Isabella's now restless fingers moved down across Damien's hard shoulders, feeling the sleek muscle and sinew. She tensed against him as the excitement within her grew to an almost unbearable level.
Damien pulled her completely down onto the carpet, then rolled her onto her back. He settled his body intimately atop hers, staring into her eyes with an intensity that made Isabella tremble. The air felt suddenly closed and heated.
“I'm going to remove the rest of your clothing, Isabella.” The deep, sensual timber of his voice made her shiver.
“Wait!” Isabella insisted. “I want to remove some of your clothing first.” When he offered no protest, Isabella reached for him. Curious and excited, she began to open the last few fastenings on his shirt. Damien shifted his weight and gave her an odd smile as she struggled with the buttons.
“Just rip it,” he whispered in a deep voice, and he inhaled deeply as Isabella followed his commands. Buttons spewed about the room, and Damien laughed with delight.
Nervous but determined, Isabella continued her explorations. Deftly she reached inside the linen and spread her hands across Damien's naked chest. The springy dark hair tickled her palms. The flesh beneath felt smooth and very hard. Experimentally, she moved her hands lower, across the flat plane of his stomach to the top of his breeches.
A long shudder ran through Damien. “Enough,” he whispered, yanking off the remains of his shirt and tossing it aside. He pulled Isabella closer and kissed her deeply, his passion becoming more urgent with each kiss, his need more overwhelming with each caress . . .
The stagnant air hung heavy with the smell of sickness and despair. Amid the tragic atmosphere of the small house, a young girl sat alone in the corner of the sitting room. Shifting her position, she sank lower into the faded chair, seeking to hide herself within the sagging stuffing and somehow escape from the constant pain and fear gripping her tender heart.
A boisterous shout from the front yard caught the girl's attention and she gazed listlessly out the half-opened window. Her three older stepbrothers were playing noisily in the front yard, yelling and screaming in excitement as they rolled a hoop on the overgrown grass, oblivious to the drama unfolding within the house.
“There is nothing more I can do, Mrs. Potts,” a man's voice exclaimed in annoyance, as the man himself entered the room. “'Tis in God's hands now.”
The young girl lifted her violet eyes soulfully toward the man who had spoken such hopeless thoughts. “Surely there must be something you can do for Mama,” she whispered softly, her voice laced with fear. “Please, Father.”
The man's scowl deepened at the child's statement. “I am only a doctor, Isabella, not a miracle worker,” he said harshly. “You know your mother is gravely ill.”
The child turned her face away from the anger in her father's voice. Although she was used to the curt manner with which he treated her, for it had always been that way, she felt unable to cope with his coldness this day. This day her mother lay dying.
For a long, silent moment the man stared at the profile of the young girl. He could see the quivering of her bottom lip as she struggled to remain composed. The proud tilt of her chin reminded him so much of her mother. The resemblance caused him to pause a moment and relax his usual harshness.
“You may go and sit by your mother's bed, Isabella,” her father said quickly, speaking before he had time to regret this rare instance of compassion.
Isabella instantly sprang up from her perch and crossed the room. She paused briefly next to her imposing father and, keeping her eyes downcast, whispered a dignified, “Thank you.”
Charles Browning's shoulders sagged noticeably at her departure. He dragged himself across the room to sit in the chair Isabella had vacated, feeling every one of his fifty-two years. He looked down in despair at his hands. The hands of a physician, the hands of a healer. They shook slightly, and he deeply felt the need of a drink. Yet he mastered his craving. His beautiful wife, Marianne, lay on her deathbed upstairs. It would not do for Reverend Packard and the other members of this small community to find him drunk when they came to call later and offer condolences. Above all else, appearances must be kept.
He sighed deeply. Ah, Marianne. His frail, lovely wife. She had been only sixteen years old the first time he saw her. She was the youngest daughter of an earl and had been attending a house party given by one of the local squires. During an afternoon of riding, Marianne had taken a nasty spill from her horse and he, Charles Browning, the village's only physician, had been summoned to attend the young noblewoman.
Charles remembered clearly Marianne's startling blue eyes and the creamy alabaster glow of her complexion that blushed rosy when he asked to see her injuries. She had been so innocently sweet and demure, and extremely shy about showing him her ankle, which was sprained in the fall.
