Authors: Amanda McCabe
“Welcome back, Mrs. Carrington,” Philip said, laughing as he swung her up into his arms and carried her into the small room at the inn. “It may not be much, but for now it’s home.”
Melanie laughed, too, feeling giddy as he spun her around and around. As he slowly lowered her to her feet, she slid her palms down his chest until she reached the buttons of his waistcoat. She slid one free as she kissed his throat.
. How very unreal that sounded. The whole night seemed most unreal, from the noisy procession through the streets to Philip taking her hand and repeating their vows. Had it all truly happened? Melanie wasn’t sure at all. But if it were a dream, it seemed very fun and she didn’t want it to end.
The candlelight glinted on the new ring on her finger as she slipped another button free. Philip smiled down at her lazily, letting her play.
Another button was free, the fine silk of the waistcoat falling away to reveal his linen shirt, and Melanie suddenly felt rather shy. Did he feel as she did, excited and scared, thrilled? Did he still want her at all, now that she was his?
She pressed her palm flat against him, feeling the beat of his heart. “Kiss me, Philip. Please,” she whispered.
And then she had her answer. His cool distance melted away, and he groaned as his arms came around her, dragging her up against him to cover her lips with his. His tongue slid deep, twining with hers, and she greeted him eagerly.
Her shyness fled. They were married now, for better or worse; she was his. She unfastened the last button of his waistcoat and slid her fingers over his shirt, feeling the heat of his skin through the thin linen.
His kiss deepened, grew hungrier, and she wanted to know what he felt like. She tugged the shirt free of his breeches and finally touched his bare skin. Her fingers skimmed up under the hem of his shirt and teased over his hard abdomen, his ribs, his shoulders. She scraped her nails over his smooth chest, and he groaned again.
“Melanie,” he whispered against her lips. “What you do to me…”
What she did to
But she was the one driven mad! All the time she had been so restless, always searching, always seeking something that inevitably eluded her. Surely this was exactly what she had sought.
He kissed her again, roughly, holding nothing back, and she could think of nothing at all but the way she felt with him. He forced her head back as his tongue plunged deep into her mouth, and she met him with equal fire.
She felt his arms lift her higher, and they moved across the small room until they tumbled back onto the bed. She pushed his coat and waistcoat away, and he tore his shirt off over his head. His clothes landed in a careless heap on the floor, and he pressed her back to the tumbled blankets, his body coming over hers.
His kissed her arched throat, her shoulder, licking a soft, delicate ribbon of fire over her skin.
“I can’t—bear it,” Melanie gasped, wrapping her arms around him.
He laughed roughly against her shoulder. “I’m sure you can bear it just a little longer….”
She felt him reach between their bodies to unfasten his breeches. His manhood sprang free from the fabric confines, hard and hot as iron under velvet. Curious, Melanie ran her fingertips over him. She gasped at the feeling of it.
“Melanie…” he moaned, and jerked against her touch. Emboldened, she caressed him again, but he pushed her hand away. “If you don’t stop now, I fear our wedding night will be over before it begins.”
Melanie laughed, and laid back to watch as he quickly stripped away his boots and breeches. She had never seen a naked man before, only drawings of ancient statues. Philip was more beautiful than any of them, powerful, gilded gold in the candlelight.
“I fear I feel rather overdressed now,” she said, tugging at the skirt of her best pink muslin gown. Her wedding dress.
“I can help you with that,” he said.
Melanie laughed again as he seized her in his arms. He quickly unfastened her gown and slid it away from her body to reveal her bare shoulders, her thin chemise. She shivered as he eased away even that meager cover and pressed his lips to her bare back. He touched her skin with the tip of his tongue, as if to taste her.
He tossed her gown to the nearest chair, and as she waited, breathless, to see what would happen next, he slid the pins from her hair and ran his fingers through the tumble of curls. He raised one lock to his nose and inhaled deeply, and that one tiny, tender gesture made her want him even more.
She lay back down on the bed, staring up at him in fascination. He was so very beautiful. She could hardly believe he was her husband now, that he was about to make love to her.
