The Tantalizing Miss Coale (The Notorious Coale Brothers)

BOOK: The Tantalizing Miss Coale (The Notorious Coale Brothers)
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Serena “Sally” Coale would rather submit to a loveless
marriage than endure one more day under the tyrannical rule of her father. But
the last person she expects to encounter on her elopement journey is Ben
Hensley—a man who has every reason to hate her. A man she still loves with all
her heart.

Ben has spent two years trying to forget Sally and her cruel
dismissal. He is determined to prove she no longer has power over him, but a
passionate kiss evokes memories that were never truly forgotten. Can he forgive
her for breaking his heart, before he loses her forever to another man?

The Tantalizing Miss Coale

Sarah Mallory

 

She recognised him as soon as
she walked into the inn. There could be no mistaking those piercing blue
eyes and thick brown hair, or the strong lines of his cheeks and jaw, even
when masked by several days’ growth of beard. Memories swamped her and her
step faltered. Once again she was in his arms, revelling in the passion of
his kiss, loving him and knowing she was loved in return.

Before she had made him hate her.

He was seated on the far side of the coffee room and looked up
as she passed the open door. His expression did not change and she
hoped—prayed—he had not recognised her. She was wrapped in her cloak with the
hood pulled up against the rain. Surely she was safe?

‘Serena my dear, please do not tarry here where everyone can
see you!’

She forced herself back to the present, fighting down the
irritation at being addressed by her real name. No one called her Serena now,
save her father when he was angry with her. She had been known as Sally since
she was a child, when her brothers had decided that she was misnamed—no one was
less serene than little Serena Coale, whose high spirits were always getting her
in trouble.

Schooling her face into a smile she turned to her
companion.

‘I beg your pardon, Henry.’

He placed his hand on her back, moving her past the open
doorway of the coffee room and toward the stairs.

‘Please, keep your hood up,’ he hissed as she put her hands to
her head. ‘I do not want to risk anyone recognising you, when I have been at
pains to conceal our true identities.’

Obediently she bowed her head as they followed the landlord up
to the first floor and into a small, panelled room.

‘This is your sitting room, sir. And these doors lead to the
bedchambers for yourself and your lady.’ He indicated two doors on opposite
sides of the room.

As far from each other as possible
,
she thought with a tiny ripple of relief.

‘Yes, yes, we will find our way around, thank you.’ Sir Henry
waved him away. ‘Have a truckle bed made up in my wife’s room for one of your
chambermaids. Mrs. Woods’ dresser broke her leg just before we left London and
she will require—’

‘No,’ Sally interrupted him. ‘No, that will not be necessary.’
She treated Sir Henry to a blinding smile. ‘My love, you know that I am quite
capable of managing for myself while we are travelling.’

Sir Henry waved the landlord away, saying as the door closed
behind him, ‘Really, Serena, I am trying to protect your reputation!’

‘It was your idea that we should travel as man and wife,’ she
replied, removing her cloak. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Woods. I suppose it is more
imaginative than Smith.’

‘It would not have been necessary if you had brought your
entourage. We could have said I was escorting you to visit family....’

‘And you know full well that all the servants at Markham are so
fearful of Papa that we would never have escaped if I had taken any one of them
into my confidence!’

‘Hmph. We could have hired a maid.’

‘Truly, Henry, it is of no consequence.’

‘But your reputation—’

She gave a crooked little smile.

‘I fear my reputation will be ruined anyway, once word gets
out.’

Henry reached out for her hand.

‘My dear—’

‘I am very hungry,’ she said quickly. ‘Perhaps you could order
dinner for us as soon as may be.’

‘Of course. I shall do so now, my dear, and have it brought up
immediately.’

She watched him hurry away and gave a sigh. Dear Henry. So
kind, so compliant. So...boring. She rubbed her arms. Could she go through with
this? Marriage to a man she did not love? It was better than the
alternative.

Shaking off her melancholy she picked up her bandbox and
portmanteau, and carried them across to one of the bedchambers. She dropped her
bags just inside the door and backed out again.

‘So, it
is
you.’

The deep male voice made her jump round with a little
scream.

