The Sins of Viscount Sutherland (6 page)

BOOK: The Sins of Viscount Sutherland
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Oh, yes, he wanted more than just a kiss. More than a hand in command of her breast. Much more. And yet there was a part of him that despised himself for his weakness. She aroused feelings he’d thought were long buried. He was coming to realize his fiery craving for the lovely Claire was too intense.

He didn’t want to be drawn to her. He felt . . . almost reckless. It threatened his control. And Gray was a man who didn’t like to be out of control. He wanted to get her out of his system.

The sooner he bedded her, the better.

A
s it happened, Claire wouldn’t have been able to join the other guests on their ride anyway. She hadn’t thought to bring a riding habit. She dressed in a gown of mauve that brought out the green in her eyes. At luncheon, Gray explained to Clive that the two of them wouldn’t be joining the afternoon riding party. Claire watched as they spoke. There was an easy affability between the viscount and the duke. She couldn’t help the direction her mind took. Bitterly she wondered if the duke had known Oliver. Bitterly she wondered if the duke knew his friend had killed Oliver.

Once they were on their way, Claire asked Gray about his friendship with the duke.

“Neither of us having a brother of our own, I daresay we are rather like brothers,” said Gray. “Even down to our rivalries. We met at a boxing match at Cambridge. I broke his nose, though if you ask Clive, he’ll tell you he broke mine.”

Claire’s gaze traced his profile, stopping on the slight bump on the bridge of his nose. “Brawling, were you?”

“Quite raucously.”

“Who won the match?”

“Well, if you ask Clive,” he said again, “he will report that he did. And if you ask me, well, you have only to look at his nose for the truth.”

So the viscount could be charming, could he? Impossible, she decreed. But now she wanted to know—

“Have you siblings, my lord?”

“One. My older sister Rosalind lives in Scotland with her husband and three children.” He glanced over at her. “And you, Claire? Brothers? Sisters?”

She wanted so very much to lash out at him, to cry out that he had robbed her of her brother. That she had lost everyone she cared for.

Claire looked away. “All my family are gone.”

Her mood grew pensive. At least he had family, she thought bitterly. A mother. A sister. But she didn’t want to see him in a family role. To her, family meant happiness. Love. Contentment. The knowledge that no matter what, that bond was irrevocable. But now there was an empty void in her breast.

She willed her mind elsewhere, but there was little else to command her attention. Claire was taller than most women, and many men as well. Yet the man beside her seemed a giant. Occasionally one long leg brushed hers. The same was true of her shoulder. If she raised an arm, it would have fit cozily into the hollow of his arm.

Her gaze shifted. She couldn’t help but notice Gray’s hands. She watched the play of his fingers on the reins. He hadn’t bothered with gloves. His hands were lean, long-fingered, and strong-looking. A dark netting of hair that covered the back of his hands merely added to that unmistakable aura of masculinity.

He guided the horse down a pathway that wove through the trees. Overhead was a leafy bower. The fragrance of May blossoms scented the air. It was lovely. Yet she couldn’t distance her awareness of the man beside her.

The gig rolled to a stop beneath a huge tree. Beyond dashed the silver sheen of a stream.

Gray leaped lightly to the ground. Claire stood quickly. She didn’t want to touch him. She didn’t want him to touch her, but there was no avoiding it.

The thought had no more than spun through her mind than those long, powerful fingers settled on the nip of her waist to swing her down. Something that might have been panic raced through her. He withdrew his hands once she was on the ground, yet it felt as if he touched her still.

“What is it? You’re not the sort who will cry if a bit of grass dirties your hem, are you?”

It was almost a dare. “Certainly not, sir. You forget I’m a country girl.”

“Ah, yes, I recall you told Riggs that.”

Claire wrinkled her nose. “Must we speak of him? That is a subject I would rather not remember.”

“My sentiment exactly.”

A devilish half smile dallied at his lips. To her horror, Claire knew he was remembering what had come after—his mouth warm and drugging upon hers. The bold way he’d touched her breast.

“We can eat luncheon in the shade beneath that tree,” he said. He lifted a basket and blanket from the gig and carried it to the tree. When he returned, another half smile had spread across his lips. This one was different, however. An odd feeling knotted in her chest. When he smiled in the engaging way he did now, he looked younger. And so very handsome she nearly caught her breath.

