Authors: Cheryl Holt
|Fantasy 01 - Secret Fantasy|
CAN A DARING ADVENTURE...
Orphaned at a young age and sent to live with
selfish relatives, Margaret Gray has no dowry and no chance of ever marrying.
When her aunt invites Jordan Prescott for a visit, hoping to entice him into
offering for Margaret's spoiled cousin, the dashing war hero instead tempts
Margaret into a truly decadent decision. If Margaret cannot have a husband,
perhaps she dares, just once, to taste the pleasures of the flesh? Now that
she's awakened to her own desires and sensations, she is drawn body and soul
into a rapturous clandestine liaison.
BECOME AN AFFAIR OF THE
Since his dissolute father squandered the family fortune, Jordan is
required to marry an heiress in order to provide for his half-siblings. Yet no
woman has ever aroused him as much as Margaret. Her sedate exterior belies a
bold, curious spirit and tantalizing sexuality. A single illicit tryst becomes a
month-long journey in carnal abandon, but with Jordan's visit drawing to a
close, can their passion survive the dangerous scheming that threatens to keep
Rural Sussex, England, 1812 ...
“You have a visitor."
Margaret Gray removed her bonnet and
hung it on the hook by the door. She'd spent the day at the school she'd started in an abandoned cottage at the edge of the property. After walking home in the bright May sunshine, she blinked several times, her vision adjusting to the dim foyer.
"I don't know who it is," her cousin, sixteen-year-old Penelope Gray, sneered.
"Is it a man or a woman?"
At relaying the peculiar and somewhat frightening news Penelope was rippling with a cruel curiosity, eager to view Margaret's reaction, so Margaret concealed any piqued interest. After suffering through years of Penelope's malicious gossip and petty slights, Margaret was an expert at pretending not to care what the horrid child said or did.
Margaret frowned. "Why would he wish to see me?"
"I was eavesdropping. I heard he's a suitor, and he's considering marrying you. He's come to discuss it with Lavinia!"
Lavinia was Penelope's mother, but there was little affection between the two, and Penelope referred to her mother by her Christian name. They had a tempestuous relationship that resembled battling siblings, and Margaret had spent her entire life caught between them as they fought like cats trapped in a sack.
"He's investigating a marriage to me?” At the ludicrous idea Margaret scoffed. "You can't be serious."
"You think I'm lying?"
"No. You had to have misunderstood."
"Hah! The butler specifically said the man plans to meet Miss Gray."
Margaret's alarm calmed significantly. "Penelope Gray, he's here to meet you."
Penelope gasped. "Me!"
"Yes, you. Why would you automatically assume the butler meant me?"
"Lavinia would never contemplate a match without mentioning it to me."
"No, she wouldn't, Miss Know-It-All." She turned toward the small mirror hanging behind her and primped her perfect curls. "Besides, you're aware that I'm off to London for the Season. I'm to find my husband in town— after I've made all the other girls green with envy."
"Maybe Lavinia decided to save her money and cut to the chase. She continually harangues about the cost. Perhaps she's skipped the middle part of the process and jumped straight to the end."
"She wouldn't do it without telling me!" Penelope insisted.
Staving off a full-blown argument, Margaret held up a hand. "Fine. I'm sure you're correct." "Of course, I am. I'm always right." "Yes, you are."
"You're just jealous that I'm going to London and not you." "Absolutely."
"You hate it that I'm rich, and you're not," Penelope charged.
"I'm completely devastated by the fact."
"You're poor, and you're old."
"I am. I am. I'm twenty-five and positively decrepit. I haven't two farthings to rub together." In a dramatic gesture, Margaret laid a wrist on her forehead. "Oh, woe is me!"
Penelope glowered, trying to discern if Margaret was being sarcastic, and Margaret struggled to keep from laughing. She'd sat through hundreds of conversations about Penelope's debut, and she was sick of the calculating. Penelope's departure for London was six weeks away, and in the interim, the prospects for incessant marital plotting were maddening.
"You can joke all you want," Penelope sniped. "Let's see who marries first, shall we?"
