Excerpt: A License to Wed
Book 2: Rebellious Brides
Temptation was a bitch that went for the jugular in the form of his best friend’s little sister.
Lady Elinor Dunsmore giggled as she stumbled ahead of him, gripping a champagne bottle in one hand. Not a good sign, that. They both had already had too much to drink. The snowy layers of her ball gown floated around her endless legs, her lithe ballerina’s form drifting ghostlike in the light breeze.
Gulping air into his lungs, Will Naismith went after her, ever alert to the underlying scent of danger hovering in the summer air. Neither of them was steady on their feet thanks to the copious amounts of champagne they’d consumed to mark the occasion of her eighteenth birthday. He’d learned long ago to never let his guard down in her company, but this evening he felt looser and less contained; being around her was somehow less painful.
Eighteen. A woman full grown. It was hard to believe little Elle was no longer a girl. He’d first noted her ripening appeal two summers ago…when, to his shock and surprise, the benign affection he felt for her began to sharpen into something far more urgent and heated, and far less wholesome and innocent.
She halted abruptly ahead of him and turned to beckon with a wave of her slim, elegant hand. “Come on then, before anyone notices that we are missing.”
“This is unwise.” Will paused, glancing back to see if they’d been noticed, but the couples strolling on the lawn seemed more intent on each other than anything else. Behind them, Langtry House glittered as if a thousand stars twinkled from within, the lively tune played by local musicians streamed from the open windows, adding cheer to the dark summer evening.
Ever indulgent, the Marquess of Aldridge had spared no expense for his only daughter’s eighteenth birthday. The tables were laid out with all manner of food—geese, quail and wild rabbits, plum puddings and raspberry tarts—and the champagne flowed freely. Perhaps too freely considering the pleasant humming in Will’s head.
“Come back.” He tried again. Going off alone together when they were both feeling warm and boozy had disaster written all over it. “It isn’t polite to leave the party when you are the guest of honor.”
“It is my birthday,” she said, not bothering to turn around or slow her gait, “and if I want a few moments of fresh air than I shall have it.”
He had no choice but to follow. He couldn’t very well leave her alone in the dark, especially since he couldn’t be certain of how much champagne she’d consumed. They stumbled down the grassy slope toward the edge of the pond, where the humid air caused the lenses of his spectacles to fog. He drew them off, placing them in the pocket of his tailcoat.
She dropped the champagne into the grass and sank down beside it, her gown forming afrothy puddle around her, and kicked off her silk slippers, one after the other.
His pulse jumped at the sight of her slender ankles. “Whatever are you doing?”
“I’m hot. I’m going for a swim.” She pulled up her skirt, baring long, shapely limbs, and began to roll down her stockings.
Desire, quick and potent as lightning, jolted through him. “Are you mad? Stop that at once.”
She rose to her feet, giving him her back. “Undo my buttons.”
He stepped back. “Why not?” The words were soaked in sarcasm. “And immediately afterwards I’ll run myself through with a saber to spare your brother the trouble of having to do so himself.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Oh, very well.” She giggled and plunged into the water,dress and all.
“Elinor!” Disbelief and alarm spun through him. She was liable to drown under the weight of all that fabric. He tore off his tailcoat and waist coat and struggled out of his boots. Since he couldn’t afford a valet, and therefore regularly dressed and undressed himself, he made quick work of it before scrambling into the water after her.
Her husky laughter peeled into the night as she splashed ahead of him. “Oh my, thisgown is heavier than I thought.”
He kicked hard, reaching her in a few strong strokes, and pulled her into his arms. The water was cool, but she was warm and pliant in his embrace. “Hold on,” he grumbled. “I’ll get you back before one of us catches our death or that gown drags you under for good.”
“My hero,” she declared, wrapping both arms around his neck. The damp summery smell of the water mingled with the scent of violets. “You should be properly rewarded.” She pressed a kiss against his lips.
Caught by surprise, he wasn’t able to steel himself. Once that sweet mouth touched his, the most primal part of him instinctively captured and held it. She murmured a wondering sound as his lips gently explored hers with subtle presses and tiny nips. Fire blasted through his veins. Her lips were supple and giving and he easily could have lost himself in them.
He broke the kiss with an abrupt jerk of his head. “I beg your pardon,” he rasped, chagrined at his inexcusable loss of control. “That was an unforgivable lapse on my part.”
“I think I could manage to forgive you.” The moonlight sprinkled a blue-gray light across her refined features, where he could see the mischief glinting in her eyes. She feathered her fingertips down his exposed throat. “If you are willing to pay the proper penance.”
Pleasure shuddered through him. He reared back, away from her provocative touch. “We’ve been through this before,” he said sharply. “You are no longer a little girl with a tendre for her older brother’s friend. This is no game.”
“I agree. Games are entertaining. Your continued resistance is not,” she said easily. “My feelings are no childish whim. I wanted to marry you as a girl and I still want to be your wife now.”
Frustration broiled in his belly. She spoke of impossibilities. Dreams of connubial bliss were a lark to a cosseted young girl who’d never experienced life’s harsher realities.
