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[This book contains scenes of male masturbation, erotic spanking, steamy oral sex, anal play and intercourse, contraception, and moments of pure male arrogance. There are also references to spanking, famous Italian lovers, and love play in the sunshine.]
Lady Gloria Swenson has lived through eighteen months she can never forget or escape. Can Lord Clare help her to live, when all she wants to do is hide?
When Jeremy Blessing, better known as the Marquess of Clare, discovers a proud young lady wandering his father’s lands, he finds himself looking for her angelic smile and golden head at every turn. But Gloria Swenson has lived through eighteen months she’ll never forget or escape, no matter how far she’s already run. When he insists on her time, then her trust, and finally offers a marriage to protect her, they’ll have to confront the thorny issues of all complex relationships one difficult negotiation at a time. Money, family, children, and a vindictive, greedy man all collude to separate them, but it is Gloria’s reticence that Clare has to conquer more than any other obstacle. Will Gloria conquer her fears and her disillusionment? What will Clare have to sacrifice to bring them together?
(Extended Sample of) The Rusticated Duchess
by Elle Q. Sabine
Copyright 2013 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.
“She must leave London.”
Gloria heard the words as if they had come from a great distance instead of from the settee four feet away. Had the numb emptiness in her body spread to her mind? No, she knew quite well that her father-in-law sat opposite her, his lined face aged with the weight of decision.
The words of His Grace, the Duke of Lennox, held absolute authority among the small gathering of titled men and women gathered in the upstairs ‘closet’. They’d chosen the room—lined with ancient ledgers and family records—for its privacy. The heavy shelving and glass cases made eavesdropping through walls impossible, particularly when the duke’s personal footman guarded the only entrance to His Grace’s private sitting room and study beyond.
In the last week, the duke’s privacy had become of utmost importance. In the same last week, Gloria’s future had blurred into a confusing fog.
She wept silently, though her outward patina as an elegant young matron of London remained calm. Mean-spirited sentiments from her time as an unmarried young lady on the marriage mart had returned to haunt her, even in her own drawing room. ‘Ambitious gold-digger. Drove him to it’, they said. ‘Undeserving fortune hunter. Got what was coming to her. Never going to see that tiara now’.
The other men, and Gloria’s mother, did not disagree with His Grace’s announcement. Instead they were ominously silent, until Gloria whispered, her heart in her throat, “Is it truthfully the only way?”
Beside her, Gloria’s Uncle Neil shifted on the settee and drew her stiff, cold hand inside his sober ones. As the Earl of Hanover, he had political influence and financial security, zealously guarding the interests of his family and friends. He was also increasingly reclusive and quiet, as responsibility for his ailing wife aged him, taking him away from the centre of political power and lessening his influence among the Lords. “It is not the only way, but it is the safest way. We cannot say what he would do if he established physical custody of you. And if things do not go our way in Chancery, you would be here in London—easy enough for him to seize you.”
“Your Grace, would I not be safe, even within this bastion of Lennox House?” Gloria demanded, her eyes meeting the duke’s. She pursed her lips together as she waited for an answer, though no sign of stress was otherwise visible. Even her elegant hand rested easily in her uncle’s palm.
Lennox appeared uncomfortable as he thought. “Within the house, yes, I think you would be safe,” he finally answered. “No watch captain or Bow Street Runner in his right mind would enter without a warrant, and most magistrates in London would be demonstrably reluctant to issue one for Lennox House, even to a belted earl. But Winchester is capable of using less than legal means to take you, and we would be in a greatly weakened position if he somehow succeeded in removing you from this residence, whether by force, deceit or both.”
“Gloria.” The single, soft word, spoken by Gloria’s mother, drew the younger woman’s attention. She blinked, inwardly shocked, at her regal but melancholy mother, who in this company was known simply as Johna. For more than a year she’d refused the title that had come with her marriage to the Earl of Winchester, though when she left the confines of the House she was still nominally Winchester’s wife. “Even without physical possession of your body, he might again be named your guardian. The last time he had the right to decide your future…”
Johna broke off, but Lennox finished her thought with cutting precision. “The last time he was legally your guardian, he forced you into marriage with my reprobate son.”
Gloria shuddered and a light perspiration broke out on her skin. She concealed her reaction from her male relatives by looking down and re-arranging the black silk shawl over her shoulders. The duke’s words were true, even an understatement. Her father by law and in the eyes of society, but not by blood or emotion, was the Earl of Winchester. He had been enraged fourteen months earlier to discover that his society wife Johna had been having an affaire for years with their London neighbour, the Duke of Lennox. The ripple effect of his discovery had led to the revelation that Winchester’s late son and four daughters were not his children at all, but the products of long-ago relationships Johna had sought with other men in a desperate attempt to give Winchester the children he had not naturally begotten with her.
In the end, Johna had virtually disappeared from Winchester House and the earl had brutally cut the girls from his life by obligating three of them to less than welcome marriages.
All Gloria had gained from Winchester’s revenge was the promise of a title, a nightly terror and the admitted comfort of a financially secure future. The title held no value to her, despite claims to the contrary by society at large and even her own family members. The financial security was welcome but hardly recompense for the horror she’d endured during the first five months of her marriage.
Following the debacle between Johna, Winchester and Lennox, Gloria had found herself betrothed to the Earl of March, Lennox’s eldest son and heir. It was true he’d had an eye on her for several months before the match was made and it ought to have been ideal for Gloria to be wed to the son of her mother’s lover, but Gloria had always kept him at a safe distance for very good reasons. Despite her efforts, gossip had begun to haunt her, for though she dodged any private encounter with March, he was persistent and focused in his attentions. March had danced with no other maiden, strolled with no other maiden and approached no other maiden in the Park.
He was known for his dissolute misbehaviour and impulsive wildness even more than for his father’s name, and only a few meetings had been necessary for Gloria to wish he spent his evenings in the train of some other female.
Gloria had been shocked by the engagement announcement, which Winchester had contracted without consulting her. Lennox had been furious when he’d discovered March had gone behind his back to contract the marriage through a private solicitor March retained outside the family’s affairs.
Lennox had told Gloria privately that he loved having her as a daughter-in-law but wouldn’t wish March on any lady. In the end, though, Lennox hadn’t rescued her. With the announcement made, Lennox had tried to ease Gloria’s way instead. He’d forced March to agree that she would stay in London at Lennox House, by threatening to eliminate March’s allowance, which would have trapped March at Eynon Castle without income. Lennox had personally funded her marriage settlements, so that she would have income of her own without being dependent on March, during her marriage or after. He’d given her a suite of her own in the massive Lennox House in London and put her in charge of the house and its staff so that she could organise their daily lives to suit her preferences. Gloria had ensured she was rarely, if ever, alone during the daylight hours.
Still, Lennox hadn’t been able to protect her physically from March’s violent tendencies and drunken rages, though a footman had stood outside the door to her suite ‘for her welfare’ on the nights when March had arrived home amorous and in his cups. Gloria had had no choice but to submit to that danger bravely and to hold her head high in the aftermath.
She’d battled for her safety, bargained for her independence and finally been defeated by March’s own hand. Overcome by the effects of a bottle of spirits after years of poisoning his mind and body, he’d pulled a pistol from inside his jacket on the steps of Covent Gardens, red-gowned prostitute on his arm, waved it about and sent the patrons fleeing in terror, then shot himself in the head. As if living with him hadn’t been enough of a nightmare, Gloria thought bitterly, in arranging for his own death in such a publicly humiliating and scandalous fashion, March had managed to turn even the good parts of her life into a living hell.
To her mind, the worst part of the fiasco was that he probably hadn’t even intended the outcome. In his increasingly bizarre descents into alcoholic stupor, he’d become outlandish and dangerous. At least this last time he’d only managed to hurt himself.
‘Hideous monster, he was’, they’d whispered. ‘Scandalous marriage. Ambitious female got what she deserved’.
Tears gathered in her eyes, but she ignored them to look at Lennox squarely, raising her chin proudly as she fought the heartbreak spreading from her throat down to her stomach. “Do you expect me to leave Eynon behind then?” she whispered.
Tension shimmered between them. March had at least waited until his son had been born, though Gloria had just left childbed. Viscount Eynon was perhaps more properly known as the Earl of March now, though Gloria refused to call her innocent babe by that ill-fated name and Lennox had considerately not belaboured the point. It was bad enough that she bore the shame of the title.
