The short tale below is part of a series of vignettes written to characterize Johna de Rothesay, formally known as Lady Winchester. Johna is a significant person in her daughters’ lives, though she does not appear directly in The Outcast Earl, and only briefly in The Rusticated Duchess.
If you have not finished The Outcast Earl or The Rusticated Duchess, this is officially your spoiler alert. Go read the books first, then come back here.
Temptation in 1798
~Elle Q. Sabine~
Copyright 2013 by Elle Q. Sabine (firstname.lastname@example.org).
All rights reserved, do not reprint in paper or electronic form without prior permission of the author. This material is supplemental material to books in the series The Misbegotten Misses (The Outcast Earl, The Rusticated Duchess, TBD) published by Totally Bound. By reading further, you are stating you are 18 years of age, or over.
A sob rose in Johna’s throat as Winchester left the room, disapproval and dislike still visible on his face. Four months had passed since the birth of her first child – a girl Johna had named Fiona in secret tribute to the man who had fathered that babe. For the first two months Winchester hadn’t touched her. Indeed, he hadn’t touched her since they’d left London a year earlier, soon after her announcement that she was expecting. Johna had informed the earl she was with child during the journey to their country house in Chester; he’d immediately informed her that he would be happy to forego their weekly ‘appointment’, in the interests of her health.
She’d struggled to conceal her relief.
Two months after the birth of her daughter, Johna had handed the infant over to the wet nurse, as was expected. Winchester had waited for that signal, and had expected it even earlier. Though reluctant, Johna knew her duty, but informed his lordship the earl that it was time for a change of scenery. Johna knew her husband required a son. Thus, within a few days they’d returned to London, where Winchester had resumed visiting her bed according to the customary weekly schedule he’d kept the year before.
Even London was a damnably lonely existence, now without even William to keep company as he’d done the previous winter. She’d touched no man but the cold, distant one who claimed the title of husband. Tonight, when Winchester had joined her, pushed up his nightshirt and fumbled beneath the old-fashioned bed gown he expected her to wear, she’d stopped him. Then she’d asked – no, pleaded – for him to hold her for a few minutes and touch her first.
Even in the darkness she’d felt his revulsion. “Nonsense,” he’d snapped, opening her vagina and roughly shoving in his index and middle finger, before forcing his stiff cock into the dry opening. “Do not be so bloody melodramatic, let’s just get this done.”
She counted the thrusts. She fought back the tears. When he flipped down her gown and slid from the bed, she asked him calmly to light the lamp. He’d looked away from her, but she could see his face in the mirror and it was as empty as when he sat at the breakfast table and looked through her as if she didn’t exist.
The sobs rose in her throat, and when the door between their chambers closed, she let the sound of agony out. Johna didn’t cry because he had left, or even because he was, as his own mother had once described him, a cold fish. She cried because she was lonely. She ached with it.
Intimacy with another human being wasn’t just something she desired. Intimacy was something she needed, and she was dying a little bit every day without it.
* * * *
“You were right not to have her brought down from Chester, Johna. The weather is simply too cold, even if I did want to see the babe.” The dowager countess peered at her daughter-in-law through spectacles and frowned. “Does she look like you?”
“Actually, she has hair as black as any Winchester in the gallery downstairs,” Johna demurred, glancing around the apartment. Before their arrival, the dowager had finally moved out of the countess’s apartment and into rooms in the opposite wing. The earl’s apartment was the walk of a private, narrow corridor from Johna’s rooms, but at least they would no longer be expected to share even a sitting room when they visited.
Johna might technically rule Winchester Castle, but it was the Dowager’s home.
“I suppose he is as oblivious as he ever appeared to be.”
Johna looked at her sharply for a second, but the Dowager met her gaze evenly, without judgment. After a long moment, Johna replied quietly. “Yes, he is.”
“Will you continue to go elsewhere, then, in order to give him a son?”
Johna grimaced, a bit uneasy about the conversation. And yet, if the Dowager knew and did not disapprove, how wrong could Johna really be?
