Authors: Cheryl Holt
“Or perhaps you know the ending. Perhaps he was a child and wasn’t able to come for you.”
“Oh, don’t say it! It would be too depressing.” She forced a smile. “It’s most likely just an orphan’s fantasy due to my desire to have a family.”
“Please don’t tell me you grew up in an orphanage.”
“No, in a boarding school.”
“Thank heaven for that.”
“Yes, my life has been all right—for all I don’t recall the beginning of it. In my first memories, I’m four or so, and I’m at school.”
“But safe and sound?”
“Yes, always safe and sound there.”
She drank down the rest of the liquor, and it visibly relaxed her. As she placed the glass on a nearby table, he studied her.
In the fading firelight, she looked young and pretty and very, very alone. From the moment they’d met she’d fascinated him and that fascination appeared to be increasing at an alarming rate.
She was exhibiting a brave front, but he suspected that if he hadn’t blustered in, she’d be weeping in anguish. Were her memories that ragged?
He wasn’t the sort of person who comforted others. If he’d been asked to describe himself, he’d have said aloof, detached, cold, and stern. But suddenly, he was anxious to comfort
Acting on instinct, he didn’t allow better sense to prevail. He drew her onto his lap, dragging her from her chair and onto his own. He spread his legs and balanced her on his thigh. She tried to push away, but he snuggled her down so she was nestled to his chest.
He caressed a soothing hand up and down her back, and he was surprised to discover that he liked it very much. Maybe he wasn’t such an ogre after all. Maybe, deep down, there was a glimmer of humanity lurking beneath the stuffy, pretentious façade he showed to the world.
He’d had his share of romantic entanglements, but he wasn’t a warm or cuddly fellow. He viewed his carnal relationships as commercial transactions: money paid for services rendered. There’d been no tender encounters, no quiet interludes in the dark of night, so he hadn’t realized that affection could be so pleasant. The interval was emotionally charged, but in a way he enjoyed very much.
Eventually, she straightened and gazed at him. Her lush, ruby lips were only an inch from his own, and he couldn’t help but kiss her. He just managed to touch his mouth to hers when she gave him a hard shove and jumped to her feet.
“No, no, no,” she scolded. “We’re not doing this. I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
He grabbed her wrist, but she jerked away and stomped across the room. She pulled the door open and hovered next to it, as if—should he say or do the wrong thing—she would run out into the hall.
“What is it you want from me?” she inquired.
“I don’t know.”
“This is the second time you’ve come in here. I’m your guest. I should be safe in your home.”
“Safe—with me? You’re mad if you assume so.”
“If you can’t leave me alone, then I agree with Vicar Bosworth. I need to stay somewhere else until my wedding.”
“I’m not a chattel, and I’m not a slave. We’re barely acquainted, and you have no authority over me. It’s none of your business if I depart.”
“And who does have authority? My cousin?”
“He would think so.”
“He’s an idiot.”
She didn’t respond to his insult. Obviously, she’d have liked to, but what would be the point? Unless or until the betrothal was severed, she was engaged to Iggy, and the notion aggravated Aaron beyond his limit.
“You can’t marry him,” Aaron insisted.
“Easy for you to say.”
“You can’t. I won’t let you.”
won’t let me?” She snorted with disgust. “Would you go? I appreciate your checking on me, but I can’t have you barging in.”
“It’s my bloody house,” he crudely snapped. “I can behave however I wish.”
“My betrothal is difficult enough for me. I can’t have you making it worse.”
“How am I making it worse?”
“You seem to want something from me, but whatever it is, I can’t give it to you.”
Did he want something? He thought he probably did. He was so happy when he was with her, so optimistic and hopeful, as if a remarkable future could transpire between them. But he wouldn’t tell her that. Such maudlin drivel was completely foreign to his character, and he wasn’t about to provide any hint of how deeply she affected him.
“Iggy is all wrong for you,” Aaron said.
“So? In my experience, husbands and wives are never compatible. I expect my marriage to him will be very typical.”
“Why would you agree to the match?”