With March’s death, Lennox had become the infant’s legal guardian, with Gloria now dependent on his good graces for access to her son. No one had threatened her, of course, but she understood the situation perfectly. She was his mother, with no expectations of motherhood beyond what she was permitted by the duke. So Eynon was upstairs in the nursery, already in the hands of a ferocious nurse and a personal guard brought from Eynon Castle in Wales.
The thought nauseated her, though widows in her situation had faced the same difficulty for centuries.
No one in the room needed an explanation. It was understood that Lennox would feel torn between his paternal affection for Gloria and his absolute devotion to the safety of her son. Lennox could not permit his grandson—now the heir to a duke of almost legendary influence—to be endangered. It was also understood that Gloria would not wish to leave the little boy. Despite Gloria’s disaffection for Eynon’s father, the wee boy was her child and she was as fiercely protective of him as Lennox.
And yet it was possible that she could be ripped from her son anyway by Winchester. Now that her marriage had ended abruptly and shamefully, Winchester had his eye on acquiring her fortune.
The key point was that Gloria had been married to March for only a little more than a year. It was demonstrably long enough to bear his son, but not long enough for Gloria to reach the mystical, coveted age of twenty-one. She had been married at eighteen and was now still short of her twentieth birthday. By custom, Gloria’s guardianship ought to pass back to Winchester until she reached her majority.
Lennox had made certain he was in control of her finances through a carefully constructed trust even while March had been alive, but after her late husband’s death, Winchester had promised a publicly embarrassing and lengthy legal battle. His solicitors had just filed papers demanding that Gloria be physically returned to her father’s home, and demanded generous funds to support her drawn from her dowry trust and paid to Winchester for her upkeep. As evidence they cited the loose moral atmosphere at Lennox House, where the duke resided openly in an adulterous relationship with Winchester’s own wife. Johna might be Gloria’s mother, but Winchester charged that she was also patently unfit to serve as a responsible moral compass for Gloria.
Lennox’s solicitors were scrambling to respond, and had focused primarily on the point that Lady Winchester resided with her daughter, not with the duke.
At Gloria’s question, none of the men dared to speak and barely breathed. Eventually it was Johna herself who laid a hand on Lennox’s tense arm and squeezed, drawing his attention. She didn’t speak but just looked to him, and everyone saw the plea on her face for Lennox to understand and accept Gloria’s attachment to her son—to the child who was grandson to them both.
Of anyone in the room, Johna had the most influence over Lennox, and eventually he acquiesced to a point. “We would need to find a place for them that Winchester will not immediately check. That leaves out all of my homes, as well as Hanover or Meriden properties—or even Devon’s. And”—he looked to Gloria deliberately as he added—“it must be large enough to accommodate a proper household, including Colman and Jenson to guard you and the boy.”
Gloria blinked, sinking back against the settee. “As you wish,” she murmured faintly, relief sweeping through her.
“If it was as I wished,” Lennox disagreed tiredly, gathering Johna’s hand inside his, “my son would have been a different man and you would happily be with him today.”
The small gesture of physical affection between Lennox and Johna was so unusual that Gloria tensed and around her the others shifted in surprise. It was no secret that Johna’s mother was—and had been—Lennox’s lover for many long years, but the pair were fastidious against making any public acknowledgement of their liaison and were rarely seen touching in any form.
Behind Lennox, Meriden straightened. The powerful, savvy Earl of Meriden had married Abigail, the second of Johna’s daughters, in the same week Gloria married March. The earl was thought of as a cold-hearted, temperamental ex-soldier with no love for women or society. The earl had been judged on his less-than-refined manners after returning from Spain, injured and bitter. His face still featured an angry red mark from chin to jaw, but he stood now in the shadows with his back against the bookcases, listening intently. Winchester had thought marrying her to Meriden would cast the friendly, flirtatious Abigail out of society’s inner circle and leave her lonely and terrified, trapped in a far-distant country house with a brute. Instead of heartbreak and abject fear, though, Abigail had discovered Meriden to be a fierce white knight. The new Lady Meriden positively vibrated with happiness whenever Gloria saw her. And as part of the marriage settlements, Meriden had assumed the mortgage on Winchester House in London.
Now Meriden cleared his throat and said, “I have a plan to distract Winchester from this nonsense and I can begin to play it out as soon as tomorrow. I intend to foreclose on Winchester House immediately and move to evict him. That will take up his time and attention—and that of his solicitors. But it will only require a few months at most. I don’t see that we can keep him occupied for thirteen months. His court case will proceed.”
“So she still needs to disappear and prevent him from finding her at all.” Beside her, Hanover sighed at the last word.
Meriden crossed his arms over his chest and spoke hesitantly. “My mother’s villa in Florence seems too far, particularly to take the child, but it does have certain advantages legally in that it’s not English soil and my mother and I have influence with the local authorities. They would be safe.”
From the window, Devon nodded his head, adding, “I’d think it to be a last resort, a place to run if the courts rule against Lennox.”
Sir Peter Devon was yet another new brother-in-law. He was wed to Gloria’s younger sister Genevieve. Genevieve and Devon’s marriage was a more complex problem than even Gloria’s had been. Genevieve had been only a mere sixteen years of age when she had wed Sir Peter Devon. Though the man had considered the marriage a rescue mission and ensconced her safely with his mother to guard her, Devon was still considered nothing more than a gazetted card shark and hardened gambler by London society. Tongues continued to wag whenever he entered a ballroom or appeared in the Park, though he had been vigilantly discreet in his women and drunken binges since the marriage. Today he sat with his back to the window, observing and contributing little.
Still, Gloria knew Devon would do whatever Lennox asked of him. His presence at Lennox House was unremarkable these days, though he was never to be seen with Genevieve either publicly or even en famille. Thirteen months into the union, the couple still kept to their rigidly separated households and schedules, though Lennox kept a close eye on Devon. The reason was simple—Lennox was Genevieve’s sire.
Gloria had no wish to go as far as Italy, but would have agreed if Lennox insisted. When Lennox added that he would have preparations made in case Gloria was forced to flee to Europe, she relaxed, relieved. Beside her, Hanover murmured, “We don’t want them to stand out, or even be among people who would recognise them. But the arrangements and the household must be respectable.”
“Scotland, perhaps,” Lennox agreed. “An isolated fortress in the Highlands. Gloria would stick out like a sore thumb, but if she were with friends, any other English intruders would also be easily noted.”
Behind her, Gloria’s Uncle Colby—Hanover and Johna’s brother—straightened, gripping Hanover’s shoulder beside her. The pair of brothers were close, with Gloria’s uncle managing Hanover’s business affairs. “I have a suggestion,” Uncle Colby said sombrely. Gloria looked up to find him watching her mother cautiously.
Lennox snorted at Colby’s hesitation, waving his free hand in encouragement.
“There is one place we’ve always kept faithfully but never used or even visited. It’s in the family trust, but it wasn’t when Winchester married Johna. When we acquired it, we were careful to be sure that Winchester knew nothing of it, even though by rights we should have notified him. After all, one day it will belong to the four girls, or it will be sold and the proceeds distributed between them.”
Beside Gloria, Hanover stiffened, though her mother’s expression indicated that lady’s confusion. “Blessing Cottage?” Hanover asked.
“In Ireland,” Colby said, his eyes still on Gloria’s mother, who suddenly seemed paler than before. “I’ve been there to arrange for the caretaker and pay the taxes, and I think it suits Lennox’s requirements perfectly. It’s small but adequate enough for a household of the right size, there’s no significant population and the nearby Castle has mostly been unoccupied for the last few years. A steward handles the Castle’s daily business and farming operations, and a family representative visits occasionally. The cottage remains habitable. The grounds are gated, and there’s a small garden though winter’s nearly here.”
“Blessing Cottage,” Lennox said in an even voice. “You’re referring to the cottage near Killard Castle, then?”
Gloria didn’t know where Killard Castle was, and had never heard of Blessing Cottage, but she had a sudden sinking feeling she was about to find out as her Uncle Colby answered in the affirmative.
“How quickly can we get them there?” Lennox asked, and Gloria knew that they’d made a decision.
Late February 1824
Gloria walked past the front gate, inwardly rejoicing at the sharp cold breeze and the salty tang in the air. She waited as Colman trailed behind her and Matthew drew the gate closed. She knew Matthew would stand watch until they returned, and Colman would trudge along behind her, always watching even in this desolate landscape. Brody Jenson, who she rather suspected was something more than simply her son’s devoted guard and groom, would stare out of the nursery window and worry. Mrs Sinclair and Mrs Pitcher would both fret, being sure to have a supply of hot tea and a change of clothes prepared. Astrid would sigh and shake her head, but peek out of the windows. Even Eynon was just as likely to wake from his nap and want Gloria instead of the tender Mrs Pitcher.
