Authors: Bryn Donovan
“As you wish, Mr. Creighton,” she said. “I was thinking you could use a little more practice in the art of kissing.”
His look darkened; half-irritated, half-amused. “Oh, yes?”
“Yes.” She sat down on the worn velvet sofa where the model posed earlier. “So we may kiss and touch wherever we like...but no clothing is to be removed.” She gave him a warning look as she said the last words.
His face took on a knowing expression. Genevieve could imagine him thinking: “We’ll play by your rules a little longer. But we both know that I can have you at any time.”
“Very well,” was all he said.
He sat down next to her, took her by the shoulders and kissed her mouth.
She kissed back. His lips were commanding, insistent, coaxing her mouth to part under his.
So good. She felt relief as she sank deep into the sensation. He put a strong arm around her, supporting her and drawing her nearer. Pulled against his chest, Genevieve found she longed to feel her skin against his. Then she remembered that was exactly what she’d forbidden.
As if in compensation, his fingers, warm and slightly rough, stroked at the delicate skin of her décolletage. Her back arched. He’d know how much she liked that, she realized.
He broke off their melting kiss to lower his head and trail kisses from throat to collarbone and yet lower. Genevieve took in a sharp breath as his open mouth grazed the top of her breast, just above the bodice.
Another ravenous kiss on the side of her neck brought a soft cry from her lips. The sensation sparked her desire, and every part of her being flooded with heat.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
An Experienced Mistress
2009 by Bryn Donovan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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First English Tea Rose Edition, 2010
Print ISBN 1-60154-756-0
Published in the United States of America
To G…the love of my life…
who also happens to be
a brilliant editor.
London, March 1855
The carriage pulled up to the Tudburys’ stately townhouse and Will Creighton stepped out.
He wore his best frock coat, which was only appropriate for a long-awaited reunion with one’s fiancée. His trousers were loose, but he had cinched them up by boring another hole in the belt. He supposed he looked presentable enough, particularly for someone who just returned to his native soil after two years away fighting in the Crimean War.
As he walked up to the front door, he rubbed his chin. It had been a long time since he’d been without a beard. His regiment had stopped shaving altogether; with their frozen hands, they’d nearly cut themselves to pieces in the attempt. But Will always recalled how, one warm evening on a moonlit terrace, Miss Tudbury had told him that she liked his clean-shaven appearance.
Stranger to him than the smooth jaw was the feel of his left hand against it. He was not yet accustomed to the fact that his two smallest fingers were missing above the first knuckle. The bandages came off while he was still on the transport ship, several days ago.
He considered himself fortunate. As badly frostbitten as he’d been, he and everyone else expected that he would lose the whole hand. But the physician on board the ship managed a less drastic amputation. The other fingers, blackened only at the tips, were now healed.
Will paused at the front door. Strange to think of seeing Violet Tudbury again.
They’d enjoyed several private conversations after her coming-out, and become secretly engaged before he left for the war. Last month, while he was still overseas, he received a letter from her in which she indicated her feelings and intentions remained the same.
In the brief and somewhat odd letter, Miss Tudbury described what had been served at a dinner-party. She made no inquiries after Will’s well-being. He supposed that this was because ladies were innocent of the realities of war.
Their engagement was secret. Violet felt certain that her father would object because Will would be off at war for such a long time.
Will remained faithful to her. He’d not been an especially virtuous man before he started to court her, but once he made a promise, he honored it.
In truth, in that wretched place, there were only a handful of opportunities—and even fewer temptations—to do otherwise. The nurses were impervious to the questionable charms of the filthy, ailing soldiers. And the prostitutes drawn to such a sorry regiment seemed not so much desirable as pitiable. Occasionally he gave one a coin or two, but never for services rendered.
Will rapped on the door and waited. He’d often wondered whether he would make it back to London. The cholera struck worse than the enemy, the hunger, or even the cold. He was one of a handful of survivors from a regiment once a thousand strong.
The door opened. A maid Will didn’t remember looked up at him.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning. I am here to call on Miss Tudbury.”
“And your name, sir?”
Recognition dawned in the woman’s eyes. Will’s father and Mr. Tudbury were fast friends, and the Creighton patriarch was a baronet—a wealthy one, at that. “Come in, sir, come in!”