He had returned to the gig.

Claire watched as he reached inside and took out two long poles. He quirked a lazy dark brow. “Does this country girl know how to fish?”

Ha! She smiled sweetly. “Are you going to show me?”

“Certainly. I will be an excellent tutor.” His expression rather smug, he stepped behind her.

The cad. Did he think so much of himself, then?

His hand over hers, he showed her how to bring back the pole and throw it into the stream. He wound the line neatly back. His hand still over hers, he showed her twice more.

“Let me try,” she said. “Do you think I can throw it as far as that boulder there?”

“Not with one lesson. It takes quite some time to master casting, but if you want, you may of course try.”

His superior condescension made her all the more determined. Claire brought the pole back over her shoulder—and threw the line into the stream.

It landed with a
plop!
next to the boulder. Twice more she reached the very same spot.

Gray’s dumbfounded amazement was precious.

“So you’re a woman of secrets, eh?”

If he only knew, she thought.

They spent the next hour or so at the stream. When Gray finally stowed the poles back in the gig, Claire had landed four fish.

Gray landed none.

He poured each of them a glass of wine while they ate—a hearty, well . . . country meal. There was cheese and bread slathered with butter, and fresh fruit. Claire drank deeply.

Gray cocked a brow. “You find the wine pleasing? The food?”

“Quite so. Once again I applaud your choice of wine.”

“Clive’s cook is acquainted with my tastes. It’s one I favor.”

Her glass was empty. He set it aside.

“Claire . . .” he said quietly.

Her senses were suddenly screaming. He was seated in a pose that was almost indolent, his back against the tree trunk, his wrist upon an upraised knee.

“Yes?”

His gaze moved over the oval of her face. Very softly, he spoke. “Do you know what I want, Claire?”

I want to see you again. Somewhere we won’t be interrupted. Somewhere we can be alone.

Dammit, why couldn’t she look at him? She despaired her foolishness even as the words he’d spoken last night raced through her. And now they
were
alone. Far distant from anyone.

She saw as he reached out a hand. It curled around the side of her neck, a gesture both provocative and possessive. His thumb beneath her chin, he brought her gaze to his. Claire caught her breath. A fierce light shone in his eyes. The glow of passion. The flame of promise.

And then his lips trapped hers. He claimed her mouth completely. Heat streaked through her. She made a sound low in her throat. The touch of his mouth on hers melted her insides.

“Open your mouth.” His voice was strangely thick. “Part your lips beneath mine. Oh, yes, Claire, that’s the way.”

His tongue slid into her mouth, circling hers, running along the edge of her teeth.

Oh, Lord, what was he doing? Her heart was beating far too fast. With a finger, he nudged her gown from her shoulder, baring her breast. Baring her breast completely. The next thing she knew, his hand completely encompassed soft, rising flesh. And now his mouth was sliding down from her collarbone, that traitorous hand gently pushing warm, swollen flesh toward his mouth.

What!? She gasped. Did he mean to—to kiss the pink tip of her breast, which she was stunned to feel his hand on.

Slowly he raised his head. Claire opened her eyes.

Gray was staring down at her.

“How long since your husband died?”

The question took her aback. “What?”

“How long since poor, dear—” He looked at her. “I don’t recall his name.”

“Jeffery. His name was Jeffery.” She spoke the first name that crossed her mind.

“How long did you say you and Jeffery were wed?”

“I didn’t.”

His eyes narrowed. “How long, Claire?”

She drew a long, ragged breath. “He’s been dead for two years.”

His gaze had yet to leave hers. “How long were you wed?”

“That’s none of your affair.”

He shook his head. “How odd that you are so reluctant to answer such a simple question. Was he the last man you kissed?”

“You were the last man I kissed!”

He gave her a long, considering look. “I think you take my meaning, Claire. And either you are incredibly naive, or your husband was a fool.” He shook his head. “Next you’ll be telling me your marriage was chaste. Or that he left for the war before you were able to share the marriage bed.”

Had she not lowered her regard so quickly, Gray would have caught her stricken expression. “You have no right to ask about what is private between husband and wife.” The words came out low and choked. She could hardly breathe.

“Perhaps. But it’s puzzling, Claire. Puzzling indeed.”

