Authors: Madeline Hunter
He broke their fevered kisses and nuzzled her ear. “Now I give you the pleasure that you do not know yet.”
“I do not think it can be any nicer than this.”
“It is the difference between a drawing room melody and an aria.” He untied the cord at her waist while he spoke. The trouser buttons loosened. Unspeakably wicked excitement charged through her while he pushed the garment down her hips and legs. Stomach and tuft of hair flashed through the nightshirt's low slit.
He pushed the hem up, covering her most intimate parts, but fully exposing her thighs. He stroked her legs like he molded their shape. A different demand fired, internal and hot and focused on the forbidden landscape he explored.
Yes, yes. Oh, goodness â¦
A trembling shook her that could only be relieved through movement. Her hips rocked silkenly, pressing into masterful caresses.
Yes â¦ higher â¦ so close. I want â¦ I want â¦
“You must trust me now.” He peeled the shirt down her shoulders and lifted her into an embrace that made the sleeves fall from her arms. It became a rumpled white drapery around her loins. He slid it down.
Off. Gone. She looked at her naked body and realized that he did too. The exposure carried its own excitement. The heady eroticism of the moment intoxicated her. In a few moments he had kicked off the rest of his own clothes. She did not have the courage to examine him as he did her, but her furtive glances absorbed the strength of the body lined against her, skin to skin all the way to her toes.
A dreamy intimacy permeated her. Her body and soul waited within their harmony. Waited as they had all day and night. As they had for weeks. She wanted to hold him as closely as possible, so that she might possess a part of him no matter what happened beyond this fire glow and after the power of this precious night.
He gazed right into her eyes. She knew the next kiss would be different. He might have led her to this point with sweet seduction, but it would not end so restrained.
The passion of the ruins instantly swept her into a tempest. With fierce possession he kissed her senseless, his mouth and tongue conquering hers before joining his hands in their merciless stimulation of her body. Insistent need and an itching hunger joined her pleasure, converting it into something seeking a goal. Yearning pushed and ached with escalating intensity.
He boldly explored her nakedness, learning its secrets and feeling its tremors. Startled gasps leaked out amidst her ragged breaths, and that only seemed to coil his tension tighter. He took her breast in his mouth and sucked until she cried out. The pleasure turned toward a center, twining and twisting, wanting and waiting with a power that tormented.
Yes, please â¦
She held on to him as if her sanity depended on it, grabbing frantically at his shoulders.
Oh, God, please â¦
He led her toward something dangerous and wonderful and she wanted both to rush forward and beat a retreat.
Give me â¦ I want â¦
His caresses moved lower, to stomach and thighs. He firmly pushed her legs apart.
Oh, oh â¦ yes, I want â¦ please, higher, there, oh, I â¦ I â¦
He brushed his fingers through her lower hair, stroking down between her thighs. When his hand answered her plea, an acute spike of pleasure made her stretch away. He threw a leg over hers to hold her in place. His hard phallus pressed into her hip, startling her more.
“I am not taking you yet. You will enjoy this, I promise you.” His finger slid down her cleft into slick moisture and hidden folds.
Touches. Strokes. The intensity of the sensations assaulted her in a relentless series of pleasurable shocks. The places he explored were scandalously sensitive. She lost sense of everything else but a groaning craving that left her begging.
Yes, yes, ah, yes.
Desperate want vanquished virginal fear. She spread her legs and moved into his touch, rocking closer.
Please â¦ ah.
The pleasure only got stronger, sharper, worse. Building, building spinning out of control now, crying her single-minded thoughts, the flesh that he caressed, pulsing in time with her speeding heart.
I â¦ I â¦ oh, God â¦
Her awareness shattered into bright shards, blinding her senses. An unearthly pitch of shrieking pleasure exploded into an instant of suffusing bliss.
He moved on top of her and she clawed him to her. In her sated stupor he was the only reality besides her own physicality. The whole world existed in him.
He entered her carefully. A vague awareness of pain penetrated her concentration on his scent, his skin, and her relief. He lifted one of her legs up over his hip and that eased the tightness.