He had probably fallen in love with her that very instant, but he knew it was a hopeless situation. He was considerably older, socially and economically inferior, and above all, a married man, with three young sons. During the four weeks it took for Marianne's ankle to heal, however, Charles took advantage of every opportunity to visit his enchanting patient at the manor house. By the time Marianne and her family left, Charles had convinced himself that if the circumstances were different, the lovely Marianne would return his affections with equal ardor.
Charles never forgot Marianne. Neither, apparently, did Marianne's father, the Earl of Barton. Two years later, and now a widower, Charles was shocked to be awakened early one morning to discover the earl on his doorstep with a pale-faced and shaken Marianne by his side. The lovely, unmarried girl was pregnant, and her father was furious.
At first the earl tried to convince Charles to perform an abortion on his daughter, but the look of total horror on Marianne's face dissuaded Charles from attempting it. Instead, he offered to marry Marianne, and after a bit of persuading the earl agreed. The earl then emptied his pockets of all the coin he had on his person, placed the small amount of Marianne's luggage they had brought with them in the front hall, and left. Marianne never heard from her father or any member of her family again.
The wedded bliss and loving household Charles envisioned with his beautiful bride never materialized. Marianne was a nobleman's daughter and had been raised to live a far different life than the one a humble physician could provide. She tried very hard to fit into her new role but was never successful. She seldom complained about the lack of money or social standing, but it bitterly upset Charles that he could not provide his wife with what he believed she deserved. He blamed his wife's family for abandoning her to genteel poverty and social obscurity, and he blamed the child she bore for causing the chasm with her family.
The enchanting life Charles had fantasized about for years with Marianne proved to be nothing more than an empty dream. Over time, Charles convinced himself that Marianne honestly tried to return his affections, but it was obvious her heart had long ago been committedâfirst, to the child's unknown father, whose identity she would never reveal, and then to the child, Isabella. Charles deeply resented the unconditional love and attention his wife lavished on her child. As the years passed, his resentment toward Isabella steadily increased, until he could barely be civil to the child and did so only for the sake of keeping peace with Marianne.
“Oh, Father, she is gone!” Isabella's young voice quivered with pain as she stood in the doorway and made her pitiful announcement. “Mama is dead!”
Isabella ran across the room and threw herself into Charles's arms. His earlier compassion toward her, coupled- with her overwhelming need for comfort, caused the young girl to seek relief from the man she called her father.
Momentarily startled, Charles allowed himself to embrace the child. He felt his emotions sliding beyond his control as sorrow, anger, resentment, and frustration rose to the surface. And settled on Isabella. Reaching his arms up, he disengaged Isabella's hands from around his neck and lowered them to her side. She shivered with her grief, and sniffled loudly.
“Get upstairs to your room, you little bastard,” he growled at the child. “And do not show yourself again until it is time for your mother's funeral.”
Not understanding his words, yet frightened beyond speech, Isabella raced from the room, her cries echoing throughout the room long after she had left. She reached the sanctuary of her small bedchamber and flung herself onto the bed, crying with great gulping sobs as if her heart would break. She had never felt so frightened and alone in all of her life.
Eventually she slept, and when she awoke, Isabella's head felt heavy with numbness. She forced herself to rise from the bed and straighten her rumpled appearance. It was time to go downstairs and face her father and brothers. Isabella was terrified, but she refused to allow herself to avoid the confrontation, instinctively knowing this was merely the beginning of her father's attempts to exclude her completely from the family. Isabella was determined to participate in all the necessary preparations for her mother's burial. It was her right. She would not be denied.
Isabella walked slowly but steadily down the staircase. She hesitated momentarily before entering the sitting room, her heart pounding with fear when she saw her father. But the Reverend Packard and his wife were in attendance, and Isabella knew her father would not create a scene in front of them. She entered the room and quietly sat down, forcing herself to look at her father with a direct, challenging stare. Charles gave her a dismissive glance but held his tongue, and Isabella allowed herself a tiny feeling of victory.
Isabella had never understood her father's brittle, often cruel attitude toward her, but she knew his reasons were no longer an issue. Life with him was going to be a constant battle and she was going to have to fight to survive. The safe, loving world her mother had created for her was now gone forever. It was time for her to grow up. She was eight years old.