|A Bride By Moonlight
Avon Books, February 2013
|Excerpt from the novel A Bride By Moonlight|
Napier cocked one hip on his windowsill and crossed his arms, studying her. “Elizabeth,” he said quietly, “why are you not leaving?”
Her satin cords, or whatever they were, having been tossed aside, Elizabeth threw up both hands and looked at him incredulously. “Because we’ve work to do?” she snapped. “Because the sooner we’ve done whatever it is you’ve dragged me off to do, the sooner we’ll be away from here?”
Away from here.
Away from her.
God, he prayed for both—but for far different reasons, he was beginning to think.
Suddenly her eyes widened. She cut a glance at the door, then hastened to it, the green velvet of her carriage dress slithering enticingly over her hips. Then, to his extreme discomfort, she bent over a little and set an ear to a flat spot in the carved wood, providing a delectable view.
It seemed an eternity before she straightened and shook her head. “My imagination,” she muttered. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
Napier sighed, and altered his strategy. “Make your point, but be quick about it,” he said. “In what way might you be of help?”
Again, the ingenuous expression. “Why, it’s hard to know,” she said, “when I’ve been told nothing of what brought you home to Burlingame. After all, I am just the hired help—no, the blackmailed help. Nonetheless, I will have time alone with all your maddening female relations—and ladies do gossip. Moreover, they will take no notice whatever of another lady asking a great many questions. Indeed, given our so-called betrothal, they will wonder if I do not.”
“There is some truth to that,” he admitted.
“And then, of course, there’s Fanny.”
“Who, pray, is Fanny?”
“My maid,” she said impatiently. “Servants’ hall tittle-tattle is the purest form of gossip.”
“True, my man Jolley is invaluable in that regard.”
“Furthermore, Fanny and I are apt to be in parts of the house you will not,” she said. “While you’re closeted with your grandfather in some stuffy estate office, the ladies will likely take tea in the drawing room, or sew in the parlor, or read in the library. Are you looking, perhaps, for a weapon? Or purloined goods? Or what?”
He considered it for a moment, and wondered why he should not take her up on it. Elizabeth was a clever piece of work, and the fact that she made his cock throb every time she drew near was merely a testament to his stupidity.
“All right,” he said, setting one hand high on the bedpost. “I need every bit of gossip either you or Fanny come across, so long as you take no risk to get it. And I need paper.”
“Letter paper,” he amended. “From every room in the house, ideally, though that won’t be possible. Give it to Jolley, or have Fanny do so.”
He could see her brain clocking along like a well-greased gearbox. “Someone has written you anonymously,” she said. “Or written something suspicious to someone, at any rate. And you wish to discover if the letter came from this house.”
“Never mind what I wish,” he snapped. “I just want samples of letter paper. Don’t do anything foolish. If you’re seen going through a bureau or a desk, just say you needed to jot down a thought or write a letter home.”
“Yes, to my dear uncle Lord Rowend, no doubt,” she said dryly, “who will need time to plan my wedding.”
Napier barked with laughter. “Oh, doubtless.”
It was then that he made the grave misjudgment of looking at her—really looking at her. A grin had curved one corner of that lush mouth and those eyes were again glittering green with mischief.
Napier dragged a hand down his face.
“What?” she demanded.
But the gravity of his situation had returned tenfold. “I made a mistake,” he finally said.
“Oh?” She tilted her head as if to better see him. “Of what sort?”
“Of every sort,” he managed. “Bringing you here. The lies. The clothes. That damned wig. I don’t know, really, what I was thinking. All of it was so … unwise.”
Her incredulous expression returned. “Well, this is a fine time to decide,” she grumbled. “I could have been halfway to the Côte d’Azur by now.”
He grunted. “What, I thought you were bound for Scotland, that last, lawless refuge of scoundrels?”
Her gaze swept over him, dark as the velvet of her gown. “Well, I was bound for somewhere far from you, that much is certain.”
“And would to God I’d let you go,” he muttered.
“Why?” she demanded. “You think me a criminal and—yes, you just said it—a scoundrel. Why would you let me go?”
Her head was still set to one side, her eyes drifting over his face, her full lips slightly parted, and that keen intelligence burning fierce and angry in her eyes.
Well, she wasn’t intelligent enough, apparently.
With one hand, Napier reached out and dragged her hard against him.
“This is why,” he said—just before he kissed her.
She scarcely had time to gasp before he’d captured that lush, taunting mouth in a kiss of long-thwarted lust. Her free hand came up to shove him away, too late. Acting on pure instinct, Napier forced her back against the massive oak bedpost.
She gave a soft moan; a sound of surrender, he thought, and on a surge of desire, he pinned her with the weight of his body, his mouth raking hers. Though she kept the hand set stubbornly against his collarbone, Elizabeth did not resist.
Not even when he half hoped she would.
Instead, when he drew his tongue over the delicate seam of her lips, she opened on a soft, welcoming sound and allowed him free rein, her reactions almost artless. Napier seized the advantage, slanting his mouth over hers, thrusting again and again, plundering the depths of her mouth.
Dimly, he wondered at her experience, but the thought washed away on another powerful surge—red-hot desire that shot through his belly and drew his loins taut.
