The Outcast Earl is a 100,000+ word romance novel. Approximately 14,000 words are currently available in samples through different venues, all provided here. The Outcast Earl is followed by The Rusticated Duchess, available in April 2013.
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[Reader Advisory: This book contains scenes of male masturbation, erotic spanking, sexually charged disciplinary spanking, steamy oral sex, light bondage and offensive stubborn male possessiveness. There are also references to anal play and famous French paintings containing partially clothed women.]
(Extended Sample of) The Outcast Earl
by Elle Q. Sabine
Copyright 2012 by Elle Q. Sabine (email@example.com). Published by Total-e-bound.
All rights reserved, do not reprint in paper or electronic form without prior permission of the author and publisher. By reading further, you are stating you are 18 years of age, or over.
Suppressing another futile bout of anger, Abigail stared out of the window of the carriage, contemplating the dreary landscape. It was tedious progress, particularly given the crosswind blowing against the horses and the heavy old coach. Above her, Abigail knew, the coachman and her maid had been sitting on the box for hours under a light, cold rain. By now, they must be miserably chilled, but no one had spoken of stopping. Indeed, the outriders from Meriden Park, riding both in front and behind them, urged them on with what seemed relentless patience. Through the mud-splattered windows of the carriage, Abigail could see their horses were caked with mud, while the riders pulled their hats low over their heads and covered their faces.
The company would, Abigail decided, make a perfect portrait of her mood when she finally arrived.
On the bench seat opposite, Aunt Betsy stirred from her nap and sat up, blinking. Aunt Betsy—Lady Arlington—was a dear soul once one accepted her perspicacity, but often she was too flamboyant and outspoken for good taste. Today, her travelling gown was a florid pink edged with large scallops of red lace. The matching cloak was woollen—though the same tawdry hue—with red trim. Even her red bonnet, with its pink ribbons, feathers and ruffles, matched the appalling display. Abigail couldn’t help but smile every time she looked in Aunt Betsy’s direction.
Aunt Betsy struggled to resettle her spectacles on her nose before adjusting her bonnet over her old-fashioned wig of grey curls. A frown that wrinkled the corners of her eyes and her lower chin pursed the lady’s lips.
“I am simply appalled at your father’s behaviour!” she fussed, glaring out of the window at the dim landscape of grey pasture that seemed desolate in the late twilight. “One would have thought he would have found a way to be here—and better sense than to contract you to an arranged marriage at all. The entire affair is a travesty.”
One of the few remaining luxuries of the ancient trap they were in was that it did not leak. Abigail gave a silent word of thanks for the mercy and smoothed the blanket that covered her layers of stockings, petticoats, gown and pelisse.
She couldn’t envision any profit from pursuing the discussion yet again. It would only infuriate both of them, as it had every day—every hour—since her father had called Abigail to his study a week earlier, a drawn but determined look on his face. “We should be close to Meriden Park,” she said evenly, determined not to rise to her aunt’s bait. From the comments Aunt Betsy had littered along their two-day route, it was obvious that Abigail’s father had not shared the same reasons for the match with his sister as he had with his daughter.
The elder woman snorted. “I thought you had more gumption than this, girl,” she scolded again, retrieving her cane from the bench seat and rapping it against the upholstered cushions. “You might not be the prettiest of the four girls, or even the smartest, but I always liked you the best. I must say, I’m disappointed in you this time.”
Abigail considered a repressive glare in the manner of her mother, but refrained. Visibly, she tightened her lips and calmly removed her gloves to examine her fingers. Long years of familiarity with Aunt Betsy, and constant reminders from her mother, were enough to prevent any vocal response to her aunt’s jousting.
Abigail’s nails were prettily cut and her fingers well-formed and soft, with only a hint of use along the edges of her two middle fingers on each hand. She mercilessly scrubbed and treated them each and every day to maintain the illusion of fashionable uselessness that her mother deemed compulsory.
Still, Abigail was unable to ignore her aunt’s words. “Of course, Fiona is the brightest of the four of us,” she finally ventured, “and Genevieve is the prettiest.” She paused for a moment, and continued gently, “And I do think Gloria is the most…” She paused, refrained from uttering the word ‘ambitious’, and finished, “Capable in society.”
“One generally would have considered her marital prospects to be excellent, were she not so set on that poor example of a man,” her aunt replied pertly, then grimaced.
“Most would consider marriage to the heir apparent of a duke to be something to celebrate,” Abigail acknowledged a bit pointedly. “Your standards aren’t exactly the ones embraced by most of society.” Privately, Abigail agreed with her aunt. Despite the title and all its inherent benefits, the man in question was no more than a drunk, prone to violence and public foolishness.
“I don’t understand,” Aunt Betsy sighed, less indignantly but with more resignation. “And at this point it seems apparent neither you nor Gloria will confide in me.”
Abigail considered, but shook her head. “It is Papa’s prerogative, if he so wishes, to explain this fiasco in which I find myself.”
Her aunt frowned again. “I offered him money, you know,” she grumped, then rapped her cane again, her voice rising in indignation as she went on. “Fool man wouldn’t take it. Said the engagement was already announced. Said he wouldn’t take a pound from me anyway. Your father is nothing if not a proud—”
Aunt Betsy didn’t have the opportunity to issue her last, damning injunction. The word was ripped into a screech as the carriage lurched dangerously and began to list sideways. Abigail, seeing the woman collapse forward, lunged across the carriage and blocked the door even as the coach landed with a vicious jolt on its side. A terrible vision of the catch breaking and the door opening to spill them both into the road and ditch gave her the extra determination to hold desperately onto the seat when Aunt Betsy fell senseless onto her.
The men above were shouting at one another as the horses screamed into the late evening air. As if on cue, Abigail heard the light patter turn into heavier rain and the natural light in the coach dimmed to near darkness. On top of her, Betsy lay still, but with some relief Abigail heard her breathing in shallow gasps.
“Aunt Betsy?” she whispered softly, aware now of the scramble outside the coach. A pistol shot—unexpected—made her heart leap but, with it, the screaming horse was relieved of its pain, and Abigail breathed again cautiously. “Are you all right?” She reached around the older lady and found what she guessed to be the cause of the woman’s unconsciousness—a sticky, swelling wound on the back of Aunt Betsy’s scalp.
Abigail knew immediately that her hand was covered in blood.
There was no question of moving Betsy off her. Aunt Betsy was a healthy, robust woman old enough to no longer be concerned about her figure. Abigail simply wasn’t strong enough, and there was nowhere in the cramped, upside-down cavern of the carriage to move her. Above them, past the long, black, leather-covered benches, a window framed in black wood looked out to the darkening sky. Betsy’s cane lay off to the side, obviously cracked, and Abigail wondered if the falling stick was at fault for Betsy’s injured head.
With a grunt, Abigail continued to hold her hand against the wound, reminding herself that head wounds bled heavily. With her other hand, she managed to rip some of the fabric from her thin, innermost petticoat and move it to press against Aunt Betsy’s head. Pressure, she knew, was the best help she could provide right now.
To Abigail’s dismay, rain began to drip from the window latch down onto Aunt Betsy’s woollen pelisse.
Coachman John, his hood over his face, appeared a few seconds later at the window above them, a lamp in hand, which he shone down onto the pair. His face creased with worry and pain as he realised Abigail’s dilemma and the condition of his mistress.
Abigail called up to him, “She’s breathing but unconscious, I think. Hit her head—she’s bleeding quite a bit.”
He nodded, pointed to the sky and called some comment to the other men. He pointed to Abigail.
Focusing, Abigail mentally ran down her body from head to ankle, squirming as she shifted the bones and muscles in her arms and her back. When Abigail stretched her calves, then her ankles, she immediately wished she had remained motionless. “My ankle!” she called, despairing. “I’ve injured it somehow!”
John’s creased lines turned to a definite frown. “M’lady,” he shouted through the glass, “I’m going to try to open the window!”
The coachman struggled with the latch. When he forced it open, a draught of cold air blew in and Abigail shuddered. Water dripped onto her skirts where her pelisse was askew from the accident. “Those outriders we met up with in Northampton have gone for help. We can see the turn into the Park’s front lane, m’lady, so help shouldn’t be long in coming. But there’s no way we can move this heap upright and rescue you without more men!”
Abigail sighed and nodded, moving her head back to rest against the pane of glass under her head. Although miraculously unbroken, the glass was cold, and had apparently moved out of its frame. It, too, was beginning to leak and Abigail could feel rivulets of cold water slipping beneath the curve of her shoulder so that her gown, once comfortably cosy, was quickly turning into a clammy, cold costume. Above her, John slammed the window closed and shut out the remaining daylight that had provided Abigail with a connection to the world by stretching a length of oilcloth over the glass.