“Because I didn’t have any choice! Why do you suppose? It’s not as if I have a hundred friends and family members lined up with other options. Should I have refused him? Would I be better off living in a ditch?”
“He claims you had a
dowry. Why didn’t you use it to pick someone more suited to your personality?”
“It wasn’t up to me. I simply did as I was told.”
“Pardon me, but you don’t seem all that submissive. Why blithely consent?”
She scoffed and shook her head. “We’re not all rich and lucky like you. Some of us—
in particular—are just scrambling to get by.”
“Is that how you’ll view your marriage? As just getting by?”
“Yes. What else is there for a woman in my position?”
When he found her to be so magnificent, the prospect of her being abused by her spouse was extremely wrenching. He couldn’t bear to imagine her in a bad situation.
“Let me help you,” he said.
“How could you?”
That was a question for the ages, wasn’t it? What assistance was he prepared to bestow?
With his own wedding swiftly approaching, he couldn’t take her to London. Nor could he leave her at Fox Run. He and Priscilla were moving to Fox Run after the wedding was over. He could hardly arrive with Priscilla and have Miss Etherton greet them in the driveway. There would be no way to explain her presence to his wife.
Iggy had mentioned that she’d been a schoolteacher, and Aaron didn’t know why the post had ended. She could probably return to that dreary existence, but he couldn’t picture her toiling away at such a dull endeavor. She was like a brilliant comet streaking across the sky. She ought to be in London on the stage, but he’d cut off his tongue before he’d put that idea in her mind.
If she flitted off to London, she’d wind up like Florella, with an empty purse, loose morals, and every libertine in the city begging her for indecent favors.
He pushed himself to his feet and marched over to her. She watched him warily, as if he was a rabid dog that might bite. And, he had to admit, he wasn’t sure himself what he might do.
For months, he’d been raging and out of sorts. He’d traveled to Fox Run to ease his stress, to come to grips with his engagement, but since he’d met her, he was more dissatisfied than ever.
He truly thought he’d meant to storm out, but once he was next to her, he couldn’t walk on by. He reached over and shut the door so they were sequestered again. She huffed out a frustrated breath.
“We can’t be in here like this,” she insisted.
“As I said, Evangeline, it’s my house. I can act how I please.”
“Well, I can’t! What if a servant saw us? What if he told the vicar and—”
Before she could finish her sentence, he swooped in and kissed her.
He slid an arm around her waist and held her close so the entire front of her delicious, voluptuous torso was crushed to his own. The sensation was so stirring that his knees nearly buckled.
For a brief second, she shoved at his chest, but he wasn’t about to release her. Ever since their fleeting kiss in the music room, he’d been dying to do it again, to do it more fully and completely so, hopefully, he would tamp down some of the lust she induced in him. But the embrace provided no indication that his ardor might be lessened. If anything, it was immediately pitched to a new and frightening level.
His hands roamed over her body, tracing her shoulders, her back. His fingers went to her spectacular blond hair, and he plucked out the combs, the blond mass falling down in an intoxicating wave. He riffled through it, the feel of the soft strands rattling him, goading him to take the kiss farther than it should ever go.
Ultimately, he began massaging her buttocks, pulling her loins to his own, and it was a limit she wouldn’t allow him to cross. She yanked away, murmuring, “No, no, I can’t.”
Her pleading tone stopped him, and they stood in silent misery, their foreheads pressed together, their breathing labored as if they’d run a long race.
He’d never been so titillated, and he yearned to pick her up, to carry her into the bedchamber and try things with her he’d never previously considered with a female. It was a wild and feral urge that was almost beyond his control, and—should he give it free rein—it would ignite a spark and incinerate them both.
He gazed down at her. She looked rumpled and adorable, and he was so smitten by her.
Before he’d left London, he’d told his father that he wouldn’t marry Priscilla, that he planned to cry off. Lord Sidwell had counseled that it was simply bachelor’s jitters, and as a cure, he’d suggested Aaron meet a nice girl and have a fling to work off some of his discontentment.
Aaron had scoffed at the notion, but why had he? Why not have an affair? What was preventing him?
