It’s the weekend and we’re busy decking the halls here for Christmas. So no facts today…just danger and urgency and the spark of passion…in my favorite room of any great house – the library. I hope you enjoy this one!
“Whatever you want, I have no interest. I demand you let me go this instant.”
His only response was his obscene laughter.
“Sir, you are in your cups.” She tugged for all she was worth. “Come morning you will regret your actions.”
“Shall I, mon amie?”
“Indeed, yes!” She lashed out with her hand, her palm striking the side of his head and not the cheek she had aimed for. But she was not Laurel Sutherland’s sister for nothing, nor Aidan Phillips’s sister-in-law, for that matter. They had taught her how to fight, to defend herself. If this man refused to behave like a gentleman, then it was time for her to stop behaving like a lady. She lifted her foot. . . .
Her knee hit squarely in the man’s groin. He let out a yelp, his arms loosening and opening a fraction of space between them. As he bent over, she seized the opportunity and swung her fists, jabbing at his throat, and something fleshier—his cheek this time? When he howled and lurched backward, she ran, blindly, having no notion in which direction she went. She only hoped she would end up at the library where she could escape to the terrace and the safety of the ballroom.
“Miss Sutherland, is that you?”
She collided with a torso—solid like the stranger’s yet familiar, protective. Arms closed around her, wrapping her in safety. “Lord Drayton? Please let it be you this time.”
The bravado that had saved her from that drunkard’s lascivious intentions now abandoned her in a torrent. Sobs choked her voice, strangling the syllables of his name. Until this moment, she had not realized how frightened she was. Who had accosted her? Could it have been Mr. Fenhurst, who had always been kind to her and her sisters? Or Lord Arnold, whose youthful wife proved he had a penchant for younger women? The man in the corridor had seemed larger and stronger than either of those two, but could her fear have magnified his size and strength?
She buried her face against Lord Drayton’s shoulder.
“What is it? What happened?” The questions came sharply, penetrating her fear, demanding an answer. “And what did you mean, by ‘this time’?”
She pressed her cheek to his coat front. “There was a man. At first I thought he was you following me . . . but . . .” She raised her face, taking in the firm lines of his chin, his jaw, the stony contour of his cheek. “It wasn’t you.”
“I did follow you, Miss Sutherland, but when I heard you stop in the corridor, I assumed—” He broke off. His hand cradled the back of her head, his fingers gently stroking her hair. The library door stood open beside them. Lord Drayton held her tightly, his lips tickling her ear as he made soothing sounds to calm her. She relished the reassurance of masculine superfine, and the muscle beneath, against her cheek.
“It was my own fault,” she said. “He must have seen me leave the ballroom and followed me. He must have assumed I went looking for . . . for . . .”
He framed her face in his hands and raised it from his chest until their gazes met. His voice, when he spoke, was as steely as a knife-edge. “What did he do?”
“He . . .” Now that she was safe, it all seemed a blur. He had seemed to materialize out of nowhere, from the shadows themselves.
An ill sensation rose, wrapped in layers of shame that forced her head down. There were reasons decent young women didn’t wander alone through dark corridors. She drew a steadying breath. “He seized me and refused to let go.”
The earl’s hands tightened until she could feel the calluses, acquired from years of riding, against her cheeks. “Did he take privileges with you?” When she didn’t answer, he spoke more loudly, more fiercely. “Did he hurt you?”
“He didn’t hurt me exactly. In fact, I may have injured him. I struck him and kicked him as hard as I could. Then I ran.”
She couldn’t be quite certain, but she thought the corners of his mouth lifted in what might have been a smile.
“Come.” His strong arm looped about her waist. As he walked her into the library, she didn’t know if it was lingering fear and shock that made her knees wobble, or the intimacy of his hold. But if not for his steadying arm and the solidness of his side against her, she would have toppled. He brought her to the settee before the fireplace and gently handed her down onto the cushions.
He crouched at her feet. His hand closed around hers, disconcerting and heavenly. “Did you recognize anything about him?”
She tried to focus on his question, rather than on those calluses across the base of his fingers, or on how she might lean over and press her lips to the silky hair at the crown of his head. “It was too dark. I could make out only that he was older than . . . than you. Not quite elderly, I shouldn’t think. Middle-aged.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Very little. He said . . . that he wasn’t you.”
The earl responded with a curious lift of his eyebrow, making her regret the disclosure. Don’t ask. Please, don’t ask.
He drew back a little. “Of all things, why would he declare that?”
