Once Upon a Wedding Night by Sophie Jordan
Excerpt for Once Upon a Wedding Night by Sophie Jordan
"Sizzling sexual tension ... thoroughly satisfying ..."
Nick turned in the direction of the house. The hum of voices played on the air, blending with the distant music. A sudden shaft of light shined down on them from an upstairs window, allowing Meredith to study the strong line of his profile. One look at his pensive expression, and she knew he no longer stood with her in Lady Derring's gardens but at some distant place in his past.
It struck her that she knew very little about him. The whole of his life before they met was a murky chasm. What befell him after his mother died? How had he survived? Meredith had the sneaking suspicion it was an ugly tale.
"For me, it was steal or starve. Beat or be beaten. You have not come close to facing the threats I have."
"Perhaps," she allowed, shrugging and trying to appear unaffected by his troubling words. "But my future was uncertain, and any number of terrible things could have awaited me. How was I to know?"
"No terrible future awaited you," he replied with utter conviction. "Just me."
"You." Meredith smiled without mirth. She spread her arms wide in demonstration. "And here you have me, forcing me to marry—-"
"Such a terrible fate," he cut in. "What a monster I am to give you a generous dowry and the freedom to choose your husband. A terrible fate, indeed. Should every woman be so cursed."
Meredith's hand itched to slap the mockery from his face. "I don't see you rushing into matrimony. Most married couples hardly appear to be in a state of wedded bliss. Apparently, you're wise enough to see it's not the most sought after of fates."
"Is that what you expect? Wedded bliss?" His laugh stirred her insides into a queasy froth. "I fear you're bound for disappointment." His rumbling laughter faded and he asked smugly, as if he already knew the answer, "And your marriage to Edmund? Was it wedded bliss?"
What could she say? She had wanted to love Edmund. If he had given her the chance, she would have loved him with her whole being. "We aren't discussing my marriage."
Her mind searched for a distraction, anything to change the subject from Edmund's rejection. "Why are you really here? I don't believe you came to appease Lady Derring."
He was quiet a long moment, as though weighing whether to accept this change of topic or pursue the matter of her marriage with Edmund. At last, he answered her. "Curiosity, I suppose. I wanted to see how you fared on your introduction to the ton."
Meredith clucked and stepped forward to flick a piece of imaginary lint from his jacket. "A startling admission from a man sworn to hate me." Her hand lingered on his jacket, one finger lightly tapping the hardness of his chest beneath the fine fabric.
"I never professed to hate you," he replied. His eyes reminded her of a predator glittering down at her in the dark. "I simply don't trust you. You, my lady, are trouble ... a complication I don't need in my life."
His words stung. Trouble. A complication. Not a person. Merely soiled goods to be dispensed. Meredith pulled her hand free from where it lingered from his chest and lifted her chin a notch. "Have I passed inspection?" She rubbed her fingertips together as if she could erase the feel of him.
His hand reached out to fondle a fat curl draped artfully across her shoulder. "The color of your gown complements your hair. Fortunately, Lady Derring dresses you better than her own granddaughter."
Meredith glanced down at her peach gown of watered silk, pleasure suffusing her at the simple compliment.
As if needing to offset his compliment, he added, "However, the bodice is much too low."
"It's the fashion. And no lower than any other woman's gown tonight," she defended.
"Not every woman here has your charms." He released the curl, the back of his fingers brushing the swell of one breast as he withdrew.
Heat flooded Meredith's cheeks at the innocuous contact, certainly unintentional on his part. Surely only she found it hard to keep her hands to herself. He had made his distaste for her clear. Her gaze darted around, needing to look elsewhere. Anywhere save his face. Unfortunately, her scan of the empty garden only made her more conscious of her surroundings and how very alone they were. The last time alone with him —- Meredith's breath caught, and she veered her mind from that titillating memory.
She bit the corner of her bottom lip. "And my conduct? Have you no complaints on that score?"
"Do you need my approval, Meredith?" he asked in all mildness, but the question seemed loaded with danger. "You never seemed to want it before."
"Of course not. I was merely curious." She shrugged, wrapping her arms around herself. Because she was cold. Not because he made her tremble.
"Then to satisfy your curiosity I'll tell you that your conduct does not meet with my approval." His voice rang with unmistakable censure.
Her gaze cut to his face and she dropped her hands to hips. "I have behaved appropriately," she insisted.
"For a common flirt. Not a respectable widow only just out of mourning."
Meredith sucked a deep breath into her lungs, shaking her head vehemently. "That is untrue. I shouldn't have bothered asking. Your opinion means nothing to me."
She spun around to flee only he grabbed her arm and forced her to face him.