Of all the household, only Mr Pitcher wouldn’t be constantly looking out to the gate or down the road in anticipation of her return. He was in the carriage house, cleaning the carriage and preparing to harness the horses hurriedly if she needed to be rescued.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful for their fierce protectiveness and kindness. Somehow, in the last four months, all of these men and women had gathered around her, uplifted her when she had been discouraged and transformed from a random selection of family retainers to her dogged supporters.
Even so, Gloria needed the rare hours of silence and sunshine she found outside Blessing Cottage, walking on the edge of Shore Road. She needed the time apart, time to mourn for lost relationships with her sisters, time to convince herself that March was gone and she was safe from waking up in the middle of the night to sinister laughter and groping, sweaty hands. She needed to let the roaring noise of the sea give her the space to be at peace with herself.
Gloria had never been so separated from her own family. She’d never gone more than a few days without her mother and sisters. The experience of being alone had been alarming at first. Even now she had very little contact with them, for mail was re-routed through her cousin Olivia—her Aunt Betsy’s daughter—in Northumberland, before being directed to Gloria or one of the sisters. Gloria dined, took her tea, played the harpsichord and embroidered without company or companionship.
At first, the solitude had been almost incapacitating. But in the seclusion, Gloria had finally come to understand that she was not the glamorous being that others had cast her as since she’d left the schoolroom. She was not a glitzy, ambitious young matron clawing her way to the highest echelons of society. In fact, she honestly wanted none of it, unless those echelons included people who appreciated her and respected her. She enjoyed fine clothes, fine wine, beautiful homes and the stylish sophistication of a cosmopolitan lady’s maid, but she didn’t need those things and was doing quite well without them. She found more joy in the nursery with Mrs Pitcher than she’d ever known in her London drawing room, so every day she possessed herself again in patience and wondered what the future would hold for her. London seemed a distant place, one she had no wish to even visit, aside from seeing her mother and sisters while shopping for the finest selection of fabrics, modistes, shoes, ribbons, gloves and accessories.
But if, once she was free, she was not to return to London and play hostess to the political players in Lennox’s daily life, what would she do with her days? Could she be content trailing along after her son and managing whichever Lennox residence the duke sent her son to inhabit?
The bitter truth was that Gloria had no choice but to wait, and in the waiting she had finally stopped and for once examined her own mind, instead of listening to what others said of her. What had she found? She might not yet know where she would go or what she would do with her future, but she knew she didn’t want to go back to the life she had been leading. Even surrounded by her peers in the heart of London society, she’d been an outcast. Here, rusticating in a shabby little cottage beside the sea, she finally had a home.
Walking relieved the isolation and broke the monotony, but there had been too few days of sunshine recently. Instead, the wind whipped the house and dense fog accompanied weekly bouts of snow blowing in off the Irish Sea. Inside the harbour entrance, the sea now lapped gently at the stony coastline past her feet. At high tide it would wash over the rocks and at low tide would retreat to display a glorious sandy surface, surely tempting local children into its lap in the summer months. Even Gloria, who knew better, was tempted to throw off her shoes and wade in. She wondered if she would have the opportunity—if she would be here that long.
She stood at the edge of the rocks and breathed in the invigorating air, savouring the scene before her and the scents around her before looking about. In one direction, towards the rapids into Strangford Lough, stood the small hamlet of Kilchet, and beyond that the road to Strangford. Before Mrs Sinclair and her daughter Astrid had come to Blessing Cottage, they had mistakenly hired a local woman as housekeeper. Gloria allowed that any of the other villagers might have been a better choice, but Matthew had been given the commission of hiring someone when he’d arrived at the cottage—before Gloria and her household—and he’d selected a woman who had satisfied every one of Lennox’s requirements—neat, dignified, self-controlled and intelligent.
Mrs Lawson had not stayed long. Sadly, her soul had been too full of judgemental preconceptions and harsh condemnations to make her suitable for the household. After the first day, Gloria had sent Matthew to Lennox’s country seat in Wales for someone more suitable. Mrs Sinclair and her daughter Astrid had arrived a week later, but the damage had been done. Mrs Lawson had returned to Kilchet and spread the word that Blessing Cottage was inhabited by a purported widow, presently rusticating under some financial constraint or scandalous cloud so severe that not even the servants would use the lady’s supposed title. She had mocked to the villagers about the circumstances of the ‘duchess’ in residence, without ever knowing that Gloria had once had every expectation of becoming one in truth.
It hadn’t helped that Gloria had expressionlessly dispensed of her diamond betrothal ring before she’d left London, and vowed never to wear it again. She’d told Lennox to melt it down and sell the diamonds for cash to donate to the poor, but he’d deposited it in the dukedom’s vault, full of jewels fit for the duchess she’d never become.
He suggested her son might someday have a use for it and Gloria had caustically replied that Eynon would do better to purchase a ring that was not dirtied by March’s shame.
Gloria had never had any notion of becoming one of the villagers in Kilchet, but their subsequent suspicion and questioning of her servants had ranged from offensive to ridiculous. On the day Gloria discovered Mrs Pitcher and Colman debating whether County Down still conducted witch trials, Gloria had directed everyone to begin driving into Strangford for market days instead of patronising the little shops in Kilchet. The change might not reduce any gossip, but at least they didn’t have to listen to it.
Without a further thought, Gloria turned her back to the road into Kilchet and set out on her desired constitutional. In the opposite direction there was only one destination. Killard Castle sat proudly on the stony headland to the open sea, guarding the harbour and the treasures of the lough. From the castle battlements, Gloria imagined, one could see across the harbour opening to the lands’ end of Ards Peninsula, a mile distant. The castle was originally of Norman construction, built to withstand the assault of the sea. Its walls came down to the very stones that rose from the depths of the earth and cradled the headlands. In the days of old, Gloria mused, at high tide boats of warriors could have been lowered down the walls directly into the water, and archers could have stood in the battlements and behind archery slots notched in the walls to defend the castle. Cannon still were arranged in regimental precision on the facing Gloria could see, and she knew soldiers of the Revenue still manned a watchtower and operated a lighthouse glass that rose above the farthest tower.
Even if Gloria had not been in hiding and had been able to call at the castle, no one of consequence was in residence to call upon. Thus, she had never been inside, but instead remained fascinated by this behemoth structure of stone that sat so brazenly on the windswept expanse of land. Her face chilled and numbed as she walked slowly and deliberately along the road, simply enjoying the sunshine and view. Glancing back at Colman, Gloria grimaced. She ought not go closer, but didn’t wish to go back. He scowled in reply and shrugged his shoulders, stopping ten feet behind her. He’d heard her injunction the first day months earlier about staying back and leaving her to her own remembrances and had not since interfered.
Sighing, she pulled the cloak wrapping she wore over her pelisse tighter around her and trudged on. Gloria had ruined the skirt’s hem weeks before and now wore the same one for each such outing, having seen no sense in ruining a decent skirt hem for every walk. Her nose was tight with cold when she dragged her feet to a reluctant stop.
She’d not wandered quite so close to the main gates before. The huge wooden beams bound together as gates standing open ten feet before her, and beyond that impressive sight rose a second higher wall that defended the keep. The current castle community resided in a small group of cottages to the south, eliminating the old custom of crowding cottages and workshops in the bailey, so she wasn’t surprised to see the old forecourt between the walls as a wide lawn that would be a rich green when spring truly arrived.
Biting her lip, she began to swing around and turn away, only to find two tall horses pausing in the lane just behind Colman. The wind was strong enough and the sea a static roar that she had to excuse Colman from hearing them. She’d not heard them either.
The surprise on her face must have shown, because Colman whirled around and drew his pistol almost before the men realised his intent.
Colman stepped backward, towards her, and Gloria pulled her hood forwards, hiding her face from closer inspection. “State yer business,” Colman rumbled, his brogue menacing in the open air and yet clear enough that he’d be easily understood.
Both strangers seemed surprised but more curious than threatened. Still, they kept their hands on the reins of their horses.
Gloria considered them evenly in the moment of silence. She’d always been good at assessing and placing people, so she hoped the skill would be useful now. The man on the right wore well-fitted, tailored clothing, and rode a high-quality hunter. His nose was straight but his jaw was square. She guessed he was a steward or caretaker of some sort, as his mount had saddlebags so full they could barely stay fastened shut.