Grateful that John was trying to keep them as dry as possible, Abigail struggled to keep from thinking of the pain in her ankle or of the unconscious woman pressing her into an increasingly cold, wet position. With a wry groan at what seemed like the opening of a cheap Gothic novel, she even determined to put her would-be rescuers—and her future—from her mind.
She knew without thinking that John had done the best he could. Aunt Betsy had volunteered him to drive her father’s old travelling coach north, so that the de Rothesay coachman could continue the customary round of social outings Abigail’s mother and sisters daily required in the elegantly styled town landau.
Abigail’s father had agreed, so the old vehicle had been pulled from the back of the carriage house in the mews and meticulously cleaned. Still, nothing except complete refurbishment would have been able to conceal the age and wear on the old equipage.
Abigail had seen John inspecting the undercarriage at earlier stops and making small adjustments. He’d said nothing critical, naturally, but after they’d left Northampton with the two mounted footmen from Meriden Park, he’d driven more carefully than he had before. It had slowed the day’s progress, the tedium further exacerbated by the weather.
Still, the rain and roads could have been at fault instead of the coach. Not that it really mattered now.
Abigail could feel her heart beating against Betsy’s elbow. Stilling completely, she moved her free hand—the one not putting pressure on Betsy’s wound—to her aunt’s chest, taking comfort in the regular rhythm of its beat. Although she didn’t know for sure, Abigail surmised that a strong, regular heartbeat had to be better than a frantic or faint one. It was certainly better than none at all.
All she could do was wait to be rescued by a man she’d never met. Thinking about him—about her bigger dilemma—simply made the present situation more untenable. Thinking about her lost dreams, her secret desires and lost intentions now ruthlessly set aside and best forgotten, was too painful. She had to hold herself together, so as not to cry. To not think about the pain in her ankle, or her confused sisters and melancholy mother.
Abigail had to be strong, and she was good at being strong, responsible, reliable, practical, sensible. ‘Helpful’, they called her. The words filtered through her brain as she reminded herself of all that her sisters had said of her. At that moment, she didn’t feel so very helpful. She felt helpless, actually. So she stared up into the blackness and tried with all her might to not think of weddings, or brooding, moody men, or grieving family members. It was better, she decided wearily, not to think of anything at all.
“Open your eyes, damn it!”
Abigail’s body jerked at the impatient, commanding words, even as her eyes flew open obediently.
The voice barking at her from above was not gentle or indulgent. Nor was it the voice of a servant. It was a deep, unfamiliar rasp and Abigail automatically—instinctively—drew back farther against the wooden frame of the carriage. The body to which this voice belonged hadn’t even tried to block the rain from pelting in. “Where’s John?” she asked anxiously.
The man didn’t seem to hear the tremor in her voice.
“John?” he bellowed. “Who the hell is John?”
“The coachman!” she returned bitingly, reaching up to bat away the water before it dripped onto Betsy’s cheek. “You’re making this worse than it was,” she added indignantly.
“I don’t have time for your hysterics,” he grunted. “We’ve got to get you out of there and up to the house.”
“I’m not hysterical. I’m never hysterical,” Abigail returned acidly. Taking a deep breath, she explained, “Aunt Betsy is on top of me. And she’s unconscious. I can’t move her—and there’s nowhere to put her if I could. We’ve slid down against the door. Besides, her head is injured. I’m putting pressure to stem the bleeding but she needs a doctor, and quickly.”
“Damn!” The man bit off another curse. He leaned over, his head through the window, trying to see inside, and then drew his head back out. Abigail listened to him issuing orders, and, with a dawning sense of uneasiness, she squinted to get a better view.
A lamp quickly arrived, and the man bent down into the coach with it, partly lighting the interior, Betsy, Abigail and his own face.
Abigail swallowed. The scar for which he was famous was unrelieved by the light bouncing from the inner carriage walls. It traced the edge of his jaw from ear to chin, giving his face a harsh profile.
When her gaze uncertainly drifted from the edge of his face to his eyes, he promptly scowled. “We don’t have time for proper introductions or foolish objections now,” he growled. “You’re both hurt, so save the kind-hearted sympathy for the drawing room tomorrow.”
Abigail’s mouth opened with indignation. “Why, what are you—?”
She couldn’t finish the question because he interrupted, abruptly instructing, “We’re going to tip you back upright, so hold on!”
Abigail wrapped her arms around Betsy and braced her uninjured foot against the bench, anticipating that they would slide downwards onto the floor of the coach as it was tipped upward. When they had finished, Abigail realised that at least one of the wheels had broken, because the two women remained slumped against the door, though Abigail was now upright with Betsy on her lap.
Within a moment, the door behind her opened and the chill and wetness came rushing in, followed by a formidable presence in a leather greatcoat, which flapped against the carriage frame.
“Just hold on to her for another minute,” the rough voice of the sixteenth Earl of Meriden boomed against her ear.
Abigail shivered at his proximity. She couldn’t see much of him in the dim blackness of night, but even drenched and diligently focused on her rescue, he seemed to take over the empty space around her, as if he was larger than life in his black greatcoat. She wished she knew if the heat that suddenly surrounded her came from him.
“Don’t let go of her,” he ordered, reaching his long arms around her and steadying the limp form.
She closed her eyes and tried to hold back the comment that was rising to her lips, but she couldn’t help it. The acerbic words tumbled from her, and he was close enough to hear them. “What else could you possibly have imagined I would do?”
* * * *
Charles glared at the back of her head. The girl wasn’t supposed to be impertinent. She was supposed to be at least terrified, as any other innocent miss in this situation would have been.
The irony did quirk his lips, though. All other young innocents would have been passed out as thoroughly as the estimable Aunt Betsy. It was unfortunate they weren’t in a position where he could address—indeed, enjoy—that impudence.
It wasn’t that he wanted a ninny as a bride. Truth be told, her cheekiness held infinitely more potential than shy, retiring misses could ever promise. Knowing his own reputation and family history, he had given up his search for his English maiden years ago and retreated to the ancestral rural landscape to brood out his days. Now, though, he was grateful for those past discouragements. If he had married a shy, young, English miss nine years ago, he would now likely be bored to tears.
He didn’t cry easily.
But he needed an heir. Heirs, preferably. Time had reinforced that reality, too. The Wessex family had ruled, owned and dominated the landscape in this part of England for time immemorial. By legend and maternal bloodlines, his ancestors included the ancient kings and queens of Mercia, and the remarkable Alfred the Great. The Wessex clan had survived innumerable wars, royal abuse, the bloodthirsty Cromwells, charges of treason and any number of importuning women who had tried to discredit the ancient warrior lineage. The remains of his ancestral kingdom might have died out with William the Conqueror, but the survival instinct had percolated in nearly every generation through the centuries. One did not allow a one-thousand-three-hundred-year dynasty to die out without making some effort to preserve its fate.
From the few words he’d exchanged with Abigail so far, it seemed as though she might wear the Meriden coronet quite well.
Besides, both his parents and grandparents would torment him for eternity in the afterlife if Meriden allowed his cousin Milton to inherit. The lying little boy, who had delighted in sabotaging Charles’ animal traps and decimating his childhood forts, had grown into a petty, self-indulgent man who had, quite possibly, degenerated with age. When Charles had seen him last, in London, Milton had been positively smug over the probability of inheriting the earldom. Even living, Charles was fairly certain his mother’s continued residence in Italy was meant to be a constant reminder that he needed a châtelaine for Meriden Park, and that she had no intention of filling the role for him.
Charles sincerely hoped that Milton would one day meet his comeuppance for his own arrogance. Charles equally hoped he would be in a position to witness it, without being caught up in the fiasco that was certain to follow.
As he often did, Charles worked like a demon while he inwardly mused, leaving the rescue of Lady Abigail de Rothesay to her coachman while he focused on the injured aunt. He was able to do so with half a mind, the other half still consumed by the dilemmas he would face over the next days.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to touch her. It was just that he wanted that first contact to be in more forgiving surrounds. He wanted her to know they were touching, to think about how it felt. He wanted to be able to appreciate the texture of her skin and feel the shudders run up her arm when he kissed her inner wrist.
Charles wanted her to be perfectly and explicitly aware that he had every right to do with her as he pleased.
Of course, he reminded himself, he ultimately wanted her to be happy in that same possession. A bit of nerves was to be expected—even enjoyed—but Charles had no wish to terrify his bride. But as of yet, he truly had no indication, beyond her signature on the marriage contracts, that she had even accepted the fate her father’s spendthrift habits had handed her.