Yes, yes, so good â¦ I want this. I want you.
He pressed until he filled her. Controlled power poured out of him, tensing the shoulders above her and the arms flanking her. A sensual severity sculpted his face. She found his rhythm and rocked up to accept each filling penetration.
So good, so close. In me, with me. I want you. I love you.
The end came too soon, but then morning would have been too soon. Holding her leg to his hip, he leveraged her up and thrust even deeper, ravishing her in a flurry of hard moves that incited a renewed wildness in her. A final savage kiss, a visceral tremor, and suddenly he was gone from her, leaving her arms full of him, but their joining over.
She drifted in a sweet cloud, dazed and stunned. Her arms gripped him long after his own embrace had slackened. Newborn emotions saturated her and she did not understand them all.
Her mind slowly comprehended the end. He had withdrawn to protect her from pregnancy. His thoughtfulness touched her, but she also experienced a stab of inexplicable disappointment.
He brushed the hair away from her face and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “You never cease to astonish me, Bianca.”
Slowly the sacred intimacy changed to something less holy and more solid. His possessive embrace broke and he shifted off of her. They lay together for a long while, and she sensed contentment luring him to sleep. She hopped up and scurried over to the bookshelves.
“What are you doing?” He watched her naked body in a way they both assumed was his right now. How quickly one became shameless about these things.
“Getting the port. I think that I should be allowed some more.” She also snatched up the glass, and on second thought, lifted the blue folio as well. Back in their nest, she snuggled down and he tucked the coverlet around them until they were cocooned together.
He poured the port and shared it with her. He gestured to the folio that she had set aside. “You are in the mood to read? I can see that I will have to do better next time.”
“If you should fall asleep I will need something to do, because I am very awake. I would like to read this someday, and see what your brother wrote about my country. Both you and Charlotte speak of him with pride.”
“Pride to be sure, but Milton was not without his faults. He possessed an intellectual arrogance that managed to offend without intention. Also, he could be very impractical sometimes.”
He might not have revered Milton, but she could hear his sadness, timeworn but still keen, when he spoke of him. She understood too well the quiet poignancy that grief assumes over time.
She moved the folio out of view, hoping the painful subject could be dropped as easily. To her surprise, he stretched for it and flipped it open. He ran his fingers down the large sheets, as if by doing so he could connect with the hand that had held the pen that wrote the words.
Her gaze followed his fingers, and she noticed the way the ink formed the letters beneath his touch.
“So, they were not from him,” she said.
He looked at her curiously.
“There were some letters from Adam's desk at Woodleigh in the trunk in my chamber. I assumed they were from Milton and had intended to give them to you, but with the events of our last days at Laclere Park, I forgot. However, if this is your brother's hand, the letters were not from him after all.”
“Did they bear his signature?”
“I did not check. I did not even read them.”
“Why did you believe they were from Milton?”
Why had she? “The salutation on the top one, I suppose. It was something like âDearest Friend,' and you had spoken of their fast friendship. It was stupid of me to assume they came from Milton. I expect that Adam had other friends.”
He ran his fingertips over the page again. “Where are these letters now?”
“Still in my chamber at Laclere Park.”
“I would like to see them, to be sure they were not from Milton.”
She understood that. Didn't she clutch the little bits of her father's and mother's lives that she found in those papers? “It is always tragic when one so gifted dies young. Some claim that God takes the best the fastest. Everyone said that about my father, but I do not believe God to be so selfish.”
Vergil looked to the hearth with a sightless frown. “God did not take Milton, Bianca. He died by his own hand.”
“Oh, Vergil. I am sorry that I spoke of it at all.”
“You could not have suspected.”
“Do you know why?”
“I am trying to learn that. He could be melancholy, but I do not think that drove him to it.” He paused in a way that caused her to think that he was picking his words carefully. “Like many men born to his station, my brother assumed the rules were necessary but intended for everyone but himself. He pursued his own interests quietly, secure that the world would leave him alone if he did not demand attention. He was correct, up to a point. However, some of his ideas and behavior left him very vulnerable, and the day came when someone exploited that vulnerability.”
