Cornwall, March 1810
The transition from sleep to wakefulness was so sudden it was almost painful. A surge of nameless fear pumped through him. Muttering an oath, Mallory Claeg attempted to rise, but something anchored him to the bed.
Bracing himself on his elbows, he glanced down at his forgotten companion. Even asleep, his current mistress, Mrs. Carissa Le Maye, kept him securely manacled to her side. The telling action would have angered her. Twice widowed, she had garnered a rather unladylike reputation for seducing and carelessly discarding her lovers.
Mallory had made her acquaintance when her last lover had commissioned him to paint a portrait to immortalize her beauty. At their first meeting, the naughty gleam in her eyes foretold they would be lovers before he finished her picture. Always serious about his work, he had intended to behave himself until he concluded the task. A sensual and playful hussy, she had ignored his gentle rebuffs. While her much older protector awaited her return in the comfort of Mallory's drawing room, Mrs. Le Maye had boldly unbuttoned his breeches, cupped his testicles, and slid his engorged manhood into her eager mouth. He had climaxed almost immediately, surprised by her aggressiveness and creativity. Their first encounter had established a routine that lasted for weeks.Instead of discarding Lord Quercus, she had insisted that the gentleman escort her to every sitting. It had given her a perverse pleasure to rut with Mallory like an insatiable animal on the sofa while her other lover was just beyond the door. The risk of getting caught elevated their passion, and Mallory had been fascinated enough with her beauty and body to permit the lady her games.
Those games ended when he finished her portrait. In her typical manner, she had told the fifty-year-old earl that she was bored tutoring him in the bed. She offered her portrait as a remembrance of what he had lost and suggested that someone younger might be more forgiving. The gentleman paid Mallory his commission and quietly departed with his possession.
Carissa Le Maye was a dreadfully heartless woman, Mallory thought, grinning affectionately down at her. Sleep seemed to enhance her beauty. Her face devoid of artificial adornment made her appear younger than her twenty-nine years. The fact her eyes were closed helped in the illusion. Whenever she focused her direct brandy-hued gaze on him, he noticed the cynical edge and polish of experience. Most of her lovers, himself included, were dazzled enough by her beauty and earthy lust to overlook such a tiny flaw. However, Mallory was not foolish enough to fall in love with the likes of Carissa Le Maye. He shuddered at the ridiculous notion. A tigress in and out of bed, she would devour the tasty morsel of a man's heart without hesitation and leave him bleeding. The artist in Mallory began sketching the image in his head.
"Mon cher," Carissa murmured sleepily, nuzzling against him. "Again, you rogue?"
They were a fair match in bed, Mallory silently admitted. He was enjoying their affair immensely, and her exotic dark looks stirred the artist in him. He tensed as she placed her hand on his stomach. Already his body started to react to her musky scent; his mind could imagine her expression whenhe entered her. Mallory shook the image from his head. "I did not intend to wake you. I thought I might take advantage of the morning light and sketch the cliffs." He needed to put distance between them before she claimed more than he could spare of himself.
She rolled toward him and allowed her hand to stroke his growing erection. "Mmm ... this does not feel like a desire to sketch." Her eyes were half-closed, giving her the appearance of a pleasure lady.
"Not now, Carissa," he snapped, feeling that his stance was already weakening as her hand slipped lower.
"You and your temper do not frighten me, mon cher."
She pushed him on his back and he found himself responding to the sultry expression she affected. Allowing the sheet to slide down to her waist, she straddled him. Gloriously naked, he unwillingly cupped her breasts with both hands. She rolled her eyes back in pleasure as he slipped inside her and used her inner muscles to squeeze his rigid manhood.
"You may sketch your boring cliffs," she said imperiously, her black hair tickling his face, "but not now." She moved up and down the length of him, proving her power over him.
The organ she wanted to engage was not the heart. Relieved, all his thoughts about escaping faded. Tightening his hands on her hips, Mallory spent the next pleasurable hour showing Carissa that her perception of control was simply an illusion.
Brook Meylan, Countess of A'Court, was too occupied in planning a tactful retreat from the morning room to bother with the pretense of eating. A mindless exercise, the crisp linen on her lap had been transformed into an unrecognizable contortion, while she maintained a polite mask of interest for her guests. Guests who had arrived uninvited five days earlier, trespassing upon her solitude. The fact that she was related to the lot was inconsequential.
"I miss London," her half sister, Ivy, moaned, although it had not affected her appetite. She had just turned fifteen and was anticipating her come-out ball. "It is too quiet here. I have not heard the sound of a single carriage since our arrival. Your closest neighbor must be a day's journey from here and, just my rotten luck, older than Mrs. Byres." She winced at her mother's glowering disapproval. Swallowing the poached egg she had been chewing, Ivy sent the elderly woman an apologetic smile. "No offense intended, madam."
"None assumed, dearie," Brook's deceased husband's grandmother assured her sister. "I am very old."