Will removed his hat as he stepped into the polished parquet-floored hall.
“Though I shall have to ask my lady if it’s quite proper, you know. The girl’s first ball ain’t until tomorrow night.”
“First ball?” Will then realized that she meant Violet’s younger sister Daisy. Good Lord, she was coming out already. He remembered her as a mere child.
“You misunderstand me,” Will said. “I mean to call on Miss Violet Tudbury.”
“Oh, mercy! Begging your pardon, sir. I should’ve known it was a wedding visit.”
“What?” Had Miss Tudbury spoken of their engagement, after all?
“Of course, it ain’t Miss Tudbury now, it’s Mrs. Simms.”
“Mrs. Simms,” Will repeated.
“Yes. I will just go see whether she and Mr. Simms are available.”
Will’s mind strained to make sense of this. “Mr. and Mrs. Simms live here?”
“Oh, no, sir. They have a house of their own, in Belgrave Square. But they are here now. She’s helping her sister get ready for the season.” The servant looked uncomfortable, as if realizing she talked too much. “Come into the drawing room, if you please, and I will go look for them.”
Will watched, dumbfounded, as the maid bustled off.
Miss Tudbury was now Mrs. Simms?
Surely there was yet another misunderstanding.
Will stiffened as he heard male laughter from the other room. Then Miss Tudbury entered on the arm of a baby-faced man.
Miss Tudbury—no, Mrs. Simms—did not look quite as Will remembered, though he couldn’t have said how she’d changed. She wore an ordinary blue printed day dress, her blonde hair arranged under a frilly lace cap. The expression on her face looked strained, mouth pinched.
The man relinquished his hold on the woman Will thought loved him in order to extend a hand. “Mr. Creighton, is it? Bartholomew Simms. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.”
Will knew he glared at the man, even as he moved to shake his hand. Mr. Simms had a fatuous smile on his face. The milksop.
Will hadn’t misunderstood. He’d been pushed aside. Thrown over, just like that. But no matter what, he refused to look the fool.
“I wish to offer you both my congratulations,” he told the man coldly.
“Ah—firm handshake.” Simms gave a rueful laugh, and Will realized he’d nearly crushed the man’s hand. “Much obliged for your visit—very kind.”
Clearly, this sudden new husband never heard of Will before that morning. He seemed oblivious to Will’s barely checked anger.
“My wife was just telling me that you had been abroad?” Simms said.
Will cleared his throat. “In a matter of speaking. I was away at war.”
“Good gracious. How dreadfully exciting.”
“Yes. Quite.” Maintaining every shred of composure, Will straightened his cravat.
The shock of Mr. Simms and his wife was almost a palpable thing. Both of them at once noticed his damaged hand. Will was sure he saw a look of revulsion pass across Miss Tudbury’s face before she concealed it.
Will almost tasted his own bitterness. For weeks, months, he’d barely kept it in check; now it nearly choked him. “I shan’t detain you,” he said. “I understand you are readying for your sister’s first ball.”
“Yes, yes.” Mr. Simms seemed to leap upon this conventional topic of conversation. “Such preparations!”
“Mr. Creighton, shall I introduce you to my sister?” Mrs. Simms spoke at last.
He stared at her. Did she think she could assuage her guilt by offering up her younger sibling like a consolation prize? “I think not,” he snapped.
But even as the words left his mouth, he saw something move outside the door. The figure of a girl—a flash of blonde hair—disappearing out of sight.
The younger sister herself, Will was sure. Damn! He’d no intention of hurting the girl’s feelings.
Mr. Simms seemed to fumble for something to say. Will spared him the effort. “Good day to you both.” He turned on his heel and left the drawing room.
Mrs. Simms caught up with him at the front door. “Mr. Creighton.”
He spun to face her. “What is it?”
She was alone now and flinched at his anger. “You forgot your hat,” she said, offering it to him.
He snatched it out of her hand. “You might have written of this,” he said in an icy undertone.
“What?” Her pretty face looked genuinely confused. “You mean of Mr. Simms?” she asked softly.
What else could he possibly mean? “I applaud your understanding, madam.”
“But I did!” Her fair brows drew together in consternation. “Heaven and earth, Mr. Creighton, did you not receive my letter?”