Her wedding was in a month, and his was in six weeks. Neither of them was eager to proceed. Why not misbehave for a short interval before duty and obligation rendered many onerous challenges?
Aaron could stay at Fox Run for the month, could have thirty whole days with Evangeline! Why shouldn’t they seize the opportunity? Who would ever know? And if no one knew, where was the harm? He would never tell Priscilla, and Evangeline need never confess to Iggy. It was the ideal solution.
“I’m going to ask you a question,” he said, “and you have to say
. Don’t you dare refuse. I couldn’t bear it.”
“What is it?”
“I want us to have an affair.”
“What? No, absolutely not.”
“Don’t call me by my Christian name. It’s not right.”
“We can have an entire month together.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a slight shake. “We can loaf and play and please ourselves.”
“It will be a secret we’d take to our graves.”
“You’re mad,” she chided, “and you insult me by mentioning it.”
“There’s no benefit for me to participate. No benefit at all, and if the vicar found out—which he would—my chance to marry would be destroyed.”
“Then be my mistress. Tell my cousin to sod off, and I’ll move you to London and buy you a cozy little house. I’ll fill it with a staff of fawning servants and attire you in the prettiest clothes. I could be with you all the time.”
Aaron was shocked he’d tendered the scandalous proposal. He hadn’t meant to; it had just slipped out. But once voiced, he rippled with excitement. He would bring her to the city—quietly and discreetly of course—and he’d tuck her away in a private love nest. It wouldn’t matter that he had to wed Priscilla, because he’d have Evangeline.
It was perfect! Perfect!
“Your mistress?” she said, scowling.
“Yes, we could be so happy.”
“I repeat, you’re mad. And you have to go.”
“No, no, Evangeline, you’re not listening to me.”
“I’m listening.” She nodded with derision. “Believe me, I heard every word, and I’m embarrassed for both of us.”
“You presume I’m the type who would…who might…who would like to…”
Apparently, his request was so offensive she couldn’t verbalize her upset.
“There’s a physical attraction between us,” he said.
“So what? We’re not animals. We don’t have to act on it.”
“We could have the most wonderful liaison.”
“Why would you suppose it is what I seek or covet?”
He couldn’t fathom her reticence, not when he was so thrilled by the idea. How could he see the advantages so clearly, and she see only disadvantages? He was desperate to persuade her it was for the best.
“I’m very rich, Evangeline, and I can be extremely generous.”
“Bully for you.”
“Think about your future. Think about your life at the vicarage with my cousin. Then try to picture yourself in London with me. We’d attend the theater, and we’d have fascinating friends. I’d dress you in gowns and jewels. You’d want for nothing.”
“You actually assume I’m pining away for gowns and jewels? You actually assume that’s the sort of person I am?”
“You’re so beautiful, Evangeline. Let me pamper you. Let me make you mine.”
She jerked open the door and stepped into the hall without checking first to ensure no servant was walking by. It was late, so it was unlikely, but her brazenness yanked him back to his senses and forced him to recognize that she was correct. He’d gone temporarily insane. It was the sole explanation.
What had come over him? Why had he offered such a ridiculous, untenable proposal?
He was getting married in a few weeks, and though he wasn’t the most moral man, he liked to imagine that—at least at the beginning—he might be faithful and loyal. What would it say about his character if he took a mistress right before he took a bride?
The answer to that question was too awful to contemplate.
They stared and stared, and finally she said, “I’ll pretend none of this ever happened.”
“You’re leaving now, and I’m locking my door. I realize this is your house, but you are
to visit me again. Do you understand?”
He considered arguing just because he could be contrary and obstinate, but sanity was gradually sinking in. He’d been behaving like a lunatic and was mortified.
“I apologize,” he said. “I won’t stop by again. I promise.”
She didn’t reply, didn’t smile, didn’t indicate any heightened feeling. Had she none? How could he be brimming with affection and she be completely indifferent?
She simply waited, then waited some more, until it dawned on him that she was
for him to depart.
He walked out and kept on down the hall, and when her door closed, when the key spun in the lock, he didn’t glance back.