The Duke's Stolen Bride by Sophie Jordan
The Rogue Files short story: IN BED WITH THE STABLEMASTER by Sophie Jordan
* * *
Vera Wells wasn't normally the type to carry tales, but this was the kind of information every female ought to know, and she was not above making certain the world-the world of women, at any rate-knew all about it.
Quite a crowd had gathered around her in the kitchen, their faces rapt as she prepared to divulge the most recent bit of information to land on Haverston Hall.
To be certain, ever since the master of the house had married Miss Marian Langley, and her two sisters had come to live at the hall, day to day life had become vastly more interesting.
Before the Duke of Warrington married he had lived a hermit-like existence. The place was scarcely furnished in those days (not that the staff missed not having to dust and polish), and the manor house hardly even felt like a home.
Now the house was bustling and full of life.
The duke had a family. They took meals in the dining room and frequently entertained guests. There was much buzz over Miss Charlotte's upcoming wedding. Haverston Hall was a regular hub of activity. The back door to the house was constantly vibrating with the knocks of one villager or another coming to see Miss Nora for one of her herbal remedies.
"Miss Nora has invented a cure for…" Vera paused and everyone leaned in closer. She glanced over her shoulder to make certain none of the male members of their staff were in proximity. "She has invented a cure for female woes."
"Female woes?" Martha frowned.
"Oh, you know." She waved a hand anxiously. "Womanly pains . . . involving our time."
A collective ahhh chorused around the group followed by an immediate volley of questions. Miss Nora was a very talented herbalist. There would not be a doubt among them.
"I don't know all the particulars, only that she has administered a tonic to Miss Charlotte with some degree of success, I believe." At least that was what Vera had gathered from the snatches of conversation she overhead when she was tidying up in the duchess's dressing room.
"It cured her of her pains?" Daisy, one of Cook's assistants, demanded. "Oh, I need to get my hands on this tonic."
"That's it?" Berthe, one of the laundresses, crossed her arms over her ample bosom. "I thought you had something juicy to share."
Vera blinked. "Is not a cure for female-"
"That is not gossip." Berthe snorted and rolled her eyes. "Not like the gossip I have."
All attention quickly honed in on Berthe and the laundress preened, enjoying being the center of attention. "I spied Miss Charlotte in a rather compromising position with our houseguest, Mr. Kingston."
Gasps rippled through their small circle followed by several exclamations.
"The duke's brother?"
"Miss Charlotte is betrothed to Mr. Pembroke!"
"Did you see Mr. Kingston? I'd like to be caught in a compromising position with him."
"Well, she isn't married yet," Dorothea, another laundress, inserted in a reasonable voice, "and I don't think she will go through with it. Mr. Pembroke is a dullard."
Vera whipped around to observe her aunt charging ahead, the keys to the house rattling from the belt at her waist.
Aunt Rose was a traditionalist. She still wore the keys to the house at her waist like a medieval chatelaine. Her sharp gaze swept around the congregation of females. "You know how I feel about gossip." She clapped her hands together. "All of you. To work at once."
The women fled like grouse startled from the brush.
Once they were gone, her aunt turned her gimlet stare on Vera. "I expect better from you."
"I wasn't gossiping." Not precisely.
"Am I to imagine that I did not overhear Miss Charlotte being discussed?"
Vera winced. "I did not make mention of Miss Charlotte. It was-"
"Miss Charlotte is to be married this summer. It won't do to have her good name muddied with servants' gossip-"
"I was not-"
With a shake of her head, Aunt Rose turned from her. She snatched a basket from one of the wall hooks and thrust it at her.
Vera caught it against her chest.
Her aunt continued, "You're to be a role model for the others. I'm disappointed. If you're to fill my shoes and someday become the housekeeper of this grand house, then you must be above reproach." She pointed a gnarled finger to the ceiling where the members of the family dwelled. "You're to serve and protect the duke and his family, not relish in base tittle-tattle."
Vera's cheeks burned. "That was not what I-"
"Do you understand me?"
Cheeks still burning, Vera nodded. "Yes, Aunt Rose."
"Very good. Now go fetch some blackberries. Cook wishes to make a tart for the duchess this evening."
"I trust that is not a problem for you?"