A tall, great-coated figure filled the doorway. He looked more
alarming now than when she had first seen him in the crowded coffee room. His
dark hair fell long and loose over his collar and a dark growth of beard covered
the lower part of his face. There was no hint of warmth in his intensely blue
eyes. Her anxiety was increased by the fact that he was leaning against the
doorframe, his arms folded across his broad chest in a manner at once insolent
and intimidating.

She lifted her chin.

‘Ben Hensley.’ She cast a slow, appraising glance over him.
‘You seem to have come down in the world, sir.’

He pushed himself away from the door and came toward her. She
resisted the urge to retreat.

I have been travelling,’ he replied, adding, with the quirk of
one dark eyebrow, ‘You, however, seem to have sunk even lower,
Mrs. Woods
.’

She flushed. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘The same as everyone else, I imagine. Sheltering for the
night. I had hoped to reach York but the weather closed in.’ He took another
step toward her. ‘How long has it been, Sal, two years?’

Two years, three months and one
week
—she would not admit she knew to the day how long it was since
she had last seen him.

‘You should not be here,’ she said. ‘Please leave me.’

‘And who is going to make me? That fop of a husband?’

‘Do not underestimate Henry,’ she replied quickly. ‘He is
very...correct.’

He reached for her. ‘Then let us give him a reason to call me
out.’

Too late did she realise what he was going to do. Even as she
turned to step away, he grasped her wrist and pulled her close. His arms
enfolded her, trapping her against him.

‘Let me go!’

In vain she pounded her fists against his chest. His only
response was to laugh.

‘You were wont to enjoy my caresses, Sally. Sal, Salutation...’
She lifted her head to protest and he swooped down, capturing her mouth. His
kiss was fierce and savage. She froze. She wanted to fight him off, but first
she had to overcome the violent bolt of desire that shot through her. His coat
smelled of the damp night. There was a trace of salt in his kiss and on his
skin, but beneath it all was a familiar tang that set her pulse racing, just as
it always had. His kiss deepened. Her mouth opened at his insistence and he was
plundering her senses, awakening responses she had thought dead.

And so they should be.

With immense effort she pushed her hands against his chest,
breaking contact, turning her face away.

‘How dare you!’ she was shaking with fury. As he let her go,
she lifted her hand and brought it crashing against his cheek. The impact jarred
her wrist, but although he flinched the mocking smile did not falter.

* * *

It was all Ben could do to keep his smile in place. He
had to call upon his training as an intelligence officer to help him, hiding his
emotions, playing a role. Inside he was reeling. Not from the slap, although he
was sure the force of it would leave its mark, but it was nothing to the tumult
raging through his body and his mind. He had kissed her to punish her and to
prove to himself she no longer had any power over him. Instead, as soon as he
had captured her lips the old feelings came back, stronger than ever. He was a
boy again, in love for the first time. His body had responded immediately and if
she had not pushed him off her the physical evidence of his arousal would have
given him away. Now she glared at him and he held her eyes, determined to keep
the upper hand, to conceal just how she had shaken him.

‘Get out,’ she ordered. ‘Get out before I scream for the
landlord and have you thrown out!’

‘Would you do that to me, Sal?’ His eyes narrowed, laughter
glinting in their blue depths. ‘I will leave on one condition.’

She bit her lip, determined not to ask the question, but her
face betrayed her. He continued, ‘You will meet me tonight. There is a small
orchard at the back of the inn. I will be there at midnight, waiting for
you.’

He let her go and she made a great play of shaking out her
skirts.

‘Then you will wait in vain.’

I think not,’ he said softly. ‘If you do not appear then I
shall come knocking at your door. We will see how you explain my presence
to...Henry.’

Smiling, he ran one finger along her cheek. His very touch
burned her skin and she shrugged him away. She saw the flash of white teeth
through the black growth of beard. Piratical.

‘Midnight,’ he murmured. ‘Do not be late.’

He sauntered to the door, his greatcoat swinging jauntily as he
walked. The next moment she was alone.

With a small sob Sally flung herself down on a chair. She was
trembling and unusually tearful at having her memories ripped up so violently by
a man who should have been dead to her. A hasty step sounded outside the door.
Was he coming back? She tensed as if in anticipation of a blow, only to
experience a searing disappointment when Henry came in.

‘That rascally landlord wanted to charge me extra for having
our meal sent up. If he knew who I was he would not dare—my dear you are looking
very pale. Has the journey been too much for you?’

