Authors: Christine Merrill
‘Adrian.’ Her voice was tortured, desperate. ‘Adrian, finish quickly.’
‘I am just beginning, my love.’
‘But I fear … I think I am ill … I feel so strange …’ The words came out in a series of gasps.
And he wondered—could it be that a married woman might still be a virgin to her own pleasure? He released her breasts, slowing his attack to let her calm. ‘You will be fine, darling. But you must trust me to know what is best for you. Now help me remove your gown.’ He kissed her on the mouth again as he reached to untie the belt. She struggled out of the sleeves, and between them they pushed the cotton nightrail over her head and to the floor.
‘Now lie back upon the silk. Relax. There is a place on your body as wondrous as the pearl in an oyster. And I mean to touch you there until you submit to me.’ He sank his fingers into the warmth between her legs, deeper between the folds of her to find the spot that he knew would drive her mad. With his other hand, he found the belt of the robe and its silk
tasseled ends, drawing one up her belly to dangle it back and forth over her breasts.
She was sobbing now, shaking as though she would fight against the release. So he slowed his hand, resting the pad of his thumb against her as he let his fingers sink deep inside her. She was hot, tight and wet, and he would go there himself soon. And as he stroked he felt an answering throb in his loins to match the one against his hand as her body gave up the last of her control to him.
‘Adrian,’ she cried louder than his pounding heartbeat, ‘I am yours.’ He could feel her, collapsed on her back before him, legs spread wide around his hand, ready to be taken.
He had thought to take her to bed, to carry her if he could. But it was quite impossible, for he could not stand to wait. He curled his fingers inside her and made her shudder again as he fumbled with the buttons on his trousers, and then in his pocket for the sheath he carried.
She froze, and then he felt her scrambling, crablike, away from his touch. ‘What is that?’
He reached for her again. ‘I do not expect you have ever seen such a thing. It is called a French letter.’
‘And what is its intended purpose?’ she asked.
He wanted to groan to her that there was no time for questions, and to put the thing on and ram himself home. But he struggled through the roar of desire in his head to be patient for the sake of her innocence.
‘One might call it a preventative. It can be worn by the man during the physical act of love.’
‘And just what do you seek to prevent?’ she said, distant and cold.
He gritted his teeth to keep his temper and lust in check. ‘Several things. Disease, for example.’
‘You think I have an illness?’ She struggled off the sofa and he heard a wine glass clink against the side table before tumbling to the carpet.
‘Of course not. You are a lady, and have limited experience with such things. But by my recent behaviour, I can hardly be called a gentleman. And it is better, if one cannot see, to be more careful than usual, when one decides to …’ He let the sentence hang open.
‘I found you yesterday, dead drunk in a gin mill, brawling with navvies. And now you wish me to believe that you care so much for your own health, and the health of your women, that you would bother with such a thing?’ The innocence was gone now, replaced by the tart, demanding tone that he had heard yesterday.
‘Better a quick death in a fight than a slow death of the pox.’ He patted his knee, inviting her back on to his lap.
‘Get out,’ she muttered, stepping even farther away.
‘Does it really bother you so?’ He stuffed the thing back in his pocket, wondering if it were possible to make her forget it again.
‘Perhaps it bothers me to think of you consorting with who knows whom. And then coming to me, treating me as a nothing, just as you have always done. Leave me immediately,’ she said more loudly.
‘Darling …’ he gave a diminishing laugh, as though it would be so easy to reduce the pain of what she was doing to him by her delay ‘… it is for the best, really. You are married, and so am I. We do not wish to risk an accident of another sort. Suppose you were to get with child?’
‘Of course we would not want that.’ Her voice was well on the way to being shrewish now. ‘Why would anyone wish to get a child on me? It is good that you cannot see, I am sure, for you would find me so repellent that you would run from me, after only a few days.’
‘That is not it at all,’ he muttered, his desire for her dying in annoyance with her foolish need for reassurance. ‘I am sure that you are most beautiful, as I have already said.’