“And, as it’s my birthday,” she continued, “I think you should accede to my wishes.”
With that declaration, she snuggled closer to him. The sweet, piercing sensation of her delicate breasts pressed into his chest made him inhale sharply. Then, to make matters worse, she leaned in and rubbed her lips against his, the insistent movement demanding a response. His self control shattered.
She tasted sweet and supple, everything a woman should be. He should stop, but a febrile madness overtook all rational thought. Just this once, before she went to London and had her Season and was forever lost to him, he allowed himself the momentary indulgence of savoring her as he’d always wanted.
He wordlessly encouraged her to part her lips and when she did, he tasted her fully, the intimacy indulging all of his senses. The sweetness of her lips and soft press of her body against his scorched his heart. The pond might as well have been a steaming cauldron of water.
They dragged each other out of the water without breaking their physical connection, which suddenly seemed as necessary to life as breathing. He fell onto the damp grass and pulled her down atop of him, his body hard and aching for her. All reason deserted him and he could think of nothing but her honeyed lips and pliant feminine form. Elle was the only girl he’d ever wanted and for this one stolen moment, she belonged to him. He rolled on top, tucking her lissome form snuggly beneath his.
She kissed him hungrily, her hands urgently seeking the bare skin under his shirt. Desperate for her touch, he reared back and tugged the damp linen over his head, tossing it away. She urged him to her, running her fingers over his back and their tongues tangled again.
“You are so warm,” she whispered against his plundering lips. “So perfect.”
As he ravaged her mouth, one last remnant of sense clawed at him, imploring him to stop before it was too late. The warning blasted somewhere deep in his brain and somehow managed to drop anchor in his fevered mind. He stole a few more hot desperate kisses before reluctantly dragging himself away.
Breathing hard, he scooted far back from her, as if he could ever put enough distance between them to keep her safe. Elle uttered a sound of protest at his abandonment and made as if to follow him.
“No. Do not.” He held out a staying hand to keep her at bay. “We have to stop.” His heart drummed so hard he could hardly breathe. “This is wrong.” He glanced wildly around for his shirt, which he spotted in a tangled damp heap where he’d tossed it too close to the water. He left it there, not relishing the prospect of cold, wet linen against his bare flesh.
She stilled and eyed him speculatively, her appreciative gaze traversing his bared chest, looking like a crouching feline preparing to pounce. He immediately regretted not making himself decent. But after a tense moment, she just shrugged and reached for the champagne bottle she’d carelessly dropped into the grass. She popped the top with more skill and efficiency than a girl of her age and class should, and upended the bottle against her lips. She took a long swig, the pale chords of her throat working as she swallowed.
“Where did you learn to drink like that?” he asked, alarmed, when she finally came up for air.
She grinned and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “There are many things you don’t know about me anymore, Will Naismith.”
“Perhaps you should visit more often.” It was an admonishment on her part. She’d no doubt noticed that he’d absented himself, no longer spending every school holiday and summer with her brother Cosmo here at Langtry, the family’s Dorset estate by the coast. He’d invented plausible reasons to decline the invitations, anything to avoid spending weeks at Langtry in her company. He no longer trusted himself with Elle. She was the daughter of a marquess and he, a bastard born and bred, was not for the likes of her and never could be.
She held the champagne. “Join me.”
He shook his head. “I think we’ve both had enough.” He tried to grab the bottle from her but she snatched it back before he could.
“It’s my birthday and I’ve a right to indulge.” She sipped more delicately from the bottle.
Suddenly remembering her gift, he reached for his jacket. “I have something to give you.”
“Finally.” Her answering smile was both teasing and wicked as she leered at his bare torso again. “Are you finally giving me what I truly want?”
He pulled a cool metal coin from his pocket and dropped it into her open palm. “Happy birthday.”
She eyed the disc’s uneven edges and greenish film. “What is it?”
“An ancient coin.” The aquiline profile on the metal piece was of a woman holding an infant. “The likeness you see engraved upon it is of Cleopatra, the great Egyptian queen.”
“Is that a baby she’s holding?”
“Yes, her son Caesarion. Named after Julius Caesar and possibly his son, but Caesar never officially acknowledged him.”
“How sad.” Her brows furrowed as she scrutinized the coin. “What is it made of?”
“Bronze.” He had no idea if the offering appealed to her; he’d presented her with a prized piece from his growing numismatic collection, but for all he knew, it might just be a moldering piece of metal to her.
“How extraordinary. It’s as if I’m holding a piece of history in my hands.” She looked up, her exquisite face radiant. “Thank you. I shall treasure it always.”
Something constricted in his chest at her innate understanding of the appeal of ancient coins. She tucked his gift into the V of her bodice and for a moment he envied the coin’s position against the warmth of her skin, settled between her breasts.
“We should raise a glass to your gift.” She hoisted the champagne to her lips. “Or raise a bottle rather. Don’t say no again. It would be badly done for a gentleman to allow a lady to drink alone.”
