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Authors: Samantha Holt

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Chapter
Seven

Julian
debated the decanter of wine on the bureau and shook his head. Now was not the
time to get foxed, no matter how tempted he was. He paused when he heard a
creak outside. But, no, it wasn’t her. Would he be forever waiting on Viola
during her stay? Did she have any idea how simply being around made his heart
hitch?

What had he been thinking? He should have let
her go. He’d only intended to try to make some kind of bumbling apology. The
idea of her crying over him made him feel bitter inside. He was not worth
crying over. But when he’d realised she intended to leave, something odd had
come over him. A wild kind of desperation. He hadn’t even realised what he’d
done until he felt the flex of the delicate bones of her wrist beneath his
fingertips.

So his mind had latched onto the only convenient
reason for him begging her to stay. For her to truly experience England. Today
they would take the carriage to Kenilworth Castle. He’d only been there himself
once, in spite of it only being an hour’s carriage ride away. He supposed it
was easy to take these things for granted when one had these things on one’s
doorstep.

Julian drew out his pocket watch and snapped it
shut. No one would be angry with them for being late—this was not a ball or an
important social event. However, he could swear she was deliberately late, just
to make him feel like he was standing upon hot coals. Every minute she made him
wait had him imagining what she was doing. Was she slipping on her stockings or
dabbing some stain on her lips? Spritzing perfume on her neck or tucking a curl
behind her ear?

All these little feminine moments had been
something he’d greatly appreciated about Sybil. Women could have no idea how
entrancing it was to watch a woman skim her fingers over her own skin.

Footsteps finally sounded on the steps and he
watched her ascend the stairs much as he had the night she had fallen sick.
Instead of seeming shaky and wan, she beamed at him. Vibrancy fairly shimmered
from her and he couldn’t resist the smile curving his lips.

He skimmed his gaze down her and paused at the
sight of stockinged legs peeking out of the dark green bloomers she wore. Good
God, she was wearing trousers. He’d heard of some women in London kicking up a
stink because they wanted to wear trousers whilst cycling but he’d never seen
it himself. After all, this was the country. He tried to drag his gaze away
from where the tight cuffs latched around slender calves but he couldn’t seem
to.

“I thought I should dress sensibly for the
occasion.”

Julian snapped his gaze up to her face. He’d
already embarrassed the girl enough. He couldn’t possibly tell her how
inappropriate her manner of dress was.

“Very well then.” He motioned to the door.
“Shall we?”

Viola surprised him by looping her arm through
his. Gone was the teary-eyed, furious woman from the previous day. He wished
her letters had prepared him better for her temperament. Unpredictable wasn’t
the word.

He shouldn’t like it.

Unpredictability didn’t mesh well with his life.
He really should not like it.

Julian helped her up into the carriage and
seated himself opposite her. He had thought that was the better option. He’d
been wrong.

Instead of not worrying about her bottom
jostling into him—a bottom he couldn’t help noticing under the short cut of her
riding jacket—he was faced with the nagging need to stare at her. If he
continued, she would probably jump onto the nearest ship back.

As the carriage took them down the road, past
the trees and out through the main gate, he forced his gaze to the rolling hills
of the Warwickshire countryside.

They passed a charming inn that he used to
frequent before Sybil had died. He stole a peek at Viola. The road took them
past some of the cottages on his estate. He flicked a glance her way and ran
his gaze down to where her stockinged ankles sat primly together.

Julian eyed the flocked pattern of the curtains
on either side of the window.

He darted another look at those ankles. The
stockings were thick enough, made in the same deep green shade as her bloomers.
But he could see the delicate bones of her ankles and the way they curved. He
was fairly certain he’d never found an ankle so appealing and Lord knows, he’d
been with enough women to see many a naked ankle.

Over the next hour, he tried to keep his
attention—and hers—on the scenery and various buildings in the area. He pointed
out the church where he had been christened and some of the older buildings in
the county, and Viola eyed it all with avid curiosity. The unadulterated look
of fascination on her face made not watching her impossible. She wore her every
emotion so openly. He’d never seen anything like it.

It was with a certain sense of relief that they
arrived in the village of Kenilworth. The carriage took them over the bridge
and brought them around to the front of the grand castle. Its red stone loomed
over the small cottages and large expanse of open land around it. Even he found
it impressive.

“Oh my,” she breathed, half-standing to peer out
of the window and admire it before the carriage had come to a complete stop.

As the vehicle did finally stop, she staggered a
little and Julian put his hands out to brace her. Hips and a pert rear met his
palms. He drew them back as if scalded and she gave him a sheepish look.

“It truly is magnificent.”

He waited for the groom to open the door and
pull out the steps before stepping out and aiding her down. She lifted the brim
of her hat and eyed the sprawling ruins. The old keep still stood and a wall
encircled it. The rest of the building still filled the lines of the wall but
was not in as good a condition as the Norman part of it.