“I have not yet. But I don’t see as I have many choices,” she returned in a whisper. “I either go on as I did with Fiona, or allow the title to revert to the Crown.”
The Dowager was sober as she wandered over to the window and stared out at the landscape spread below her. It was a long time before she spoke. “My husband was as self-centered and blind as yours, and I was truly grateful that my only child was a boy. With four girls to establish from his first wife, he was happy I had done my duty from the first and never again darkened my doorway. I happily concentrated on the daughters he ignored, especially once I realized my son was going to be as much like his father as any son could be.”
“It would make things much easier if I thought I could explain my scheme to give him children that aren’t precisely his, and have his approval. But I won’t risk it. He’d know about Fiona then,” Johna mused softly. Clearing her throat, she asked abruptly, “Who else are we expecting for the holidays?”
“Oh, there are my son’s foppish friends. No doubt they’ll spend all day every day shooting, as they do every year. Your two brothers have arrived with their wives, and they unexpectedly brought along two others – a Colonel Blessing and Major Meadowlark. I suppose they are connections of yours?”
Johna felt her body seize unexpectedly.
Alex Blessing must know she’d married. Why he would come here – now – was incomprehensible. She held back a swallow that would have belied too much emotion, but the Dowager was perceptive.
“I have surprised you,” the woman murmured.
“I didn’t realize they were back in England,” Johna said thoughtfully after a moment. “That is, yes, they are connections. Major Meadowlark is a second cousin to my mother, and possibly her last living relative. You’ll remember how most of her family was lost to scarlet fever, just after she married Papa. Colonel Blessing I haven’t seen in years, since I was in the schoolroom; he and Hanover were extremely close at Eton together and I’ve known him since I was in the cradle. He’s a grandson of – no, I suppose a nephew of – the current Duke of Lauderdale, though the family lives in Ireland these days.” She looked apologetically at the older woman. “No doubt they appeared with little or no notice, otherwise I’m certain Susan would have written ahead -”
“No, no, they are quite acceptable and it is no trouble to have them, as long as no one expects to be evenly matched at dinner. There are four women and eight men. It’s not as if they’re half-pay cits wilting away during the holidays.”
“At least the table will be full,” Johna sighed, taking her mother-in-law’s arm and walking from the apartment. Her maid would be in to unpack and Johna, while having no desire to entertain her husband or his compatriots, was suddenly eager to see her family, and even more so, to meet again the men who tagged along with them.
It was no surprise to find Winchester had deserted the castle with his companions, leaving the Hanovers to entertain themselves. Her sisters-in-law Susan and Jane were both resting, but Johna felt no such need. She bustled into the library, comfortably filled with the men of her own family. Her brothers, Neil and Colby, were on their feet immediately when she entered. They’d been engaged in one of their infamous games of chess; the battle seemed set to last their entire lives. Franklin Meadowlark was sprawled in an armchair with a newssheet, he converged on her even as Neil was picking her up for a hug. Colby grabbed her as Franklin bussed her cheek with the affection of his status as favored older cousin. He’d grayed since she’d seen him last, and Johna couldn’t help but reach up and hug him impulsively. “Where have you been?” she asked impetuously, “And how long can you stay? Where are going next? And if you’ve been back in England, why haven’t you called on me?”
Franklin laughed. “Canada, a month, I have no idea, and I went directly to your brother’s upon my arrival without even stopping in London. And you, young countess, what have you done? Gone and gotten yourself married and become a mother? Your brothers insisted, didn’t they?”
Johna elbowed Colby beside her as he laughed. “Actually, Mother insisted,” she said soberly, “And as soon as it was done, she took off for India with that nitwit Cranston and contracted the malarial fever.”
“I let Mother talk me into it,” Neil sighed regretfully.
“There are not many options for a woman like me, except marriage,” Johna pointed out softly, trying her best to suppress the bitter undertones. Neil, Lord Hanover, had not known what life he was creating for his baby sister when he’d agreed to the match, and there was no sense in rebuking him or heaping more guilt on him than he already felt. Looking for a distraction, Johna glanced around the room. “The Dowager told me that Colonel Blessing was here as well?”