He didn’t feel particularly gentlemanly, not with his molten lust for her simmering inside of him, threatening to overflow. And she looked like anything but a lady with her soaked white gown plastered to her gently curved breasts. He could just make out the dark shadow of her pointed nipples straining against the flimsy fabric. Swallowing hard, he averted his gaze and held out his hand for the bottle.
“Very well. I’ll join you.” If he couldn’t lose himself in her, he might as well find oblivion in drink. He took a long draw, relishing the fizzing burn down his throat.
“Why are you afraid of me?”
He coughed on the liquid. “I don’t fear you.”
“Balderdash,” she declared. “I know you fear the feelings you have for me.”
He cleared his throat. If only her face didn’t look so damn luminous in the moonlight. “You must relinquish this foolish fantasy. You are about to experience your first Season. There is an entire world out there for you to discover.”
“You think my feelings for you are a girlish whim.” She appeared amused rather than upset. “You believe once I’m out in society I’ll suddenly realize that it’s all been a silly infatuation.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Elle was too vitally alive and effervescent to be content with a stolid fellow like him. It was only a matter of time before she reached the same conclusion for herself and turned to someone like Tristan Fitzroy, Viscount Darling, her childhood friend and neighbor, who had impeccable bloodlines and made no secret of his desire to marry Elle. “You are a diamond of the first. Gentleman from the finest families with the highest titles will vie for your attentions. Viscount Darling clearly wishes to make you his wife.”
“Bah,” she said, her incomparable features wrinkling with distaste. “Tristan is like a brother to me. Besides, my affections are already engaged and well you know it.” She tilted her head, saucy and flirtatious. “Must I allow viscounts and dukes and earls to dance attendance upon me before soundly rejecting them to prove myself worthy?”
His lungs ached at the way her clear eyes sparkled at him. She was worth ten of him. A thousand. He took another swig of the bottle. “You will feel differently once you have a better understanding of the ways of the world.”
“Don’t treat me like I’m still in the nursery.” She spoke with uncharacteristic sharpness. “I am well aware that your father wasn’t married to your mother. That’s hardly your fault.”
“Perhaps not.” His face burned to be discussing his low birth with her. “But the world views children born on the wrong side of the blanket in a different light. As the daughter of a marquess, you are expected to marry much higher than me.”
“You are the son of an earl.”
“And my mother was an actress who tread the boards.”
“An actress!” Her face lit up, and delight supplanted her irritated expression. “I never knew that. How exciting.”
Her mercurial nature both mystified and enchanted him. He was strong, steady and dependable, like a work horse that plowed the fields, while she was wondrously ethereal and ever changeable— an earth nymph and vibrant butterfly all rolled into one.
“I can assure you most of the ton would not agree.” He took generous gulp of champagne. “My mother was not considered respectable.”
“Being respectable sounds awfully boring to me.” She leaned forward and the scent of damp, warm woman drifted over to him. “Have you ever watched her perform?”
“No.” He shifted to maintain the physical separation between them. He tried to drink more champagne but was surprised to find the bottle empty. He tossed it to the grass where it landed with a hollow thud. “I never knew her. She deposited me with the earl and moved on with her acting troupe as soon as she was well enough to travel after my birth.”
“We are the same in that way.” He heard the melancholy in her voice. “We never knew our mothers.”
“We are not at all the same in that way,” he said gently, his head swimming a little from the spirits. “My mother chose to abandon me. Your mama loved you, but God took her early. She didn’t want to leave you.”
“Do you really believe that is so?”
“Of course.” Feeling warm and loose, he scooted closer to put an arm around her shoulder and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “No one of sound mind would ever abandon you.”
“I shall always be your friend.”
She shook her head. “You are dissembling. You do your best to avoid me now. It’s been more than a year since I last saw you.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears, all traces of her previous jollity gone. “Please don’t desert me, Will. I couldn’t bear it.”
His chest contracted at the anguish in her gaze. He’d rather stick a dagger in his heart than hurt her. “Oh, Elle. Please don’t make this more difficult—”
She cut him off by leaning forward and fusing her lips to his. This kiss was full of feeling, almost mournful. His heart swelling painfully, he kissed her gently, as if she were a fragile bird.
Her fingers slid across his bare back, scalding his skin. All reason drained away like water through a sieve. Her subtle scent filled his nostrils and her skin was soft and warm beneath his fingers. Consumed with need and desire, he touched the straining tip of her nipple beneath her wet gown. She pulled back and, keeping her gaze level with his, tugged on her bodice, baring herself.
His blood blazed at the sight of her slim torso, pale and perfect, offering herself to him like the most divine of sacrifices. Her small breasts, pointed and upturned, were perfection. He cupped them with both hands and his world narrowed down to the silken feel of her womanly flesh and his unquenchable need to make her his. He lowered his head to taste her, flicking the hard tip of her breast with his tongue.
She sighed with pleasure and whispered in his ear. “Oh Will.” Her breath blew warm against his cheek. “I love you so.”
And he loved her. More than words could express. So he said nothing and eased her gently back onto the damp grass to show her instead.
He had no way of knowing that this first loving of her would also be the last before word of her death came some months later, plunging him into the depths of a despair from which he thought he would never recover.