Authors: Jo Goodman
1- -2- -3- -4- -5- -6- -7- -8- -9-
ONE NIGHT WITH A ROGUE
India turned back the blankets and slid into bed. It was only when she was covered that she removed her shift, drawing it over her head and letting it fall over the side.
South's eyes followed the movement. The fabric brushed his bare calf as it drifted past. He could recall no succession of moments from his past that were filled with such eroticism as India's modest disrobing. His mouth was dry and the words came with some difficulty, hoarse and rough."Unpin your hair."
"Yes. Of course."
He had not meant it as a command. Now he could not make his tongue and lips conform to the word "please." In the darkened bedchamber, her pale hair was its own light, and he would have it framing her face. He could make out each gold and platinum wave as it was released and sifted between her fingertips.
"It will be better if you have few expectations," she whispered.
He bent his head, brushed her mouth with his. Her lips were cool and dry. "Why is that?"
India didn't answer. Couldn't.
South dipped his head again, this time catching the corner of her mouth. The tip of his tongue teased her lips, pressing lightly, tracing the lush pink line. It was all the urging she needed. India's mouth parted. The breath that had snagged in her throat was released in a tiny sigh. This time when he kissed her, she kissed him back
Books by Jo Goodman
THE CAPTAIN'S LADY
PASSION'S SWEET REVENGE
SWEET FIRE WELD SWEET ECSTASY
ROGUE'S MISTRESS FOREVER IN MY HEART ALWAYS IN MY DREAMS
ONLY IN MY ARMS
MY STEADFAST HEART
MY RECKLESS HEART
WITH ALL MY HEART
MORE THAN YOU KNOW
MORE THAN YOU WISHED
LET ME BE THE ONE
EVERYTHING I EVER WANTED
Published by Zebra Books
I EVER WANTED
ZEBRA BOOKS KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
ZEBRA BOOKS are published by
Kensington Publishing Corp. 850 Third Avenue New York, NY 10022
Copyright © 2003 by Joanne Dobrzanski
First Printing: March 2003
Printed in the United States of America
For Lisa, Beth, and Carolyn.
Just like the Compass Club, we go in different directions
and still manage to connect in so many ways.
Good stories. Great laughter. Best friends.
Michelmas Term 1796
It was a trap.
Matthew Forrester, The Right Honorable The Viscount Southerton, had willingly, even eagerly walked into it knowing that. Where would have been the game otherwise? Now, he had assured his friends, all the elements were in place. A challenge. A dare. A wager. And finally, a trap. South refrained from naming it a battle of wits, because the wits were so obviously distributed on his side as to make the entire intrigue a bit of a yawn. Still, it was a jolly good diversion for a Sunday evening.
Only a few months past his eleventh birthday, Matthew could most kindly be described as gangly. His mother said he hadn't come into his hands and feet yet. His father was not pleased to hear it, though it explained his heir's awkwardness well enough. Upon hearing the countess's pronouncement, the earl had wryly regarded his son at the breakfast table while a servant hurriedly cleaned the upended platter of eggs and tomatoes in front of the boy. "Thought it was only his head he hadn't found. Demmed dreamy lad, your boy." His mother had merely smiled at each of them in turn, indulgently at her husband, then encouragingly at her son.
Now, in what he hoped was an attitude of casual, even insolent disregard, Matthew stretched his long frame in the chair set before the tribunal, folding his arms on his thin chest and crossing his feet at the ankles. He had someone in mind as he struck this pose. An acquaintance of his father'sand not the usual sort of young man the earl was likely to know wellMatthew's brief glimpse of the stranger in his father's library had captured his imagination. That man had also struck a pose, though Matthew had not consciously realized it was affected until he found himself in the same position. Dashing. Perhaps a bit dissolute. Daring in the raised chin. (Upon this thought Matthew lifted his chin at the appropriate angle.) And finally, the devil-may-care smile.
"He's grinning like a trout," one of the tribunal members pointed out. "I've had a trout grin like that at me before." He leaned slightly forward until his upper body cast a shadow on the table in front of him, then he looked down from his place on the dais. It was an aggressive overture, neither sly nor subtle. "Just before I filleted it."
There was appreciative laughter among the other four tribunal members, not for what was said but for its immediate effect on the young viscount. Matthew visibly gulped, the smile disappeared, and a directive went out to his arms and legs to come to attention. The chair actually slid several inches to the rear as he forcefully sat up straight and braced his shoulders and spine firmly against the ladder-back.
"Ate it then," the tribunal member went on."Fish never stopped grinning at me."