The men sobered. “Blessing will be down, Johna,” Neil said carefully. “You should know, though –”
Behind her, the door opened, and Johna turned, gasping. “Alex!” she gasped in quiet shock, and rushed forward to him, oblivious to her brothers and their presence in her husband’s ancestral home. “Oh my God, Alex.”
* * * *
“Are you happy? In your marriage, I mean?” Alex asked her, much later. It was a clear night, and a chambermaid had pulled back the drapes so that the moonlight could shine in. When Johna had slipped into the room, he’d been in a chair by the window, staring out at the desolate, freezing expanse of pasture and off toward the sea.
Johna considered the question as she approached him, but no matter how she thought of it, she couldn’t deny the answer, or Alex. He’d always known when she was lying. “No. Why else would I be here, in your room?”
“Pity,” he responded abruptly.
Johna closed her eyes. “You’re missing half a leg, Alex, and a hand. You have to use a cane and you feel dependent. I can’t change that. Yes, I was shocked. But you are still a strong, beautiful man, Alex. You can still be as much or more than you were before, a man who is honorable and stalwart, no matter the condition of his body.”
“Your husband pities me, and so do his comrades.”
Johna stood squarely in front of him and waited until Alex looked up and met her eyes. “Since you had walked away and I couldn’t marry you, it didn’t matter to whom I was wed. I allowed Mother to arrange the match without objection or even much interest. That was my mistake, and one I must live with for the rest of my life.”
Alex closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and then looked at her again. “I was right, and you know it. Look at me,” he went on bitterly. “Even healthy I had no hope of supporting you as you deserve. And now I can’t even support myself; if Neil hadn’t taken me in, I’d be a damned street beggar or throwing myself on the cold mercy of my uncle, who is about as poor as a churchmouse. He couldn’t even put enough coin together to buy the little place my parents lived in, and my commission is nearly worthless at the moment.”
She studied him for another moment, then moved a chair to face him and sat on it, so close that her skirts brushed his knees. “Tell me what happened.”
“It was a damned cannon, Johna,” he mused. “Lying there in the fort, wondering if I’d live or die, the only thing I thought about was the day my father asked me what I wanted from life – what he could do to get me on my feet. I didn’t have to buy colors. I’d been to Oxford and done well. I could have gotten a position as a secretary or in government, or gotten myself involved in some trade, and spent a lifetime loving you. I still wouldn’t have been an acceptable husband, but at least I’d have been able to watch out for you, protect you, help you choose wisely.”
“You chose honorably, just as you always do,” Johna said softly, confidently, her throat closing in pain at his words.
“My honor be damned,” he grunted, slapping his hand down on a thigh. “Tell me why you’re here, Johna, instead of his bed, where you ought to be.” His voice raw with a touch of the old brogue he’d learned as a young boy, he whispered, “I know verra well you have given him a wee lass, but not yet the son he requires.”
Johna raised a brow, still watching him carefully. She didn’t know what to think, or how to think, but even this strangely vulnerable and defeated Alex attracted her like no man ever had. “All those years, from when I was just an unwitting little girl, I watched you, wanted you, needed you. And not once – not once – did you ever say a word about loving me. Not until that last day, when you came to tell us – to tell me – that you were going off to Canada. There you were in your uniform, and my heart was breaking, and Neil was watching me about to break into tears, and finally you asked me to walk you outside. I thought he would follow us.”
“He knew I wanted to say goodbye to you alone. He knew why I was leaving, why I requested a change in regiment that would take me from England. You were just barely seventeen, I was a thirty-year-old younger son with no future and every time I saw you I was no better than an old lecher.”
“You never once touched me. You weren’t a dirty old man. Even that day, the day you left, the day you told me you always had loved me, would love me forever and you were leaving so that I could live the life I was meant to live without looking behind me at you, you still didn’t kiss me. Why not, Alex?”
“If I’d touched you, kissed you, I’d never have left.” The words were a raw whisper and they hung in the room, as vivid as the tear welling in the corner of Alex’s left eye and tracing down his hair-roughened jaw.