“We have to climb the mound, I’m afraid.” He
pointed to where the ground dipped into what had once been the moat and then
rose back up at a steep angle.

“What a fine job I did dress appropriately
then.”

Damn her, did she have to keep reminding him
that he could simply glance down and have a fine view of her long legs?

Julian noted two other carriages on the road
nearby and spied a group of people exploring the ruins. Since a book had been
written on the castle, it had become an increasingly popular place for people
to visit. He hesitated but Viola strode on and he was forced to follow. He
didn’t do people well, not since—

“Well, would you look at this?” Hand to her hat,
she paused to take in the full view of the castle. “It is beautiful.”

He nodded numbly. Beautiful. Indeed. Her auburn
hair fluttered in the wind and a loose lock came to curl about her face,
sticking to her lower lip as she turned to beam at him. Beautiful.

“I knew it would be wonderful, but I didn’t
expect it to be like this,” she continued and began to march on again.

Taking a moment to gather himself, he let her go
on a few paces. He had not expected her to be like this either. Bold,
vivacious, breathtaking. He scowled and tried to recall how he’d pictured her
when he’d been writing to her, but she’d been a sort of faceless entity. Julian
was not at all sure he liked knowing how attractive she was. It made resisting
the idea of anything further all the more difficult.

With a sigh, he trailed after her. Writing
letters and falling for her had been easy. What better way to avoid women than
to fall for a woman he could never have?

Underfoot, mud squelched and slurped. The rain
from the previous days hadn’t drained away and what once used to be the moat
proved to be particularly slippery. He hobbled across and caught up with Viola
as she proceeded up the other side toward the castle.

Breaths coming heavily, they both stopped to
admire the red walls. “It is said that Queen Elizabeth stayed here with her
lover,” he told her with a grin.

“How exciting. Come on, Julian.”

Viola led him about the castle. He felt less
like the guide and more like the guided. Her enthusiasm quickly made him forget
the few other people milling around the ruins. Every now and then he’d pause
and watch her as she stared up at the great walls. Each time he did so, his
chest grew tight, as though his heart was swelling.

By the time they had finished exploring, it was
nearing lunchtime. He motioned to the carriage and she hopped down from her
spot on top of a short, crumbling wall. Behind her, Julian noted two young
women staring at her with sour expressions. Viola must have seen him glance
their way, as she paused to view them over her shoulder. When she turned back
to him, he realised she knew as well as he did what they were thinking.

“I’m almost surprised she’s not smoking cigars
and drinking,” one of the women muttered.

The other giggled. “She would fit in well at the
gentleman’s clubs.”

Viola dropped her gaze. She darted another look
at them and came up to his side. He perfected his most marquess-like expression
and looped his arm through hers. “I am grateful you came appropriately dressed,
Miss Thompson,” he said loudly. “Few ladies would have such foresight. And I
hear tell the Viscountess Harberton is quite the patron of active wear for
women these days. I do so prefer the company of women of sense.”

She stared at him for several moments before a
grin broke across her face.

“Refer to me by my title,” he whispered.

She nodded, her smile expanding. “Why thank you,
Lord Lockwood,” she replied, just as loudly. “I do like to wear the latest
fashions and thank goodness, they are so very comfortable.”

The women stared at them before turning hastily
away and scurrying off in the opposite direction. If they knew anything of
society, they should know his name. He hoped they felt heartily ashamed of
themselves.

“Silly cows,” he uttered under his breath. “Mrs
Whittleworth packed a picnic,” Julian informed her while they made their way
back to the edge of the ruins. “Shall we?”

“Oh yes, I’m famished.”

They made their way down the side of the mound.
She gripped his arm when her foot went from underneath her and he had to pause
to ensure they didn’t both go down on their arses. But as they reached the
bottom, she slipped again and this time her arm tore from his. She landed on
her rear with a squelch.

Julian groaned. What a fine time he was showing
her. First she had suffered insults from strangers and now she was coated in cold,
English mud.

Then the strangest thing happened. She looked up
at him, slapped her hands down on either side of her and laughed.

He stared at her for some time while tears of
laughter began to form in her eyes and trickle out onto her cheeks. The woman
was utterly mad. She finally gathered her breath and offered him a mud-coated
hand. He took it and helped her up, aware of the dirt squashing between their
joined hands. He couldn’t seem to stop himself from staring at her. It was as
though his brain could not quite process her. Did he laugh with her? Apologise
for letting her go? Ignore the fact she was now covered in mud?

He settled for an apology and drew out his
handkerchief to offer it to her. “I am sorry.”

“Do not be.” She stepped close and flicked a
lock of hair out of her eye.

