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Authors: Harper Alibeck

Tags: #Romance

The Water's Kiss (6 page)

BOOK: The Water's Kiss
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Ever.

This would need to be laid out, with strategy and tactics, like a military battle plan on the field. Except that Evan had gained glory in battle not for his overt actions, but for his covert, behind-the-scenes planning that caught the enemy off guard.

He was quietly ruthless. Leave the grand show of power for his father and the earl. Evan would find his own way to Claire. Whatever the cost, whatever it took, he would not back down. Unlike a regiment facing off in a fool’s errand, all public and vulnerable and ready for picking off by a too-aggressive enemy, Evan would plot and plan, playing a game of chess while his opponent played war.

“I understand, Charles.” The man’s pigeon chest, held too high and poking out with the too-long held breath of worry, deflated before him, the sigh so loud Evan thought surely the earl could hear it three floors away.

“Thank you, Sir.” Gratitude seeped into the man’s words, his body relaxing just enough to prove Evan’s suspicions correct. The footman was well trained, and to an outsider the change in demeanor would have gone unnoticed. He truly did not know how to handle an argument from Evan, and would have been at pains to find the right reply had any level of conflict ensued. Landsdown had put them both in this uncomfortable situation, where the only choice was to back down.

Or go around.

Think think think.
In Spain he had been rushed, everything all frenzy and swift. Here, though, he had the luxury of time. If Landsdown’s guard were down, thinking that he had made a decision and evasion would be enough, then Evan needed to out-maneuver him. Plenty of time to think this through. The footman remained impassive, waiting in the foyer with Evan, who would need to make the first move back to the door. Whatever his next step, he needed to be closer to Claire, to find a way in to see her or her father. Tactics did not matter; whatever forwarded his overall strategy would be sufficient.

The answer walked down the hallway like a
deus ex machina
.

A God in the machine named Bridie. She bustled down the hallway with a silver tea tray, likely headed for Claire’s room. Her face was serious. Too serious. She didn’t notice him, forcing him to clear his throat.

“Bridie,” he said. The poor woman jumped, milk spilling a bit as her hands fumbled for purchase on the tray. She frowned, then looked to find the source of the voice.

“Oh! Mr. Michaelson!” Cheeks pinkening, she glanced down at the tray and set it on the floor. “Oh, a spill!” Mopping at the coin-sized pool of milk on the silver, she used her apron deftly, restoring the tray to respectability in seconds. Retrieving it, she stood, the entire production so practiced Evan found himself impressed.

Then she just stared at him. He realized it was his turn to speak, and said, “Is your lady available for a visit? I realize it is late,” he gestured to the darkening sky, “and that I am unannounced, but I fear Lord Landsdown has made himself unavailable to me, and it would brighten my evening to see her.”

A knowing look filled her expression. “You went to see her father?”

He grinned. “Yes.”

She bit her lips. He knew there was more beneath the surface, knew that finding her was key to seeing Claire. Bridie seemed to want to ask him a question, so he took a step closer. That did the trick.

“Mr. Michaelson, were you trying to talk about your betrothal?” she whispered, looking about to make certain no one heard her.

“What if I were?” he asked. He knew better than to give information without receiving some in exchange.

The poor maid struggled; she couldn’t hide her emotions like the ladies, he knew. She flushed, then hissed, “Miss Claire feared you did not love her enough to even try!”

He groaned inwardly and shut his eyes for a few seconds, taking a deep breath to align himself. Father had been so, so wrong. Coming here and facing the earl was exactly what Evan should have done long ago. Was the earl’s refusal to see him a sign that he was too late?

“Is the earl here?” Evan asked, pointedly looking toward his library.

Bridie froze. Damn. Evan knew he put her in a terrible predicament. If she told Evan the truth, she could get in trouble. But lying to the man her lady loved meant trouble, too. Ten different emotions flipped through her expression in ten seconds. He interrupted and said, “Don’t answer, Bridie. I think I know the answer to my own question.”