Johna stared at him, her heart breaking again. “I came here tonight, Alex, because I never let you go,” she whispered. “I’ve never gone to him or to his bed. I’ve never slept the night beside him. He’s never touched me with the tenderness you show every time your hand touches mine, he’s never sat in the moonlight and talked to me about the past and the present. Yes, he comes to me as a matter of duty, though I doubt he’s ever – even the first time – spent even an hour alone with me. The whole experience is nothing more than a chore – one of the obligations of the earldom that he can’t avoid.”
Tears formed in her eyes and she let the long suppressed anger in her rise as she continued bitterly, “And here you are, dying to touch me but so caught up in your own pain and fog of regret and inadequacy that you punish yourself by spending your time in a dark corner of the drawing room staring at me. And here I am, shamed and dying inside a little every day because he can’t acknowledge that he is unable to sire children, Alex. It is a truth even his mother knows. So here we are. I’m forced to bite my lip once a bloody week and let him treat me with less consideration than a breeding mare, praying to God it doesn’t hurt so much as the week before and wondering how the hell I’m going to deceive him next time so that he has that son and a spare the marriage I deserved obligates me to spread my legs and provide.”
Alex stiffened. She watched his jaw tighten, his eyes sharpen with sudden anger. “Who?” he raged, then flung himself forward and gripped her arm with his hand. “Damn you, Johna, just because –”
“You. Weren’t. Here.” she enunciated slowly, the words a condemnation. “And the only way to keep him from touching me is to get pregnant or inform him that his title will belong to the King when he’s gone. Two sons and then he’ll never touch me again. He’s even said so,” she added passionately. “So yes, I did have an affair with someone nine months before Fiona was born, and I refuse to regret it. As you were off somewhere on another continent, content to have abandoned me and the mess my life became because you wanted no part in it, you abdicated any right you might have once had to judge or manage me.”
“That’s too damn bad, because I’ll be damned if I let you spread yourself for some lusting rakehell –”
“And how do you plan to stop me?” Johna seethed, twisting her lips. “I will have an affair soon, and I will be pregnant again, and again and again, until I have birthed two boys or die trying. These are the realities of the life I deserve and that you helped choose for me by your own decisions. Yes, I agreed to the marriage, but I did so because you were not here. So, I’m telling you now because I saw you watching me at dinner and after. You cannot interfere, or set yourself up as judge and jury over my behaviour. In fact, if you can’t keep out of it, it would be better for all of us if you stayed in the country when Neil and Susan come to London in the spring.”
“Over my dead body,” Alex roared suddenly, rage and lust firing his eyes and jerky movements. To her utter shock, it took him all of three seconds to drag her onto his lap. She was pressed back against the elbow of his injured arm, and his hand framed her face and forced her head to stillness in the crook of his shoulder. “You are mine, Johna. You always have been and you always will be.”
Johna shook, trembled. She whispered softly, “I’m not a complete idiot. He wasn’t a rakehell – Fiona’s sire, I mean.”
“Are you still seeing him?” The words were raw, low and furious.
“No,” Johna whispered. “Not since last December.”
Alex cleared his throat after staring at her for long minutes. “You win,” he whispered eventually, “I want to be the things Winchester isn’t. I can’t provide a home for you, or gift you with jewels and I can’t take away the pain and sorrow you’ve suffered, but I want to be what he isn’t.”
“What’s that?” she finally asked, when silence stretched between them.
“I want you to sleep beside me when it’s possible. I want to watch you undress and brush out that glorious hair in long tendrils of gold before you come to our bed. I want to wake up when you dream and soothe away the nightmares. I want you to flower under my touch and I want to kiss you until your body melts around me. I want to see you round with my babies and holding my children after they are born. I want you to wake up beside me with a smile on your face. But most of all, Johna, I want to claim you, if not as your husband, then as your heart.”
Johna swallowed, hard. “Why?” she whispered, tears forming in her eyes.