“He was being blackmailed?”
“I am all but certain of it.”
“You said that some of his political views were radical, butâor was it his involvement in the mill?”
“I had assumed it was the former, because Milton would never have found the latter so damning it demanded his death. There are those who advocate violence as the way to solve our current troubles, and there have been assassination attempts on government leaders. If my brother had any connection to the men who planned such things, any at all, and it became knownâ It was one reason why I took his place here. It was a way to gain entry to his life, and the radicals in this region. But I wonder sometimes if it was not politics that he was threatened with, but something much more ordinary.”
“So the answer may not be here, you are saying, but somewhere closer to home.”
His expression changed, as if she had startled him. “Yes. Closer to home.”
She kissed his shoulder. “Is that why you became such a saint? To compensate for the scandal used to threaten your brother, should it still become known? I thought it was to deflect attention from your secret life.”
He gave a slow smile. “Perhaps I became a saint because it is in my nature to be one.”
She giggled and pointedly looked at their discarded garments. Sneaking a hand around his waist, she tickled him and he jumped. “It does not appear to be in your nature at all, by my reckoning of things.”
Maybe, just maybe, she enjoyed the next hours even more than she had the physical pleasure. In their little world of firelight, they told stories from their past and discussed people they knew. Bianca learned of his concerns for Charlotte's future and his hope that she would marry happily. She told him all about Aunt Edith, and how she once scolded John Adams at a formal dinner. They speculated on how Pen and Cornell Witherby had
for each other, and whether Dante would ever find happiness.
Finally, shortly before dawn, he bundled her in the blanket and carried her up to the lord's chamber. He unwrapped her and warmed her and made slow, soulful love, so beautifully that it wrung her heart.
When her emotions and body were sated, he showed her the final, most dangerous pleasure. That of falling asleep in the security of her lover's arms.
he appeared terribly vulnerable when she slept. With the clever mind silenced and the self-assurance in repose, she was all softness and innocence.
He had spent the last hour looking at her, delighting in the little twitches of her eyelids and lips, drinking in the sight of her, like some country boy enraptured by the first girl who had finally said yes.
Making love had only further confused the tangle. It might have helped if she had been less open and passionate. Less joyful. Whatever defenses he had retained against his feelings had been demolished by the pleasure.
Astounding pleasure. Incredibly intense. If he had ever experienced anything like it, he didn't remember. Even the few great infatuations of his younger days, of being mesmerized by Catalani and others, paled as superficial and immature in comparison. Certainly the efficient sensuality practiced in recent years had produced nothing remotely similar. A man did not permit true intimacy with professional women.
Was she even aware that she had gasped out audibly in her frenzy? Her melodic groans and urgings had filled his ears, making his hold on restraint tenuous at best.
Yes â¦ I want this, I want you.
The echo had his mind reeling and an erection hardening.
I want you. I love you.
Did she realize that she had even thought that, let alone said it? He knew better than to put much stock in words spoken in the throes of passion.
Dante had been right. She would make a splendid mistress. He strongly suspected that she would agree to be his lover, for a while at least. Which was the problem that awaited him all too soon and tinted his preening contentment with misgivings.
He did not want her in a love affair smothered by discretion. He wanted her for a wife. He was not at all convinced that she would agree to that, in which case he had corrupted her last night, and possibly initiated her to the very life he had been warning her about.
Later. He would stretch what happiness he could out of this interlude first. There would be time enough to explain that she had to marry him now.
He laughed aloud. Leave it to Bianca to end his grand seduction with the tables completely turned. He was damn close to waking her and demanding that she do the right thing by him.
“What are you smiling about?” She stretched and blinked like a kitten awakening. Her sleepy smile turned up to accept his morning kiss.
“Just watching you and enjoying you beside me.”
She nestled against his shoulder and peered around the bright chamber. “The rain has stopped. The sun â¦ everything looks and feels so different.”
“Not too different, I hope.”
“Not too, but a little.” She snuck a glance up at him. “Should I be embarrassed to find myself here with you?”