‘I am a little tired.’ She forced a smile. ‘I shall be better
once we have had something to eat.’

Yet, when at last Henry led her to the table, her appetite had
disappeared.

* * *

The razor rasped as it cut a swathe through the black
hair covering Ben’s cheek. It had become his habit to leave the beard in place
until he reached his home. In his line of work a rough, bearded traveller
attracted little attention, but Sally’s look of disdain had touched his pride.
He had called for hot water to be sent up, and with the aid of extra candles and
a cracked mirror, he set about making himself presentable.

Over a mug of ale in the taproom he had learned that the
servants thought little of Mr. and Mrs. Woods. Merchant types, they said, trying
to ape their betters with separate bedchambers for husband and wife. Odd, that.
Would the Honourable Serena Coale, a Viscount Markham’s daughter, stoop so low
as to marry a merchant?

If she loved him.

The thought speared through Ben, making his hand shake, and the
razor nicked his skin. Damnation, he had not expected to feel like this. Serena
Coale was dead to him, or she should be.

Remember the tears, Ben. Remember the
humiliation.

But still the idea of her marrying that foppish merchant
rankled. Hell, he might not have a title, but his family was connected to some
of the most prestigious in the land and his fortune was not inconsiderable. If
she could cast him aside as unworthy, what, then did a mere Mr. Woods have to
offer?

* * *

When he made his way to the orchard at midnight, his
face was clean-shaven and his hair brushed and caught back at the nape of his
neck with a black velvet ribbon. A snow white cravat and fresh linen shirt
completed the transformation from journeyman to gentleman traveller. Not,
perhaps, as fashionable as that overdressed popinjay she had come in with, and
nothing like the young buck he had been when they first met. Then he had been
full of dreams for the future. Would she remember that? Ben’s stomach churned.
Of course not. Yet she had responded when he kissed her. For one, brief, heady
moment she had been yielding and pliant in his arms, bringing all the old
memories flooding back to him. And the pain.

‘You are a fool, Ben Hensley,’ he muttered as he buttoned up
his silk waistcoat. ‘You should stay away from her. She punished you once. That
should be enough.’

But it wasn’t. Seeing her again so unexpectedly had caught him
off guard. That was why she had affected him so badly when he kissed her. But he
had to be sure. He had to prove she no longer had the power to hurt him.

* * *

The orchard was silent, save for the soft wind sighing
through the trees, and a full moon hung overhead, bathing the world in a soft
silver-blue light. A cloaked figure was moving back and forth between the trees.
At his approach she swung round to face him.

‘I cannot stay long,’ she whispered. ‘Tell me what you want of
me.’

He stepped closer. It gave him some satisfaction to know that
she was nervous. He was in control now, and he would punish her, just a
little.

‘Everything you promised me.’

Her eyes were huge and dark in her heart-shaped face. His heart
turned over; by heaven she was as beautiful as ever!

‘Th-that was mere foolishness. A childish romance.’

He reached up and pushed back her hood. In the daylight her
hair was brown, deep and rich as polished mahogany, but now it gleamed black in
the moonlight. More memories flooded in. Stolen kisses at midnight, the feel of
her silky hair between his fingers...

‘We plighted our troth, don’t you remember?’ He picked up one
of her curls, murmuring, ‘Sal. Salvation...’

She pushed his hand away.

‘Do not say that!’

‘What would you have me call you, Salacious? Salome...’

‘I am nothing to you.’

She turned from him but he caught her wrist, pulling her back.
They were standing very close and he was painfully aware of her rapid breathing.
Her cloak had fallen open and as her breast rose and fell the thin silk of her
bodice came within a hair’s breadth of his chest. He felt desire stirring again
within him. It took all his willpower not to put his arms about her and crush
her against his hardened body. He muttered savagely, ‘You were everything to
me!’

A look of pain flitted across her face. She put her hand up
defensively. ‘If I hurt you I am very sorry for it.’

‘Sorry? How magnanimous—I still bear the scars!’

‘I told you at the time I had mistaken my feelings for
you.’

‘Only a desperate flirt would lead a man on in that way.’

BOOK: The Tantalizing Miss Coale (The Notorious Coale Brothers)
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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