He watched her, too, and his blue eyes narrowed, darkened. She could only hope he liked what he saw in her, that he wanted her as she wanted him. She held her arms up to him in silent entreaty.
He knelt back over her, sliding his hands slowly up her stockinged legs as he parted them and drew her to the edge of the bed. As she stared at him, her breath catching, he knelt between her trembling thighs and softly, softly kissed the bare skin just above her ribbon garter.
“Philip!” she cried, as he traced her most intimate spot with the tip of his tongue before plunging shockingly deep to taste her very essence.
She let him kiss her there until she could bear it no more. She tugged at his rumpled hair, drawing him up until he braced himself over her. She could tell he held himself carefully so he wouldn’t crush her, but she wanted him so much closer.
She wasn’t afraid at all now.
She wrapped her legs around his lean hips and arched up into him. His skin was so warm, damp and smooth over his strong muscles. She traced a caress over his back, his taut buttocks, reveling in the way he felt against her.
She kissed his shoulder, tasting the salt-sweetness of him. How she craved him, needed him! It was like coming alive again at last after a long, dark night.
“Melanie,” he said hoarsely. He buried his face in the curve of her neck, and she felt him breathe her in deeply. “I can’t fight this any longer…”
“I know,” she whispered. “Neither can I.”
He kissed her neck, his mouth open and hot as it slid over her shoulder, the soft curve of her breast. “Melanie, you aren’t like anyone else I’ve ever met.”
“Neither are you.” So surely, she thought, that must mean they were meant for each other.
She slid her hand over his chest, the sharp angle of his hip. She felt his back stiffen and his breath catch as she dared to touch him again. She was fascinated as he grew even harder under her caress.
“You’ll kill me yet,” he said, half laughing, half pained by his restraint.
“I—I want you, Philip. Now,” she whispered.
She felt his hand between her legs, his thumb sliding into the wet core of her. “I want you, too, Melanie. But I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You won’t. I trust you,” Melanie said, surprised to find that those words were true. Despite everything, she did trust in him. Trust in what they had together. She closed her eyes and eased her legs wider to welcome him. “Please.”
She heard him draw in a ragged breath as he reached between their bodies again and gently parted her damp folds as he sought entry. Then she felt a stretching, a burning, as he slowly slid inside of her.
Melanie gasped at the warm, unfamiliar friction, the sensation of sudden fullness and pressure. Of being joined with him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. His whole body went still, his arms rigid as he held himself balanced above her.
Melanie was afraid he meant to leave her. “No!” she cried in protest, holding him with her. “It feels better now.”
And it did. The shocking ache was fading as her body grew accustomed to him, leaving only that delicious new fullness, and a glimmer of something wonderful she couldn’t quite grasp.
Philip nodded. He drew back from her one slow, enticing inch at a time, then plunged deep again.
“Oh…” Melanie sighed, closing her eyes tighter to feel him moving within her, faster, deeper. That tiny seed of pleasure grew deep inside of her, flowering, expanding. Every nerve ending in her body seemed to come to fiery life, awakened only by him.
She learned his rhythm and moved with him, a strange, exotic dance where they were perfectly partnered.
The night outside the window, the small, warm room—the whole world narrowed to just the two of them. Behind her closed eyes, Melanie saw gold and silver sparks, shimmering, sparkling. It seemed this was what she had been waiting for forever.
Then all her thoughts flew apart in an explosion of fiery stars and she felt as if she was soaring into the sky, the past burning away, leaving her free.
Above her, Philip called out her name, his back arching. He pulled out of her, and she felt the damp heat of his seed on her skin. He collapsed beside her on the bed, their arms and legs entangled.
Melanie slowly sank back down to earth, as light as if she drifted on a feather. She had never felt so tired, so light, so—confused. Yet somehow she knew that, whatever happened tomorrow, right now she was where she should be.
Beside her, she heard the soft rush of Philip’s breath. She opened her eyes and rolled onto her side, gazing at him in the hazy moonlight. His eyes were hooded, and he gave her his lazy smile, the one that always made her heart pound.