Somehow, they slid away from the bedpost and Napier pressed her back into the softness of the mattress. Dragging himself over her, he deepened the kiss, tangling his tongue sinuously with hers, his unslaked need rushing nearly unchecked.
Her hands flowed over him, tentative and almost shy. Then one warm palm slid down his spine, searing him all the way to the small of his back. Silently he begged her to slide it lower, to draw his body hard against hers in that most wicked and suggestive of ways.
He swam now in sheer, sensual hunger and like a man drowning, felt himself floating toward that dark precipice. Beyond it lay a roaring waterfall of need from which there would be no turning back. Because she was dangerous, and would drag him deep. He’d known that.
He knew it now, but the feminine curves of Elizabeth’s long, lithe body molded too perfectly to his, and the warmth of her breasts and her belly pressing against him urged Napier to madness.
They had tumbled sideways across his bed, the down bedding billowing softly about them, and Elizabeth’s skirts slithered halfway up her leg. Driven by one thing now, Napier thrust again, rhythmically sliding his tongue along hers in blatant invitation. And when she drew up her knee on a soft sound of pleasure, it was as if the heat of her thigh left him shivering.
Napier was so lost, he scarcely realized his hands now cradled her face, or that his mouth had slid over her cheek and along her temple. That he was whispering things: mad words of worship and desire.
One hand went to the swell of her breast, inching the fabric down until the hard, sweet bud of her nipple grazed his palm, sending heat shafting into his groin again.
“Ah, Elizabeth,” he whispered, his tongue tracing the shell of her ear. “Let me—”
“N-No.” Gasping, she at last put her hand to good use, shoving it against his shoulder. “Napier, st-stop. I—we—we don’t want this.”
By God, he wanted it.
But her words were like a dash of cold water. Napier stopped, his nostrils flared wide, his breath already coming hard.
Beneath his weight, Elizabeth looked wanton and needy, her tumble of curls bright against the billowing whiteness of the counterpane. She desired him; in that his instincts did not fail. Her lips were wet and slightly parted now, her eyes somnolent and glassy green. He could feel her body trembling—but not, he thought, from fear.
“Elizabeth, you want this,” he whispered, half hoping she would deny it. “You want me inside you.”
Her eyes flicked to his, her tongue darting out to lick her lips. “Yes,” she rasped. “I won’t lie. But … we can’t.”
He kissed her again, more tenderly now, foolishly unwilling to surrender his half-won prize; the thing for which he’d burned for days on end—if not longer.
But she urged him gently away. “Please don’t,” she whispered, her long lashes fanning shut like lace above her cheeks. “We’ll regret it. You’ll regret it.”
He let his face fall forward to touch hers, and forced his breathing to calm. “Yes,” he said on a harsh laugh. “I would.”
“And I deserve something better,” she said softly, “than a man who will regret me. I am, alas, a hopeless romantic.”
He had nothing to say to that. And when her eyes went soft with tenderness, something in Napier’s throat constricted.
Good God. She was a romantic?
Napier brushed his lips over her perfectly arched eyebrow and rolled away. For a long moment he lay beside her on the soft mattress, staring up at the plaster roundel in the middle of his ceiling and waiting for his rock-hard erection to subside past the point of pain.
Elizabeth deserved better.
But most women were romantics. Why had he believed her something less?
“You are too quiet,” she said, her voice tremulous. “Am I … ”
“Are you what?” His bollocks tight and aching, the words came out more harshly than he’d meant.
“Have I made you angry?” she said. “Was this … part of that price you expected me to pay?”
He cursed beneath his breath.
“Oh, I know you think me some sort of Jezebel.” Her voice was strengthening. “I cannot stop you from thinking that. But understand I would have done anything, Napier, to avenge my father’s death. I would have paid any price. But this price? Merely to save my own skin? Oh, you need to know here and now that I will not pay it.”
“You think that’s what this is?” he demanded. “A price to be paid? Part of that deal with the devil you think you’ve made?”
“My God, Elizabeth.” The knot in his throat tightened again. “What have I ever done to make you imagine me that sort of man?”
“N-nothing,” she whispered.
“Damn it, do you see what I mean?” he said. “This is what a mistake feels like.”
The plaster roundel blurred before his vision—Phaethon felled by a lightning bolt, somewhat aptly. She said no more, and after a time, he somehow found it in him to collect his wits and help her off the bed. But as she turned her back to restore her clothing to order, he saw they had crushed the satin cords she’d unfurled from her hair.
On a pathetic impulse, he picked them up and coiled them tight about his hand—coiled them so tight his blood ceased to flow—then relented and shoved them ruthlessly into his pocket.
She turned around with a wobbly smile, her bodice restored. “You were right,” she said. “I oughtn’t have barged in. I take full responsibility.”
Napier shrugged, and forced a smile that probably looked like a sneer. “A lady may always refuse a gentleman’s advances,” he said, gripping the bedpost rather too tightly. “My apologies, Elizabeth. There is a train back to London tomorrow at eight. I can see that you are on it.”
For a moment, her expression turned inward. “And go back to what?” she said hollowly. “I have no life in London now. I cannot even go back to my charity work at Lady Leeton’s school.”
She was right, and Napier knew it. Worse, he did not want her to go. “Very well,” he said. “Then you may trust this will not happen again.”