Mrs. Byres's dry comment elevated the warmth of the room. Brook's mother smiled at her husband, Mr. Ludlow, who was attempting to conceal his chuckle behind his hand. Their children demonstrated no such restraint. Ivy's gaze locked with that of her older brother, Tye, and they burst with laughter. The baby of the family, thirteen-year-old Honey, mimicked her older siblings, joining in with an infectious giggle that forced a reluctant smile even from Brook.
A quick glance at Lyon's mother quelled Brook's brief spark of mirth. The elder Lady A'Court found little amusing in life and considered most spontaneous displays a vulgarity. The slight compression of her thin lips made Brook feel as if she had swallowed her knotted table linen.
"If you had not lost my son's heir, we would have reason for celebration. My grandson would have been born this month."
Brook abruptly stood at her mother-in-law's calm announcement while the butler served the older woman her morning hot chocolate.
"Oh, Lady A'Court," her mother said, uncertain who was more deserving of her comfort.
"Madam, I ..." Brook's mind blanked of any polite defense she could have made. Mortified, she glanced helplessly at her table companions. Mrs. Byres, too familiar with herdaughter's rants, continued to eat her meal undisturbed. Brook's family returned her stare with varying degrees of discomfort. Honey had the audacity to giggle.
Sipping her chocolate primly, her mother-in-law dismissed Brook's silence with a flick of her wrist. "Keep your own counsel. Countless apologies will never heal a grieving mother's heart." Burdened with the pain of loss, she bowed her head and shuddered.
Relieved the two women had solved her awkward dilemma, Mrs. Ludlow left her seat and embraced the older woman. "There, there, madam," she crooned. "We both shoulder the sadness of our tragic loss." She discreetly gestured for Brook to leave.
Her eyes filled and blinded her. "Let it not be said that I tarried where I am clearly not wanted!" Brook slapped her knotted linen onto her chair.
Her stepfather, Mr. Ludlow, stood, attempting to soothe her hurt feelings. "Brook, my dear, there is no need to add to the dramatics."
"Sir, I respectfully disagree."
Passing the footman in the doorway, she ordered him to stand aside so she could slam the door.
"'Keep my own counsel,'" Brook mimicked; her black cloak flapped about in her agitation. Too hurt and angry to be reasonable, she had remained in the house long enough to collect her cloak and departed without a word to anyone. The beautiful scenery she rushed past was perceived as a colorful blur, but she had traversed this course a thousand times. She did not require her sight to find her way.
Open meadow was swallowed up by a grove, which thinned as soil was replaced by rock. The higher she climbed, the more barren the landscape became. Only pockets of wild grasses and flowering weeds brought color to the edge of her world.
Panting slightly, she widened her stance instinctively asshe peered over the edge down at the churning sea below. She could not explain to anyone the lure of the cliffs when there were prettier aspects to the land she claimed as her own. To the left beyond her view there was a narrow path that descended to a small cove. On warmer days, she might have walked along the water's edge or enjoyed a sea bath in one of the tidal pools that were hewn from the rock by one of her father's ancestors. Today she was content to remain aloft and brood.
"A mother's grieving heart," she scoffed, stomping her foot with enough force to send a spray of sand and pebbles over the edge. She clenched her right hand into a fist and pounded her chest. "What of my grief? My heart?" she raged at the thundering sea below. "I have been left with nothing." Brook took a deep breath, feeling the cold wind pull at her skirts, coaxing her closer to the edge. She resisted the seductive tug and closed her eyes. "What more must I sacrifice before they are all appeased?"
The next gust of wind struck her, stealing her breath. She took a hasty step forward in an attempt to keep her balance. A reply to her question did not float down from the heavens on the fickle wind. Brook stood alone, already feeling the oppressive weight of the truth. Her sins were too great. There would be no peace for her in this life.
Mallory had been drawn to the intriguing vision of the lone woman in black challenging the sea he had glimpsed while searching for a location to sit and sketch. He had been too far away to hear her words, but her gestures were violent and poignant. He would have left her undisturbed if the silly creature had not been determined to kill herself. As he dropped his sketching book and small box of supplies, his quick stride erupted into a full run when he realized she was fighting the wind for her balance.
He caught her arm and spun her toward the safety of firmerland. The momentum sent both of them falling. It was too late to be noble. The woman landed on her back with him on top of her. He grunted, taking the brunt of the fall on his forearms. Gazing down at her ashen face, he adjusted his initial impression that she was an older woman. The lady underneath him was quite lovely and familiar. He blamed the unflattering black she was bundled in for his error. She was short in stature. Grief had whittled her slender frame, enhancing her fragility. Even tragedy could not steal her beauty.
She pushed him away and he willingly rolled off her. "Are you mad, sir, or simply drunk?" she demanded in a trembling voice. Still shaken by the encounter, she remained seated on the ground.