Blackberries grew at the northernmost edge of the duke's vast property. It would take her an hour's walk there and an hour's walk back and at least an hour to gather a basket full of berries. She would be gone half the day.
Usually, her aunt sent a groom on such errands and left Vera to the more important household tasks. Tasks befitting someone destined to take over as the housekeeper to a ducal household. Not blackberry picking at the edge of the earth.
Her aunt was punishing her.
"No. No problem at all, Aunt Rose. I'll see to it and be back in time for Cook to make his tart."
Her aunt nodded briskly and turned on her heels, walking through the kitchen and ascending the stairs to the upper floor.
"How the mighty have fallen."
Vera gasped and whirled around to find Rufus, the stablemaster, biting into a shiny fat apple. When had he arrived? Thanks to her aunt, no other servants were loitering about.
"Ugh. You," she grumbled.
Merriment danced in his eyes, and she knew it was simply because he enjoyed these skirmishes with her. "A delight, as always, to see you."
She glared at the big brute of a man. "Eavesdropping, Blackthorne? Haven't you better things to do with your time? Stables …to master?"
He chuckled. "Some day that saucy tongue of yours is going to land you in trouble."
"Well, it hasn't yet."
His gaze flicked to her basket. "Berry picking is a rather menial task for an upper house servant, is it not?"
She narrowed her gaze on his much-too-handsome face. "And what would you know of the tasks that befall the house staff? Your domain is outside, Blackthorne, with the rest of the livestock."
One corner of his wicked mouth lifted. "Oh, I know many things, Vera."
"That's Miss Wells to you." She didn't know why she bothered. She had never been Miss Wells to him in all the years they had known each other, but she felt compelled to try.
He leaned a hip against the rough-hewn trestle table and took another slow, leisurely bite from his apple-as though he had all the time in the world and not any work waiting for him.
"Oh, Mr. Blackthorne," Marjorie, one of Cook's assistants, exclaimed with a blush as she entered the room carrying the day's eggs. She dipped halfway in some manner of curtsey. A curtsey! As though he were lord of the manor and not a servant like the rest of them.
Vera rolled her eyes.
"Mr. Blackthorne, have you had your breakfast? You certainly need better sustenance than that apple. Can I make you something?" She hastily unloaded her eggs from her apron onto the table, catching them from rolling off the edge. Satisfied they were safe on the surface, Marjorie sidled closer to him, lightly brushing a hand over his thick forearm with a breath of admiration.
He patted her hand gently. "That's very kind of you, lass. You needn't add to your work load for me."
"It's no inconvenience, I assure you."
Vera watched the by-play in disgust. He was always so kind and thoughtful to everyone. Everyone but her.
She told herself it didn't matter. She told herself she didn't care. She didn't want or need his kindness.
Marjorie was not to be discouraged. "Are you certain, Mr. Blackthorne? Eggs? Kippers? A strapping fellow like you needs a hearty meal to get you through your day."
Another eye roll.
Marjorie had been working here for at least two years, and she, like the majority of the female population at Haverston Hall, melted into puddles at the sight of Rufus Blackthorne. It was nauseating.
Vera was immune, however.
Ever since she came to live with her aunt at the age of thirteen, she had been impervious to the charms of Rufus Blackthorne.
She still recalled her first glimpse of him: a tall and brawny fifteen-year-old with the shadow of a beard on his jawline. She had thought him a full-grown man.
Shortly after her arrival she had caught him kissing a buxom milkmaid several years his senior behind the stables, and hours later she had caught him flirting with another—different—maid—in the kitchen.
He'd been full of himself even then, working in the stables and building the muscles that thickened his frame now. He had been well aware of his impact on females.
He was a rogue, and she had no use for such men.
Her father had been a rogue. He'd seduced her mother and left her with a broken heart and, nine months later, Vera. Mama had worked as a seamstress in London and passed herself off as a widow up until her death.
Vera never forgot her mother's many warnings of men who took and used and crushed young girls' hearts. Handsome men were not to be trusted.
"If you'll excuse me. Some of us have work to do."
She swept from the kitchen, but Blackthorne was there, following, even managing to reach the door before her. Opening it, he waved her ahead of him.