“Are you all right?” he murmured.
“Oh, yes.” Far better than all right. She kissed his cheek softly, and he smiled. His arms came around her and drew her down against his shoulder. Wrapped up in each other, they fell into sleep.
* * *
“Tell me more about your travels, what you did before,” Melanie said lazily, as they drowsed in the shadows of deepest night. She felt his fingers trail through her hair, and she curled closer to his side. She wished the night would never end, that they would never have to leave the warm little cocoon they had created in their little inn room. “It must have been so exciting.”
Philip gave a rueful laugh. “It was exciting sometimes—but also most uncertain. Sometimes I would never know where I would be the next day, who I would meet, if there would be any friends. If I would have to drag my cousin Henry out of trouble yet again. If the turn of the cards would favor me. Perhaps that was what made it exciting. But I am growing too old for it all.”
“Ah, yes. You are so old. Just look at all this gray hair!” Melanie teased. She tousled his tumbled, shimmering golden hair until he laughed. It was a beautiful sound, one she wanted to hear more. “I think it sounds wonderful, to go wherever you like, wherever the whim takes you.”
“Is that not what you did with me? Go where your whim took you?”
Melanie thought about that. Yes, it was a whim that made her run away with him. A whim that could easily lead to disaster. Yet she was beginning to think it was the best thing she’d ever done. “I suppose I did, and it feels wondrous! Though I know I will have to answer for it soon enough, to my mother and my uncle, but it was wonderful to feel free for a while. Is that how you felt, when you left for the Continent? Did your family chase after you?”
His fingers, which had been softly tracing her skin, went still. “My family was what urged me to go. My father died when I was a boy, and my mother didn’t have the energy to deal with a boisterous son. I was a terrible troublemaker, I fear, even when I was young. I spent most of my boyhood at school. It was her brother, my uncle Macintosh, who urged my mother to send me away with my cousin Henry. Said it would be the making of me.”
“And was it?”
“I suppose it was. Though not in the way he hoped. I found out what my own strength was, far away and on my own.”
Melanie had also been on her own ever since she could remember. On her own, and never managing it all quite well enough. “I wish I could do that. My mother sent me away just so she wouldn’t have to think about me any longer. I fancied I was in love with the wrong man, you see, and I was sorely deceived.” She swallowed hard, remembering how heartbroken she was to find out the truth about Captain Whitney, and how her mother could not help her. “I don’t think she cared whether I found my strength or not.”
“Have you?” Philip said. “I think you are very strong, Melanie. One of the strongest people I know. You aren’t afraid of being yourself.”
He thought she was
No one had ever said that to her before. Mostly she had just been a nuisance. She sat up to study his face in the silvery moonlight. He was so handsome in the night, so solemn and austere. “Do you really think so? I never felt strong at all. Only weak and easily tempted. I never can seem to help myself from following my feelings, even when I know they are wrong and improper.”
“Surely that only proves your strength. You are true to yourself, to your own heart. You should be admired for that, not condemned.”
“As you have been condemned for being true to yourself?”
Philip was silent for a long, tense moment. His face was smooth and expressionless in the moonlight. “I suppose so,” he said slowly. “But I have led myself into great trouble, as well.”
Did that trouble include marrying her? Melanie lay back down next to him, curling herself into his side to make herself feel safe again. “Well, now we can keep each other from trouble. Starting with this visit to your uncle. Surely he won’t turn away a repentant and reformed nephew with a new wife? I am very good at charming irascible old people, like my own uncle.”
Philip laughed. His arms came around her, and he spun her to the bed beneath him, kissing her bare shoulder until she could remember little else. “The respectable Mr. and Mrs. Carrington, eh?”
“Most suitable to be your uncle’s heirs. But being suitable doesn’t mean being dull, does it? It doesn’t mean no more adventures.”
“My dear Mrs. Carrington,” he whispered, his lips tracing her neck, “I think dull is the last thing you could ever be.”