On the left, however, was a man who eyed Colman through narrowed slits. He was too far for Gloria to identify the colour of his eyes but they were detailing what little he could see of Gloria with the same carefulness with which she inspected him. Under a hat, capes and gloves, and sitting high above her on a giant bay hunter, the man’s features were concealed despite Gloria’s inspection. In any event, his outerwear was of finer leather than the other and his boots were shined and definitely by Hoby. He was wary, not frightened or angry or even combative. His face was an inverted triangle that highlighted his prominent cheekbones and a nose so elegant that it might have come off a Greek statue.
Gloria had always been rather proud of her small, feminine nose, so her disgruntlement at his perfect one seemed childish.
“Colman,” she said clearly, loudly enough that he could hear her without looking away from the graven faces before her. “I don’t believe these gentlemen were pursuing us.”
“As you say, our destination is inside the gate. May we be of assistance, miss?” The man on the grey horse—surely a steward, for his face showed the kiss of sun even in these winter months—was the one to speak, and Gloria reluctantly turned her face from the intriguing one examining hers.
“It is kind of you to offer, but no. We were walking and simply came this way,” Gloria demurred, using one of her gloved hands to tap Colman’s stiff arm. “No need for this, Colman.” In an emergency she had her own pistol tucked inside her cloak but saw no reason to tell anyone of the fact.
Months earlier, she had left Lennox House in a town carriage one morning, to all observers out for calls, and had arrived instead at Devon’s villa in Merton. There she had been joined by her son, his train of attendants and their baggage in a series of staggered deliveries throughout the day. They’d stayed one night in Merton, where Meriden and Devon had spent the late afternoon and evening teaching her to shoot the weapon they’d brought her.
“Where have you walked from?” the man on the bay steed asked incredulously, even as Colman finally lowered the pistol. Gloria tensed, remembering that he would already have taken in her fashionable attire, complete with its muddy hem. “There are few places around here where one might walk in February. The road is hardly fit for a horse, let alone a lady’s shoes.”
“I walk as often as possible,” she said simply, then stepped to the side, forcing Colman to follow if he wished to remain between her and the men. “And we were only turning back here. Ride on, gentlemen, and pray excuse what must seem to you to be unnatural caution.”
Colman glared at the men, the pistol dangling at his side. Gloria knew he wouldn’t hesitate to raise it again in their direction, and the men understood his warning too. Nodding their heads, they released their horses and trotted forwards, past the pair and through the castle gate.
“Well, is that likely to be trouble now?” Colman growled, as Gloria stepped past him. She didn’t fuss as he forsook his ten paces distance and walked beside her, the pistol finally slipping away. Her heart pattered faster as she considered his question. She hadn’t recognised the aristocrat, and she’d lived in London long enough to know everyone who frequented there. He might have been of Norman descent, but he didn’t patronise the ballrooms and banqueting tables.
“Doubtful,” she finally said quietly. “His Grace felt sure we would be safe here, and I didn’t recognise him. He’s probably a distant relative of whoever holds the title.”
“Aye, an’ one who wears London finery?” Colman asked. “I saw his boots, m’lady.”
They trudged along silently while Gloria thought, until finally she conceded, “We won’t walk anywhere near so close again.”
“I think not,” Colman grumbled and paced silently beside her, stiff and still and watchful, until they reached the gate to Blessing Cottage and she escaped his hovering presence.
* * * *
“Who is she?” Clare asked directly, dismounting in the forecourt and dropping to his feet.
His steward, Jamie Seton, shrugged. “Never seen the lass before,” he claimed.
“I know she’s no local chit, Seton,” Clare rasped, staring off into the distance as he thought. “She’s as blue-blooded as I am or I’ll eat my hat. She may have had mud on her hems, but she didn’t give a damn and they were black silk.”
Clare didn’t bother to say it aloud, but the young lady had been wrapped in unrelieved black velvet as well, a sign of prolonged mourning very few could afford, particularly someone so young who ought to be looking forwards to a happy marriage and a nursery full of children. Still, her actions had been more telling. Unlike young women of other classes, she’d looked right back at him with all the regal bearing of a queen, uncowed by Clare’s aristocratic features or age, their fine horses or her own audacity in traipsing so close to the main gates. In addition, she had a guard—a guard who walked diligently in her train and not beside her as a father or brother or lover would have done. She had a guard who had aimed a high-quality pistol at Clare’s head without batting an eyelash, with shades of infantry training in his gait and posture. But without a doubt, her words as she’d stepped aside had been the most clear.
She was giving them permission to pass, not moving aside for their convenience.
Clare frowned and flipped open Seton’s saddlebag, dragging out the spyglass he knew resided there. “I’m going up. Find out what you can from the men, I want to know who she is, and where she came from.”
He didn’t bother to glance back at Seton’s astonished expression as he strode towards the inner wall and up the stone path to the great doors of the keep. The butler was already throwing open the doors, but Clare barely nodded. He was focused on the keep’s battlements.
The truth was that he had to know where she was trudging. If she was far enough away that the spyglass lost her—though that seemed terribly unlikely—he’d simply take his horse and head off in her direction. He had to know. The desire burned in him, illogical and unexplained, but very real. It vaulted him up the main stairs, then up the old stone stairs past the tower rooms, and finally onto the stone landing with its small guardroom at the highest point of the central tower in the keep.
He pushed aside the door to the castellated battlement. This part of the castle was reserved for family only now, and the tower had no real value as a military installation, but it was still the tallest point other than the lighthouse and the watchtower that marked the harbour entrance.
Leaning against the stone, he glanced about idly, noted Seton climbing to the watchtower and lifted the spyglass.
She was there, on the Shore Road. The man with her now kept doggedly to her side, though at a respectful distance. She walked confidently, without pausing, as if she was accustomed to the chilly weather and the wind and the glorious view. Clare pondered her for a minute, disturbed by his reaction to the hooded young woman in black. He could hardly claim to have even seen her, with nothing but her fine facial features revealed, but those lines were already alive at the back of his brain.
It had been longer than twelve years since he’d even seen a lady as more than a distraction. Why now?
The question was one Clare had no desire to ponder, especially when she confidently walked up to the gate that surrounded Blessing Cottage. His mouth opened in surprise, then he slammed it shut when someone from within promptly opened the gate and she walked through, leaving her guard to chat with the waiting servant. Without pause, she marched up to the door, which opened for her from within, and she bundled through it, out of his sight.
The house was supposed to be in his family, had been in his family for generations. There it sat, within sight of the castle walls. In the long distant past, some ancestor had built it for a mistress, who had lived in it with her children. In times more recent, younger sons had inhabited it with their families. Clare’s great-grandfather, however, burdened by failing fortunes and struggling to pinch two pennies together, was unable to bequeath his second son a reasonable portion. Instead, the old man had deeded Blessing Cottage to that second son. Clare’s great-aunt and great-uncle had lived there when Clare was but a boy, but after their deaths the property had passed to their son—his father’s cousin—who had never returned to inhabit it. That Blessing had been a military man, and Clare knew that Colonel Blessing had died unmarried and was buried in the castle’s family graveyard.
The property had not, Clare knew, reverted to the family. Neither had it been inhabited in the twenty-some years since Colonel Blessing’s death.
Fifty years earlier the Blessing family might have been in dire circumstances, but Clare’s father had been almost fanatical while guarding their remaining assets. Clare, for nearly twenty years, had then worked diligently with his father to reclaim the lost legacy the family had once enjoyed. He wouldn’t describe the Duke of Lauderdale’s purse as generously overflowing, but they were comfortably plump in the pocket now and well able to indulge themselves without worry. Clare’s son was being respectably educated at Eton and would go to Oxford, like other peers of his age and station. Lauderdale lived primarily in London, with a house in Mayfair, though he had eschewed the glittering horde in the decade since Clare’s mother had died. Clare’s primary residence was at the family’s English seat at Norham Castle, in Ladykirk and Norham at the Scottish border. He’d spent years living at Killard Castle but only visited now when necessary. Most often when Clare travelled, it was to supervise the vast farming operations at White Cross Court, with an occasional visit to London to check on the business interests there.
They could afford to reacquire the cottage now, without question. But who owned it, and what did the young woman with a guard who didn’t hesitate to aim a pistol at the heir to a duke have to do with it?
That evening, only his second night in Ireland on this particular crossing, Clare penned a letter to his father in London, asking about the cottage’s ownership and any related concerns. Despite the late hour, after blotting and sealing the missive, he sent a messenger to Strangford to put it on the morning packet to England.
That night, while the sea tides washed rhythmically against the ancient stones beneath him, Clare dreamt.