Lifting her chin, she preceded him out.
His bigger body fell in beside her, making no contact but she felt his nearness like a touch regardless. She told herself it was because he was so very large. He radiated heat and energy.
She had always been aware of her unseemly size for a female and never felt an ounce of regret over it. Most men had to tip their heads to look up at her, and it made her feel indomitable, which, in her opinion, was not a bad thing. She was an orphan. She had no father or brothers to protect her. It was not an unwelcome thing to feel formidable in this often unkind world.
According to Mama, Vera's father had been a tall man, thick-framed with hands like hams. That was the only explanation Vera had as to why she towered over her mother at the age of eleven and wore adult shoes and men's gloves. While her hands were not quite the size of hams, they could not fit into her mother's dainty gloves.
Rufus Blackthorne was the only person to ever make her feel small and vulnerable, and she did not like that one little bit. He discomfited her and made her skin feel too tight for her body.
"Looks like rain," he announced.
She cast him a quick look. His face was upturned, studying the clouds.
"Perhaps," she allowed.
"No doubt about it."
She squinted at the sky. "It will pass. Clouds are to the south."
"They're moving north."
"Tell me." She stopped in the yard and faced him. "Does it ever exhaust you?"
"Knowing everything about everything?" she snapped. "It must be grueling to be so very clever."
He chuckled and the sound rippled along her spine. She wiggled her shoulders, hoping to shake off the sensation.
"I'm right about this." He stabbed a finger in the direction of the sky. "You're going to get yourself soaked and then catch ague."
He looked as though he wanted to shake her and she felt immensely gratified knowing she had irked him. That was the way between them. A constant battle. A skirmish of continuous barbs.
"Very well. Go on then. Be daft." He waved one of his great paws in the direction she would be venturing to pick berries. "I've work to do."
"How very good of you to decide to do it," she retorted.
That impossibly broad chest of his expanded with an inhale of indignation. "I don't shirk my duties."
That much was true, although she would not acknowledge it. He might be a womanizing rogue, but his work ethic could not be questioned.
The man was a bloody horse whisperer. Everyone in the shire came to see him about horses, mules, goats...generally anything on four legs. The Duke of Warrington's stables were impressive. Spotless as far as stables went. Organized and well managed, and she knew it was due to the arrogant stablemaster—arrogant the key word. She would not give him further reason to pat himself on the back. He had an army of preening admirers (likely gazing at him from windows now) on hand for that.
She sniffed. "Unless there's a pretty diversion in skirts, of course."
He stepped nearer, his leather boots crunching over loose bits of grit, his giant man thighs straining the seams of his trousers.
No man ought to look as he did in trousers. It was indecent.
He thrust his face a scant inch from hers. "Jealous?"
His face this close, his heat-radiating body this close, affected her breathing. Her lungs squeezed tight, air passing in and out at a trickle.
"Hardly," she replied breathlessly, resisting the urge to shove him away. That would mean putting hands on him and she instinctively rebelled at the notion of that. He wore his shirt open at the throat, no cravat in sight and she could see the tantalizing skin of his throat and the top of his muscled, hair-dusted chest.
He smirked. "Perhaps the frigid Miss Wells longs for a man to lift her skirts."
"My skirts are none of your business. And I'm not frigid… I am perfectly decent."
"Decent. Of course. You are that." His lip curled in a sneer and something in his wickedly dark eyes made her think decidedly indecent things.
She might make it a goal to avoid wicked men, but she was not ignorant of matters of the flesh.
In her bedchamber, tucked beneath her mattress, were several salacious books on erotic love.
She had not known what comprised the pages of the books until after she moved to Haverston Hall. The erotic works had been among her mother's possessions and Vera had hastily packed them up without even examining them. It was some time before she recovered the books from her chest and browsed them.
Initially, it had astonished her that her mother possessed any book on erotic love, much less several. It made her wonder if her mother had not dismissed all notions of carnality and only purported to do so. Perhaps there had been secret lovers after Vera's father.
Curious indeed, but Vera would never have that answer.
She merely knew that she had read the texts countless times over the years and stared at the illustrations of couples locked and entwined until the pages of the books were fragile and well-worn under her fingers...and parts of her anatomy throbbed and ached-so much so that she had learned to touch and rub and fondle herself to climax.