A smear of brown marred her cheek so he leaned
in and dabbed it away with his handkerchief.

“This has been wonderful,” she told him when he
drew back, breathless and tense.

Viola flung her arms around him suddenly and
flattened her lips just to the left of his mouth. The movement took him so by
surprise that he jerked and found his lips pressed against hers. He froze.

Warmth and softness moved over his mouth. A
groan rose from deep within him, and he could not help but respond. He slipped
his tongue into the moist recess and she surprised him by responding in kind.
Julian didn’t touch her. She had such a hold of him, he wasn’t sure he could
move his arms to do so. The vague thought that the prudish women might spot
them had him pressing the kiss deeper and finally drawing out his arms to wrap
them around her and bend her backwards. Fiery need coursed through him, setting
his senses alight. If there were people watching them now, he cared not one
whit. All that mattered was the sensual taste of Viola Thompson.

When he drew back and righted her, her hat was
askew and her lips were puffy. He offered her his arm and glanced back to see
that they had indeed had an audience. Julian could not help but grin to
himself. Tomorrow he’d likely regret kissing Viola but for the moment, he
revelled in it very much.

 

Chapter
Eight

Viola
sank onto the chaise with relish. The cushions accepted her body with a sigh of
fabric and she could not mask her own sigh of relief. All these new experiences—they
had truly worn her out.

Julian dropped his newspaper and gave her an
amused look as she sprawled dramatically. “Tired, Miss Thompson?”

“Exhausted, Lord Lockwood.”

“A day of rest tomorrow then perhaps?”

She lifted her head. “Oh no, certainly not. A good
night’s sleep and I shall be raring to go.”

So far Julian had taken her all over the local
area and into Stratford-Upon-Avon where Shakespeare had lived. She had never
seen so much history in her life. The old Tudor buildings with their odd angles
and beautiful wooden beams fascinated her. But she also wanted to see other
things.

“I wondered if we could perhaps take the train
to London? I stopped by oh so briefly on my journey here and saw virtually
nothing of it.”

“No.” He snapped up his paper.

Viola gaped at him. “Pardon?”

“No London,” he said from behind the printed
sheet.

“But why?”

“I do not like London.” Still, he didn’t lower
his paper.

She scowled at the article and folded her arms.
“I shall go alone then.”

“You will not.”

“I will so. I travelled all the way to England
alone. I think I can manage a short train ride to London. Besides, Jenny can be
my companion for the day. I’m sure she’d be thrilled.”

With a rustle, the newspaper lowered. Jaw tense,
he thrust a finger at her. “You are not going to London and you are not taking
Jenny.”

“Julian, whilst I appreciate you showing me
around and your kind hospitality, you are not my husband.”A tiny tremor seemed
to run through his body. She noted how her words made his posture stiffen.
Nevertheless, she continued. “You cannot tell me what to do.”

“London is too dangerous.”

“Then come with me. You said yourself that I
should visit London one day in your letters.”

“Yes, but certainly not alone.”

She lifted her hands in exasperation. She wished
she understood this man better. One moment he was kissing her with a passion
she’d never before experienced and being the charming, dutiful host, then the
next he was gruff and thoroughly dislikeable.

“Come with me then,” she repeated through
clenched teeth.

“Goddamn it, no!” He thrust aside the newspaper
and came to his feet. “No London. No more pestering. I won’t have it.”

Viola fought the desire to scrabble back in her
chair and curl up into a ball. It was not the first time she had seen his
temper but last time she had run from him. Would she do that again or should
she stand tall? She had spent much of her life bending to the will of men—her
brothers and her father—even her fiancé.  But stubborn pride didn’t dictate her
reaction so much as curiosity. Why did the idea of going to London affect him
so?

“Why not, Julian?” she asked softly, coming to
stand in front of him.

He glowered at her, drawing up his shoulders in
a threatening manner. Indeed with the wide breadth of his chest and the way his
nostrils flared, he certainly threatened, but Viola knew he wouldn’t harm her.

“Will you forget about it?” he said through
clenched teeth. “Just forget about it!”

She took a step closer until they were almost
chest to chest. His rose and fell in aggravation while hers did the same as her
heart thrummed against her ribs.

“What could possibly frighten you so much about
London?”

“Frighten? I am not frightened.”

She tilted her head to view him and pressed a
hand to his chest. Even through his jacket, waistcoat and shirt, she felt the
quick beat of his heart. He flinched but didn’t move. Perhaps he was trying to
prove his courage or maybe he felt as she did around him—captured by her
presence. That might have been wishful thinking, but either way, she was
grateful he didn’t attempt to turn away.

“Fear makes your heart beast fast. It makes your
palms clammy.” She took his hand in her other one and thread her fingers
through them. “I don’t know what could make a man like you scared but I should
like to know. I should like to help.”