Matthew didn't blink but stared straight ahead. This had the unfortunate effect of making his light-gray eyes, which had begun to water, seem absent of life and more fishlike than not.
The archbishop raised his hand to halt the laughter. Quiet reigned among the tribunal members as smiles faded along the length of the scarred table. It was time to reflect on the serious business before them.
"Well, Trout?" the head of the Society of Bishops demanded in bored tones.
The dais rumbled as the tribunal laughed as though with a singular voice.
"It's a good name for you," he went on when only a ripple of amusement remained among them, and the fish caught on their line began to wriggle a bit."Do your friends call you Trout?"
Matthew finally blinked. He wanted to wipe his eyes, but he was certain the gesture would be misinterpreted. No one on the Society's tribunal would credit the abundance of lighted tallow candles in the small room as the cause for his watery eyes. He would certainly be damned for all time if they thought he was on the precipice of weeping. Better to be named a fish than a girl.
"Do they, Trout?" There was impatience now from the archbishop. At fourteen he was not older than every other member of the Society who had elected him, but he was unquestionably what they were seeking in a leader. He was a handsome young man who gave no more thought to his bred-in-the-bone confidence than he did to the color of his hair or the shape of his mouth. He was too clever to be cocky, but not wise enough not to be cruel.
"No," Matthew offered simply.
There was a faint rift to the archbishop's brow and a disapproving murmur across the tribunal. "No?"
"No, your Excellency." Matthew had no liking for the form of address the archbishop demanded. His voice quavered slightly. "That is, no, your Excellency, my friends do not call me Trout."
Albion Geoffrey Godwin, Lord Barlough, permitted himself a slim smile."A fine response," he said after a contemplative moment. "Yet I cannot help being struck by its falseness."
Matthew stared at him, not understanding.
The archbishop prompted in carefully cajoling accents, "Are we not your friends, Trout?"
"I believe that has yet to be put to the vote, your Excellency."
Young Lord Barlough nodded approvingly. "Right enough." He looked to the pairing of friends on his right and left flank and caught their eyes, communicating a message without altering a single facial muscle. "But surely that is a mere formality. You are here before us now at our invitation. Invitations are never issued lightly; an audience is never granted as a matter of course."
It was the Society's way to couch its activities in comforting language. To say that the Viscount Southerton had been brought before them by invitation was to entirely dismiss the fact that he had been jumped by two of the Society's Praetorian-like brothers in the cobbled courtyard of Hambrick Hall and carried bound, blindfolded, and gagged to this room deep in the moist, subterranean bowels of the school. To name this an audience when in fact it was a trial was further proof of the Society's penchant for couching the truth in an innocuous phrase.
Archbishop of Canterbanter. Matthew almost smiled as the title came to his mind. Lord Barlough would not like it if he knew about the name or the scornful, irreverent way in which it was often said by those on the outside of the Society. Of course, since there were many on the outside who wanted, even yearned, to be part of the inner sanctum, and Matthew and his closest friendsthe ones who did not call him Troutnever referred to Canterbanter where they might be overheard. The spies among them, the ones with their noses out of joint because they'd been pressed for so long to the Society's collective arse, would reveal a classmate's disrespect if they thought it would gain them entry to the exclusive and powerful cabal.
For as long as there had been a Hambrick Hall, there had been a Society of Bishops. The origins of the organization were not known to the uninitiated. Within the Society the history was passed orally from archbishop to archbishop, a tradition that was maintained for almost two hundred years and that deviated neither in the words used nor their inflection. For a communication that was so sacred as the genesis of their order, the first archbishop devised a chant, and in this manner the story flowed uninterrupted from leader to leader for generations of boys.
Southerton had never been particularly curious about the Society's beginnings, or about the Society at all. When he arrived at Hambrick Hall three years earlier for his first term, he had heard about the Bishops before he had finished unpacking his trunk. He had put them out of his mind, being much more interested in when dinner would be served and if there would be custard as his father told him there sometimes was. A trifle vague in his own approach to the world around him, neither an avid student nor an indifferent one, friendly but not gregarious, cooperative but not obsequious, Matthew fell outside the notice of the Society until late in the last term, with the arrival of Mr. Marchman.
The school break had done nothing to improve the Society's mood. Rather, Matthew suspected, they had used the time away from Hambrick Hallwhile he had been swimming and sailing and studying astronomy for the pleasure of sitting up at night while the rest of the manor was abed to devise a plan that would see him shamed, caned, and expelled from the school.
The Society of Bishops rarely meted out punishment in half measures. In truth, they rarely meted out punishment. It was their way to find others to do it.