His memories of Sarah were especially vivid when Clare returned to Killard Castle, and often turned into powerful dreams. Memories haunted him in the bedroom they’d shared and the drawing room she had created and even in the study where, from the window, he could see the stone vault where Sarah was entombed with the Dukes and Duchesses of Lauderdale. She hadn’t been one, of course, but she would have been. Her husband would someday be and so would her son, God willing. She belonged there, even if Clare still hesitated to look down when he walked to the window.
The dreams were one reason Clare spent less time in the proud, dramatic stronghold every year. Clare didn’t only dream of happy memories, but also of the worst moments. He had nightmares of the frantic drive south into Ireland, hoping against hope, only to find heartbreak and tragedy inside the physical safety of the FitzGerald stronghold. Sarah had already died from scarlet fever when he’d arrived. On guilt-ridden nights, she lay in her bed crying for him in her delirious fever. At the worst times, he’d dreamt of the interminably slow trip north to Strangford with her coffined body, waiting day after day in virtual solitude after he’d laid her to rest in the tomb. The endless days of empty loneliness and loss that he’d spent confined on the Lauderdale yacht in the harbour had been full of bitter self-recrimination, until both a physician and his father agreed he should re-enter the castle. They’d taken every precaution to ensure he didn’t bring the scourge home to his father or his son, and yet the first question the boy had asked, once restored to Clare’s arms, was about his mother. He’d relived those dreams hundreds upon hundreds of times, living for the nights when Sarah had been happy and loving and sweetly generous.
No, this dream was about the girl—the woman—who had faced him down at his own doorstep.
Instead of hidden under mourning black, she’d been gloriously naked, standing on the windswept road that ran to the shore. Long blonde hair flew behind her in the breeze and she’d spread her arms and stretched her fingers to feel the full effect of the wind against her skin. It coloured from gleaming paleness to a vibrant hue of compelling pink even as he watched, and her expression had transformed from cool, distant reserve to unfettered joy. His body twisted and turned in the bed, hard and aching, but he hadn’t dared get any closer to the siren, with her piercing green eyes and dulcet voice that lured him to indiscretions.
She was hardly more than a girl, and so his anger rose even as he dreamt. He was a man full-grown—a responsible man of honour—and he would not be drawn to the fierce siren who tempted and taunted him with her glorious tresses and haunting eyes.
He awoke angry still. He was angry with her for luring him, however unconsciously, into a desire he had no intention of fulfilling. Mostly he was angry with himself, though, and he acknowledged it even as he bellowed and stomped around the bedroom that he had shared with Sarah. His mind had supplied details of the girl’s appearance and personality that didn’t exist, that he couldn’t have known, that were as un-Sarah-like as possible.
Clare felt like an unfaithful, dirty louse and even hours later, he turned his head away in guilt from the portrait of his late wife that hung in his study. He couldn’t bear to sit there, reviewing castle accounts and comparing crop yields and livestock births, while Sarah serenely looked down on his head with her madonna smile and their infant son on her lap.
With a savage growl in the general direction of his groin, Clare stomped up the stairs for his riding boots and capes, calling for his horse to be saddled and brought about. The girl was young, even if she was in mourning, so he’d call and ask for the owner. He had business with the owner, and so much better if he caught a glimpse of the girl. She couldn’t be as alluring to him as his dream had suggested. If he saw her again, he’d be able to assess her logically and set her to the side as she interacted with him in what would be the common girlish way.
Jamie Seton met him on the front steps, before he could mount. “What did you find out?” Clare asked curtly, not even pausing.
The steward fell in obediently and shrugged. “I already knew the household’s been there about four months. The soldiers say the first man to arrive hired a housekeeper from Kilchet. One day there and the widow let her off and sent to England for someone she knew and favoured. I’ve just spoken to the disaffected female this morning and now know never to hire that gimlet-eyed sour-tongued fish either—the widow was right to dismiss that harridan right off. She has told everyone who’ll listen that the tenant is nothing more than some man’s mistress who got caught with a child. The household addresses the widow as ‘the lady’ or ‘my lady’ but none use her title and refused to tell Widow Lawson the lady’s name. As for the girl we saw? The keepers in the watchtower say she walks every day the weather permits, always with the guard we met or one other. She’s never out alone.”
“What about the old man—the caretaker who used to keep the place?” Clare gripped the horses reins tightly as he digested Jamie’s words. Whoever the girl was he had faced, she had not appeared to be a widow or any man’s mistress.
“Old Hodges? Apparently the man who hired the old witch paid Hodges to make himself scarce. Said to come back in six months, so Hodges hired a seat on a cart in Kilchet and headed to Dublin. Hasn’t been heard from since.”
“So the verdict is that the villagers don’t know the first thing about the household.”
“Not a thing,” Jamie confirmed. “Except that they lost the custom of the house by asking the servants too many questions about their mistress. The coach drives through every week and goes to the markets in Strangford now.”
Clare grunted, and took the reins of the big horse waiting for him. He mounted as Jamie stepped back and eyed him curiously, openly questioning. “I’m going to make the acquaintance of a lady,” Clare finally bit out.
“Yer not causin’ trouble for that lass, mon,” Jamie objected, his educated voice slipping away in surprise as he dropped all pretence of formality. “Ye said yerself she be a lady.”
“Of course not,” Clare derided. “I’m going to offer to buy the damned place. It is part of my heritage, after all.”
* * * *
Mrs Sinclair bustled into the sunlit room they used as a nursery, tucked between the kitchen area and a small library. Gloria supposed it to be an old conservatory or solarium, for the windows were perfectly placed to draw in the light and it looked out over the hibernating garden. Gloria much preferred it for Eynon to the crowded, stuffy rooms under the eaves. There in the attics, a narrow, steep staircase descended just past the nursery door to the landing at the top of the main stairs. Gloria’s brother John had tumbled down a more luxurious, if similarly organised, staircase onto the marble foyer at Aston Manor and had not survived. Gloria’s decision to use that old conservatory as a nursery had been easy.
It was easy to spend time in this room, with Mrs Pitcher, Brody Jenson and Eynon, watching the tiny infant’s personality bloom. Gloria was sitting on the floor, her legs tucked beneath her, watching Eynon squirm on his belly when the housekeeper entered. She looked up at the rustling of the housekeeper’s skirts and began to rise even as she recognised the intense worry on the woman’s face.
Nevertheless, Mrs Sinclair dropped a brief curtsy before closing the door behind her. “My lady, a gentleman has called. I’ve showed him into the front parlour.”
Gloria’s eyes widened. “A gentleman?” she questioned, even as Mrs Sinclair stepped carefully around the baby and handed Gloria his card.
“Colman was most unhappy, took up a spot right inside the parlour door. I told him what that I would check to see if your ladyship was available, but Colman said as how he would just stay where he was. Most improper of him, I should think, but I know precisely what he’d say if either his mother or I tried to tell him otherwise—that he takes his orders from His Grace. And the gentleman is a marquess! Perhaps he knows His Grace?”
Gloria, who had already read the card, trembled a bit. She suspected she knew precisely who was in her front parlour. Unsurprised he had come calling on what was clearly his closest neighbour, she was nevertheless in shock. She hadn’t thought—hadn’t put it together—but this was Blessing Cottage, and the name on the card was Jeremy A. S. Blessing, Marquess of Clare.
Gloria reminded herself firmly that Blessing Cottage was owned by her uncle now, by the Bentley family, by the Earl of Hanover. Uncle Neil, Uncle Colby and Lennox had said nothing about a family named Blessing, only that the castle was owned by the Duke of Lauderdale. Gloria knew of the Duke of Lauderdale—he was a reclusive old man who rarely went anywhere other than the House of Lords and his clubs. He was on all the guest lists of course—no hostess in her right mind would have failed to invite a duke residing in Mayfair to a ton entertainment—but Gloria had never met him.
Clare had to be Lauderdale’s son and heir.
In the corner, Eynon’s nurse Mrs Pitcher was already setting aside her knitting needles and rising from her rocking chair, so Gloria leant down and kissed the happy little boy and stood. “I can’t see him like this. I’ll need to put on black gloves at least.”
“You go up the kitchen stairs then, my lady,” Mrs Sinclair agreed. “Should I bring tea?”
Frowning, Gloria shook her head. “Only if I send for it,” she allowed. “Hopefully he won’t be here long enough.” At the door, she paused and looked carefully at the man who stood beside it, nearly constantly in her train or her son’s.
Eyes that matched her own green orbs looked back at her directly, without hesitation. Brody Jenson had been Eynon’s guard and companion, as much as Mrs Pitcher, from the day of his birth. Lennox had summoned him from Wales and given him the commission of guarding and serving the duke-to-be, and Brody Jenson had accepted it with an unquestioned enthusiasm that had at first surprised Gloria.