“And why is that?”

“Certainly a widow would know how a man is aroused. You were shocked that I meant to kiss your breast. You were shocked by what you felt between my hips—”

“I wasn’t!”

“You were. Shall I show you?” His hold tightened. “I told you I was a man who knew women. Did you doubt me?” He gave her no time to respond.

Shocked? She was shocked that he dared to contemplate such a thing—that he dared to speak of such things!

“You kiss like a virgin, Claire. I’m not mistaken.”

“I thought you were a man who disliked virgins.”

“Claire, it’s quite obvious when a woman lacks . . . experience.”

Her cheeks burned painfully. She wanted to slap him again. “Must you insult me? Must you criticize?”

“I do not insult you, nor do I criticize.”

“You do,” she charged. She surged to her feet. “What would a man like you know of loyalty? Of love? You, the biggest blackguard in London! If you had any idea of the feelings of a woman for her husband, or a husband for his wife—”

“I am well acquainted with the feelings between husband and wife.”

Bitterness choked her. “That’s a lie. And you dare to call me naive? I am not so naive as all that to believe that you—”

His lips twisted. “Believe it, Claire. I am many things, but not a liar.”

Claire sucked in a breath. No, she thought, that was impossible. Surely he didn’t mean that he . . . surely not—

She pushed away from his chest. He didn’t release her. The air between them had turned suddenly intense.
He
had turned suddenly intense. He had turned chillingly cold in but a heartbeat. His gaze was unrelenting.

“Does it shock you to learn I was wed? That I, too, have been widowed? Yes, I see that it does. You see the man I am now. You’ve no idea of the man I once was.”

Stunned, Claire could only stare as he spun around and went for the horse.

“Come,” he said abruptly. “It’s time we went back.”

Claire’s mind was still reeling when he lifted her into the gig.

He’d been married. Good Lord, he’d been
married
.

Tension rode between them like a huge gray monster.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice was very low.

“There was no reason for you to know.”

“And there was no reason for you to be privy to my marriage!”

“I suggest we come to an understanding, then.” He was tight-lipped and grim. “The subject of my marriage is closed. The subject of your marriage is closed.”

They lapsed into silence. Gray was furious with himself. A bitter darkness slipped over him. He had lost his temper. He discussed his wife with no one. Those closest to him—his mother, Clive—respected his wishes for the most part. It was rare that Lily’s name was mentioned. When such thoughts dared intrude, he had schooled himself to close his mind to her memory.

But Claire had managed to give him a shattering reminder of a chapter in his past that he would rather not remember. A part of him almost hated her for it. God knew he hated himself. There were some who said he had no heart. If only he didn’t! He couldn’t think of Lily without feeling as if his lungs had caught fire. His hands were like his soul, black and stained with blood. That was something that would never change. Something that could never be erased.

Such was his penance. Such was his pain.

Then there was Claire. Somehow, she had gotten beneath his skin. He had only to be near her to give rise to an erection that was almost painful.

Had he known what effect she would have on him, he never would have pursued her. Every inch of his body was taut, every nerve wound tight. Desire still gripped him. She was tempting as sin. He thought of her undressing him. He wanted to lay her down. He wanted her naked, writhing beneath him while he buried his rod to her very soul.

He wouldn’t let her go until he had what he wanted. And he was more certain than ever there was something she was hiding.

It was obvious it had something to do with her marriage.

He didn’t understand her reluctance. It made no sense. He’d felt her lips blossom beneath his. She’d returned his kiss, yet he was puzzled by her air of purity . . . her air of almost innocence.

The answer to his questions had only led to more.

At the wide stone steps of the manor house, he stopped. He leaped down and went around to her side to lift her down.

She nearly tumbled in her rush to be away from him.

Gray’s jaw knotted.

Inside, she went straight for the stairs.

And she didn’t come down to dinner.

The men went to retire with port and cigars. Gray stopped Clive.

“Where is Claire?” he asked.

Clive looked surprised. “She isn’t feeling well. She said something must have made her ill this afternoon.”

Not some
thing
. Some
one.

“Didn’t you know? I thought the two of you were together.”

Gray’s expression told the tale all too well.

BOOK: The Sins of Viscount Sutherland
7.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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