The archbishop continued to regard Matthew with something akin to friendly derision. "You know, Trout, I do believe I have heard some of the other boys refer to you by another name. South, I think. The diminutive of your title, isn't it?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
"And those other fellows? North. East. West. I'm afraid I don't understand that."
Matthew made a mental shrug but said nothing.
"You call yourselves the Compass Club. Is that right?"
It sounded rather juvenile when Matthew heard it from the archbishop. Still, in his little group no one was addressed as his "Excellency." Oh, from time to time they called East "his Nibs," but that was all in good humor. The fact that they were juvenile was not a truth one could easily get around, so Matthew simply dismissed it. "Yes, your Excellency. The Compass Club." He almost added, " Sworn Enemies of the Society of Bishops ," but he considered it rather too dramatic and akin to playing his cards fast and loose. There was also a problem with his voice of late, and something as deeply felt as " Sworn Enemies of the Society of Bishops" should have some hint of the profound and ominous about it. If his vocal chords failed him, as they had been wont to do recently, it would just sound silly.
"Very well, Trout," Lord Barlough said. "And what of your allegiance to the Compass Club? Are you prepared to deny them and take the vows as a brother first among the Bishops?"
Matthew's response was solemn. "I am prepared, your Excellency."
The smile came again, just a crease in the handsome visage that was the archbishop's most animated expression. "Good. Then you have what you promised to deliver."
There was no mention of the promise being extracted by threatening the health and well-being of his best friends. This omission did not surprise the viscount. Indeed, any admission of the techniques used to coerce his cooperation would have been the real surprise. Equally expected was the restraint the archbishop showed in not revealing the exact article that was to be delivered, or the other truth: that it was not Matthew who offered it up but that it had been named as the price of his friends' safety and his admission to the Society.
"I have it."
There was a stir at the table. They all knew that Matthew, upon having all his bonds removed and secreted away, had been summarily searched by Lord Barlough. That search had turned up nothing. It was cause for confusion now because the search had been, in the smooth lexicon of Canterbanter, thorough .
"You will produce it now."
"Certainly." Southerton began in the carefully modulated tones of the schoolboy that he was, "The reign of Henry VIII, lasting as it did from 1509 to 1547, was perforce to have wrought many changes, especially to the role of the Catholic Church in policies of law, governance, and allegiances. Henry VIIIs choice of his bride upon taking the thronethe widow of his brotherhad ramifications beyond what could have been imagined at the" Matthew broke off because the archbishop was on his feet.
"What the bloody hell is this?"
"What you asked for," Matthew said calmly.
"Bugger a duck," one of the Bishops said, slapping the flat of his hand on the table. The candle flames flickered wildly for a moment, then were still. "You said you could get the examination."
"Yes," said Matthew."I did. And so I did." They simply stared at him, and he began again. "Perhaps after another you'll understand. Significant events during Henry VIII's reign were the explorations of the coasts of the Americas by the Portuguese and Spaniards, the appointment of Thomas Wolsey as Archbishop of York, the excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520 by Pope Leo X, and conferring the title of "Defender of the Faith" on Henry for the Assertio septem sacramentorum against Luther the following year." Matthew's voice trailed off a moment as he pondered this last. "Always thought there was a delicious historical irony there, but unappreciated by the headmaster." He looked at Lord Barlough, then the other Bishops, as though for comment. "Unappreciated by this audience as well, I see." His shrug was real this time, not mental. "Let's see, where was I? Oh. There is also the fall of Cardinal Wolsey from power and the appointment of Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in 1529. A position I've often wondered if he had cause to regret. But I digress again. History is like that, don't you think? So many points of divergence and convergence that one can study the links while forgetting the chain."
The archbishop sat down slowly, the wind quite beaten from his sails. The puff of air that had momentarily rounded his cheeks was gone, leaving his face sunken below the refined arch of those well-placed bones. "You memorized it," he said as though he couldn't believe it, which he couldn't. "You memorized the answers to the headmaster's examination!"
"Not precisely," Matthew said."Only the questions. The answers are my own."
Now the archbishop's complexion actually mottled. "Get him!"
But the Society was trapped on one side of the table, and Matthew had planned his escape long before he had been brought to the room. He leaped to his feet, shoved the table as hard as he could, and managed to unseat two of the Bishops and a half dozen of the candles. Hot wax and flying legs, overturned chairs and a wobbling dais, confused calls for help and "Bugger him!" all conspired to give the loose-limbed and fleet of foot Viscount Southerton a head start to the door. He flung open the door and ran headlong into the headmaster.