“Because . . .” She sipped her sherry, wishing she could crawl into the glass and drown.
He grasped her wrist, and gently lowered her arm. “Why, Holly?”
The echo of her Christian name reverberated through her, then settled with a heated thrum deep in her belly. She had often heard him speak her sisters’ names, Ivy and Willow, even Laurel. But never Holly. Never once had he looked at her and allowed his lips to form her name.
How sweetly it rolled off his tongue, making her pulse leap, her heart swell. His presence suddenly filled the room, her world, and each breath she drew came laden with his musky scent, fueling a sudden longing to toss her sherry aside and throw her arms around his neck.
She shut her eyes, blocking out the tempting sight of him. “I told you, I thought he was you. I thought you had been following me, and when he caught me, I . . . cried out your name.” Good heavens, she kept digging herself in deeper. What questions would he ask now? What answers would he demand?
“I was following you,” he said quietly but harshly. His subdued fierceness quickened her pulse. He rose higher on his knees, his hands sliding along her thighs to settle at her waist. His palms cupped her hip bones, raising an ache between them that nearly made her cry out his name all over again. She shut her eyes.
He swore under his breath. “I heard you running down the hall, and I followed until I realized you weren’t alone.”
Her eyes snapped open. “You heard him?”
“Yes, dammit. I could have spared you the entire unsavory experience had I not deemed my interference less than welcome.”
“You thought I’d gone to tryst?” Her stomach tightened into a ball of dismay.
It was his turn to lower his face in silent rumination. Holly slipped a hand beneath his chin, his evening bristle rough against her fingertips, disquieting and oddly reassuring at the same time.
Reassuring? By his own implied admission, he had believed the worst of her. The fact of it stung, but she couldn’t help repeating her question, though this time it came out as a statement. “You thought I’d sought an assignation.”
His nostrils flared. His eyes flashed defiance, but beneath it, uncertainty. Apology. “Yes. I am sorry. But yes.”
“You think that because I enjoy riding fast, I am fast.”
He seized her wrist. “Dammit, no.”
“I came back,” he said, the words both an avowal and a plea. Her wrist was small and warm, so delicate in his hand. He gazed down at it, then upward to the satiny whiteness of her arm, the skin so much paler, purer, than his own. “If I had believed you to be fast, I would not have come back to stop you. I would not have wished to save you from a grievous error.”
The error of giving herself to an undeserving boor like Bentley, or for that matter any other man on the face of the earth.
Any man that wasn’t him.
Never mind that he was the one man who couldn’t have her, not now, not at any time in his foreseeable future.
“You came back for me. . . .” Her voice melted to a soft little whimper that undid his remaining composure . . . and his resolve.
“Yes. God yes, Holly.”
He released her wrist and rose onto the settee beside her. Then she was in his arms, sinking into him, her fragrant warmth spreading across his shirt front. Months and months of standing firm fell away like a house of cards in a sudden draft, leaving him exposed, vulnerable, wanting.
He tried telling himself he’d allow nothing more than a brief touch of their lips, a small taste of what he could not have. But her lips were full and moist and at the slight prod of his tongue, they parted for him, invited him in, and sent him spiraling headlong into pleasure. She tasted of sherry and sweetness with a dash of spice, and every irresistible thing he could think of.
Until he could no longer think at all…
His hands began moving, exploring… His fingertips trembled over long, elegant lines and tight, exquisite curves. He had been correct about the riding. Where other women were soft and malleable, she was firm and sculpted, an artist’s masterpiece, but warm, alive, unknowingly seductive.
His lips followed his fingertips down the curve of her chin, the underside of her jaw, and down…but he tamped down every urge to proceed any further. If it killed him—which he feared it might—he would take no more from her than could be winked at in the morning.
For he knew—beyond a doubt—that Holly Sutherland would wink at none of this. She was no experienced paramour, and this was no conquest for her, no game of seduce the earl with which she would regale her friends afterward.
He would have bet a piece of his soul that each kiss, each touch, held meaning for her, or she would not be here, would not be kissing him back. All the more reason to let her go before another of their heartstrings tangled. He would not be like his father, a man who dallied with innocence, taking what didn’t belong to him without a qualm.
But he didn’t let her go. He held on and inhaled the fragrance of her skin and hair so deep as to never, ever forget it. He kissed every part of her that he dared—her throat, her shoulders, her lips—so he would always remember the feel of her, the taste of her on his tongue.
Then a thought, a prayer, sprang to his mind: perhaps someday . . .
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One more excerpt tomorrow…