The Earl of Winchester, otherwise named Stuart de Rothesay, had been progressively sinking into massive debt for the last fifteen years, in order to finance a luxurious lifestyle for himself, his wife and four fabulous daughters. To stay afloat, Winchester had drained his entailed property of anything saleable long before, and was left with a mortgaged London home at a highly valued address in Mayfair, country properties that were dilapidated and tenanted, and mounting pressure from the banks after two speculative investments had failed dramatically.
For reasons known only to Meriden’s grandfather, Meriden’s man of affairs, Simon Rutherford, had always kept abreast of Lord and Lady Winchester’s lives. Charles knew of it, of course, and had allowed the regular reports on their finances, politics and social activities to pass into his hands every quarter since his grandfather’s death. It wasn’t as if they were the only family of influence his grandfather had tracked. The previous earl had left Charles with a letter listing those who owed the family favours and those to whom the earl had felt a certain obligation. His grandmother had been able to enlighten him about most of the names, but had no explanation as to why the previous earl believed he was indebted to Lady Winchester, the only female on the list.
When Charles had heard of Winchester’s difficulties from Rutherford, and about the imminent seizure of the peer’s lands, Charles had immediately known that saving Lady Winchester and her daughters from being cast into the street definitely qualified as repaying a debt.
Overruling Rutherford’s sensible financial advice, Charles had quietly approached the bankers and had purchased a significant portion of Winchester’s debt—more of the debt than any mere favour would have required.
It was to be Charles’s opportunity to re-enter popular society, to ask the upstanding and fashionable Countess Winchester to procure for him invitations to events where he might find a bride.
At least, that had been his plan.
One visit to Winchester House had revised his intentions. The five beautiful women that graced the portrait behind Winchester’s desk had inspired Charles to ask for a much higher price.
Amazingly, after staring at him for only about twenty silent seconds, Winchester had agreed.
Abigail came to him without a dowry, though Winchester had deeded to Charles the two properties of Lord Aston, Winchester’s minor title, and Charles had written off the mortgages he held on them. Still, Charles was grateful that he hadn’t been forced to circulate among the backstabbing matrons that comprised the proverbial ton, or even to set up housekeeping in the etiquette-strict and overly expensive city. He had not once been called upon to tell the story of the scar to his jaw to a shocked and wide-eyed audience—a boon worth nearly any portion of his personal fortune.
In any event, Charles was thoroughly confident in his ability to make more money to replace that which he had spent to acquire Abigail. And, if the day did come where her parents threw themselves on his mercy, and requested a roof for their heads, he could easily insist Abigail install them at Aston Manor. He’d already ordered the leaking roof to be replaced and measures taken to restore the house and grounds to respectable condition, though turning the land into a profitable farming operation would require more time.
Charles had been certain that Winchester would call his bluff on the marriage demand. Winchester was socially experienced and had an expert for a wife, so Charles could not understand why he had agreed. He’d been sure the man would come back to him and ask him to reconsider, or to offer him some alternative. Arranged marriages, after all, could reflect poorly on the bride as being desirable only for her money. In addition, hastily executed weddings were inevitably perceived to be a symptom of hidden drama, and, with no history between Charles and Abigail, most people would assume money was the cause for hurry. Despite these concerns, Winchester had agreed in principle and had appeared to negotiate faithfully.
Charles could have forced the sale of or seized the valuable London house to satisfy the debts and foreclosed on the Aston mortgages. The other far-flung properties, in Wales and Ireland, were uninhabitable from neglect and old age and deeply mortgaged already, courtesy of various banks.
To evict the countess and her four unmarried daughters from their London house, to publicly reduce them to poorhouse poverty—genteel or not—would have incensed polite society and signed the death certificate on Charles’ welcome among his peers.
Initially, Charles had agreed to accept any of the four well-established and lively beauties as his bride and retired to his room at Brooke’s. During the next few days he’d surreptitiously watched all four on their daily excursions, admiring each for their composure and grace.
However, as the days had passed, he’d formed his own opinion on the matter, and had begun to wish that he’d been more specific in his demand to Winchester. He had wished he’d asked for Abigail.
Charles had been astonished when Winchester produced the contracts, signed and sealed, with Abigail’s name and signature on them. As soon as he had them in hand, Charles had packed his few belongings and returned north. He hadn’t wished to give Winchester or his daughter any simple route for changing their minds.
Fiona, popularly said to be the family bluestocking and the eldest, had been the obvious choice. Twenty-four already, the girl was said to be uninterested in marriage. Charles had expected to have Fiona fobbed unwillingly into his bed, and would have welcomed her in fulfilment of his honourable word, even if she wasn’t part of his deepest fantasies. Either because Fiona was intelligent and known to be sharp-witted as well as sharp-tongued, or as a result of it, she was often left on the outskirts of an outing or by the wall in social settings. He’d have been happy for his children to inherit her intelligence, independence and evident strength of character. He could see no reason why they would not have developed a practical and friendly relationship over time, with her cooperation. He’d already pondered the notion of having to acquire a long-term mistress to attend his everyday needs, as he was quite sure Fiona would have little interest in sharing his bed any more frequently than was required.
He’d not expected anyone to breathe Gloria’s name. Gloria was the eighteen-year-old rage in London, the object of the devoted attentions of at least three earls and one widowed duke twenty years her senior, and, though the rumour mill claimed she had already chosen one, no public announcement had been made. Gloria would have looked down her nose at Charles and waltzed off without a backward glance. The threat of poverty was unlikely to have swayed Gloria in the least—if the rumours could be believed, her future was assured no matter what the state of her father’s finances.
Sixteen-year-old Genevieve could attract the attention of a dozen bucks and blades simply by walking down Bond Street with her sisters. According to the men that congregated in Pall Mall and lodged in rooms on Jermyn Street, it was not uncommon for the younger set to call at Winchester House, ostensibly to pay court to Gloria but in actuality to lie in wait for a glimpse of Genevieve, who was permitted to appear in the drawing room with her sisters for no more than twenty minutes every morning. Genevieve was not officially out and about in society, of course, but marrying her off now would have saved Winchester from the expense of at least one London season. But then, like Gloria, Genevieve would not need to worry about her own financial security. Finding a man susceptible to those girlish curves and that virginal womb would hardly be a challenge, even without a penny to her name.
Almost before his musing was concluded, the earl found he had been bundled by his well-intentioned servitors into a plain black carriage he’d kept.
Abigail’s aunt, Lady Arlington, had begun to recover, with the fortitude of her intimidating reputation, as soon as she’d been laid flat in the back of the cart. Still, her wound was serious and the ride up the lane in the dray would be excruciating if she woke. With her coachman and a footman on each side of her, pressing fresh bandages to her head, she’d been loaded into the back. When he’d stepped back, Lady Arlington had been stirring.
Lady Abigail and a maid—both pale with shock and pain—were already settling into the seat opposite him. From their appearances, it seemed as though the servant had taken the brunt of any injuries. She was clutching her arm in desperation, while Abigail hugged her and murmured words of encouragement and comfort.
Charles hadn’t expected Lady Abigail to be her parents’ choice, either. He’d assumed Fiona was the natural sacrifice—perhaps even the reason Winchester hadn’t refused his plan outright. In the days after his meeting with Winchester, Charles had watched Fiona, Abigail and Gloria in the park, in Bruton Street, and even from the shadowed corridors of Hatchards. Gloria had amused him by subtly but effectively interrogating every man who had approached her about politics, parents and pocketbook. Fiona, both gracious and reserved, had chatted politely with all who had approached.
Abigail, either unaware of him or at least ignoring his presence, had flirted freely with an established circle of suitors who were Charles’ equal in almost every respect. She had attracted peers of his age, rank and intelligence who were looking for a bride, precisely because she was not a ninnyhammer, socialite or awkward wallflower. Even excluded, Charles understood how Abigail had charmed all those around her with her smiles and laughter. One day soon, she would turn that witty, teasing beam on him and he knew he would struggle to keep his hands from her tempting curves.
At that moment she was ignoring him, and he grasped the opportunity to study her. She was drenched, and the rivulets still dripped from the tendrils of reddish-brown curls that peeked from her bonnet. In the dim lamplight of the carriage he couldn’t see the shade of her eyes, but he knew better light would reveal questioning, brown orbs. Right at that moment, they would likely be consumed with concern for her aunt, and he was certain her shoulders would be drooping from exhaustion if she had not been occupied with comforting the maid.
Charles couldn’t muster an ounce of pity for her state.
No, Abigail looked stunning.
He shifted uncomfortably in response to an awkward and unwelcome erection, glad that the carriage was nearly already in the forecourt. Darkness had long since fallen, and it was useless to think that he might be able to speak with Abigail alone that night. Her aunt would need, even deserve, Abigail’s attention, if any could be spared from her own injuries.
Charles winced inwardly as the carriage lurched to a halt. He glanced at Abigail, who had looked up, before saying abruptly, “My butler will help you both.”
