By Nicole Jordan
London, November 1813
He rose naked from the surf, his wet, sleekly muscled body glistening in the Caribbean sun. Framed against the brilliant turquoise sea, he looked like some pagan god. Yet he was no god. He was the pirate who had stolen her virtue and then her heart.
Heat and vitality and danger throbbed from him as he stood spread-legged on the crystalline white beach, commander of all he surveyed. His engorged male flesh clearly proclaimed his arousal and made her breath falter.
As if he heard her soft gasp, his dark gaze riveted on her. She felt ravished each time he looked at her, even though she couldnt make out his features. She could never see his face, only his dark eyes that were intense and burning.
He came to her then, purpose defined in every lithe stride. The sand was warm at her back as he bore her down, his hungry mouth hot as it claimed hers.
His kiss was ravaging, not in force but in effect; his touch dangerously, wildly sensual as his hands roamed over her at will.
He drank of her mouth, then shifted his caresses lower, gentle and ruthless at once. Pressing her head back, he kissed the arch of her throat, her collarbone, her naked breasts
. His lips felt hotter than the sun on her bare skin, the blistering heat searing her flesh. He captured a nipple and suckled hard, shooting arrows of pleasure downward to her moist, feminine center.
She whimpered and parted her legs for him, sighing as he nestled his swollen sex against her softness, the throbbing ache between her thighs soothed and aroused at once.
Understanding her urgent need, he slid himself relentlessly within her, his huge shaft filling her, making her want to weep with ecstasy.
But then he went still, denying her the release she craved. The hot darkness of his gaze pinned her as surely as his pulsing masculine flesh impaled her.
How can you wed him? he demanded roughly. How can you think to give yourself to him?
I must. I have no choice. I swore a solemn promise.
His intense gaze burned into hers. Your duke is cold, passionless. He cannot make you feel what I do. He cannot make your blood run hot as I can.
She turned her head aside, knowing all he said was true. She felt a sense of desperation at the thought of her impending marriage. She wanted to forget
and yet her pirate would not allow her.
His hand clenched in her hair, his teeth bared in savage insistence. You belong tome, only to me. You are mine, do you heed me? And I am yours. You created me.
His possessiveness thrilled and excited her. Yes, she said simply.
He withdrew his slick shaft and sank forcefully into her again, thrusting completely home. When you go to him,Iwill be the one you remember. My touch, my taste, my hard flesh driving deep inside you, making you cry out with need.
She pulled his mouth down to hers, needing to taste him, feel him
The fierce intimacy of his body locked into hers and he began to move again, taking her, claiming her. He wasnt tender, but she wanted no tenderness. Instead she lifted her hips to meet his deep thrusts, answering him with all the vigor in her trembling form.
More, he urged hoarsely against her mouth. Give me more. Surrender
Climax exploded through her in intense, rigid shudders again and again and again before at last he found his own release. Eventually he collapsed upon her, his gasping breath mingling with hers, their fierce hunger momentarily sated.
She lay back, replete, as silken waves came to lap at her, cooling her overheated skin and the blaze of passion between them
Slowly Raven Kendrick roused from fantasy to awareness, recognizing her bedchamber. The chill light of early morning filtered through the damask curtains as she lay in bed, her body still throbbing with her powerful climax and the memory of her pirate. He was a wild, sweet fire in her blood
and he was merely illusion.
With a sigh of unfulfilled longing, Raven rolled over and drew a pillow to her still-tingling breasts. He was all she would ever have of true passion.
Her lover existed only in her imagination, although sometimes he seemed as real to her as any flesh and blood man. He had no identity, no past other than the one she had attributed to him. Hed come ashore in her dreams one bright Caribbean morning to plunder her body and capture her heart
Her eyes closed on the memory of their most recent interlude. She was still hot and moist between her legs from his make-believe claiming, but in real life she had never felt the ecstasy of a mans flesh filling her, burning deep inside her.
She could imagine, though. Indeed, she knew things no virgin should ever know. The rare, erotic book her mother had left behind at her death,A Passion of the Heart, had been given to Elizabeth Kendrick by the man shed desperately loved and was forced to relinquisha parting gift to keep his memory alive.
Penned by an anonymous Frenchwoman, the journal was a true, tragic tale of love and filled with exquisite details of carnal desire. It had provided solace to Ravens mother for years, for although it mirrored her pain, the vividly told story let her relive her own lost passion.
Yet it was a scandalous tome for any young lady of virtue to possess.
Raven frowned defiantly. Perhaps shewas wicked to foster such vivid illusions of her pirate, but in her fantasies she could be as unconventional and free as she chose. She could satisfy the deep restlessness inside her, indulge her forbidden hunger without the dire consequences of social ruin. Most vitally, she could give herself completely to a lover without fear of losing her heart and soul, the way her mother once had.
Involuntarily Raven clenched her fists as the familiar dread pulsed through her. She would never give her heart to areal man. Shed seen how love had destroyed her mother, made her a slave to dimming memory. For years her mother had sobbed into her pillow each night, lamenting the love shed lost. By day she had pored over her precious journal, memorizing each poignant line.
Reaching into the bedside table drawer, Raven withdrew the jewel-encrusted book, her eyes blurring as she remembered. It had grieved her endlessly to see her mother waste her life away, wishing even on her deathbed for a man she could never have.
The loss of her mother had left Raven achingly bereft yet filled with determination.She would never make the same mistake her mother had made, falling victim to a hopeless love. No man would ever own her soul. She alone controlled the shape of her destiny. She might have resolved to marry, but love would form no part of the equation.