For the last few years now, Vera had become quite adept at achieving her own arousals.
She might not have a partner, but there was nothing frigid about her.
The stablemaster looked her up and down critically, and she knew the lewd man thought her not only inexperienced but ignorant.
It irked her. She knew it should not. She knew an upright unmarried woman would not be insulted at the designation of 'frigid'. It would be a point of pride. It would mean she was modest and modesty was a virtue.
But he meant it as an insult, and that was enough to annoy her.
Holding her ground, she lifted her chin, propping her hands on her hips, and dipping her voice to a taunting whisper. "You know nothing of what lies beneath my skirts and you never shall."
His dark eyes seemed to grow impossibly darker, and he lashed back, "What makes you think I'd even want to know what's beneath the skirts of a dusty ol' virgin like you?"
She tried not to flinch at that.
He smirked. "Plenty of hot-blooded willing lasses around here."
"Yes," she said flippantly. "Plenty of thrill and mysterious allure with all those very willing lasses. I'm sure you enjoy the hunt when it comes so very easily for you."
His expression turned cross.
She continued, "A different tumble every day of the week." She gave a shrug. "How very predictable and …" She angled her head, reaching for the word and arriving at it. "Boring."
His eyes widened. "Boring."
"Indeed. Boring," she agreed with a nod of perfect nonchalance.
Vera didn't know why she was toying with him in this manner. It was childish of her.
Perhaps years of frustration were finally bubbling over the surface. All the sniping and fighting and watching him flit from one maid to another.
She wanted to provoke him.
As he continued to glower at her, she swept past him. "Good day, Mr. Blackthorne."
She left him standing there staring after her, the basket swinging at her side, profoundly pleased she had the last word. If he said anything, she didn't hear him behind her, and nothing on earth would make her look back.
* * *
Over an hour later, Vera was working on filling her basket with plump blackberries—eating one for each one she picked and humming lightly under her breath—when thunder growled on the air like a beast roused and stirring from its slumber.
She paused where she squatted in thick swaying grass, elbow deep in bramble, and glanced warily at the sky.
Another rumble quickly followed.
"Blast it." She expelled a breath, her hands motionless amid the berries and thick shrubbery, as though if she were still enough she would go unnoticed by Mother Nature and spared her wrath.
Clouds rolled in, their underbellies dark and swollen.
Don't let him be right. Don't let that blasted man be—
She gasped, realizing she had squished several berries between her fingers and the dark juices were running down her hands, clear all the way to her wrists.
She straightened into a standing position, shaking out her hands, sending berry juice flying as she lifted her face to study the quickly altering skies.
Vera glanced down at her partially filled basket, debating if she had gathered enough for the tart or if she had time to gather more berries before—
The first drop of rain landed fat on her cheek.
It was too late.
The time for berry picking had come to an end.
Perhaps if you had heeded Rufus Blackthorne's advice you would not now find yourself in this unenviable situation.
Not that she would ever admit that. She was loath to even admit it to herself.
The amount of berries inside her basket would have to be enough. She knew her aunt was already cross with her, and Cook had a notoriously bad temper when he did not get his way, and yet Vera did not relish standing in a field whilst it rained and thundered overhead.
She tromped through the grass. The rain fell harder, picking up speed until it was a ceaseless drum of applause in her ears. Her skirts were soon drenched and dragging heavily at her ankles, whipping heavily around her boots.
Lightning burst across the deep indigo sky in a zigzag pattern.
Moments later a boom of thunder shook the earth. She jerked, but pushed on, struggling to increase her pace. Not an easy task. The sodden ground sucked at her boots.
Water dripped from her nose and sluiced down every dip and hollow of her body beneath her garments. It was miserable. Not an inch of her was spared.
Thunder rumbled anew. So very close. The earth itself seemed to vibrate under her. Frowning, she glanced around as though expecting to see proof that lightning had struck nearby. No smoking, charred soil anywhere.
And then she spotted the source of the thunder.
It was not thunder at all.
A horse and rider advanced, hooves pounding over the ground, sending mud and bits of grass flying.
Relief warred with resentment inside her chest. She wanted no help from Rufus Blackthorne, but she wanted to escape this wretched storm.