Melanie let herself out of the silent, sleeping inn and into the fresh, pale morning. It was cooler there, north of the border, than it had been at the village with her uncle. She drew her shawl closer around her shoulders and headed off down the lane, barely restraining herself from skipping.
It seemed like such a glorious day. A whole new, exciting beginning, just as she had been longing for. When she awoke in the predawn grayness, she couldn’t go back to sleep as her mind raced over all the new possibilities ahead of her. She couldn’t be still, but neither could she wake Philip who looked so gloriously handsome, so peaceful, as he slept beside her in their rumpled sheets.
She was also half-afraid that he might not share her wild joy if she told him how she was feeling. He had confided in her last night, and his confidences showed her a way they could happily move forward together. Have adventures together.
But what if that was not at all what he wanted, in the cold light of day?
She wanted to hold onto every bit of happiness she could, for as long as she could.
Melanie hurried down the deserted lane, peering into shop windows, imagining the lives that went on in those gray stone buildings. Lives different from any she had known before. She and Philip would see many such places together. There was so much to explore in the world!
The only person she saw on her walk was an errand boy, hurrying past her on his task. He tipped his cap to her and then was gone. She came to the end of a row of cottages, where the road twisted away into the low, rolling hills. It was the same road she had arrived on, but this morning it was shrouded in mist, like torn bits of tulle caught on the gray-green landscape.
For a moment, it seemed she was all alone, poised between civilization and wilderness—just as she had felt all her life. But then she heard the faint rumble of hooves on gravel, coming closer and closer. It seemed she wasn’t the only one up so early after all.
Melanie quickly climbed over a rail fence at the border of a field, out of the way of any hurrying, careless traveler. A horseman emerged from the mist, moving fast, intent on some urgent errand. She had a glimpse of dark, sweat-dampened hair, a familiar profile….
“Melanie! Is it really you?” the rider shouted. He drew in his horse in a shower of dust and swung down to hurry toward her. “What a piece of luck. It’s as if you sensed I was near, and came to meet me!”
Melanie watched him with growing horror. Was this some sort of dream, or a nightmare? Perhaps this was her punishment for being too happy? For it was Captain Whitney hurrying toward her now. Captain Whitney, who had betrayed her. Why was he here, now, when she had finally forgotten him?
She wrapped her hand around the fence post, and felt the wood dig into her palm. She wanted to yank it out of the ground and throw it at him, the foul deceiver.
“What are you doing here?” she said, as cold and calm as she could make herself be.
“My dearest! When we last met, you called me Bartholomew.” His steps slowed as he moved toward her. He still smiled, that ever so charming smile that had once drawn her in. Now she saw a grim strain behind the lightness.
His smile was not nearly so beguiling as Philip’s.
“And the last time we met, you told me you were engaged to another woman,” she said. “Has the nuptial event taken place? Should I wish you happy?”
“My dearest Melanie, no. I came to my senses and realized
were the only lady for me. I rushed to tell you that, to beg you to stay with me, but you had gone. I’ve been searching for you for weeks.”
He had been searching for her? Melanie shook her head. She remembered too well the pain she’d felt at his treatment of her, the hurt of his rejection. The way it had sent her to something better in the end. Melanie gave a humorless laugh, and held out her hand to keep him from coming closer. The morning light caught on her new gold ring.
are too late, captain,” she said. “Today I am Mrs. Carrington. The wife of a much better man than you could ever hope to be.”
Suddenly, like a summer storm slashing through bright sunlight, an expression she’d never seen before on Captain Whitney’s handsome face transformed him right before her eyes. A scowl twisted his mouth, and his eyes went dark.
“You little harlot,” he said, as calm and easy as if he’d said
shall we have tea?
Somehow that very coolness made the words seem even worse. More threatening. “You went right from my arms to his? When you knew you belonged to me?”
Belonged to him? Melanie suddenly felt very cold. She instinctively took a step back, trying to resist the urge to run. Something told her that if she fled, he would just chase her. That he would like to see her fear, as all bullies did.
And she refused to show her fear.