Alex kept his eyes on her, and in the moonlight she could see the stark emotion on his face. “Because I can’t bear the thought of someone else holding you, touching you in ways I’ve spent a lifetime dreaming about. I can barely tolerate him, especially knowing you dislike his touch and that you’ll endure it only until you carry my child. The thought of anyone else having that intimacy with you, when I can’t even touch you, will drive me to murder, Johna, either the man or myself.”
She stared at him, knowing he could read the longing on her face as easily as if she was still the young fourteen-year-old girl who’d worshiped him. “You’ll hate me, eventually,” she whispered. “You’ll hate it when I leave for the country with him, the nights when you realize that I’m underneath him instead of you. And eventually all you’ll think about when you look at me is what you can’t have, instead of what you already possess. I don’t think I can bear it if you ever look at me as if you can’t tolerate me. It’s my worst nightmare, and now it’s entirely probable.”
Alex’s fingers traced her eyebrows, then stroked down her nose and gently – ever so gently – stroked the pads of his fingers over her lips before drawing a line up her jaw to the lobe of her ear. “I was prepared for you to be blissfully happy, to sit back and drink in your joy and accept that I’d made the right decision all those years ago. I wasn’t prepared for this, and I’m not quite sure the world is still in the same position it was an hour ago, let alone how I’ll feel next year or in five years.”
Johna blinked. “And if Neil finds out? He doesn’t know – at least I don’t think so – about any of this. I won’t have him making my decisions for me, or rejecting you.”
“Hush,” Alex brushed his mouth over hers. “He knows you and Winchester aren’t more than distant strangers, and he’s known since you were a little girl that I loved you more than was safe or sane. I’ll speak to him and Susan.” The gentle contact of their lips wasn’t enough for either of them, so Alex lowered his lips and traced them along the same path his fingers had traversed, ever so slowly and painfully gentle until Johna trembled almost violently. “You are so beautiful, Johna,” Alex whispered in her ear as his lips tugged for a moment on her earlobe. “The little girl I loved grew up into my own angel. You light up the room when you are in it, and when you smile, it’s as if the sun has broken through a cloud of gray skies. Smile for me, mon ange.”
The rough voice always caused Johna’s heart to seize a bit, but the smile came out of hiding at the husky French endearment. She blinked as he drew back and watched her, his own eyes hooded, but his fingers explored the nape of her neck while she laid in the crook of his arm, unresisting. “I can only make one promise, Johna, and that is to do whatever it takes to make you happy and safe when we are together, loving you with what’s left of my body and all of my soul. It’s all I have to give you, and all that you can allow me to offer. Please say yes, because the alternative is too terrible for either of us to contemplate. Say yes, and give me the whole happy smile, not just the ghost of one, so I can kiss it into heaven.”
Her breath caught in her throat, and her smile faded until Alex’s hand tightened against the back of her hair and his face tightened with agony. “Damn it, Johna,” he started, but Johna stopped him by placing one of her soft hands over his mouth, then leaning forward and pressing her mouth against his closed eyes, one hot kiss at a time.
“Yes,” she whispered against his bowed forehead. “Not because I pity you. Not because I am desperate for a child. Not because I am so morbidly lonely that I cry myself to sleep at night. Not because I look in the mirror and see a desperate stranger I no longer recognize instead of the carefree girl I once was. But yes, because I love you, Alex. I always have.”
His sharp indrawn breath and jerking head brought their mouths together in a desperate kiss that turned Johna into a flash of heat and lust. “I want you,” she heard one of them say, but the voice was so ragged and raw that she couldn’t have said which of them had whispered the words, and it didn’t matter. They were true.
“I could have you right here on my lap,” he said a long time later, when his hand had run up and down her form, both inflaming her and soothing her. “But I want you in my bed. Our bed, Johna. From now on, my bed is our bed, wherever it is and whenever you can be in it with me.”
Shaking with emotion and passion and lust she had never fathomed experiencing, Johna looked down at her rumpled dress and wished desperately it was gone, and that Alex’s hands were bringing her to ecstasy even as she spoke. “Let me go and change, Alex. I’ll come back to you, to your bed, and I’ll stay for as long as I can.”