"There's no doubt it will be you and that you'll be fabulously happy."
Margaret had no illusions. Though she would love to have a home and family of her own, it would never happen. She was an orphan who'd come to live with her uncle Horatio when she was only six. After his death, her aunt Lavinia had allowed her to stay on, but as Lavinia constantly stated, Margaret subsisted on Lavinia's charity.
Marriage would never be a possibility.
Penelope spun to go, cackling like a witch as she stomped out, declaring, "You and your suitor will have a lot in common. He's old, too, and ugly as a crone. And he's a murderer!"
With her blond hair and blue eyes, her petite height and rounded figure, Penelope was very fetching, but it was sad that so much spite could be contained in such a pretty package. She could be charming and gay, but also ruthless and intolerable. In many ways, she was Lavinia's twin.
Margaret was tired of both women, and she would give anything to move away and start over in a new place. She wished fairy tales were real, that she could swallow a magic potion and be altered into a different person with a different life.
Her mind racing, she walked to the servants' stairs and tiptoed to her room. She was certain that Penelope had been lying about a gentleman caller, but what if Lavinia had actually approached someone?
The notion—of Lavinia selecting Margaret's spouse— was disturbing.
Lavinia kept hinting that they were broke, that after Penelope's entrée into Society, there'd be nothing left. For months, she'd been slyly commenting about how she was weary of supporting Margaret, and Margaret had ignored the remarks, but what if Lavinia had been serious? What if she demanded that Margaret wed?
Still, Margaret yearned to marry, so she wouldn't
summarily discount any suggestion from Lavinia. Even if the man was elderly and unattractive, as Penelope claimed, he might be kind and courteous. Most important, as her husband, he would take her away from Gray's Manor, and she would be the mistress of her own home.
Her heart pounding with excitement and trepidation, she went into the dressing room to wash. If Lavinia sent for her, she wanted to look her best.
Evaluating herself in the mirror, she stripped down to chemise and petticoat. She pulled the combs from her hair, and the lengthy mass swooshed down. It was a thick, rich auburn, her eyes a vibrant green, and in a world where everyone was pale and fair, she was a definite oddity.
She was slender, neither tall nor short, and her face had arched brows, a pert nose, and a generous mouth, but after enduring nearly two decades of Lavinia's criticisms, she'd accepted that she was very average. When she noticed herself pining for it to be otherwise—that she be a great beauty with dozens of swains, instead of a lonely, ordinary woman with foibles and flaws—she chuckled at her whimsy.
What was she doing, bared to her undergarments and moping in front of the mirror? She couldn't change who she was.
She proceeded to the washstand, swished a cloth, and was swabbing it across her arms when a male voice murmured, "Very nice."
Scowling, she froze, trying to be sure that she'd really heard a man speak, that it wasn't her imagination.
"Turn around," he said. "Let me see all of you."
There was someone in the room with her! She was about to whip around and challenge him when she remembered that she was practically naked. She glared over her shoulder, ready to chastise, but she was so stunned that she was speechless.
The man loitering in the threshold was incredibly handsome. He was a few years older than herself, probably thirty or so, and he was tall and muscular, his chest broad, his waist narrow, his legs ridiculously long. His hair was dark, almost black, and his eyes were a shrewd, piercing blue, the color she envisioned the Mediterranean to be.
Obviously, he'd been traveling. His jacket was dusty, his boots scuffed, his hair windblown. He smelled like sweat and horses and another scent that was more subtle, that she suspected was his very essence.
"Who are you," she questioned, "and why are you in my room?"
"Funny," he replied, "but I could have sworn it was my room—at least that's what a footman told me a few minutes ago. So I might ask the same: Why are you in here?"
"I am bathing."
"And / am watching you."
Margaret was frantic, but secretly thrilled, too. He had to be the mysterious guest Penelope had mentioned, but he was too charismatic, too dynamic, too ... too ... everything. He was like a prince in a storybook, like a statue in a museum.