Her jaw tightened a bit with wilfulness, but she acquiesced with a brief nod, a motion that sent water dripping from her bonnet down her nose and eyes. Abigail grimaced openly, and the reversal of expressions almost brought a chuckle to Charles’ lips. So she wouldn’t see it, or the telltale signs of his arousal, he jumped from the coach into the rain and waved forward his butler, Grady.
“Take care of them,” he told the man shortly, then had to frown at the small smile on Grady’s lips. His blasted butler understood him far too well.
Charles hurried inside and up the steps, not bothering to throw his greatcoat at a footman. For the moment, it hid his more prominent problem. At the landing, he turned to the left and strode down the gallery, making a quick turn into the narrower corridor that led to the earl’s apartments. Abigail’s boudoir was on his left and the main bedchamber ahead of him, but Charles turned to the right, to his own sitting room.
The room was lit, and he was rubbing his palm against the flap of his trousers even as he dropped the greatcoat carelessly on the floor. His valet Robert would clean up his mess. Charles stopped to fumble with the buttons on his trousers, then sank down on the chaise and stared at the painting above the fireplace. The subject was a particularly charming mistress of Louis the Fifteenth in little clothing and a provocative position. It had always been helpful for just these surprising situations, but this time Charles felt absolutely nothing when he looked at the eager girl.
Frowning, he gripped his still-hard cock in his fist and pumped it, remembering again his fierce reaction to Abigail’s discomfiture, to rescuing her, and even to her saucy tongue. He used his left hand and palmed the heavy sac beneath his penis, massaging it in conjunction with the fisted cock. He’d expected—and had felt—sympathy and a violent protectiveness. He hadn’t expected such a strong surge of arousal, however. The turbulent and unfamiliar emotions had made Charles more abrupt than usual, and he’d barked at her instead of speaking as a gentleman ought to have spoken.
As he remembered her disgruntlement, he hardened further. Many peers might value gentlewomen but the patriarchs of the Wessex clan had historically prized, sought and zealously guarded their queens. Charles was no different. Abigail’s spirit had been tested and she’d come through as valiantly as any soldier he’d seen in Spain. He was more convinced every day that she could rule his corner of Warwickshire, and heaven help him, but he wanted her to.
Charles slid his hand up towards the head of his fully engorged cock and pulled hard and fast, imagining Abigail’s face drawn with sensual exhaustion rather than pain. On the heels of that thought came another, firmly forbidden fantasy that Charles couldn’t resist. It was Abigail’s face as he thought she would look when consumed with lust. Her eyes would beseech and her body would beg and her voice would plead for him to give her relief and succour, to pleasure her.
Charles let his cream shoot down the side of his trousers, which had already been ruined by the rainy excursion. He fell back and sighed as relief and an unexpected sense of anticipation gripped him. He’d have to wash and change, then he’d see about Abigail. He had a suspicion she wouldn’t be safely in her bed, resting.
They weren’t married, nor yet even properly introduced. Aunt Betsy was Abigail’s chaperone, but of course, Aunt Betsy was in bed and still unconscious.
Abigail sank into the armchair at the far end of the room, ignoring the persistent ache in her left ankle and leg as the doctor examined her aunt. She’d have to meet the earl alone now. There was no choice but to set aside custom and the rules of polite society. In any event, she was affianced to the man.
Both her father and mother had denied Abigail’s plea to escort her to Warwickshire themselves. Winchester was deep in negotiations with His Grace the Duke of Lennox to marry Gloria to Lennox’s heir, the Earl of March. Fiona couldn’t be spared from keeping a strict eye on the hordes that ogled Genevieve at every turn. Abigail’s mother, immersed in preparation for Gloria’s engagement announcement and the subsequent ball at Lennox House, had insisted that Aunt Betsy keep a strict watch in her place.
Meriden had supposedly returned to his country home and posted the banns in his own parish, with the second reading this very morning. At the very least, Abigail had eight days of grace—the third reading of the banns would be a week from today.
Abigail had argued for three days, even as she was fitted for her wedding gown and a complete new wardrobe for her trousseau, but both Winchester and the countess had agreed that, of the four sisters, Abigail would be best suited to life at Meriden Park. Winchester could not have afforded to renege, and Fiona had refused outright. The only alternative would have been Genevieve, and Abigail found the notion repellent—not only was Genevieve simply too young, but she could never have survived the separation from all that she knew, or cope with being at the mercy of a physically overpowering man.
Abigail doubted her own ability to counter such a man as Meriden. He was popularly believed to be heartless, ill-mannered and temperamental by word and deed, but Abigail swore to maintain her grace and composure before him. Genevieve would have been overwhelmed and hysterical by now, Abigail conceded with her usual practical honesty. The girl could think of nothing but poetry and painting, had no experience of country living or running a household, and had a bad habit of fainting at the mention of blood.
Still, Abigail couldn’t help but wonder at the impossibility of the very fine line she was expected to walk. According to her mother, she was not to involve herself in any episode that might raise a gossip’s brow. She was to avoid tête-à-têtes, confrontations, taking charge of the household and lengthy explorations of the gardens. The countess still held out hope that the marriage could be avoided. Abigail didn’t see how that would be possible, particularly with Aunt Betsy in her current condition.
To be blunt, Abigail knew her mother’s reservations were irrelevant. Abigail firmly believed Meriden had no intention of allowing her to manoeuvre out of the arrangement. By now the banns had been read twice in his own parish church. To beg off would humiliate him in front of his own villagers and tenants, not to mention the entire English aristocracy. An engagement announcement had been run in The Times, so neither Abigail nor Meriden would be free of the social consequences should the engagement be broken.
Reneging would likely cost Abigail more and less than she’d been told. Returning to her mother’s household would mean watching Gloria’s marriage to a detestable man Abigail distrusted, and Abigail would afterward be destined to oversee the legions of men who were preparing for Genevieve’s coming out, much as a companion or chaperone. Still, despite Winchester’s dire warnings of financial ruin, Abigail did not believe for even a moment that the Earl of Meriden would actually cast the de Rothesay sisters into the street. Even if he did detest her parents and meant to ruin them, she knew such a move against the unmarried siblings would forevermore ruin him socially. No doubt the Duke of Lennox would take them into his home based on Gloria’s marriage to his son, anyway. Financial stability was, after all, one of the reasons Gloria had decided to go ahead with her marriage.
If it hadn’t meant the loss of Fiona’s near-constant companionship, the new and unwelcome distance from her sisters, marriage to a stranger, her unsatisfied curiosity over her future duties at Meriden Park and the callous nature of the arrangement that had decided her fate, Abigail wouldn’t have been so displeased. What female of managing mind would not want a great house with dozens of rooms and servants to organise?
Across the room, the doctor rose from his chair beside the bed and began repacking his bag. The maids hurried to do his bidding, and Abigail advanced as well, ready to help make her aunt comfortable.
The doctor glanced at her and smiled, then moved her way. “She recovered consciousness briefly in the dray, but moving her inside caused her to slip away again,” he said quietly. “I’ve administered laudanum to keep her sleeping well into tomorrow. Otherwise, she would feel the pain and be exceedingly difficult as a patient. If we could speak downstairs?”
“Of course,” Abigail murmured, turning.
Frowning, she thought she ought to lead, but had no idea where to go. Upon entering the house, she’d followed the footmen bearing her aunt up the stairs. From there, she’d briefly seen her own room while one of the Meriden chambermaids had assisted her in removing her bloodied and torn clothing. The girl had brushed her hair and dressed her in simple garments that belonged, she had said, to Meriden’s seamstress, Mrs Grady, the butler’s wife.
After she had been dressed, footmen had carried in her travelling trunk. The exterior was damaged and the contents disordered, but Abigail had been grateful to see that nearly everything seemed to be intact. The trunk contained clothing sufficient for a week or so, and the carters were on their way with the remainder of Abigail’s belongings. After digging out a pair of slippers for her feet, Abigail had limped back across the hall to find the doctor examining her aunt, assisted by Grady and a matronly housekeeper who had been introduced as Mrs Carlton.
Despite her hesitancy now, she led them to the door. Her own chamber was directly across the upper gallery from her aunt’s large room. She expected the earl’s private apartment would be at the far end of the long gallery, at the opposite end of the house. She remembered a large, high, bay-windowed anteroom with long windows at the head of the stairs. The drapes had not been drawn, but the lamps had been lit. There had been a lounging chaise and a few chairs with small tables scattered about.
At least she knew where it was.
They exited the room together and the doctor said in a kindly way, “And how are you? You are limping.”
Abigail summoned a smile and trudged on. “My ankle is simply a bit bruised, somewhat twisted, nothing more. I will be fine.”