“The last letter I received was from January. You spoke only of the Watson’s dinner-party, and how you tried champagne for the first time. Didn’t like it.”
She looked completely dumbfounded. “But, Mr. Creighton, that party...that was more than a year ago. The winter before last.”
It hadn’t occurred to Will that a letter could be delivered that late.
“I see. Good day, Mrs. Simms.”
“Mr. Creighton. I am so very sorry—”
“Pray do not trouble yourself,” Will said with perfect
. “I assure you it is no great matter to me. Good day.” He put on his hat and strode out the door.
Will glared out the carriage window. He realized, to his surprise, that he wasn’t exactly heartbroken. But he fumed with anger.
Didn’t he deserve to have a woman to welcome him home? Someone to confide in, someone who understood him? Someone for whom he felt passion...and who, perhaps, returned it in equal measure?
Now that he’d seen Violet Tudbury again, he wondered if she could have ever been that person. She seemed almost a stranger to him, and he didn’t think it was because she was now out of his reach.
Had he just been deluded to imagine that kind of connection could exist between a man and a woman?
This actually seemed likely. He knew of no one personally with such a relationship. Perhaps he’d needed to cling to a romantic schoolboy notion to get through the last couple of years. But he could discard it now.
How strange to be back. It felt as though when he left, the space he occupied had simply closed up, as though he’d never been there.
Well, he had his friends, at least. Will reached into the pocket of his coat, drew out the letter that had waited for him the day before. He reread the few lines written in a bold, sweeping hand.
Hail the Conquering Hero. Jack and I are prepared to drink several toasts to your return. Dinner at Boodle’s at eight on Tuesday, unless you say otherwise. Coventry.
He would enjoy high spirits, and strong spirits, with them again.
He could forget about the mess with Violet. If he had one thing to be grateful for, it was that their engagement had been a secret one. What a simpleton he’d have looked if everyone knew about the business!
Will never could bear to look foolish. Of course, it was a lady’s prerogative to change her mind, but it still would have affected how people saw him. Now, his dignity remained intact.
He was done with romantic delusions. His dreams of fighting for his country brought him nothing but disaster. And his dreams of true love—the very phrase made him ill—heaped humiliation on top of it.
Would he ever marry? He supposed eventually he would. The younger Miss Tudbury was a possibility. He remembered that she’d always been spoken of as “such a good girl.”
But he was in no hurry to do what Society expected of him.
He hadn’t even touched a woman in ages.
What he wanted most at the moment was not something any “good girl” could provide.
“Will, old fellow!” Jack Boldridge got up from the table—the same table they always sat at in the club. “How good it is to see you again!”
As Will greeted him, he felt for the first time that he was home.
If only Ben had made it home, too. He belonged there. They were not complete without him.
Jack pounded Will on the back. He looked the same as always, with his wild shock of blond hair, crooked nose and sleepy smile. “Good God, man. You’ve been wasting away.”
Coventry came around the table to shake Will’s hand. “Nonsense. He looks strong as an ox.” Coventry stood very tall, a fashionable man with a face that usually conveyed intelligence and irony. Now genuine affection glinted in his gray eyes. “Sit down, will you, and have a drink.”
“We’ve already ordered a roast and some Yorkshire pudding,” Jack added, as the men settled into leather chairs in the spacious dining room.
“Excellent house you found,” Will said to Coventry.
His friend had seen to finding him a townhouse. Will knew he’d have been satisfied with any habitable living quarters, but Coventry was known for good taste: the rooms, with its flocked wallpaper and heavy mahogany furnishings, were eminently respectable, in a respectable neighborhood. Will’s father’s butler, Babbage, had been sent to ready the place prior to Will’s arrival.
“I’m glad you like it,” Coventry said. “Of course, it’s only leased for the month—you can always move if you wish.”
Will shook his head. “I’m sure I’ll be comfortable.” He’d only be there till the end of the Season, when he would take up residence in the country house left to him some years ago by a bachelor uncle.
Jack raised his glass. “To William Creighton, war hero,” he proposed, loud enough to make the gentlemen at the next table look over.
Will wished his friends would stop saying
. “And to Ben, God rest his soul,” he said.
“Hear, hear,” Coventry said in a more subdued tone. The men clinked and then drained their glasses. Some moments of silence followed.