Authors: Michelle Kelly
He really was shockingly blunt. No English gentleman would speak to a lady that way. Even so, his forthright manner and the intense way he had of looking at her, as if he could see inside her, made her want to open up to him as he had, albeit briefly, to her.
‘I am beginning to think that marriage, for a woman, seems to me to be nothing but a gilded cage,’ she replied, encouraged when he nodded at her rather than looking at her as if she were shocking. All respectable young women were supposed to want nothing more than a good marriage, after all. As were young lords with titles to pass on, rakes or not.
‘Have you not married yourself?’ she asked. Jasper paused for a moment before he answered.
‘After seeing the travesty my father made of his marriage to my mother, I am inclined to agree with you. Besides which, I travel a great deal, as I said.’ He didn’t offer any more information, but Amelia didn’t press further. His mention of his mother’s unhappiness made her think of her own.
When she spoke her voice was wistful. ‘My mother—Matilda’s much younger sister—married my father, and people say it took all the spirit out of her. She died in childbirth when I was six, hence why I have such little memory of her.’
Jasper’s eyes were sympathetic. ‘That must be hard for you. So you fear childbirth perhaps?’
‘Not just that. I have tried all my life to be the perfect Society girl, to make my father proud.’ Amelia forced down the pang of guilt she felt at the way she had just run off and left him. She had not seen any other choice when her insistence she would not marry Horatio seemed to fall on deaf ears. ‘It is fun, some of it, the dancing and the parties and the admirers but…’
‘But what?’ He leaned over the table, pushing the plates away and taking her hand, his thumb rubbing over her knuckles. His hand was rougher than any man’s she had held, and the sudden image of them stroking across her body made her insides tighten and her words come tumbling out.
‘There has to be more. More to life, more to love. When I was out walking last night, it felt so good to smell the earth and the sea and feel the ground beneath my feet. And when you kissed me—’ she looked straight into his eyes ‘—I felt free. Wild.’
Jasper squeezed her hand, his eyes dark. ‘Your mother’s ancestors were Highlanders, as were mine,’ he told her, ‘and that wildness is in our blood. No matter how much you try to subdue it, it will out. You need a man that can match what is in you, not try to tame it.’
Amelia’s heart raced at his words, the heady rush of desire he had awakened in her last night flooding through her again. Barely knowing what she was doing, only that it felt completely natural, she said through dry lips, ‘Are you that man, my lord?’
She held her breath as Jasper looked at her as if he would drink her in, as if he could see to the very core of her. How could a man with such an air of being unfathomable about him make her feel as if she were fully exposed to him, from her secret longings to her deepest fears? When he let go of her hand she felt almost bereft then saw he had only let go so that he could stand and walk around the table towards her. He pulled her to her feet and regarded her silently for a minute, close enough that she could feel his warm breath on her hair. Amelia thought she would die from anticipation if he didn’t kiss her again, but instead he said, his voice low and deep, ‘Would you want me to be, my lady?’
It was a challenge, she thought. In spite of her fear, her desire was stronger, her heart leaping in her chest at the thought of exploring the passion she had found in this man’s arms. It might, after all, be her only chance. ‘Yes,’ she replied, meeting his eyes. His gaze settled on her lips, and she was never sure whether it was him or herself that closed the gap first, but the next thing she knew they were kissing fiercely. This time there was no hesitation in her. His words had moved her, stirred in her a longing she didn’t fully understand but that she needed to fulfil.
Jasper turned so that he leaned against the edge of the table, pulling her onto him so that she was all but astride his lap, her skirts awry. When his hands tugged at the ribbons at the front of her dress and pushed down the material she made no move to stop him but instead moaned as her breasts sprang free into his hands. He palmed her nipples, his rough hands feeling as sensuous on her skin as she had known they would. He might be a lord but he had Highlander’s hands, she thought, smuggler’s hands. Not the smooth, practised hands of a rake as Sally had described him, but the hands of a man whose wildness was far nearer to the surface than her own.