‘Liar,’ she said, and the word ended in a sob. ‘Liar. Get out. Go away. Do not touch me.’ She pulled the silk robe around her body with a swish to make sure that he heard.
‘You were quite willing enough to have me touch you a few minutes ago. I do not understand your sudden change of heart.’
‘Well, I understand quite enough for both of us. You refuse to lie with me in a normal manner. And so I refuse to lie with you at all.’ She stomped her
foot hard enough for him to feel the vibrations of the floor through his boot soles. ‘Get out.’
He stood, doing up his buttons, wanting to storm out the door and to the street, to take the first carriage he could find far away from this place, so that he would never have to see her again.
And then he barked his shin on the little table beside the couch, and remembered that he could not see her at all. Nor could he remember the way to the door. He was wilting with shame now, red faced, limp and weak and helpless in the presence of a woman he desired. ‘I am sorry. But I will not … I cannot …’
‘Of course you could. If you thought, even for a moment, about what damage you have done to those who care for you.’
‘No. It is not that at all.’ What she was saying made no sense, and had nothing to do with the confusion he was suffering. ‘Believe me, at this moment, I want nothing more than to leave this place and forget this evening as soon as I am able.’
Then he held his hand out in resignation. ‘But I will need someone to give me my stick and find my coat and hat, for I cannot. Then you will need to call a servant to lead me to a carriage, unless you mean to turn me helpless into the street. Or maybe you wish to laugh at my struggles.’ A thought occurred to him. ‘Perhaps that was your game all along. Does it amuse you to see me in such a state over you, and then reject me, knowing how easy it will be to escape?’
‘Of course,’ she bit back. ‘Because everything that
happens is about you and your pride and what people will think. For a few moments tonight, I was foolish enough to think that you were not the most selfish man in the world.’ She pushed him on the shoulder to spin his body a quarter-turn. ‘The door is in front of you. Straight forwards. Go.’
She did not say another word to him, but walked at his side until he was in the entrance hall. Was she ashamed at her outburst, or as disgusted by his weakness as he was? In either case, he knew she did not want him enough to relent, for she went to the bell to ring for aid.
As they waited in silence for a servant to come and lead him out, he felt carefully over buttons, arranging his clothes as best he could, double and triple checking to be sure he had not done up his trousers crooked, so that it was not obvious to all that he had left in haste from an assignation. When he was sure he would not shame himself further, he said, ‘And now you know why I am so careful not to spread my seed. This curse that has rendered me helpless came to me because my father, and his before him, had no compunctions about breeding. I have no intention of making the same mistake, leaving my son a useless joke of a man. It is the reason I fled my own marriage. And it is why I will not join unhindered with you. I am sorry if that displeases you, but it is a fact of life, and cannot be changed. Good evening to you, madam.’
mily waited until she was sure that her husband was well on his way before moving from the doorway. As it was, she hoped he had not known that she watched him climb into the carriage to make sure he got to it safely. He was not a child. He did not need her help. And it would hurt him even more if she showed a final lack of confidence.
There was some relief in knowing that she had had her trunks moved to the bedroom of this apartment. At least she would not be forced to creep back to the Eston town house and risk revealing to her brother David the depths of her foolishness.
But she felt she must share some small part of the truth with someone if she was to keep from going mad. So she signalled the footman who had just helped Adrian out the door that she wished to speak with Mr Hendricks, and to go with haste to the rooms
to retrieve him, before Lord Folbroke had returned to them.
Then she went to her bedchamber and summoned her maid, requesting that all evidence of her tryst with Adrian be removed from the sitting room and that she be dressed in a way more appropriate for a visitor.
But a part of her, newly awake and alive, did not want to dress. It wanted to recline upon the bed and revel in the touch of silk on skin, and the memory of her husband’s hands on her body.