“I’d like to examine it, Lady Abigail, if only to ensure it isn’t any more seriously injured. You’ll need to rest so that it can heal properly.”
“I cannot be confined to a bed,” Abigail objected. “Aunt Betsy will need my time and attention, and indulging a silly twisted ankle while she is in so much pain is selfish and somewhat cowardly.”
Just as she finished they reached the stairs, and she turned to the bay, motioning the doctor in that direction.
It was only after they’d clearly entered the space that she saw the earl standing at the dark window, glowering at her.
“Ah, there you are, Meriden.” The doctor spoke before Abigail could think up a single word, even an inappropriate one. “I must say I am glad to see you, though the circumstances leave something to be desired.”
Meriden’s infuriated gaze shifted over to the middle-aged physician and his face relaxed a bit. With a wave to the chaise in Abigail’s direction, he spoke instead to the doctor. “I have to say, I’m happy to not have seen you recently, at least not in a professional capacity. But it has been too long since you’ve visited, James. Why don’t you plan on coming to stay for a few days? Surely this is a good time, what with an unfortunate patient—excuse me, three patients—in the house?” He turned his gaze to Abigail, who was sitting obediently on the chaise while fuming over his obvious lack of manners. He met her eyes for two seconds, then said softly, “I believe Lady Abigail was about to ask you to look at her ankle. I, too, would feel much relieved to have her diagnosis of a twist confirmed by your expertise.”
Abigail watched the third man confidently set his bag on one of the accent tables and approach her, clearly judging the earl’s instructions to supercede her own wishes. Reluctantly, her feet already up on the chaise, she shifted so that he could lift her skirt out of the way and remove her slipper.
She’d not donned stockings, being in a rush to check on her aunt, and now she wished she had.
Perhaps this was less humiliating, she reconsidered, watching him inspect the joint carefully. It felt odd—and somehow illicit—to have her foot bare before a man other than the physician. It would have been more than unnerving to think of removing her stockings in the gallery, with Meriden watching.
She jerked when Dr Franklin twisted the foot slightly, and sat back in relief when he returned it to the chaise.
“You have no other injuries, then?” he asked kindly, looking intently at her face.
Abigail smiled, a bit tiredly, and shook her head. “I’m very tired, of course, what with the shock wearing off now, but I’ll be much improved come morning.” She refused to mention her bruised back, or the persistent shivers that were threatening. Those she could manage privately, after all.
“We can’t have you sitting up all night with your aunt, then,” the doctor insisted, seeming to read her intentions. “I know you asked for a cot to be brought up to your aunt’s room but I do think a maid shall be sufficient. Your aunt will sleep all night, and your ankle—not to mention the bruises on your shins—will heal best if you sleep well. We shall need you tomorrow, preferably on your feet.”
Grimacing, Abigail nodded, privately protesting that the cot would be perfectly restful. No maid—certainly no maid who had not met Aunt Betsy before the carriage accident—would be able to replace a beloved niece. The only suitable candidate was Abigail’s own maid, Jenna, who was also in a drugged sleep in the service wing, having been diagnosed with a broken arm and serious wrenching of her spine and shoulder. She’d been thrown from the top of the carriage, but luckily had not landed underneath it.
“How is Lady Arlington?” the earl inquired evenly. He had withdrawn to the shadows a bit, making it difficult for Abigail to see him, but his voice carried easily in the gloom.
“She’ll need some time to recover—she’s had a nasty knock, certainly a concussion in addition to the wound itself. We won’t know how serious it is until she wakes, but in my judgement she needs to be asleep until it heals a bit. She could experience memory loss, migraines or a loss of articulate speech, or wake up in perfect health.” The doctor’s voice was easy, and as he spoke Abigail watched him wrap her ankle in a tight bandage, then tie the end expertly. “I’ll return tomorrow just after lunch, as her laudanum won’t wear off until then.”
Abigail wouldn’t be able to put her slipper back on, but she’d be able to hobble back to her room for better footwear. “As for Lady Abigail, she’s correct. It is a twist. She’ll be perfectly normal in a day or two, as long as she doesn’t overdo it. And no dancing until two in the morning, young lady,” he added, raising an informal eyebrow in her direction.
Abigail had to smile at the jest. “Why, then,” she returned smartly, “let us hope his lordship has not planned a Grand Ball to be held before my dancing slippers arrive and are unpacked.”
The doctor’s eyebrows lifted and he laughed. “Why, I’m not sure his lordship even knows where his own ballroom is located in this great monstrosity of a house,” he assured her.
“Directly beneath the earl’s apartments,” Meriden supplied brusquely. “James, what do you say, can’t you stay?”
If he stayed, the doctor would likely sit up in her aunt’s room. Abigail waited, quite still. At least, she thought, he was a doctor, but then he shook his head. “Not tonight. I need to be near the bell. Mrs Silverthorn and Mrs Manwaring are likely to need me anytime, and the baker’s mother is near her last day. But I do appreciate the offer, Charles.”
Abigail blinked, but Meriden strolled from the shadows, seemingly unaffected by the casual use of his given name. “I’ll see you out then.” He laid a hand on the doctor’s back. “I’m sure Lady Abigail will be happy to sit and rest for a few moments until I come back.” He glanced at Abigail, who busied herself with attempting to replace her slipper, deliberately avoiding his glance. She had no intention of reclining on the chaise until his return, but saw no reason to inform him of the fact.
He wouldn’t dare cause a scene when she was with her aunt, even if that aunt was sleeping, and at least a few servants were certain to be in the room.
He wouldn’t dare. Would he?
Abigail collected loose cotton slippers from her room and went directly to her aunt’s chamber. She kissed the lady’s cheek and inspected the wound Dr Franklin had meticulously cleaned as the maid slipped out for new washing water. She’d just seated herself in a chair near the bed when the door to Aunt Betsy’s chamber was flung open. Gasping, she glanced up as the Earl of Meriden strode through with as much circumspection as a frigate in Derbyshire.
He spoke not a word, but stood before her, the scowl on his face darker than ever. Conscious of her exhaustion and her mostly bloodshot eyes, Abigail still sat proudly erect on the chair’s edge, her body properly poised for discussion. Rapidly processing his apparent unhappy mood, she improvised as much of a self-introduction as possible as she stood.
“Lady Abigail de Rothesay, as you know, my lord. A pleasure to meet you,” she finished, bobbing a proper curtsy and retaking her seat.
If anything, his frown darkened. “Of all the witless, senseless, disobedient—” he began, then broke off the words. “My name is Charles.”
To her surprise, he bent down and lifted her, his arm sliding beneath her knees and his other holding her up against his chest. Abigail squealed and now returned his glare, helpless to do anything but grab the front of his coat and hang on. Without a word, he turned and strode from the room, stopping abruptly in the corridor beyond the door. A footman and two maids immediately materialised from deeper in the corridor. Ignoring Abigail’s indignant squirming in his arms, he said to them, “Please arrange for someone to sit with Lady Arlington and a maid to sit with Lady Abigail. They may need assistance during the night.”
Without waiting for an answer, he continued to Abigail’s door and pushed it open, then strode in. Making directly for the bed, he dropped her unceremoniously on it. When Abigail sat up, Meriden held up a hand and said stiffly, “If you know what is good for you, you’ll stay in that bed until tomorrow morning. If—and only if—you can walk without limping, I shall see you in the library at ten, as Dr Franklin has assured both of us Lady Arlington will sleep until after the lunch hour. However, if I find you anywhere in the house besides this bed before that hour, I shall not be held responsible for the consequences.”
Inhaling abruptly, Abigail began to speak. “Why, you—” But by then he had already turned and was making for the door.
With no more ceremony than that, he shut the door hard behind him, leaving Abigail to stare indignantly at the inside panels. “You brute,” she finally seethed.
To her surprise, the door opened just as the word ended and, after a startled moment where she imagined Meriden might have heard her and was returning, Abigail realised it was simply the maid who had helped her earlier.
“Are you ready for bed then, milady?” she asked cheerfully and, with a sigh, Abigail nodded. Surely the man wouldn’t be up all night. By most customs, he’d be awake until the early morning hours and then sleep late into the morning, probably rolling out of bed just in time for the hour of their appointed discussion. She’d check on Aunt Betsy then, when all was quiet—by dawn at the latest.
In the meantime, she could think about him. About all that was different about him. She hadn’t realised it at first, when they were out in the dark carriage, but it had struck her even in that short distance between Aunt Betsy’s room and her bed.
He hadn’t touched her with the careful restraint she expected of gentlemen. Meriden’s hands had splayed possessively over her hips and his fingers had slid up and under her breast as he’d turned her. He hadn’t been doing anything improper, but then again, carrying her across a corridor wasn’t precisely proper either. Still, he’d gripped her firmly. He hadn’t been tentative, but he hadn’t been obnoxiously groping her, either. He wasn’t afraid of her. He behaved as if it was his right to touch her so, and as if she should not imagine protesting.
