She was done with it. If this man wanted to walk over her, he would have to step very lively indeed.
She shook her head, her wide-eyed gaze still locked with his. "Only rumors, my lord, I am sure. Surely no man could need the five mistresses rumored to be under your protection."
He turned the question back on her, playing with her as lazily as a cat, purring all the while. "And how familiar are you with a man's needs, Sarah?"
She could not contain the fire in her cheeks, but she refused to let it send her scurrying away. "Little enough," she admitted, "but is it not your duty to enlighten me?"
"According to society, it is your duty to resist enlightenment."
"And you, of course, being a man, prefer that I live in darkness."
"I never said that." His eyes had drifted from her face, tracing slow paths along the curve of her jaw, the slope of her shoulder. She felt the gaze like a caress. "We have not yet established my preferences, merely that you had heard them spoken of. No doubt in highlyscandalized tones."
"It amuses you to create a scandal?"
He reached out to catch a lock of her hair, curling the tress into a spiral around his fingers and watching the firelight gleam off the surface. "Society is not worth much more than amusement, therefore one ought to take advantage of what little use it claims."
"Is nothing of use which does not amuse you?"
"Why should you worry over that, wife? So far, you amuse me quite satisfactorily."
"And when I amuse you no longer?"
His gaze shifted from her hair to her face. "Do you plan to cease being amusing?"