Like Colman, he’d been a soldier ten years earlier, but unlike that burly footman, Brody was slender, strong and proud with high cheekbones and a fearless face. The man had been educated by the rector at Eynon Castle, and clearly had better prospects than serving as an infant’s groom. He could easily have passed as gently born in the right clothes and shoes.
After months together, even as mistress and servant, Gloria rather suspected that Brody had been gently born, at least half of him. Despite her requests to tell about his childhood and parents, she could find out nothing beyond the fact that he had grown up among the brats at Eynon Castle, orphaned as a lad when his mother had died. Lennox had always taken a special interest in him, seeing to his education and ensuring that he’d been well-fed and decently attired. He’d spent four years in the army, from the age of sixteen, and had returned to Eynon Castle in Wales after Waterloo, where he’d served as the estate steward’s secretary and amanuensis, in preparation for taking over the role himself. He’d seen enough fighting, he’d said, and had seen enough men die to last a lifetime. He wanted to watch one grow instead.
Gloria had not yet had the courage to ask Brody the one question she wanted answered. But she was heading into an interview for which she was unprepared, and she needed an answer. With a wave of her hand, she directed Brody out of the nursery into the narrow corridor. He acquiesced, taking up a position between Gloria and the danger in the front parlour.
“I want to know—no, I now need to know,” she said, waving Clare’s card between them, “if we have the same father.”
Brody looked at her carefully, the same caution in his gleam that Gloria recognised in herself. “I’ll protect the little lord with my life,” he murmured deeply, his hands moving to rest on his hips. “But Lennox did not father me. Or you.”
Gloria glared at him. “I know that,” she returned with a low hiss. “Are you my brother?”
Brody shifted, then looked past her. “Gave my word to His Grace,” he finally said softly. “Took an oath, not to make more of a claim—”
“Answer me right now, Brody Jenson,” she demanded.
He sighed. “Aye. ’Tis why Lennox sent for me. He knew I’d never betray the boy.”
“Do you know who our father is?” she asked directly. “I don’t have time to argue, I need to know—”
“Yes,” he answered simply. “But I swore I wouldn’t—”
“Is he someone from the Blessing family?” she interrupted, ignoring his protestation.
Brody’s surprise was evident, but then he shook his head slowly. “No, milady.”
Gloria’s shoulders fell with relief. “Good. The rest—the rest we can discuss later. Right now, brother, the man in the front parlour is the heir to the Duke of Lauderdale, the Blessing heir. And I am living in Blessing Cottage. If he’s not a blood relative of mine or yours, then chances are he knows some of my family’s history with which I am not au fait. Brody, you know more about this secret than I do. I’m going up to change. I want you to switch places with Colman in the front parlour.”
Brody looked grim, obviously thinking, but Gloria didn’t have time to argue. She turned and fled up the back stairs, half-relieved to have that secret revealed and half-afraid of what other secrets might soon be uncovered.
Upstairs, she quickly tied a black silk overskirt above her serviceable grey wool gown and fastened a black jacket with high collar over her bodice. A black lace apron topped those, and she pinned a black cap over the crown of her shining golden bun. Unaccountably nervous, she pulled on black gloves and nodded to herself in the glass.
Short moments later, she met Brody’s eyes outside the parlour door and nodded briskly, her chin rising with determination and her face leaching into the blank impassivity she’d cultivated from childhood.
Brody nodded to her and opened the door, stepping through so that Gloria could pass into the room.
Quite aware of how young she appeared and how exposed she would feel with this stranger in her parlour, Gloria drew a deep breath, locked her emotions deep within where they wouldn’t show and stepped forwards to brave the lion.
Clare was studying a painting on the wall above the fireplace. Gloria had often admired it but could not identify the subject, a large pink-stoned castle that sat looming over a river in the fog. She stepped heavily and he turned, momentary surprise lighting his face before he quickly frowned and looked past her, clearly looking for someone else to enter the room.
Inwardly snorting, Gloria smiled prettily and held out her hand as her eyes met his. She gave him only the briefest of curtsies—a clear signal of her status since she knew his name and title. As she’d seen before, he had high cheekbones and deep-set eyes—a deep green that was almost hazel, she realised—and his hair was a burnished pale brown that hung loosely about his ears, with hints of silver at the edges that glinted when the sun’s rays from the front windows caught it. Cut unfashionably short, it hung in wind-ruffled curling lengths over his forehead and over the back of his head, short enough to bare his neck, if he’d worn a low collar.
He raised a brow but gave her an equally brief bow. “Lord Clare,” she greeted him, withdrawing her hand and waving him to the settee. “How kind of you to call.” He acquiesced even as the muscles in his face pinched in suspicion. He threw Brody a narrow-eyed glance and disposed himself at the end of the furniture.
She turned and settled on the edge of an old-fashioned chair, glancing back to Brody, who watched them closely. “Could you have the tea brought in?” she asked pleasantly.
Brody briefly bowed and slipped out of the room, at which point she turned back to Clare. “You may call me Jane. Or Lady Jane.”
“Such caution, my lady, is misplaced with me,” Clare said, his eyebrows lowering with disapproval. “To be frank, it seems clear that you do not wish to be identified, but I am not some village gossip or local shopkeeper. Who are you and what are you doing in Blessing Cottage? You’re hardly old enough to be without a governess, let alone on your own—”
“That is not your concern, my lord,” Gloria snapped angrily, biting her inner lip to refrain from speaking further. She tried to suppress a sudden bout of fury. Where had her
impeccable manners and impenetrable calm gone? “As to the house, it may bear your name, but I am absolutely certain that the deed rests safely in my uncle’s strongbox.”
“Which uncle?” Clare returned, the coldness in his voice now patronising. “I understand there is a widow in this house, and it is she with whom I intend to speak. I’ll stay here all afternoon if necessary.”
Gloria raised a brow, looked down at her black gloves and felt a burning anger rise in her stomach. She hated the word widow already, with all of its connotations and presumptions. To have her life ripped from her through no fault of her own, to be a pawn in a game of money and revenge, to have been subject to March’s brutish behaviour and be humiliated by his public scandals—to have survived all she had in the last eighteen months only to have this dignified stranger put her in the schoolroom and dismiss her was simply too much.
Perhaps unrealistically, she’d wanted him to respect her—to see her as she was, instead of as a girl posing in a role too big for her shoulders. She’d wanted to see him smile and greet her with at least a modicum of respect. She desperately wanted to throw a cup of hot tea on his beautiful green jacket and luxurious leather breeches and highly polished boots.
Deliberately, slowly, her fingers almost shaking with anger and disillusionment, she unbuttoned the glove on her left hand, concentrating. Her jaw stiff, she tugged off the glove and stared at the hated gold band still residing there, then looked up at Clare, whose eyes had gratifyingly widened in surprise. She spoke in a low, fierce voice. “My mother taught me to always dissemble politely in the drawing room, but upon this occasion I am remembering that this charming cottage does not have one. You were welcomed into my parlour as a guest, and you will remember that your presumed self-importance and your future title give you no right to judge me or make assumptions about what brought me here. So you are welcome to sit there all afternoon, but I shall not!”
Blinking, she looked up at his frozen face, noted his eyes on her shaking hands and felt her body quivering with rage. Anger coursing through her, and having no other outlet, she flung her arm out and threw the glove at his face. It pelted him in the nose and his facial expression loosened into indignation, even as she rose to her feet. “Ring the bell when you wish to be shown out.”
Gloria left the room in a rush, even as Clare reached out unsuccessfully to detain her, deliberately slamming the open parlour door behind her.
Later … Chapter Five … after their first kiss
Gloria did not sleep well. She told herself that she was worried, that her restlessness had been caused by Clare’s threats and insinuations, but by morning, she curled up beneath the coverlet, stared at the canopy and admitted the truth, at least to herself.
She ought to be working out what to tell him—truth or not—but she hadn’t even considered it. Gloria was thinking about the kiss.
Marital relations with March had never been better than merely tolerable, much as her mother had gently warned her was likely. Sadly, merely tolerable had been achieved on the nights Meriden was most sotted. The smell of cheap, stale liquor had always been on his breath, while softer touches or emotions had never figured into the act. Still, when insensibly drunk, he’d fumbled and had been unable to be vicious.