The reasonable, rational, sensible Abigail found his directness somewhat nerve racking, but a small, tentative part of her stomach awoke and told her that she liked it. She liked being unnerved. That small part of her wondered what else he could do to unnerve her. So while she was still awake, Abigail wondered.
* * * *
As she had expected, Abigail slept poorly. At times, she’d felt Meriden was right to disregard formality in their particular circumstances. Treating him as she would a brief acquaintance was hardly going to be possible. Still, she also stewed over the audacity of the earl and his behaviour.
In the depths of the night, she woke from an uneasy slumber. A candle burned beside the bed, and Abigail smiled to see the chambermaid, Annie, asleep in the chair just past the candle. She’d been sewing in an attempt to stay awake, but the fabric was lying in a heap on Annie’s lap, and the girl’s head had fallen back against the wall. Silently, Abigail slipped from the bed and slid her feet into the slippers that waited at the edge. She shrugged on her robe and noiselessly moved across the room. She just wanted to check. If there was someone sitting—and awake—with her aunt, she’d come back to her own bed. The remains of the warming blaze that had been in the fireplace earlier still cast eerie shadows on the walls and ceilings, but it was enough to see that the clock read just after three. It would be morning in a few hours anyway. After dawn, she wouldn’t hesitate to call the night over.
The door opened with only a faint squeak, which didn’t disturb the maid in the least, and after pulling it shut behind her, Abigail limped over the corridor rug to her aunt’s door. It opened noiselessly and Abigail stepped inside.
Aunt Betsy’s room was warm from the fire that was built up in the grate. It was October and the nights were cool, but none of that chill had permeated this room. Abigail approached the bed, noting Betsy’s heavy breathing. Bathed in the golden light that escaped the hearth and filtered in rays over the bed, Abigail stood and took in the new fragility in Betsy’s features. Her aunt’s eyes were closed and her gnarled hands had escaped the coverlet to clutch the silk bedding, a luxurious addition to this room, which was decorated in deep yellow Chinese papers and furnished in black wood inlaid with elegant gold accents.
Someone had kindly removed the powder and cosmetics from Betsy’s face, and had washed the scrapes on her hands and forearms. Bruises were beginning to form along her right cheek and, to Abigail’s dismay, the bandage that had been wrapped tightly around Betsy’s head had stretched and loosened as the injury had swollen.
The maids had been applying a luxurious commodity for October—ice—and Abigail quickly noted the large bag that waited on the bedside table. The room was empty—perhaps the maid had gone to get more? Meriden Park must have a large icehouse to still have a supply on hand so close to the first winter freeze, Abigail observed dispassionately.
With a sigh, Abigail sat on the side of the bed and watched Aunt Betsy breathe in slow intervals. She did not claim to be a physician or a herbalist, nor even a proper nurse, but she’d been a loyal student of practical knowledge from childhood.
Abigail knew she was unable to translate Fiona’s treatises from their Latin, Greek or Old English. Nor could she quote—as Gloria could—entire family trees from Burke’s Peerage and list from memory the lords of England in order of precedence.
Still, as a child, Abigail had nursed Gloria and Genevieve through scarlet fever and measles, had darned socks for soldiers instead of embroidering, and had been perfectly happy rummaging in the kitchen and pantry on baking day. She had a respectable knowledge of what useful items might be kept in the stillroom, and had had numerous lessons in how to use them. At home, she had been universally sought out to make flower arrangements, repair her father’s shirtsleeves and sister’s dresses, and plan the family’s menus with the housekeeper.
In all of those endeavours, she’d been surrounded by sisters, aunts, cousins and long-time family servitors, many of whom had been her own nursemaids. She’d been safe, mostly encouraged, and generously indulged.
Without Betsy to see her through the next few weeks, Abigail wasn’t sure how she’d manage the practicalities of organising even a small wedding, in a strange place where she knew no one and none of the local customs. Truth be told, she didn’t even know the groom. Not that it mattered. If Aunt Betsy was more seriously injured than the doctor expected, Abigail would simply refuse to move forward until her aunt was well. Betsy would need Abigail to nurse her more than Meriden Park needed a châtelaine or its grumpy master needed a companion.
It would be impossible to convince Meriden to delay, though.
At that stray thought, the door to the room opened again. Expecting the maid, Abigail twisted and looked around.
A maid did enter, a pitcher of ice in hand. Unfortunately, she was followed by the housekeeper, who bore a large bowl, and the much larger, intimidating form of Meriden himself.
Abigail managed to hold her breath and not gasp, but it was impossible to deny that his gaze went immediately to her and stayed there, intent and intense. After the briefest of glances, she didn’t dare meet his eyes again or acknowledge the earl. Instead, she drew on his example earlier and addressed Mrs Carlton. “The wound is quickening, yes? I see someone has been applying ice to try to keep the swelling down.”
Mrs Carlton set her burden beside the bed and clucked. “Mary came and woke me when the ice didn’t work. We’ll have her fixed up nicely in just a few moments—luckily his lordship was still awake and knew just what to do without waking Dr Franklin. Now, then, miss, why are you out of bed? Do you need a draught to help you sleep? Is your ankle giving you pain?”
Abigail shifted on the bed, automatically helping Mrs Carlton to unwind the bandage. She kept her eyes carefully away from Meriden’s face, but still somehow knew it was grim to the point of forbidding.
“I woke a while ago and couldn’t sleep. I thought seeing her peacefully sleeping might help,” she said softly, already knowing it wouldn’t. Despite her external consciousness of Meriden’s presence, Abigail was shocked by bloody mats in Aunt Betsy’s grey hair and the greenish knot beneath that seemed to grow as she watched it. The injury looked decidedly worse, though of course that might be attributed to the developing bruises.
Apparently accustomed to dealing with gruesome displays, Mrs Carlton shook her head and rose from where she had bent over the bed, wetting a cloth in the basin. Abigail watched as the older woman gently—very gently—wiped away what she could, then applied the cold poultice with gentle strokes of her fingers. Without a glance at Meriden, Abigail claimed the long roll of bandage and efficiently rewrapped her aunt’s head in clean cloth before leaning down to kiss her cheek.
Blinking back a stray tear that threatened, Abigail met the housekeeper’s eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured, her eyes shifting to Mary. “Thank you both.”
“Naturally,” Mrs Carlton assured her. “’Twas lucky for us that his lordship remembered the recipe for the poultice. He’s the one who knew what to put in that paste, you know.”
“I used to make bowls of it in that damn field hospital in Spain just to keep busy,” Meriden observed quietly. Abigail was still sitting on the bed, but he had circled it and come up behind her before Abigail had realised.
Startled, she shifted abruptly, looking up at him.
“But now it’s time for bed for you, too,” he announced, bending over and lifting Abigail into his arms again. This time, she gasped and clutched at his arms instead of the lapels of his coat, holding on to him for balance while she tried fruitlessly to remain upright.
As he turned, she caught a glimpse of a pleased smile on Mrs Carlton’s face, while Mary conveniently moved away to fill the ice bag.
Abigail felt her shoulders stiffen as he strode to the door. “I can walk,” she whispered fiercely.
He ignored the statement, but strode into the gallery. Swinging to his left, he headed confidently down the corridor.
Abigail was neither calm nor confident. “What are you doing?” she whispered urgently, digging her fingers into his arms in a futile bid to gain his attention.
“I warned you to stay in bed until morning,” he grunted. “Since you can’t follow the simplest of directions, you can spend the remainder of the night where I can make sure you stay off that damned ankle.”
“I have to go back to my room. The maid’s there,” she whispered frantically in the dark corridor, struggling in earnest.
He stopped at the top of the stairs. In the darkness, it was impossible to make out his features clearly, but he was frowning. “She let you leave?” he asked incredulously.
Abigail held herself stiffly. “I allowed her to remain asleep,” she said, lifting her chin. “The poor thing is overworked and out of her depth, and she fell asleep on the settee mending, presumably after a full day of work and an unusually busy evening. And I would suggest that you have erred in assuming that I am subject to the whim of a young maid when I outgrew governesses years ago.”
“That’s it,” he grunted, striding farther into the dark gloom of the upper gallery.
“What’s it? What on earth are you about?” she asked indignantly, when he held her still.
“We’re going somewhere alone—away from injured aunts and helpful doctors and loyal, overworked servants.”
Ahead of them, Abigail spotted the dim outline of two great oak doors and inwardly quaked. “You can’t take me in there.” She shook her head frantically. “Those are your rooms!”