She tilted up her chin and stared at him in challenge. “You are betrothed to another woman, as I should not have to remind you. How could I possibly belong to you?”
Captain Whitney took another step toward her. “I was engaged to her only for convenience, Melanie. Surely you knew that. You and I could have been together in other ways.”
“As your mistress, you mean? Tucked away in cozy little side-street rooms?” Melanie said, cold with the knowledge of just how close she had come to such a fate. If not for Philip…
“But that was before I knew you were an admiral’s niece! An admiral who took some fine prizes in the war,” Captain Whitney said, his voice growing rougher. Louder. Melanie took another step back into the field beyond her fence. “Surely we could have made sure you were his heir. Then we could marry. But your whorish ways…”
Suddenly, before she could run, he lunged forward and grabbed her arm in an iron-hard grasp. Melanie gasped, and twisted hard against him, but she couldn’t free herself. She couldn’t breathe for the fear squeezing at her throat.
“Let me go!” she cried, her voice faint.
“You are just like all the others,” he growled. His face came closer to hers, and she could feel his hot breath on her skin. “So pretty and sweet on the outside, but greedy and unfaithful at heart.”
She stared up at him in a daze of fear. How very different he looked, all dark and twisted. How had she ever thought him handsome?
“I am greedy and unfaithful?” she cried. “You are the one with a fiancée, who you have abandoned now as you did to me, just because you think I am an heiress. Well, I am no heiress, but my new husband does not care. He is twice the man you could ever be….”
“Shut up!” he shouted. His hand shot out and cracked across her cheek, leaving fiery pain behind.
Melanie’s head spun, and she was so shocked she couldn’t even cry out as Captain Whitney dragged her closer. His lips touched her skin.
“Let her go,” a voice rang out, ice-cold. “Right now.”
Melanie almost collapsed on a sob.
Philip had come to her. Captain Whitney dropped her to the ground, and for a moment all she could feel was the pain when she landed.
Her hair tumbled into her face, and she reached up to push it out of her eyes, trembling with the mixture of fear and relief. Then she saw Philip’s face, and his expression was distant and as cold as ice.
* * *
Philip awoke slowly, like swimming to the surface of a wonderfully warm sea. He stretched and chuckled, feeling lighter, freer than he had in a very long time. The problems that had weighed down on him like loops of steel chains for too long seemed to have fallen completely away.
Who would ever have guessed that a woman could change the way he felt so completely? That suddenly he would realize something he had never known before—that he didn’t have to make his way alone in life. That someone could understand him, and not wish that he was different, better, than he truly was.
Now we can keep each other from trouble,
she had said. She had understood as no one else ever had.
Philip laughed, and sat up to tell her the extraordinary way he felt. He wanted to look into her eyes, to kiss her….
But she wasn’t in bed beside him. The sheets were drawn smooth, the pillows neatly piled up, her side of the bed cold to the touch, as if she hadn’t been there for a while. He quickly scanned the small room. Her shawl was gone from where she had draped it over a chair. The dress and chemise she had worn last night were also gone. There was no trace of her in the room, except for the faint lingering scent of her perfume in the air.
The hard, cold knot in his very core grew and solidified into the certainty that no one could bear to stay with him. Not his parents, not his cousin. Now not even his wife.
Philip threw back the bedclothes, and quickly pulled on his own clothes. He splashed cold water from the basin over his face and ran his hands through his hair. The chilly water helped him think a bit clearer. Surely Melanie had just gone downstairs to find some breakfast. She wouldn’t have run off so suddenly.
And even if she had—why would he care? His whole adult life had been spent assiduously avoiding the snares of matrimony. He should be glad of the chance to escape them again, to be free and on his own.
But, somehow, he was not glad at all. He was angry, and something else he couldn’t even recognize. Something that threatened to make his heart turn to stone and crack wide open.
He hurried down the stairs, swirling on his coat and hastily tying his cravat. There was no one in the taproom, which had been so crowded and noisy last night, but the scent of stale ale and old smoke hung in the air. Only the landlady was there, sweeping at the stained floorboards, her face weary.