His face was as thunderous as the skies, and her stomach pitched at the sight. He rode up alongside her and extended an arm. She gazed in consternation at the broad-palmed hand.
She did not want to accept it.
She did not want to accept his help or touch his hand or put herself atop that horse in proximity to him.
"Take my hand," he directed over the beat of rain.
Her discomfort won out.
After all, the sooner she was astride that horse, the sooner she would arrive some place with four walls and a roof where she could dry off and not get struck dead by a bolt of thunder.
Ideally, the option involving not dead was always the better choice.
She clasped his hand, and he swung her up easily behind him. Her skirts bunched around her thighs, but she supposed that was a minor concern given the circumstances.
Even wet, his immense person radiated heat and she dropped her forehead to his back as though that would shield her from the deluge. It was futile. He was as soaked as she was, but that did not stop her hands from clenching in the saturated fabric covering his back, her fingertips pressing deep, nails sinking into firm flesh, comforted and assured by the solid warmth of him.
Suddenly they stopped. She lifted her head.
She expected it would take his horse another twenty minutes at least to carry them to the shelter of the stables. They'd been riding for less than five minutes.
Blinking against the onslaught, she peered through the downpour around them.
"Why have we stopped?" she asked just as thunder cracked loudly over them, startling the horse. The beast danced sideways, but Rufus quickly had him in hand, calming him with some indecipherable words and deftly stroking his neck.
Through sheets of gray water she noticed a structure. A small thatched-roof cottage sat in a small clearing. Beyond the stone cottage lurked a smaller shape, a stable.
She'd seen them before. She glanced around wildly. She'd been here before.
There were a few cottages spread throughout the duke's vast estate. Sometimes a prized and loyal member of the staff was granted one of the cottages, or allowed to retire there after years of faithful service. Aunt Rose was promised one of them for that distant eventuality.
More often than not, they stood vacant as this one did. The windows stared back like dark eyes. No smoke curled up into the storm from its chimney. An overall neglected air hung about the place.
He stopped close to the front door. "Inside." He gestured.
Dropping to her feet, she lunged for the door, eager for the refuge. The latch lifted with little effort, and she plunged inside.
She inhaled a dry breath and eyed the room. Sparse furniture filled it. A table and chairs stood in the kitchen area and a sofa sat in front of the fireplace. She deposited her basket on the table. A neat stack of firewood rested beside the hearth. She quickly availed herself of the wood to start a fire.
Once she had done that she assessed the room again, noticing the narrow set of stairs leading, presumably, to the bedrooms above.
She shivered. It was summer, but the temperature had dropped considerably, and she was soaked to the bone.
The door opened and slammed shut.
She whirled to face her rescuer, words of gratitude rising on her lips, however much she resented having to say them. She owed him her thanks. They might be adversaries every moment of every day, but she could not deny that.
Only his dark expression gave her pause.
"Bloody fool," he growled. "I warned you."
Beastly man. Must he make it so difficult? How could she be nice to him when he called her a fool?
"If I'm such a fool, then why bother rescuing me from the storm?" She spread out her arms wide at her sides. "Why do you care what happens to me at all?"
He stared at her mutely, his lips working.
"Why?" she pressed. "Why did you come for me?"
"Because," he snapped.
She arched an eyebrow at that less than brilliant explanation.
He dragged a hand through the wet strands of his hair. "Because I didn't want you to be wet and miserable."
Something softened inside her at his grudging words. "You didn't?" she asked softly.
"I want you to be dry. And safe."
"You want me dry and safe?" she echoed.
He scowled. "Of course, I want you safe. Always." That last word escaped rather gruffly.
She studied him—this kinder, softer version of Blackthorne. He cared about her. He never showed this side of himself to her. It always seemed reserved for everyone else...and suddenly she realized she wanted this from him.
She had told herself she didn't want his kindness or thoughtfulness, but she did. She lapped it up like a starving woman, reveling in it.
He started yanking at his clothes, pulling his sopping shirt over his head and searing her eyes with the sight of his naked chest.
"What are you doing?" she demanded.
"Undressing. I don't relish waiting out the storm soaking wet."