A rap on her bedchamber door brought Raven out of her dark reverie. Quickly returning the journal to the drawer, she bid admission, and her personal maid entered, carrying a tray.
Morning, miss, Nan said in unmistakably excited tones. Ive brought you a fine breakfast since youll need proper sustenance. Twill be many hours before the wedding feast.
Inexplicably Ravens heart sank at the reminder. Her wedding day at last was here.
She sat up slowly in bed and allowed Nan to set the tray on her lap, even though she suddenly had no appetite.
The maid poured her a cup of chocolate, talking all the while. Just think, Miss Raven! Youll soon be aduchess . Tis just like a fairy tale. Nan sighed, her expression filled with reverence before she caught herself. Beg pardon, miss. I shouldnt let my tongue run away like that. But Ive never known a real duchess before.
Raven summoned a smile she didnt feel. Thats quite all right, Nan. I am a bit in awe myself.
Turning to the hearth, the maid built up the dwindling fire to ward off the November chill, then bobbed a curtsy. Your bathwater is heating, Miss Raven. If you please, Ill return in half an hour to help you bathe and dress.
Yes, thank you, Nan.
When the servant had left the room, Raven dutifully picked up her fork but set it down again as her stomach recoiled. In a few short hours she would wed the man she had chosen, a prominent nobleman who commanded the respect of the highest echelons of the ton. She had eagerly anticipated this day for monthsso why did she now feel as if she were somehow going to her execution?
Bridal nerves. Her anxiety could be attributed merely to that. Every bride had misgivings on her wedding day.
She shook her head, determined to quell the knots in her stomach. It was absurd to be entertaining doubts at this late date about the plan shed set for her future. Her marriage to the Duke of Halford would not only be the fulfillment of her mothers most fervent wish for hersecuring her rightful position among the nobilitybut it meant she would no longer be an outsider.
She would at lastbelong somewhere.
As a duchess, she would be accepted by the cream of society
the society her mother had been denied after being banished to the West Indies more than twenty years ago by an irate father.
Raven raised her cup of chocolate to her lips, trying to ignore her qualms. Her future husband, the Duke of Halford, might be a proud, stiff-necked aristocrat more than twice her ageone, moveover, whod had the misfortune to bury two young wives after accidental tragedies. But as his wife, she would no longer be compelled to fight the despairing feelings of aloneness that had haunted her for much of her life.
She was fortunate to have attracted Halford, considering the disadvantages she faced. Although a British citizen, shed been born in the West Indies and had only come to England for the first time this past spring, a year after her mothers death. Forcibly swallowing her reluctance, shed reconciled with her estranged familyher ailing viscount grandfather and her dragon of a great-aunt, who had sponsored her London season as a debutante.
Since then, Raven had grown to realize how very much acceptance meant to her, how deeply she cherished the feeling of belonging.
To her relief and gratitude, her first Season had been a triumph. She was sought after by countless admirers and received a half dozen estimable proposals of marriage, along with several unsuitable ones. Shed fooled even the highest sticklers with her efforts at demure deportment. But with a hidden scandal in her past, she could give the ton no reason to challenge her entrée into its select ranks, no matter how much she might like to thumb her nose in their faces. Not if she wanted to become one of them.
Her unconventionality was a definite drawback, Raven was keenly aware. Her upbringing on the Caribbean isle of Montserrat had afforded her a rare freedom, and shed spent her hoydenish childhood swimming in secluded coves and playing pirate and riding to the wind. Even her name was unorthodox; shed been named for the color of her hair, a throwback to one of her real fathers Spanish ancestors.
But once in England, she had striven to restrain her natural high spirits, repressing any sign of passion in favor of conformity, enduring the stifling rules of proper conduct because she was fiercely determined to be accepted.
One of her few concessions to restlessness was her early morning gallops in the park. And when she craved passion, she turned to her fantasies and her imaginary pirate lover. Though he was only an illusionone that sometimes left her aching with an unfulfilled longingshe was certain her pirate could satisfy her deepest hungers far more profoundly than her real-life duke ever could or would.
Raven shivered, suddenly feeling the chill of the winter morning. Sternly repressing her apprehension, she set aside her tray and rose from the bed. Were this any other day, she would be riding at this very moment, but she had a wedding to prepare for.
She had just drawn on a woolen wrapper when another knock sounded on her door. To her vast surprise, her great-aunt entered.
Catherine, Lady Dalrymple, was an imposing figuretall and elegant with handsome features and silver hair that lent her a majestic air.
Is something amiss? Raven asked with a frown. Never once in all the months of living with her great-aunt had she been visited like this. Nor did her elderly relative normally rise this early.
Aunt Catherine managed a stiff smile. Nothing is amiss. I merely brought you a wedding gift. She held out a small satinwood box. These belonged to your mother. I suspect Elizabeth would wish you to have them.
Raven felt her heart wrench at the mention of her mother. Opening the box with curiosity, she gasped to find a stunning strand of pearls and a pair of pearl-drop earrings, not large but with a lustrous sheen that suggested great value.
Raven gave her great-aunt a questioning glance, wondering what had caused this show of generosity. Lady Dalrymple usually treated her with a frosty reserve bordering on dislike.
I harbored grave doubts, her aunt answered her unspoken query, that this day would ever come. But now that your nuptials actually are at hand, I think you are entitled to have these.
They are beautiful, Raven murmured.
Elizabeth refused to take them with her when she left, Aunt Catherine observed with obvious disapproval. Her defiance was imprudent, considering that she could have sold these for a pretty price. But I presumed you would wish to wear them at your wedding.