“Oh, thank you!” she said without guile, walking slowly toward Claire’s quarters. He knew he should not follow, and was frankly surprised that no one quietly stopped him. Bridie looked at him sideways, as if reading his thoughts. “I am bringing this,” she nodded at the tray, “to her personal room, Sir.”

And then she winked.

Evan grinned and reached for the tray, winking back. Bridie pulled back; she had given him a small hint and he had taken a huge leap. “I can serve,” he chuckled.

“Serve!” Peals of laughter filled the hall outside Claire’s room, until abruptly Bridie clapped her hand over her own mouth. “Sir, serving isn’t what I’m worried about.” She lowered her voice. “If anyone knows I let you in, it will be trouble.”

“Just a few minutes, Bridie, Enough to convince her that I tried,” he beseeched.

She reached into her pocket and fingered an envelope of some sort, looked at Claire’s door, then nodded. “After what Miss Claire did for my sister...” Her voice trailed off.

Evan was intrigued. “What did she do?”

Torment splashed across her face in red splotches, her neck cocked and face an expression of deep divide. Bridie closed her eyes suddenly, winced, thrust the tray into his hands and hissed, “I don’t now nothin’ about this, Sir!” and practically ran down the hallway on tiptoe. A small piece of paper fell out of her pocket, floating down. An envelope. Evan set the tea tray down on the ground, strode down the carpeted hallway quietly and retrieved it, read it, then looked at Claire’s door, wondering what on earth the letter meant.

What, indeed, had Claire done?

Her door flew open. She rubbed her eyes, her golden locks mussed, face sleepy and slack, with an innocence and relaxing quality that he wished to see every morning for the rest of his life. She was kissable, so rumpled and confounded that he wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms and make the last few weeks unwind and disintegrate. Her robe fell open and all she wore under was a light, ivory chemise, breasts outlined perfectly by the delicacy of China silk that made him long to be a silkworm. A plume of lust arose in him, triggering more than admiration, his mind suddenly half-addled by the sight she made.

“I heard voices,” she muttered, alarm at the sight of him written clearly on her face. She frowned and craned her head around the threshold, searching for someone. “Was that Bridie?” Her voice trailed off and she stared at Evan, the frown deepening.

He tried to imagine what the scene before her must evoke. The cold tea had sloshed onto the tray and hallway runner, the tray set on the ground as he walked back to her door.

The look on Claire’s face told him that this would take some time to unravel.

And time was the last thing working in his favor.

Grabbing Claire’s wrist as she started to say something, he whirled her back into her room and closed the door before she could protest.

“Explain to me why you helped that maid’s married sister abandon my stable hand,” he demanded, holding Claire inches from him, his hot breath washing over her face, a hint of clove and something sweet tickling her nose. She had faded off to sleep and come to the door, attracted by loud voices, and now found herself dishabille, wearing but a robe and chemise, her beloved Evan mere feet from her bed.

With no chaperone.

And now he demanded an explanation for...what? “Your stable hand?”

He thrust the letter into her hand. “Bridie’s sister’s name is Mary, yes? Let me guess – Mary Simons? It’s been the talk of the servants for months, Claire. How one of the men had a wife disappear on him. He came to my father to ask for help finding her. And now it turns out your father has stolen not one wife from our estate – mine – but two!”

“Your wife? What? I – ” What was he raving about? Her eyes met his as she tipped her head up, her body struggling to push away drowsiness and to engage in rational thought. Her brain was not working right, though it slowly came to be, registering his eyes, that the skin around them was soft and compassionate, encircling orbs that stared into her own, blue as a clear ocean and intensely focused on her, so intent as to curl her toes.

She could read lust, love, determination, mischief, and comfort in them. A lock of hair fell over his forehead, begging for her to push it back with her hand, but she knew that if she reached for him, her skin would catch fire, her self-control would evaporate, and she would give in to a lascivious desire that was anything but ladylike.