“That depends on whether you have regrets. Do you?”
She thought about that. “No, even though I am supposed to.”
“I have always suspected that all of the âsupposed tos' were decided by people who lacked experience in the situations they pronounced upon.”
“Aunt Edith says much the same thing, about different situations, of course. I think that you would like her. She does not much hanker to people trying to tell her what she is supposed to do or think. Mother may have been the same way, but since I was her child, she would not have voiced such ideas to me. Edith is too old to know restraint in her opinions, however.”
He would like to meet the aunt, and regretted that he would never know the mother. He would enjoy seeing the city where Bianca had lived and the streets where she had walked as a child and a girl.
She tucked the coverlet up around her neck. Despite her brave front, she was not completely without embarrassment, and her vulnerability touched him.
“What do we do now?” She kept looking around the big chamber.
We get dressed, ride to York, procure a special license from the archbishop, and get married.
“Whatever you like. I think that we can put off returning you to Pen for another day if you want, or I can order Morton to make the carriage ready at once.”
She bit her lower lip. “Do you want me to stay?”
He realized that her embarrassment had to do with him. She wondered what morning-after judgments he was making. He should have considered that the new day might require some reassurances.
“I want you to stay as long as we can manage it, and heartily wish that nothing existed to put limits on our time alone together. If you want, we will take this day and make the most of it and decide about the waiting world tomorrow.”
A beautiful smile lit her face. “I would like that. Is it very late? Have we slept most of the day away and wasted it?”
“Not so late. Not yet noon.”
“Do we have time to go to Manchester? To see our mill?”
With any other woman, he would suspect that she flattered him by expressing interest in his life.
“If you do not want to, I understand, Laclere. After all, there is the risk that people would see me with you.”
I would have the whole world see you with me.
“I would very much like to show you our mill. We will go this afternoon. Is there anything else you would like to do?”
Mischievous lights flickered in her big blue eyes. She ran a finger along his collarbone and blushed prettily. “Well, it is still a little different and strange, what with the sun and day and all. Not too much, but a little. Maybe if you were to â¦ if we were to â¦ that is to say, it might be less so then. Different and strange feeling, that is.”
He eased her head toward his kiss. “Except that I worried for you feeling overused, I would have, we would have, as soon as you opened your eyes. It pleases me that you want me, Bianca, and that you tell me so.”
“Oh, yes,” she whispered. “I do.”
He inclined his shoulders up against some pillows on the headboard and showed her how to straddle his lap. Savoring her weight lying against his chest, adoring the face turned to his kisses, he embraced and caressed her like the precious gift she was. He slid the bed coverings away so he could gaze over her shoulder at the sinuous lines that dipped down her back before curving gracefully up her bottom and snaking back and forth along her bent legs. His hard phallus nestled between her thighs and he felt the wetness of arousal seep out of her.
He eased her upright so that he could see her body and her passion. A little different, what with the sun and the day and all. Not too much, but a little, and wonderfully so. He loved watching her ecstacy grow while he touched her.
He inclined her so that he could lick and suck her breasts. Her frenzy broke and those erotic affirmations began sighing out of her. Like flames, they set his blood on fire.
“Bring me inside yourself,” he said, bracing himself against the explosive urge to have her every way imaginable before accepting release.
She straightened with dazed confusion.
“Stay where you are and take me inside you. This is how I want you this time.”
She looked down at his phallus nested between her thighs, its tip pressing visibly against her cleft. She had never touched him before. Her hesitation reminded him of the recent ignorance that her quick passion made easy to forget.
He was about to take over when she rose up and grasped him firmly, like a woman determined to meet a challenge. Then he was sliding into her tight velvet warmth while her eyes closed with contentment and a melodic groan of relief escaped her. He pulled her down and held her motionlessly in a firm embrace so he could merely revel in the feel of her for a spell.
She pushed up and squirmed until he was deeply imbedded. Her hands drifted down his chest in two slow inflaming paths. Cautiously, curiously, she rose up and lowered herself and blinked with astonishment.