Jasper buried his face in her breasts, licking and sucking until she felt she would scream with delight. The secret place between her thighs was on fire, and she pushed against him shamelessly to relieve the ache, feeling how hard he was against her, evidence of his own desire. He reached under her shift and stroked her thighs, then the soft curls of hair between her legs. Then his hand found the hard little nub at her core that responded to his touch with a stab of pleasure.
‘Is this wild enough for you?’ he asked, his voice low and throbbing. Amelia nodded, her breath catching in her throat as she spoke.
‘I… have never done such a thing.’
He looked amused. ‘I suppose my dinner table is not the usual place of seduction for me, either. Should we retire to my rooms?’
She shook her head, realizing he had misunderstood her; that after her wanton behaviour he no doubt thought her practised in the ways of love. ‘I meant, I have never done that at all. Any of it.’
Jasper frowned at her, going very still. ‘When you said you had no wish to marry and wanted to be free to love, I assumed you’d had a taste of such freedom. Are you a virgin?’
‘Must you be so blunt?’
Jasper barked a laugh. ‘A little late for that, after I all but tumbled you over the dinner plates.’
‘Well, yes then, I am.’ She wanted to tell him that it didn’t matter, that before she resigned herself to a lifetime of spinsterhood she would have at least this moment, this memory to cherish but then he moved away from her, arms folded and she felt an acute sense of loss. Tears pricked at her eyes. ‘You would rather I was a wanton?’
‘Yes,’ he said honestly, ‘I would. I’m not in the habit of ravishing virgins. When you leave here and return to your usual life, if you change your mind about marriage…well then, you will regret giving yourself to me. I have made many women feel many things, but I am arrogant enough to believe regret has never been one of them.’
His comment about other women sent a shaft of jealousy through her, but she pushed it back. He was right of course; she had been anything but shy with him, so of course he would assume she was no maiden. How could she explain that the very nearness of him made her want to yield to him, that she had never desired a man like this?
‘I see.’ Her voice was small. ‘I understand. I only wish it were a man as honourable as yourself my father was attempting to sell me to, rather than Lord Winters!’ she blurted out, feeling both upset and foolish.
Hugging her arms around herself, her eyes on the floor, she missed the sudden alertness in Jasper’s face.
Amelia looked up, surprised. ‘You know him?’
‘Barely. I have heard the name. A well-connected man, I hear.’ His expression was suddenly blank, and Amelia had no idea what he was thinking. ‘It cannot be him you are running away from?’
She feared she had said too much. Jasper may not be currently based in England but he was noble and wealthy. Of course he would know who was who. What if he wrote to Lord Winters? Amelia stood up, straightening her dress. ‘I am not running, not really. My father is in some financial distress, and marriage to Lord Winters would seem to be the only option. Perhaps I am being an undutiful daughter by refusing to do so.’ She turned towards the doors to the hall. ‘I should go. I am sorry I misled you.’
Jasper pulled her towards him again, but more gently this time, and looked at her intently. ‘It’s not that I don’t want you, Amelia, but I will not ravish you over the table like a doxie, not knowing it is your first time. Neither do I believe you should be forced into marrying anyone who is not right for you. We have both seen the outcome of that, I fear.’ Amelia felt her heart would break at his words. Never had she felt as if anyone understood her, and yet the first man to do so was turning her away from his bed.
‘I must go. It is getting late,’ she replied, wanting only to bury herself under the covers and die of shame. He did not try to dissuade her, but rather saw her out himself, placing her pelisse around her shoulders tenderly and kissing her chastely before helping her into the gig.
‘If you need anything during your stay here…’ he said, then trailed off. No doubt he did not wish to lead her on any further and risk her throwing herself at him again, she thought miserably as she rode towards home. Caught up in her misery and yet at the same time lost in thoughts of his mouth and hands on her, she forgot that she had even mentioned Horatio Winters.