But he had not drunk himself to oblivion every night. On those nights he had been sober enough to deliberately tumble her, he had also been deliberately brutal, as if he had been exacting his pleasure from her pain. Gloria had belonged to him by law, March had said on their wedding night and repeated over the following months, and she would spread her legs when he chose. He’d chosen that first night, and made a regular point of it whenever the house had been still and he’d returned from whatever revels he’d graced through the evening. He’d taken especial delight in waking her from sleep and laughing at her startled angst, and had made a point of coming to her still cloaked in the cheap perfumes that his whores had left on his skin. The acrid smell of tobacco and alcohol had been inescapable in his presence, and March had been outwardly amused by her revulsion. It had not taken long at all for Gloria to learn to lie as still as possible and wait him out.
Once pregnant, Gloria had tersely informed him there was no need to risk the health of his heir when his mistress was readily available. At her request, Lennox had installed a bolt on the inside of her bedchamber door, where she’d stayed each night with her maid. March had sneeringly informed her that she’d better be prepared to submit to his ‘attention’ as soon as the doctors gave permission. He’d laughed and promised her that he would greatly enjoy it.
The few seconds she had spent with Clare had been a world separate from any sensation March had ever created. March’s touch had frozen her to stiffness and disgust, while Clare’s firm grip had been compelling, but not violent or rough. Instinctively, Gloria had known after the first terrified moment that she could pull back and end the exchange, that Clare would not have forced the intimacy upon her. The memory of March’s heavy breath and stale odour had been erased as she’d inhaled the rich, well-tended leather of Clare’s overcoat and a lingering aroma of lime and spice that clung to Clare’s skin.
Even more fascinating—more deserving of her attention—was her physical reaction to Clare’s kiss. The touch of Clare’s lips had fascinated her and left a tingling awareness on her mouth and down her spine that she’d never before experienced. Gloria had wanted, even desired, to seek closer shelter in his arms, to offer up more than her passive lips. He’d wanted more, too. He’d been regretful when he’d pulled back, denying himself something he wanted in deference to her physical comfort.
She’d barely been able to think of anything the rest of the day. Her abstraction had drawn the attention of the staff, especially once Colman had told his tale to all the others. Mrs Pitcher and Mrs Sinclair had hovered, as if inviting her confidences. Brody had glowered, despite her deliberately serene expression. Mr Pitcher and Matthew had—together even—approached her before the evening meal and asked if she’d like to go for a drive on the morrow instead of walking.
Gloria didn’t want to go for a drive. She wanted to know if a kiss could comfort her instead of terrify her. She wanted to know how his bare hands would react with skin other than her jaw and chin. She wanted to know how much more of that electrified tingling would run down her spine when his lips touched hers more firmly.
She didn’t want to have to tell him a damn thing in return for the privilege, either. In fact, kissing him again seemed like a much better use of their time together than reliving the sordid story of her marriage, March’s death and the subsequent vindictive gossip, lawsuits and danger.
Nevertheless, after a late breakfast and some time with her son, Gloria retreated to her bedchamber to think and pace. She had to know if he was interested in kissing her again. She’d never admit how imperative it felt to have that affirmation, though, because it would give him leverage over her—something to reserve until she surrendered all he wished to know. Gloria remembered clearly his demand to be told the particulars of her life, and she had no doubt he was capable of making himself a pest if she couldn’t walk a fine line between enough information to satisfy him and little enough to keep them safe.
What did one wear on a cold outing with a gentleman?
Even as she thought the question, Gloria’s answer seemed obvious. She’d wear her muddy walking boots and the gown with its ruined silk hems, wrap herself up in her black velvet cloak and hood and hope for the best. Gloria would have much preferred walking boots in dark blue and lined with fur, below a walking dress in a hue of vivid sea blue and topped with a dark blue wool overcoat, with fur at the neck and collar. Her head would be covered with a hood of white swansdown and a complementing wool scarf would be wrapped about her neck. But no, she was confined to black weeds, with months still to endure in that dismal colour.
Gloria tried to envision how to arrange a private rendezvous indoors, but couldn’t conceive of Colman allowing her more than a few bare minutes alone with Clare. She couldn’t call at the castle, even with Mrs Sinclair in tow. Still, she knew it was possible to conduct a secret life under the nose of servants and family. Her mother had managed to do so for decades before Winchester had discovered Johna and Lennox in an unmistakably intimate encounter in the music room at the rear of Winchester House. Surely Gloria could manage two or three assignations before Clare left Killard Castle for his other holdings.
Exploring with Clare seemed the only way she’d ever know if Abigail’s gentle lectures on the subject months earlier had any truth for her. “If you weren’t disgusted by March’s inconsideration,” Abigail had said kindly when they’d retreated to Gloria’s bedchamber and compared marriages and pregnancy, “you’d feel pleasure when he touched you, so much that you sought out his company. If he cared for you and your happiness, he’d have made sure you weren’t in pain. It can be an amazing experience, and one you’d want to often repeat.”
Gloria had stared at the bolt on the door and rubbed her expanding womb. “You married a stranger. How do you know?” she finally had asked her sister.
The expression on Abigail’s face could have lit the room and was enough of an answer. Even so, she’d said quietly, “Meriden may have been a stranger, but he was a stranger who cared about my enjoyment of it more than his own. And now? Now he’s not a stranger, dear. He’s Charles, my dear mate who is more passionate about my happiness and safety than he cares for his own.”
Gloria had never expected to find out for herself if Abigail was right. It had been enough to be relieved from the unsavoury obligation, as it were. She had no desire to seek out more. Nevertheless, she was still pondering that conversation when she went to leave the house and found herself followed by two very determined ex-soldiers, both grim-faced. Her gaze went from a belligerent Colman to Brody, who was as stubborn as Gloria herself. She shrugged and pointed out, “One of you must stay with Eynon. It is not a choice. Those are your orders from Lennox.”
“We should keep you inside,” Brody said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Gloria raised her fine brows and lifted her chin, but was hardly going to back down. “You are not my keeper, Brody Jenson,” she stated clearly and frowned down Colman as well. “Nor are you. The pair of you were ordered to defend me if necessary—not to confine me.”
The two men looked at each other and Colman sighed. “I will be staying with his lordship then, my lady,” he announced. “This time.”
“And you will stay back. Out of hearing range.”
Brody frowned but kept to her side as they left the front door and stepped out of the gate. He waited as the gate closed and grunted when she turned towards Killard Castle. “You can’t,” Gloria told him peevishly. “Keep to my side. Stay at least ten paces behind me.”
“And what would I tell wee Lord Eynon, then, when he asks about his mother in a few years? ‘Aye, my lad, I knew your ma. I was watchin’ her when she was snatched up by a deceitful blackguard of a man’.” Brody’s voice was tired, but reached her clearly as he subsided to a mutter. “We just want to keep you safe.”
Gloria knew his intentions were honest, as well as in line with Lennox’s orders regarding her, but she was almost ready to believe Clare was not the enemy. In fact, she was very much tempted to tell Brody to head home as soon as Clare stepped from the shadows of the castle walls, though she knew Brody would never agree. With the admission between them that they shared a sire, even though he refused to name the man for some reason, and Clare’s unexpected entrance into their existence, Brody appeared on the verge of an explosion in temper.
Gloria did not have to like his actions or words, and in another situation Gloria would have found a way around his stubbornness with no more than a blink of the eye. But she was not in another situation. Her current life did not permit for dismissing or contravening her own staff or that of her father-in-law’s, however justified by their insubordination.
She heaved a great breath, straightened her already stiff back, and marched on.
Clare hung against the wall and watched the woman who had been Lady Gloria de Rothesay pace around the curve in the road. The servant with her was not the bulky overgrown soldier who had accompanied her the previous two days. Instead, she was closely followed by the one who’d been in the parlour with Clare as he’d waited—the one whose eyes matched Gloria’s orbs in hue and shape. Clare paused and watched. Neither spoke, but Gloria did not seem disturbed by the close company of her companion, who trailed her much more closely than the usual guard.
Clare would have wagered money in that moment that her companion was not a mere footman either.
Indeed, he saw Clare before Gloria did, and openly glowered.
Gloria’s beaming smile—quickly subdued under the glare of her guard—more than compensated for the lack of encouragement by her attendant. Confident now of his welcome, Clare presented his arm, delighted when she took it and smiled up at him. “So courteous of you to walk with me again today, my lord,” she murmured, so low he could barely hear her words.
“The companionship is entirely my pleasure.” He gestured along the road. “Perhaps if you’d like to continue, we could stroll in the Castle gardens, hibernating as they are, before heading back to your cosy, warm parlour.”
Gloria’s eyes lit with pleasure. “A proper garden?” she clarified, not even sparing a look for the man who now stomped behind them.