"Neither. I was sparing your family the grief of searching for your broken body this afternoon amidst the rocks below," he said, irritated that his heroism was perceived as lunacy.
Her anger changed to stunned outrage. "I was not--I could not." She gazed weakly at the edge before struggling to her feet.
Mallory measured the doubt he noticed in her eyes in silence. He only allowed her a moment to deduce her legs were still too wobbly for the grace he had always attributed to her. "Here. Take my hand, my lady."
He pulled her roughly onto her feet. To make certain she was paying attention, he tightened his grip on her arm until she winced. "No trouble is worth casting yourself into the sea." He released her and put a respectable distance between them.
"I was not throwing myself off the cliff. The notion sounds painful, not to mention messy. I will have you know that I walk here daily and am quite familiar with the dangers--" She broke off, realizing she was explaining herself to someone she considered an underling. She shivered as the wind buffeted them. The spring air had put a healthy bloom on her cheeks. "Besides, what would you know about me or my troubles?"
He gave her a slow, roguish grin. "Well, Countess, the answer to that particular question might take some time. Why don't you let me escort you home and I will make my confession over a pot of tea?"
Mallory was quite used to women who acquiesced to his dictates without question. It was a rather novel experience to observe that his limitless charm had altered her expression from mistrust to blatant hostility.
"Who are you, sir?"
He mockingly patted the imaginary wound over his heart. "Why, Lady A'Court, your forgetfulness smites a lethal clout on my self-love. During your absence from London, have you forgotten your old friends?"
She glanced away at the mention of London. "I have few friends in town these days, sir, and you are not one of them."
"Perhaps not," he acquiesced. "We, however, are connected by friendship. A lady in your position should be basking in the affection of her companions." He let his gaze roam the bleak landscape. "Not praying for an early death in the remoteness of Cornwall."
"Who sent you?" she demanded with unexpected bluntness.
Surprised by her intensity and the impact of her blue gaze focused on him, Mallory shifted his stance and concealed his visceral reaction to her proximity with a grin. "Such ferocity! Dear madam, you make me want to confess everything, but alas, only my selfish pleasures have brought me to you."
She blinked at the double entendre, uncertain if it was deliberate. "You claim you know me."
"Indeed. I believe you once honored me with a dance at your come-out ball. There were so many admirers that evening, I could hardly fault you for not recalling." He offered his arm, wanting to get her away from the cliff and out of the cold before her teeth began to chatter. "You mentioned tea."
"You mentioned tea," she countered. "As well as plungingfrom cliffs, forgotten acquaintances, selfish pleasures, and a ball I barely remember. I warrant you have spoken more words than I have in the past week. Do you ever hush?"
Mallory sat down on a nearby flat stone and laughed, enjoying the way her brow wrinkled in exasperation. Whatever her intentions before he had gained her attention, he was satisfied that the dark moment has passed. "Occasionally, my lady. I treasure the awakening colors of dawn, the sound of the wind rattling the windows, spring and the new life it yields. When I awaken each morning, I lie abed listening to the soft breathing of my lover and savor the warmth of our embrace. I expect I appreciate my moments of silence like any other man."
She made a choking sound that she quickly muffled with her gloved hand. It was terribly mischievous to speak so boldly, yet the widow sparked something in him. Her reactions were too charming to resist.
Clearing her throat, she said, "My mother always said that rudeness begets rudeness, and she is correct. Regardless of your playful objections, you are a stranger to me, sir, and my speech was most forward. Please accept my apologies."
"No," he said, shaking his head. "No, I do not believe I will." He crossed his arms, awaiting her response.
"Y-You must!" she stuttered, flustered by his refusal. She started pacing in her agitation. "No gentleman ever leaves a lady obligated."
Briefly an image of Carissa flickered in his mind. "I have never been one for polite rules, Countess."
Noticing his enjoyment, she stopped and sighed. "You are teasing me."
"Beautiful ladies are always so much fun to tease." He stood and clasped her elbows lightly when her expression blanked. "You are supposed to smile when a gentleman gives you a compliment."
"I have tarried too long. My family is expecting me," shesaid in a breathy rush, finally noticing their close proximity.
"And what of your expectations?"
"I have none. Good day, sir." She stepped out of his embrace and turned to leave.
"My name!" he shouted to her departing figure.
She hesitated at his words.
"Claeg. Mr. Mallory Claeg. I believe you claim my younger sister, Amara, as one of the few friends you have left in London."
He had truly managed to shake her with his announcement. Something akin to shame moistened her gaze. "You do your sister no favor by connecting our names. In remembrance of old friendships, I beg of you to forget that we ever met."
Watching her hasty retreat, Mallory crouched down to retrieve his abandoned sketching book and supplies he had dropped earlier. Well, well, who would believe he and the pretty widow would be sharing secrets? Forget? He rose, brushing off some grit that clung to his left knee. "Not bloody likely!"
Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Pierce.