Lavinia didn't have a humane bone in her body, so he couldn't be the man she'd invited to Gray's Manor. She would never have done something so wonderful.
Margaret's dressing room was connected to the adjoining bedchamber, but no one was ever housed there.
Visitors were lodged in the other wing, closer to Lavinia and Penelope.
Who had located him next to Margaret? And why?
Was Lavinia hoping to have Margaret ruined? Was she planning to burst in and discover Margaret in a compromising situation? Lavinia must have felt the need to force an encounter, but in light of the man's godlike countenance, why would Lavinia presume that Margaret would hesitate?
What was wrong with him? Was he deranged? Was he a wife-beater? Penelope had said he was a murderer. Whom had he killed? His prior wives?
"You've made a horrible mistake," she advised. "Get out at once."
"I don't think so."
"I must confer with the housekeeper to have you moved. I can't do it while you're standing there." "Can't you?" "No."
"Lavinia insisted you were very friendly. Why be shy?"
He was amused by her predicament, and she yearned to strangle him. "I'm not decent—as you can plainly see— and if you were any sort of gent
eman, you'd do as I've requested."
"There's the rub," he responded. "I'm not a gentleman and never have been."
He took a step toward her, then another, and she wanted to retreat, but she was trapped in the corner. Short of knocking him down, she couldn't escape.
"Aah!" she shrieked, spinning toward the wall. "Will you go away?"
He kept coming till he was directly behind her, and she panicked, not certain of what he meant to do. She didn't sense any menace or threat, so she wasn't afraid for her physical safety, but she'd had scant dealings with men, so she couldn't figure out what he intended.
Without warning, he snuggled himself to her backside, his hands on her waist, and the scandalous contact was so marvelous that she worried she might faint. She hadn't known that a man's touch would be so hot, so strong. She actually shivered—not with outrage or shock as she ought, but with complete and utter delight.
"Are you mad?" she sputtered.
"I've frequently heard people say that I am."
So ... that was why Lavinia had chosen him. He was demented. Lavinia was about to pawn her off on a lunatic!
She elbowed him in the ribs, but the paltry blow had no effect.
"Get out of here before someone stumbles in and sees us."
"I don't care if we're caught. We wouldn't have to make any decisions; they'd be made for us."
His fingers were lean and crafty, and he was caressing them in slow circles, stroking down her flanks, then up again. The motion was so hypnotic that she could scarcely keep from purring like a kitten.
"You smell good," he said.
"Release me this second!"
"No." He was riffling through her hair, assessing weight and texture. "This auburn is such an interesting color. I was so sure you'd be blond."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you."
"I will eventually."
"I'm positive you're correct." He was resigned, sounding as if he'd been let down so often that he expected the worst from everyone.
He bent down and kissed her shoulder, his teeth nipping at her nape and sending goose bumps down her arms and legs. The soft feel of his mouth on her bare skin was too arousing to be believed. Forgetting her dishabille, she wiggled away and whirled to face him, and he towered over her, his huge, masculine form taking up so much space that she was dizzy and off balance.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Making love to you. Can't you tell?"
She was a sheltered spinster, for pity's sake. How was she supposed to know? "No, I can't tell."
"Then I must be out of practice."
Amusement flickered in his expression. He was having great fun at her expense, and she'd had enough of his boorish behavior.
"Get out!" Trying to look stern, she gestured to the door.
"Not quite yet."
"You can't stay in here. Are you deaf?" "You're very pretty."
To the best of her recollection, no one had ever told her she was pretty before, so she was flabbergasted. It rocked her view of the world where she'd always considered herself middling and—at times—inferior in every way.
He continued to scrutinize her, as if devouring every inch, his blue, blue eyes not missing a single detail.
"Yes, very pretty," he repeated, "but older than I anticipated."
"Older!" she grumbled, hating to be denigrated because of her advanced age. "You are the most rude person I've ever met."
As if she hadn't spoken, he added, "Of course, your maturity might be an advantage. And I can see that you'll enjoy marital romping, which is another benefit, because I'll insist on a lot of it."