He snorted. “If you really wanted to help you
would turn around and leave now. You would never look back.”

Easing closer and holding his hand tight in
hers, she smoothed her palm over his chest as though she could ease away the
pain beating in his heart. She didn’t say anything. Viola simply gazed up at
him and waited. For this man, she had all the time in the world.

“It’s nothing.”

She waited until he heaved a breath.

“I cannot go to London. I cannot be around
people.” He eased back and disengaged from her hand. Julian slumped onto his
chair and ran a hand through his hair. She sat again and leaned forward,
waiting. He glanced at her and lifted his tumbler of whisky. Swirling it around
the glass, he eyed it. “I told you I’m a widower?”

“Yes.”

“Three times.”

She drew in a breath and remained silent. She
knew this but this had to come from him.

“Lucy and I married very young. I had just
inherited the title and all of its responsibilities. Of course one of my main
ones was to sire an heir.” He gave a bitter snort. “Lucy was not particularly
happy with me and nor I with her but we tried our best. We were children
really. She died of consumption after three years of marriage.”

Viola nodded and clasped her hands in front of
her. Her feet twitched and she longed to go to him and hold him against her
chest but she suspected he would not take well to it and she needed him to tell
her everything.

“I grieved for her in a way. Not so much for her
company but for a life lost so young. Then I met Sybil. Her family purchased a
large property in the area and my mother became friends with the
Viscountess—Sybil’s mother. We spent much time together and I fell in love with
her. We married just over a year after Lucy died. Some said that was in poor
taste. At the time, I did not much care for what others thought and my family
were pleased with the idea of me finally being able to have a son.”

Though a pang of jealousy seared through her,
she checked herself. This was not about her but about Julian and whatever pain
he was holding in. “How did she die?”

“In childbirth.” His gaze met hers and the agony
in his gaze shot through to her heart. She had to fight not let the tears well
up in her eyes. “I lost my son and my wife that day.”

The words hung in the air, hollow and agonising.
What could she say to that? How could she possibly comfort a man who had gone
through so much pain?

“What... what of your third wife?”

“You really wish to know all of this?” She
nodded. “I had known Mabel since my younger years. We’d always been good
friends and I believed we could make a go of it. She had need of a husband and
I, of a wife. I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky as to find someone I could love and
frankly, grief had eaten away at me. I couldn’t love someone again anyway.
Within two years of our marriage, she grew distant. We spent much time apart
and the gossips spoke of her spending time with other men. I avoided the
gossips at all costs, hoping the rumours were false. They were not.” He took a
sip of whisky and placed the glass on the table. “Just over a year ago, she
left me a letter telling me she was running away with her lover. Two days later
came the news of her death. She and her lover were shot in a highway robbery.”

A hand to her mouth, Viola gaped at this man she
had almost certainly begun to fall for. To go through so much loss and
betrayal... it didn’t bear thinking about.

“I’m so sorry.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I am not the first man to
have lost his wife to a lover. Though not many can claim to have lost so many
to death so quickly. And that, Viola, is why I cannot go to London. Those who
recognise me will avoid me and it is likely you shall be tainted by
association. I would not wish you to go through that.”

“People avoid you because your wives died?”

“Yes. They believe I brought them death. Haven’t
you noticed how few servants I have?” He gave a snort. “Some of the delivery
boys will not even approach the house for fear of ‘catching’ death.”

“But that’s just silly!”

The look he gave her told her he wasn’t so sure
it was. Did he truly believe he was responsible for his wives dying? She rose
and held out her hand to him. He took it but didn’t seem to know why he had.
Confusion echoed in his expression.

Viola didn’t suppose she could convince him
otherwise and she didn’t believe she could help him conquer any anxiety he felt
around people. She knew what it was like to be talked of. Even recently, those
English women had made comments about her clothing. But she could at least
comfort him.

She lifted his hand, came around him and perched
herself on his lap. Then she placed his arm around her and burrowed her head
into his neck. He stiffened.

“Viola?”

His bristle tickled her nose and the scent of
his cologne teased her. Under her bottom, his thighs were strong and hard. But
he was warm and comforting. She latched an arm around his neck and held him
tight. His breathing began to slow and gradually his hand softened on her
waist. His other one found her thigh and began stroking it.

 “I’m sorry, Julian,” she whispered. “Sorry for
making you angry.”

He shook his head, nudging her face with his. “I
am sorry for my temper.”

She smiled against his neck. “It’s not so bad. I
grew up with my brothers, if you recall. They had fairly terrible tempers too.”

“I recall.” He drew in a deep breath, his chest
rising and falling against her. “I recall everything,” he said softly. “I am
sorry I cannot take you to London. It’s something I simply cannot do.”

“Forget London.” She clasped his neck tightly.
“I’d far rather be here.”

 

 

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