Careful not to rattle her before it was time, Clare asked Gloria about a few of the recent bits of gossip from Westminster that his father had shared in his last letter. She was not surprised, but rather quietly amused, which told him more than she might have suspected. Gloria’s intelligent and perceptive questions betrayed familiarity with the personages involved, even though he was more recently apprised of political and social news, so the details were left to him to recount through his father. Clare grasped that Gloria moved within the upper echelons of political society, despite her unhappy marriage and recent childbirth.
He steered them into the gardens, protected by the outer wall and the south face of the central keep. The sun shone warmly there on clear afternoons, but Clare was more interested in whisking Gloria into the gazebo, where the sloped roof created shadows that would prevent her narrow-eyed guard from spying.
Clare would hear her confession, one way or another. He’d ask her politely first, but if she baulked, Clare knew he’d not hesitate to use her body to soften her resistance and compel the answers. He wanted to know—he needed to know—why her father’s guardianship was such a threat, and he refused to think any more deeply on the subject than that. He had an obligation to his own honour, and a duty as his father’s proxy. It was enough reason.
His conversation died away, but Gloria was now exclaiming over the winter garden that the castle’s housekeeper and gardeners kept organised. Clare watched as she joyfully picked out snowdrops and ice plants. “You know what this one is, don’t you?” she asked him.
He shook his head, eyes on her instead of the flower. “It’s from the Mediterranean, and it’s called glory-of-the-snow.” She waved her hand over the garden. “And you have it planted nearly by the acre. It’s beautiful.”
Clare hadn’t known about the flower, but he had a Glory he’d like to see bloom in a bed of white snow. They moved towards the gazebo, her hand on his arm. He was pleased that she’d placed it there, and managed a small smile when he realised Gloria was looking up at him expectantly, even excitedly.
Clare was grim inside. He felt it creeping up on him, the cold, dread determination that came before a battle. Then they were climbing the steps of the structure and leaving Gloria’s guard behind, fuming. Clare couldn’t even bring himself to care. A strange heat washed over him, as if stepping through the gazebo entry was a turning point in his life—as if he wouldn’t come back out the same man.
Surely she would tell him what he wanted to know and that would be that. Her lips had been sweetly surrendered, but not freely offered, and her skin was ripe for his mouth, but she was still in mourning, and for a husband she’d intensely disliked, even feared. Her experience with men must be minimal and unpleasant. He knew to his bones that she was no hussy—
“Oh, what a wonderful place to walk. It’s beautiful! Thank you!” The angel beamed, and she turned in his arms, stretching up to him.
After that, Clare was lost. His mind seized, and was subdued by sheer lust. If she’d appeared at the foot of his bed in nothing more than her glowing skin and a halo, he couldn’t have been more surprised. He embraced her, pressing his palms to her spine. He lowered his mouth until he tasted rich tea and smelt sweet pea.
She was no longer a passive, sweet participant to yesterday’s experiment. Gloria pressed her lips to his, mimicking each caress and nibble. Her fingers twisted in his overcoat, and he removed one hand from her back to unbutton the high collar of her wrap and let it fall to the floor. It freed the underside of her jaw to his kiss. His lips trailed, by their own volition, to the sensitive skin below her ear and along that curve.
She had been busy. He gasped when he realised she’d unbuttoned his overcoat. Her gloved fingers were pressed into the lapels of his jacket, so he shifted to stroke her shoulder. Pressing his palm to her skin there, he rubbed his palm downward until he found her breast.
Even through layers of fabric and gloves, she responded sensually to his caress. Gloria made a small sound of shock and wrenched, but it was only to move closer. Her eyes flew open, and her soft cry was followed by a wide-eyed look of bewildered pleasure that faded into glazed pupils. He responded to her wordless encouragement and gently squeezed. Heat spread over her face and her spine arched, so he squeezed again, firmly and without hesitation.
She visibly shuddered beneath his hands.
Instinctively—he hadn’t planned this and couldn’t control it—Clare backed Gloria towards the column that supported the gazebo roof, trapping her with his body. Not that she was trying to escape. His mind and body both exulted in wild lusting desire at the knowledge, but instinct drove him to press against her, to hold her to him, to use the aids of architecture and his larger body to trap her. No, her hands were pressed against his waistcoat now. He lowered his hand at her back and squeezed her bottom through her petticoats.
It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.
He lifted his right hand to her golden halo, pulled her scarf away from the nape of her neck, and squeezed his hand to the back of her head, holding her in place.
With a startled cry, Gloria’s lips opened and his tongue immediately answered. The rich, lush recesses of her mouth welcomed him, reverberating around his tongue as small moans of pleasure continued to spill from her throat. She shuddered as he fondled her hip, then tweaked her nipple through the fabric.
He released her body only long enough to wrench off his gloves. She didn’t even seem to notice, but he was desperate to have them off, mindless with desire. He knew he was lost, hopelessly lost, but in that moment, Clare could only think of having her responsive body underneath him.
The chill that greeted his fingers penetrated only far enough to know it was impossible to have her as he desperately wished, naked and beneath him. The gazebo was simply too cold, and though he was desperately certain his body would function properly even in such temperatures, he could not expect the tender, soft flesh under his hands to find it enjoyable. Disappointment slammed low in his gut, almost an agony. In a fantasy, he could envision pressing her into the wooden boards beneath their feet, even if she was still mostly dressed. But their atmosphere couldn’t be controlled by his mind. Even with his coat beneath her head, she would be uncomfortable and aching.
Caught between him and the central column, dressed, would have to be good enough.
Gloria tangled her fingers in his collar as she pulled loose his neckcloth. She still wore gloves that protected those elegant digits from the chill so she couldn’t feel his skin. He unbuttoned the stiff bodice on her dress down over her curves until he could part the heavy fabric enough to accommodate his hands.
The chemise underneath was black silk and so thin that Clare jerked his mouth from her hungry one in sudden surprise. A fierce awareness of that erotic undergarment caused his hard cock to jerk in anticipatory satisfaction. Reverently, he scraped his palm over the silk and her nipple. In the cold, even in this half-darkened structure, the areole of that swollen tissue he had barely begun to caress was plumped and erect. Gloria’s wide eyes went hazy again and her head fell back against the column. He lowered his head to the rapidly thudding pulse at her throat and sucked on it gently as Gloria’s eager moan reached his ears.
What he wouldn’t do to see her like this naked, as she’d been in his dream. It wasn’t the mast of his yacht, but she was more responsive than he had dreamt. He bent lower, felt her gloved hand clench against his scalp, and he settled his mouth over the chemise and her breast.
Gloria’s moan turned into a choked, inarticulate noise and she shuddered violently in his arms.
The reaction was so unexpected that Clare nearly drew back in surprise, but instead managed to modulate his touch so that it soothed instead of incited. He knew very well what had just happened to her. She’d need a few moments to put her mind together before he lifted her skirts in the front and took her mind apart again. She’d come from the simple contact of mouth to nipple and Clare couldn’t wait to find out what rapture a more intimate touch inside her would cause. His cock raged and knocked painfully against the buttons of his trousers. Waiting even long enough to drag her inside the keep and onto the nearest bed seemed hours too long.
He moved his lips and tongued her other breast as the tremors eased. He worked to pull up her skirts. She must have felt the chill of the air when the layers cleared the tops of her stockings, but she didn’t complain.
He touched her hot flesh and she clutched his shoulders.
Clare was struck by a sudden urge to know how she tasted. Would the flavour of her cream be as sweet as her mouth? He didn’t know, wouldn’t know in that moment, but the rich fluid coated his fingers and he promised himself he’d taste them before they were finished. Clare feathered those fingertips over her inner thighs before sliding his index and middle finger between her hair-dusted labia and gently stroking.
She jerked, another soft cry escaping her as her forehead fell forwards against his chest. Ruthlessly he slid one finger inside the hottest, most intimate part of her and followed it with a second and was rewarded with a moan as her fingers dug into his shoulders.
Clare heard distantly his own husky chuckle, slid one hand around to her bottom to support her, and withdrew his fingers before thrusting them inside again.
Gloria was flung—perhaps without expecting it again—into another climax. He watched it slacken her muscles then shake them, watched her shoulders shudder, felt the contractions around his fingers, felt the dull roar in his head almost explode. He was going to lose it in his damn pants, and he couldn’t even find a reason to care.
But then he was being wrenched away from her. Gloria slumped back against the column and slid to the floor.
A powerful, well-aimed, trained fist hit his jaw and Clare lost his feet and hit the floor.