He grunted, his fingers loosening reluctantly from where they were anchored on her hip. “Bring your morning gown,” he said abruptly, “Stay until you go down to breakfast. And hurry, I’ll be waiting for you. In our bed.”
* * * *
Johna brought him the smile he’d asked for when she returned, garbed in nothing more than her dressing gown. She came into the room calmly, turning and snibbing the lock, then looked to him.
Earlier, a maid had pulled back the bed, so all Alex had had to do was shuffle over to it with his cane and good foot, unbutton his trousers and drop them to the floor. He’d removed his shirt too, and set the cane against the wall beside the bed before scooting onto the tick and drawing the sheet up to hide his blatant erection. He’d waited for her, sitting up against the headboard, hardly believing she’d come back and yet aching for it.
He nearly burst into tears when she came through the door. His eyes fixed on her, helpless, when she smiled on him and then slowly – deliberately, Alex knew – hung the dress she carried in his wardrobe, and went to his dresser to tuck chemise, petticoat, stockings, corset and garters into the one of the drawers. She organized her hairbrushes in another drawer and then turned to one of the empty chairs and lifted her foot. He watched, acutely in pain, as she bent forward and picked the knot out of her slippered foot so that she could remove the shoe.
“At Hanover Fields,” Johna murmured, just loud enough for him to hear, “My maid Frenchie can help me prepare for bed, Alex, if you want to watch. She knows all my secrets, and she knows already tonight that I won’t be sleeping in my own bed. I don’t trust the other servants, though, so I can’t ring for her from your room here at the castle. What about you – I know you have a man with you?”
“Jacob will just be glad there’s evidence of a woman in my room,” Alex said hoarsely, as the slipper came off and she returned a stockinged foot to the floor and lifted her other slipper to the chair to repeat the procedure. “The process of elimination will lead him to you fairly quickly, but he’ll keep his mouth shut or be stuck penniless in a muddy ditch in the wilds of Devonshire by tomorrow night.”
She smiled at him, brilliantly and with a touch of laughter, and Alex felt the blood in his chest surge through him in an explosion of lust. He’d not thought he could get any harder, but she proved him wrong. Again.
“You are so goddamned beautiful,” he said gruffly, as her hands slipped beneath her dressing gown and she began to roll down the stocking. “And a tease too.”
“I didn’t think there’d be much playing once I touched you, and I thought you’d like this. Don’t you?” Johna asked innocently.
“Finish it, Johna, or I’m going to explode all over the sheets instead of where you want me to.”
He couldn’t believe it, but her smile became even more glorious. At least she hurried along the second stocking, and let them fall to the floor, her hands going to the front of the dressing gown. She even walked toward him as she unbuttoned it, until it gaped down to her navel.
Alex had to close his eyes when she shrugged it off her shoulders and let it slide to the floor. He’d spent years with her in his head, and none of those endless fantasies that ended with his hand between his legs had ever been as satisfying as this taunting, compelling woman before him. His woman.
When he opened them, his eyes fixed on her in an unrelenting stare. She was stunning, and her hands were rising to her hair, pulling out the pins that held it to her head. Her eyes were hidden by the dim light of the moon and the single candle burning beside the bed, but he could see her stretched arms shaking while she picked at the pins.
Her hair fell even as her hands came away from her head. Hardly conscious of her nudity, she stepped elegantly to the dresser to deposit her pins on its surface, and he caught his breath at the vision of lush skin and golden hair before him.
“You are perfection,” he hauled in a breath, the stump of his arm holding him up as his fingers dug into his thigh.
She turned to look at him, her breathing shallow, and his eyes swept upward from the gleaming moisture on the curls between her legs to the hard, proud nipples and upward to her eyes.
“Come to me, Johna,” he whispered. “Come to me, my angel.”
She blinked and her arms opened, and her anxious mouth transformed to a pure joyful smile, and she came to him at a near run. He caught her as she launched onto the bed and they tumbled together in a tangle of limbs and mouths and kisses.