Jasper however did not. He watched her go, his head reeling with the night’s revelations. After her impassioned speech about feeling free, about wanting more from life, he had felt an all-encompassing desire to take her and show her the strength of the passion he sensed was bubbling within her, until the revelation she was a virgin made him step back. He had no wish to go around deflowering and compromising young ladies, not when he was unlikely to see her again beyond the next few days, and had nothing to offer her even if he could. Now it seemed he had another reason to keep away from her, for who would have thought his desirable new neighbour had some sort of connection with the very man he was investigating?
No, it was best if he kept his distance until she was gone. Not least because she intrigued him as no other woman ever had. Something in him responded to her in ways that were not just about that beautiful body of hers. He sensed a kindred spirit in her, had found himself wanting to confide in her. Shaking his head impatiently, he reprimanded himself for such thoughts. Even if he should want to, and God knew he had always shied away from becoming too attached, he was in no position to offer her anything more than a dalliance, and that would mean ruin for a Society virgin of marriageable age. He had no wish to make any woman so unhappy—he was not his father. He had no intention after all of settling here; indeed if it wasn’t for his current mission he wouldn’t be here at Glendir at all. He pushed away the thought that if he hadn’t returned he wouldn’t have found out the overseer he had appointed was letting things slip.
Not to mention the fact that Amelia may well be involved in something over her pretty little head. He knew exactly why Lord Winters would be so intent on marrying her, and although Amelia’s revelations had confirmed his suspicions and showed him he was on the right track, her unwitting involvement in these manners could well place her in danger. He must remain cool, let her leave without giving her reason for a backward glance.
A task that would be easier, he admitted to himself as he turned fitfully in bed later that night, if he didn’t so badly want to see her naked and yielding beneath him.
Over the next few days both Amelia and Jasper resisted the temptation to call upon the other, although Amelia kept her eyes open for any glimpse of strong shoulders and red hair upon her trip to market with Sally, and Jasper found his morning ride took him rather nearer the grounds of Trevan House than usual. But he sent no word, and Amelia found herself veering between feeling horribly embarrassed at their tryst and anger that he had rejected her—even if, as she admitted to herself, it was for honourable reasons.
At night time, both anger and embarrassment faded away to be replaced by desire as she remembered the fierce tenderness of his kiss and the thrill of his touch, his hands stroking places no man had ever seen. Emotions tumbled in her and kept her awake, until Amelia thought she would be happy when she could leave and put the memories of her all too brief liaison with Jasper Glendir behind her.
Then the letter from Madeleine came.
She had been sitting in the small salon after a light afternoon meal, casting an eye over the copy of the
the coachman had brought her earlier that day, which was at least a week out of date, and feeling, confusion over Jasper aside, more relaxed than she had done in months. If not ever. Already, Trevan, its people and wild, beautiful countryside had become dear to her. More than once she had considered staying and living in blissful spinsterhood here. Her aunt Matilda had done it and by all accounts been perfectly happy.
Mrs Brown came in with her letter, and one look at the seal had brought her back down to earth. Tearing it open she read it swiftly, feeling herself drain of colour as she did so. Her father had already contacted Madeleine, guessing Amelia would seek refuge there, and her friend warned her that escaping the clutches of Lord Winters might not be as easy as retiring to the country.
He is a powerful man
, her friend wrote,
and I fear if you cross him he would ensure you were utterly disgraced
. Amelia knew her friend was not one for idle gossip, and so the rumours she had heard whispered about Horatio’s true character must indeed be true. Amelia repressed a shudder. Madeleine had a solution however. She could indeed find a position as a lady’s companion for Amelia; with a genteel and elderly friend of her aunt’s.
Amelia sat, staring down at the letter in her lap. It would be a huge step to take, even if she had always wished to travel, and it would mean leaving behind everything she knew. Including Trevan House and Jasper. Immediately she tried to push the thought from her mind; she was clearly nothing to Lord Glendir and never could be.
‘Mrs Brown,’ she said, meaning to sound brisk but hearing the waver in her voice, ‘I will be leaving tomorrow. Do you think you could arrange to have my things packed and have the coachman take me into town?’ From there she could get the stage to her friends, where she could begin the necessary preparations for her new path in life.