“There’s tea by the fire if you want it,” she said.
“Have you seen Miss Har—that is, Mrs. Carrington this morning?” he asked.
She gave a snort of a laugh. “Lost her already, have you? I haven’t seen her, but the errand boy said he saw her leaving early this morning. Sneaking out, I suppose.”
Lost her already? It seemed he had.
“Can you arrange for a carriage for me?” he said tightly. “As soon as possible. I must leave for my uncle’s house immediately.”
The landlady’s eyes widened in surprise. “Without waiting for Mrs….”
“Now, please.” Philip knew it was no use waiting for Melanie. She had left him, as assuredly as everyone else had.
The carriage came quickly, barely giving him time to throw his things into a valise. As it rolled toward the edge of town, he felt the old coldness descending on him again, the numbness that had carried him through so many days. It had left for a few moments, when he held his new wife in his arms, but now it was back. Perhaps forever.
It was only beyond the crowds of the streets that he caught a glimpse of Melanie. She stood in the middle of a deserted field beyond a rail fence, her pale pink skirt a banner against the dark green. But she wasn’t alone. A tall, dark-haired man in a red coat stood with her—and reached out to pull her into his arms.
A freezing anger swept over Philip as he watched the pair, seemingly entwined in a passionate embrace. He gave a bitter laugh, and started to turn away, to leave his wife of one day to her lover. To be proven right was a terrible vindication indeed. He was right to leave.
But then he heard Melanie scream. Not a cry of delight, but a piercing shriek of raw fear. He spun back around to see her struggle in the man’s arms, trying to push him away. And then the man slapped her across the face.
In one flash, burning fury replaced the ice of disappointed betrayal. Philip ran toward them without thinking. He leaped over the fence, barely realizing what he was doing. He could only see Melanie, only know that she had been hurt and he had to save her.
Melanie saw him before the man did, for he had his back to Philip. Her eyes widened, and he could see the swirling fear in the blue depths. She gave a choked sob just as Philip seized a handful of the man’s woolen coat and swung him around.
“I will thank you not to accost my wife,” Philip said coldly. Time seemed to have slowed down, the air around him chilly. He was overcome with rage that anyone would dare hurt Melanie.
The man’s face twisted in such a contorted way that even if Philip had known him he wouldn’t have recognized him. He was sure he had never met the villain, but he wondered if this was the man Melanie had mentioned, the man who broke her heart.
” the man sneered. “So you are the man who was fool enough to marry such a whore. She was mine first….”
At the vile word
it was as if a red mist lowered over Philip’s vision, blocking out everything but his anger. How dare anyone treat a spirited lady like his Melanie this way? His fist drove into the man’s face, shoving him backward. The man shouted as blood spurted from his nose, staining his fine coat. Melanie screamed.
Philip only heard her as from a distance. He could think of nothing but the fact that this man had hurt her—and he had to protect her. His mind seemed to clear, as he frostily assessed his opponent. Gazing into the hate-brightened eyes above the broken nose to read that intent before the man launched a counter-attack. Every sense was heightened; his blood seemed to flow fast and hot in his veins.
Once, when he was young and foolish, wandering the Continent with his cousin Henry and their wild friends, Philip had lived for such moments. He’d loved the danger and thrill of a good fight. It was one of the few times he felt truly alive.
But now—now Melanie made him feel alive. Made him
to live, to see what adventure awaited them next. He just had to vanquish this one last enemy, for her.
When he looked at the furious man across from him, he saw himself as he had once been. Empty. Seeking escape in wilder and wilder sensations. He knew with a sudden flash of deep knowledge—that was over for him.
Philip finally saw the shift in his opponent’s eyes. He lunged toward Philip, his fists flying toward Philip’s face. Philip ducked and parried, landing a swift, hard right to the man’s vulnerable midsection.
The two of them went down in a clash of blows. The man’s fury seemed to grow as Philip became cooler and more calculating. It forced his opponent to make foolish mistakes, become clumsy and blinded, which Philip took full advantage of. At least his misspent youth had been for something.