She found a rhythm and he let it last until she began moving and frowning as if she searched for something out of reach. Her cries and gasps and hard absorptions singed his constricting consciousness. He slid his hand to her cleft and touched the spot that would bring her to climax. With increased wildness she rode him harder until she screamed a release that filled the chamber and drove him to his own completion.
He had to forcibly lift her in order to withdraw in time. She collapsed on him, her head resting against his chest and her body wrapped in his arms. The sweat of her passion glistened all along her back.
Holding firmly to her warmth and heartbeat and slowing breaths, he dragged the coverlet over them both. He pressed his lips to her damp hair and allowed his soul to taste the rare, deep flavor of love.
Morton had disappeared. Like a busy ghost, he executed his duties but never showed his face. When they finally descended for a late breakfast, the meal was ready, as if he had divined the exact moment it would be needed. Hot water awaited their return to the bedchamber, and the carriage and its horses were prepared just in time for the trip to Manchester. Old Lucas sat at the reins because, as he explained to Vergil, the valet had some business to attend in the manor.
Bianca appreciated the total isolation that Morton's absence created. Not because of shame. She experienced none of that at all. The old manor had become theirs alone, a little world existing in dream time, and the solitude intensified their deepening intimacy.
It was Sunday, and Vergil escorted her around an abandoned works. He showed her where the raw cotton was received and cleaned, and the long, low buildings filled with steam-powered spinning machines. His commentary became animated and detailed when he described the improvements he had invented, and she delighted in the quiet pride he found in his achievement. Finally he took her to a new structure, larger than all the others.
“You should see this, since you will be investing in it,” he explained.
The building held rows of large looms connected by vertical arms to iron bars overhead.
“They will be steam-powered, like the spinning. Only a few others have done this yet, and not on this scale. The engine is being built in the next room.” He showed her the way and explained the huge metal cauldron and water pipes and valves that would make the metal arms move the looms' parts as required. “Most weaving is still done in homes. This will be much faster and more efficient. I have promised the jobs here to any home weavers who want to learn the new ways.”
“Some will not want to.”
“They will manage for a long while yet. The change will not happen overnight, but the craft will not exist for their sons. It is for them, much as your grandfather said it was for me and my kind. Their world is dying.”
“It does not appear to me that your world is dying. I think that my grandfather was premature.”
“Prophecies are always premature. As with the weavers, the change will not be overnight, and two hundred years from now Duclaircs and Calnes will still be lords with privileges. But we will be as quaint and picturesque as the medieval ruins in Laclere Park, I think. In my lifetime I expect our hold will be circumscribed as the cities like Manchester demand their say. My hope is that the change comes peaceably, and not with the violence that already tears at the country, reflecting the people's impatience.”
He checked his office for any materials Mr. Thomas might have left for his attention. She peered over his shoulder as he sat at his desk and flipped through some letters.
“Mr. Thomas wrote these?” she asked, picking one up to examine it. “Well, that explains it, then.”
“Those letters in my grandfather's desk. The ones I told you about last night, that I had thought were from Milton. This is the same handwriting. They must be letters regarding the mill, that Mr. Thomas wrote to Adam.”
Vergil went very still. He no longer read the pages in front of him. She sensed a distraction that took him far away from her, to some place in his head where she did not intrude.
He turned a thoughtful gaze on her. “How did you say the salutation read? The one on the top letter that you saw?”
“My dearest friend.”
“An odd way for an employee to address Adam Kenwood, don't you think?”
“They may have formed a fast friendship. Such things happen.”
The frown turned into a scowl. “All the same, I want to know about those letters, and I don't intend to wait until I return to Laclere Park.” He rose. “Mr. Thomas lives in the local village. If I am here, I may as well go speak with him about it now. It should not take long.”
The village was a quarter-mile west, a single lane of cottages pressed shoulder to shoulder. The age of some of them indicated this spot had been inhabited for generations, and had been a farming community before the mill was built. Now many of the homes burst with people, and the lane this Sunday showed the community relaxing from the week's work.
“There are a lot of men here,” Bianca said as she craned her neck to survey the commotion through the window. “It appears that some of these homes are crowded.”