“I know very well whose rooms they are,” he answered, kicking the door beside them open and shutting it firmly behind them with his heel.
Without ceremony, he carried her over to the sofa in a small room that apparently served as a sitting room, and deposited her on the dark green velvet cushions before returning to the door and snibbing the lock, pointedly pocketing the key in his coat. “And in reply to your earlier comment,” he continued as fiercely as she had done, “you may not be subject to the whims of a governess, but you are damn well subject to my whims. And I will not accept blatant subversion of doctor’s orders and my directives because they do not suit you. Do you understand me?”
Abigail met his glare unflinchingly, but she stilled. Was he reacting to some perceived threat to her health, or was he one of those men who always had to be in control of their surroundings? Was his fury violent, or was he overtired from not sleeping?
“I think,” she said, gathering every ounce of composure and reasonableness she possessed to put into the words, “that we have much to discuss before I would agree that I am subject to you at all, though I will certainly acknowledge it is one possibility. For the moment, I am still my father’s daughter and Aunt Betsy is both my chaperone and now my responsibility. I am the reason she is here, and if I cannot change the past and somehow prevent the accident or her injury, I can for certain nurse her back to health.”
Meriden shook his head, responding in kind to her calm. “No. If anyone is at fault, it is I. I allowed you to travel in your father’s carriage all this way, without considering that it would be in as poor a condition as the rest of his property. I should have arranged for you to use my own travelling coach. I hope that you will accept my apology for not considering the means by which he might convey you north, even for not escorting you myself. Indeed, I would hope that you accept my apology for not caring for you as I ought. It might seem a poor start, but I would ask for your consideration under the circumstances. As it happens, you are not only my first wife, you are also the first lady for whose welfare I am wholly responsible.”
Abigail blinked, her world tilting a bit. She had, of course, known her father could be criticised, but Winchester had never once apologised to her or her sisters—not even for the current debacle. She was equally convinced Winchester had never once apologised to her mother for anything. And yet this man all the women of London called a brooding monster did so unflinchingly, over a matter that was not completely within his purview.
“It was my father’s responsibility,” she said after a long moment. “Not yours. No apology is necessary.”
“Nevertheless, I will take better care in the future,” he murmured, still staring at her. “Because you are mine and in my care now, regardless of the formalities yet to be observed.”
Abigail drew a deep breath, trying to calm her inner nerves and save herself from whirling headfirst into a re-examination of what she had previously known to be true. “Fiddlesticks!” she eventually objected, frowning him down as he approached at her words. Challenging him to an argument over this notion of ownership did seem the best way to reinforce her earlier impression of selfish arrogance. She allowed her eyes to briefly graze over the scar along his jawbone as she reminded herself that they were essentially adversaries. “You can’t seriously expect me to believe that I am somehow chattel to be ordered about callously according to your moods and tempers, simply because we are expected to marry? If you believe such nonsense, I’m afraid you’ve picked the wrong female and should perhaps reconsider this ridiculous plan before it’s too late.”
“I expect you are sensible enough to follow directions that are given for your own wellbeing, as we will marry,” he countered very carefully, sitting down as close to her as he could manage—so close that his breath raced across her cheek. “And I have not picked the wrong bride. To my mind, I couldn’t have found a more perfect one.”
Abigail turned her head to scoff, but he simply leaned closer and murmured in her ear, the warmth of his breath sliding over her neck and down her jaw, tempting her to shiver. “In any event, there is no going backward, even if I were not determined to have you permanently at my side. You’re here, alone with me, in my house. Your aunt is present, but she is insensible and cannot be thought of as a proper chaperone in the minds of the interfering biddies who dictate your public behaviour. Meanwhile, you are in my own private sitting room, gowned in nothing more than a nightdress, dressing gown and house slippers. In addition, you will likely be here for quite a while, alone with me, as you have already proven conclusively that you did not learn the skill of obedience during childhood.”
Suddenly short of breath, Abigail sat very still, but when Meriden leaned in to kiss her, she couldn’t help her instinctive response to flee.
She leapt to her feet and backed to the fire, rubbing her hands together uselessly in the warm room.
“What did I just finish telling you?” Meriden barked, reaching for her and grabbing her wrist before she could flit farther away. “If you try to walk on that ankle again tonight, I swear I’m going to turn you over my knee and paddle you for behaving like a silly child.” He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her, setting her squarely on his knees, locking one arm around her to hold her there.
“You wouldn’t!” Abigail gasped, unable to think of anything more profound on such short notice, and trying desperately to squelch the traitorous part of her gut that seemed to respond more dramatically every time he touched her. She didn’t know what she was feeling, but now was not the time or place to work it out.
Instead, she lifted her hand to push him away but he simply growled, “It’s either that, or this—” Then he slid his free hand around to the back of her head, and set his lips to hers.
Abigail had been kissed before, of course. She was twenty-one and had spent more than three full years in London society. While not the Winchester sister to inspire lust from the masses, she was certainly eligible, and had attracted her fair share of more serious, reserved men who were not attracted to the glamorous Gloria or the voluptuous, young Genevieve. Kissing, she had advised her younger siblings, was an art. Some men had practiced, did it well, considered little things like how they tasted and whether their partner could still breathe. Other men had no skill at all, and no interest in acquiring any. They pushed, suffocated, forced and followed it up with self-important pride. It had not taken Abigail more than a few brief experiences to decide that any man in the second group could be gently eased in the direction of some more desperate girl. Abigail had no interest in a man who used kissing as a means to press more invasive intimacies on the female. Men who were patently disinterested in pleasing a partner with something as simple as a kiss could not be expected to do so in any more important pursuit, and were therefore not worth considering.
Abigail was fairly certain Gloria had deliberately ignored Abigail’s opinion on the subject.
With such a preconceived opinion, Abigail tensed as Meriden touched his mouth to hers. Should he turn out so early on to be an insensitive clod, Abigail knew she would have difficulty with following through on the engagement, no matter the consequences. She’d have preferred to ease into such intimacy after she had learnt whether to guard against him or not. Nevertheless, she stilled and tried to take in the sensation of his lips rubbing over hers.
He was not gentle, precisely, but neither did he plunder selfishly. No, his mouth worshipped her lower lip, then the upper one, learning the shape and size of her mouth before he eased his tongue just inside her lower lip to taste her.
Meriden was definitely not one of the untrained, inconsiderate brutes. She closed her eyes, softened against the arm that surrounded her waist and leaned closer, her lips tingling in a rush of sensation where his tongue stroked hers.
He caught her fingers with his free hand, where she had pushed futilely against his chest. Trapping her hand in place, he murmured, their lips still touching, “I would, you know.”
Abigail breathed a soft sigh. “Would what?” she asked, a bit wobbly from the unexpected rush of warmth that had ripped up her spine with the kiss. She’d forgotten what he had said.
“I would spank you. Paddle you, if I had to,” Meriden repeated in a husky whisper against her mouth. He ran his hand up from her waist to tangle it in the hair at the back of her head, and instead of the indignant reaction Abigail felt was required, she leaned in closer, shivering when Meriden used his lips to examine the corners of her mouth in an exquisite intimacy.
Abigail remained calm and confident until they reached the top of the stairs. Automatically, she turned to the right, towards her room, and looked up in surprise when he didn’t release her arm. Glancing up, he raised his eyebrows and ushered her to the left with his free hand, which held the candle.
Her heart fluttered, but all Abigail could manage to say was, “But I haven’t done anything wrong!”
Meriden’s delighted smile would have been warning enough to worry any female. “No,” he agreed. “You’ve done nothing wrong. Nevertheless,” he said, turning them insistently while Abigail’s breath caught, “it will please me to have you come with me.”
Abigail dragged her feet. She was anxious. It wasn’t that her last visit to that room had been unpleasant. If it wasn’t for the scene after, perhaps she wouldn’t be so hesitant—
“Remember what happened last time, after? Suppose someone sees us again?” she asked nervously.
“Milton is hardly likely to be haunting the upper gallery in the pre-dawn,” Meriden pointed out logically, “especially as he’s no longer welcome in it.”
Abigail took another step—
Suddenly, she stopped, shaking her head. “No, we can’t,” she objected in a frantic whisper. “Aunt Betsy isn’t under the laudanum, she could wake and call for me.”
“The maid is sitting with her,” Meriden assured her huskily, just as quietly, but now his smile was replaced by a harsher mien. She wavered, indecisive, until Meriden sighed and blew out the candle. In the sudden, inky blackness, Abigail swayed. Lightning flashed beyond the great windows in the bay and she saw Meriden bending towards her for a moment. Then the blackness returned and her world tipped as he lifted her in his arms—a familiar enough refrain that she automatically reached out to his shoulders to balance herself.
“I can see we’re going to have to have a chat,” he growled against her ear, moving forwards suddenly.