But first, the business at hand. She was being accused most heinously of a crime he could not understand. Claire blinked, frowning. “I helped Mary to go off to the south with my sister, when she married the prince.”

“Why would you need to be part of sending servants to new households?”

“Because she’s married.”

Evan’s brow furrowed. “She’s married? Why would that be a problem?”

“Because Mary needed to leave her husband, and he doesn’t know where she went.”

“Steven Simons is a stable hand on my estate, Bridie. He came to my father, searching for her. The whole matter created quite a stir for over a month, triggering searches in the woods, in the bogs, and in London to find her. The matter has died down now, but how on earth did you keep her location a secret? And why?”

Claire swallowed, hard. How could a man understand? She and Sara had watched Mary shrivel, black and blue and beaten in soul as well as body. What reason would make a group of women, ladies and maids alike, hide a married woman? Her husband’s brutality had pushed them to break rules that even Papa realized, after much convincing, needed to be transgressed.

She sighed, reluctant to delve into the details. “He was beating her, Evan. Beating her until her bones broke.”

He startled, fists involuntarily clenching in what she thought was a most protective gesture. “That is more than good enough a reason.” He glanced at her door. “And your father...helped?”

She just nodded, the fear for Mary’s safety mingled with her own uncertainty over her future. Her sister Celia was paired with a cold, malevolent being who made her life absolute torture in unspeakable ways. Though she and Sara had conspired to help their older sister, thus far no one could invent a plausible scenario for her rescue. In Mary, Sara and Claire had found someone they
could
help, a woman whose could escape the oppressive dictates of law and matrimony and find relief and safety. A not insignificant part of Claire understood that in helping Mary, she was trying to help Celia – and, she knew, her future self.

One look at Evan and the juxtaposition of her submission to Papa’s choice for her and the man offering more before her rendered her wholly incapable of any articulate explanation for why she had meddled in servant affairs. She did it because she
could
.

And now she stared into the eyes of someone who offered her so many ways she could rebel against man-made rules.

“Claire,” he whispered, more a sigh than a groan, her name carrying the promise of unrestrained passion if she just gave him permission, took one inch of the distance between them for hers, gave him a reason, gave him a sign.

She did not, though. Could not. For if Evan wanted her, he had to fight. Fight her father, fight himself, but most importantly, fight her. Bridge the distance in full, for she had compromised too much, sacrificed too many times, and now, now any man who wanted her more than her father wanted a child on the throne had to come all the way.

Evan may have proven himself on the battlefield, but for
this
marriage – he had to be a warrior once more.

He leaned in to kiss her and she clenched her body, forcing herself not to move, ready but unwavering as –

A knock. “Miss Claire!” Bridie whispered through the door.

“Yes?” Claire asked, reaching for the doorknob.

“He’s here to see your father!” And with that, staccato steps filled the hall, then grew dimmer in sound as Bridie ran off.

Claire looked at Evan in surprise. “You are?”

“I tried,” he replied, eyes unreadable. “He will not see me.”

Papa!
She wanted to shout for him, shout at him, shout until her cries were heard by all the other titled women who had no control, no choice, no ability to decide for themselves. And in her vehemence, in her wild-eyed fury at having everything to lose and no options, she took one step into Evan’s arms and took his mouth hungrily, determined, for once, to have a shred of agency in her life.

To be the direct object and not the indirect.

To sink him into a kiss she had wanted now for what felt like a lifetime. Her mouth found his and though she knew not what she was doing, she found her way, his tongue parting her lips with a languid, easy pleasure that made the kiss spread into her belly, her toes, her scalp, and all skin in between. His arms slid under her breasts, over her ribs, one hand planting itself between her shoulder blades, the other caressing her jaw then plunging into her long, blonde hair. Hands seemed to multiply as Evan claimed her, possessed her with his fingers, his arms, his tongue. She responded eagerly, instinct taking over, pushing her hips into his and finding just how eager he was for her as well.

BOOK: The Water's Kiss
8.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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