This had been both the best and the worst night of her life. For most of it, he had been everything she had imagined he could be. Gentle one moment, forceful the next. But ever aware of her needs, eager to please her before he took pleasure.
And the pleasure he had given … She hugged her arms close to her body, feeling the silk shift over her aching breasts. Lord have mercy upon her, she still wanted him. Her skin was hot from his touches, and her body cried out that she had been a fool to let pride stand in the way of a more complete union between them.
Until he had produced his little sheath, she had all but forgotten how his neglect had hurt her, or how far she was from forgiving him. She had not thought further than the immediate need for intimate contact with his body, unhindered passion, and for even the smallest possibility that she might bear his child.
That was what she had come here for, after all.
And once the idea had planted itself in her mind, it had grown there, not unlike the baby she was seeking. If she could not have Adrian, then perhaps she could have some small part of him to raise and to love.
But now it appeared that this had been the precise reason he had left her. In his present state of mind, even if he went back to Derbyshire for a time to appease his cousin, he would refuse to touch her. He would die recklessly as his father had and leave her alone, just as she feared.
Even pretending that she was not his wife—it had not been as she had expected. She’d imagined the separation to be a personal thing. He was avoiding her in particular, but giving himself with abandon, body and soul, to any other woman that struck his fancy. In anonymity, she might have some share in what others had received from him. But it seemed the act was only a gratification of a physical urge, and that there had never been trust from his side at all. He kept himself apart both from her and any other woman he might lie with.
A footman tapped upon her door to signal that Hendricks awaited her in the sitting room. Her maid, Hannah, gave a final tug upon the sash to her dress and pronounced her respectable, and she went to greet the secretary. But entering the sitting room brought on a flood of embarrassing memories and she hurried to take a seat upon the couch before the fire, gesturing him to a chair opposite.
‘My lady?’ From the way he looked at her, she
wondered if some clue remained in the room or about her person that might indicate what had gone little more than an hour before. He watched her too closely as she entered, lingering on her dress, her body and her face in a way that was most inappropriate.
‘You wish to know what occurred, I suppose?’ she said, trying not to let her failure be too obvious.
‘Of course not.’ The poor man must have realised that he had been staring. He looked away quickly and then went quite pink, probably afraid that he had been dragged out of bed to receive some all-too-personal revelation on her part.
‘You have nothing to fear.’ Emily scowled back at him. ‘The evening was without incident.’
‘Without …’ He looked back at her and pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose as he sometimes did when surprised. But behind the lenses, his eyes narrowed as though he doubted her word.
‘Well, very nearly,’ she said, trying to find an appropriate way to explain. ‘The situation is much more complicated than I feared. When I came to London, I had assumed for years that Adrian had a distaste of me, and that that was why he abandoned me in the country. Since I knew he did not like me, I thought there was little future for us, beyond the arrangement we have come to. One cannot change one’s nature, after all.
‘But our estrangement is not about me at all. He avoids me because he actively seeks to die without issue. He thinks by doing so, and letting Rupert
take the title, that he can stamp out the weakness in his family … which is utter nonsense. But it means that I am the last woman in the world he wishes to know.’
‘But his idea is not without merit,’ Hendricks said sensibly. ‘It is logical that he would want a healthy heir, and to believe that his own child might share his problems.’
She glared at him. ‘I do not care to hear about the logic. I am sure, if we get out the family history and examine it, we will see some of the earls from this very line lived long and successful lives, fully sighted to their last day. As have many of the second sons and daughters. And it is quite possible, if we examine Rupert’s branch of the family, that we will find similar problems with blindness there. His own father was nearly sightless upon death, was he not?’
Hendricks nodded. ‘But nothing was made of it, because he was not Folbroke.’
‘Then Adrian’s plans are quite—Lord forgive me the expression—short sighted. It is only a medical anomaly that has caused the weakness in the last three earls, and not some dire curse upon the heir to Folbroke.’
‘The line would need new blood entirely to solve the problem,’ Hendricks admitted.