"You asked, so you will listen. You're moving fast with young Havernautt. Have you already settled on him?"
The sneer in his voice baffled her. She glared from his face to his hand on her arm and back again. Why should he care whose company she kept as long as she found someone to wed?
"We've only just met. It's much too soon to decide anything."
"Then I advise against cozying up to him. The man you eventually marry won't like that you conducted yourself like a hussy with other gentlemen."
"I'm not a hussy," Meredith hissed. "And what business is it of yours how I act as long as I simply catch a husband? That was your edict, correct? You said nothing about how I was to behave. Or are you throwing down new rules? If the gentlemen I consider for matrimony need your approval, this is the first I heard of it."
Nick's voice dropped to a gravelly pitch that raised the tiny hairs on the back of her neck. "You held his hand in clear sight of everyone and danced three times with him. I was not the only one who noted such forwardness, rest assured. The ton feeds on gossip. Do you want your reputation in shreds before the season officially opens? You'll not gain a proposal that way ... at least not the type of proposal you're angling for."
Fury flamed her cheeks, scorching her face all the way to her hairline. Meredith found it incredible that Nick —- a veritable social pariah —- lectured her on proper behavior when he thrived on offending the sensibilities of others. Meredith squashed aside the niggle of doubt his attack on her conduct roused. His opinion lacked all credibility. Why this very night he had flirted outrageously with a married woman with no thought to propriety.
"I doubt I earned a great deal of attention. Not while you and the baroness monopolized everyone's attention. Tomorrow everyone will be talking about Lord Brookshire, the rake with a penchant for married ladies."
"We're discussing your conduct," he replied flatly. "My concern lies with you."
"I don't know why. You're not my father," Meredith snapped, fiercely resenting that he presumed to wield power over her as if he were.
"I bloody well know that," he bit out, his fingers digging into her arm. "But if you would quit being so stubborn, you might hear what I'm saying. Or don't you care what kind of reputation you establish in Town. Perhaps you weren't serious about remarrying. Perhaps you're lying to me. Again."
With a choked breath she reared back, but his hold on her arm kept her close. "Of course, I'm not lying. Do you think I wish to be under your thumb all the rest of my days to endure this constant meddling in my life?"
He pulled her closer, and she was instantly, achingly aware of his hard chest pressed against her breasts.
"A gentleman wants a wife above reproach. Whom he toys with is not the one he weds. Even if he wants to, his family would discourage him." Nick pointed toward the house. "And something tells me that boy's family would influence his selection of a bride."
No argument there. Lord Havernautt was clearly tied to his mama's skirts, yet Meredith would perish before admitting such a thing. "Lord Havernautt was not toying with me. He is a gentleman."
"Yes. He did appear quite the doting puppy." Nick's fingers flexed on her arm, the calluses rasping her skin. Sparks of sensation shot up her arm as he pulled her closer yet. "Is that the kind of man you want? A boy that you can lead by the nose?"
"You speak as though I have decided upon him. I have only met him. What exactly is your complaint, my lord? My behavior? Or Lord Havernautt's interest in me?"
Meredith lifted her chin defiantly and pulled back her shoulders as far as his hold on her would allow. The more she thought about it, the more possible it seemed. Her heart lifted, expanded in her chest, inexplicably pleased. A slow grin spread across her face. Nick was jealous. She lifted an eyebrow questioningly, awaiting his response.
Nick stared down at her in lengthening silence. His hands still gripped her shoulders. She tapped lightly on his chest and shocked herself by taunting, "This whole marriage matter was your plan, remember? So you best get accustomed to seeing me with other men."
"If you're implying that seeing you with other men troubles me, you're sadly mistaken," he said in an exasperatingly level voice. She wanted to hear the emotion vibrate in his voice. She needed to confirm that he felt something, anything for her. That she was not totally, pathetically astray in accusing him of jealousy. She could not be that big of a fool.
Desperation burned to life inside her. Very deliberately, she grazed her breasts against his chest in what she hoped to be an innocent gesture —- but it was a thin hope given her complete lack of expertise with matters of enticement.
Releasing her shoulders, he grabbed her face in both hands and covered her mouth with his in a groan. Satisfaction bubbled up inside her. His kiss was deep and drugging, leaving her so weak in the knees she leaned her entire length against him for support. If not for his hands on her face, she would have collapsed to the ground.
He tore his lips away. She moaned in protest as her eyes fluttered open. His eyes gleamed down at her with dark emotion. She tingled beneath his intense regard. The feel of his callused palms on her cheeks left her giddy.
"Hussy," he hissed before smothering her lips in yet another kiss.