Abigail couldn’t see even his face with all of the lights extinguished, but she believed he must have known where he was headed. Closing her eyes, she laid her cheek against his shoulder and waited.
Perhaps, she thought, it was just simpler to do what he asked, at least this time. It was dark, the servants were abed, and he’d proven that physically resisting him was a lost cause.
“Where are we going?” Abigail murmured, her nose nuzzled into the collar of his dressing gown, when she realised they had proceeded past the few remaining steps to his sitting room door.
“Somewhere private,” Meriden grunted in return. “I’ve shared you all damn day,” he added after a second of silence. In the blackness, Abigail felt him still, then cautiously step forward. They touched a door, and he expertly jostled the handle with his knee until the door fell open. “Your aunt, every lady in the village, Franklin. You even had time for the bloody servants,” he went on. “I waited patiently all day, and by then you were so tired you were asleep before the dinner bell. It was—it is—my turn, and I want more than a shared strudel and your gentle reminder about my manners.”
“Were you jealous?” she asked in disbelief, half amused by his suddenly petulant tone. He didn’t answer, but they were inside the room so Abigail looked up and about. The room was significantly larger than his sitting room, and a fire burned directly in the grate. She frowned, looked around, and realised.
And sat up straight—very straight.
“I can’t be here,” she insisted, struggling. “It’s not proper.”
“Why the devil not?” Meriden grunted, shifting her so that he could grip her more tightly. “No one else knows.”
“It’s your bedchamber!” Abigail returned, twisting a little. At her attempt, he shuffled her around in his arms and, alarmed, Abigail found herself dropped over his shoulder. He wrapped one strong arm around her thighs to control her kicking. “My lord!” she gasped.
Abigail heard the key turn in the lock with a definite snib. She couldn’t see it, despite the dim shadows in the room cast by the fire, but then he was moving across the room. “Our bedchamber,” he articulated, emphasising the first word.
She made a desperate look around. The shadows ahead appeared to be—were—bed curtains. Abigail made a little squeak. “We’re not married yet,” she reminded him, shuddering suddenly as his free hand deliberately reached across him and settled on her bottom.
“That’s been the damn problem all along,” he growled, turning to kick off his slippers, then sitting back on the bed. “I ought to have set aside my bloody principles and just gone to the bishop when I was in London, for the love of God. Then we would have been married today. Or maybe yesterday. Even last week. This eternal waiting would be over and I could legitimately keep you here for as long as I liked, and no one would think twice!”
“What are you going on about now?” Abigail retorted, then felt herself sliding down his arm and onto the silky counterpane of the bed.
With a gasp, she rolled away from him, onto her back and began to sit up, but he was there before her. “This!” he returned—then, Abigail realised, the only place she was going was underneath him.
Just before his lips met hers, Abigail frantically tried to decide if her racing heart was owing to alarm or excitement. In the end, it didn’t matter. His tongue was hot, he cupped her face fiercely and his body hardened as he knelt over her.
She moaned and arched and met his lips with her own, sliding her hands into his hair.
The world spun away, then, until all that mattered was Meriden tasting her lips and her jaw and her neck, and his hands tangling in the buttons of her dressing gown. His tongue invaded her mouth and she welcomed it, arching her body when he cupped her breasts through her chemise. He did nothing to tease her nipples, but they hardened anyway into anxious, pointed peaks, eager to experience the sensational thrills her body remembered from their last encounter.
It was somehow odd to Abigail, in the back of her mind, that she could be so lewd and unafraid in this dark room, when moments before she had felt so constrained. Now, every touch rubbed and burned, where before she had tingled and shuddered. It was still strange and new and she couldn’t help but arch up against his chest, trying her best to rub her bosom against his shirt.
To her surprise, he chuckled huskily. “What do you want me to do, mine?” he growled against her lips.
Abigail blushed then, in the dark, but her body seemed to be someone else’s. And he couldn’t see her, at least. “Touch… Touch me,” she whispered, slipping her hands down and in between his shirt and coat. His skin was hot—she wondered if hers felt the same?
“Touch you where?” he teased roughly, his lips caressing her collarbone so that she arched her head up and back, offering him the skin.
“Me.” The word slipped out. Even with the burning in her skin and her ears, Abigail knew the word was a plea, a desperate bid.
Meriden was not immune, but did not totally acquiesce. “Touch your breasts, your nipples?” he questioned, moving his hands a fraction of an inch inward, pressing those swelling orbs together and up. “Say it for me,” he demanded after she moaned, twisting in a futile effort to encourage him.
“Yes!” she cried out, almost frantically as he trailed his thumbs up the bottom of each mound in a teasing motion. At his hesitation, she emitted a frustrated, desperate sob. “My bosom, damn you, Meriden.”
Her desperation drew a guttural noise from his throat. Still, he obliged her, moving to palm them in his hands before cupping them with his fingers. “Charles,” he returned automatically, playing lightly through the chemise. “My name is Charles.”
“Your name could be Frederick the Great, for all I care,” she said with sudden waspishness. “Just touch me!” As if to prove her point, her hands left him to cover his, clenching tight.
His eyebrows rose. “It feels better for me to squeeze, then?” he asked, and Abigail nodded. Something was still missing—something was still driving her wildly out of control. She couldn’t see it, but felt as if the air was teasing her with it. He seemed to understand, for he shifted and suddenly Abigail found his knee pressed up between her thighs, through her chemise and dressing gown.
She wasn’t sure, but pressing back seemed to encourage him. In any event, it relieved some of the pressure building there, although the strange moistness grew dramatically.
“Do you know what I want?” he growled suddenly. Abigail had no idea, and shook her head helplessly. She didn’t have the focus or desire to pay attention—easing the ache in her body was the only consideration of importance. He answered anyway, “I want you naked underneath me, writhing just like this. I want your pert little bottom warm from my hand and your nipples hard and begging for my tongue, and I want your legs spread to welcome my seed.”
Abigail couldn’t have identified the heat spinning through her body and head even if it had mattered. All she knew was that he took his right hand from her nipple and was reaching beneath her chemise to find the place where she was grinding in a hapless rhythm against the leg of his trousers. Then he found something, because Abigail could feel his rough finger rubbing against her, but the world was breaking into an unfamiliar realm of fractured blackness.
* * * *
“The French call it le petit mort, the little death,” Charles explained, settling her onto his lap in the armchair. She was mostly dressed, except for the slippers she had lost beside the bed. The buttons on her dressing gown were only done up as far as necessary to hold it on her shoulders, and Abigail still shivered. “We English call it climax, or any number of other euphemisms. I am afraid many women cannot find the pleasure of it in marriage, either because the passion has been bred or foolishly beaten from them, or because of their clumsyhusbands. As for me, I am an exceedingly lucky man in that you are passionate in and out of the bed, and I intend to enjoy it to the hilt.”
In his arms, Abigail shuddered and yawned at the same time. She’d hesitantly asked him to explain what had happened—he’d accepted that she needed time to recover before he made his announcement.
They were silent for several moments, until he judged Abigail’s increasing weight in his arms as evidence of her relaxed and sleepy state. “Nevertheless,” he added in a low whisper, close to her ear, “the next time I have you to myself—which will be sooner than you think, mine—I shall have to strip you of your clothing and spank you thoroughly. Not for the climax, of course. No, I would prefer to reward you for that.”
“But why then?” Abigail yawned, obviously still foggy and acquiescent from their interlude.
“Besides your trying to avoid spending time alone with me when we came upstairs, struggling as I carried you into our room, then cursing me for making you admit to your own needs? The simple truth is that you need to understand who directs our time together in this room.” He chuckled. “And to learn that sometimes pain can be immensely pleasurable.” He’d have to be clever and careful in how he proceeded, so as not to discourage her passion. It had not been an exaggeration, to his mind, to say that the sexuality of many women had been beaten from them—for many, prior to leaving the schoolroom. Clearly, Abigail’s had survived thus far intact. It would now be his privilege to foster and direct it towards those pursuits he most enjoyed.
“Right now, I just need to sleep,” Abigail mumbled, and rolled into him a bit as her breathing noticeably slowed and deepened. Clearly, either she didn’t believe he would actually harm her or she was exhausted. Given the last week of her life, plus her first experience with bliss, both possibilities were likely. With a tired sigh, he contemplated the long trudge down the corridor and the inevitable discovery that her slippers were missing. Then he reconsidered the relative closeness of his bed, and the luxury of waking up with her in his arms.
It was early Wednesday morning, and the wedding was scheduled for next Tuesday morning. The banns would be read for the third time in five days.
Her Aunt Betsy would not be haunting Abigail’s door—she had not yet left her bed.
Why shouldn’t Abigail sleep in his bed, anyway?
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