They would wait out the storm? Almost on cue, another lightning bolt struck the earth, rattling the entire cottage. She hugged herself amid the vibrations. Of course, they would wait out the storm. It was the sensible thing to do.
He turned the broad expanse of his back on her, draping his shirt over the back of a chair. Without looking at her, he lifted the chair and set it before the fire with a thunk. Sinking down on the creaking wood, he tugged off his boots, his movements fierce with agitation. Clearly his agitation was with her.
He looked up and caught her watching him. Ogling, to be accurate.
Startled, she looked away, hugging herself as she assessed the interior of the cottage with renewed interest.
She swallowed against her suddenly dry mouth.
It was not the first time she had seen him shirtless in the ten years she had known him. Members of the staff often made use of the pond on the other side of the estate, especially during the warmer months. He had been an adolescent the first time she observed him—she only two years younger. He'd been lean and sinewy without his shirt, and she had thought him remarkable.
Now he was extraordinary. A mountain of a man.
She had passed the stables often enough to spy him toiling within shirtless. There were often other females nearby, too, admiring him with hot-eyed fascination, so she had never lingered to gawk. But she'd seen enough. The glimpse of his sweaty muscles straining and rippling as he worked was imprinted on her mind.
"Aren't you going to undress?"
Her gaze shot back to him. "I beg your pardon?"
"There's a small lake forming around you."
She looked down at the water puddling at her feet. She frowned.
"You'll sicken," he added.
She lifted her gaze back to him. "I'm fine."
He shook his head. "First, you ventured out against my advice. Now, you'll ignore my suggestion. Again. Why? Simply because you don't like me?"
When he described it like that she did feel rather foolish.
She nodded reluctantly. "Very well. I'll undress upstairs."
Turning, she took the steps to the second floor.
There were two bedchambers. A bed frame, minus a mattress, sat alone in the smaller chamber, looking sad and skeletal in the empty room.
The larger chamber boasted a full bed frame with mattress. A single quilt lay folded at the foot. This room didn't feel so lonely. A lovely mahogany armoire dominated the wall across from the bed and a cheval mirror stood sentry in the corner. With a rug and curtains and some personal items it would be a fine master chamber.
She stroked a hand over the quilt as she passed the bed, making her way to the window of mullioned glass that overlooked the back of the house.
She stopped and stared out at the stormy skyline. Gray needles of rain came down with unrelenting force. Water was starting to sit in puddles in all the dips and hollows of the yard.
A large area of fallow ground was clearly marked off where a garden had been once upon a time. She could almost imagine all the things she would grow there if this were her home. Beets and carrots and tomatoes and cabbage and parsnips. Perhaps strawberries, too.
Of course, living in a grand manor house was...nice. Most of the maids shared rooms, but Vera had one to herself. She was fortunate to not only work in such an esteemed household, with an employer as generous as the Duke and Duchess of Warrington, but also to be virtually guaranteed a promising future as the next housekeeper of Haverston Hall.
And yet it was not her home.
She simply worked there and was given a place to sleep, but it would never be her home. She had no home of her own, and as she worked in service it was not likely she ever would.
She turned from the window, and the sight of the garden that would never be hers, and struggled out of her clothes. The sodden garments smacked heavily where they fell on the floor. Naked, she shivered in the air of the strange room.
It was strange.
Strange to know she was all alone in a house with Rufus Blackthorn. That she stood naked and he stood naked and very little distance separated them. Indeed, trapped in this cottage for the duration of this storm, it felt as though it were only the two of them in the entire world.
She was in no hurry to rejoin him downstairs.
With that thought, she reached for the quilt and wrapped it around her naked form, instantly feeling better.
Sighing, she dropped back on the bed and promptly screeched as it crashed violently under her.
She registered the bellow of her name followed by the pound of footsteps up the stairs.
Her limbs flailed wildly as she tried to right herself, but the middle of the mattress sagged into the broken frame like a chasm. She could not escape.
Suddenly he loomed over her, the endless expanse of his muscled, lightly furred chest filling her eyes.
Then her gaze dipped down. He was naked. No trousers.
And all of him was big. That was the first thought to pop into her head.
With a squeak, she glanced down at herself to see that her quilt no longer served its purpose. It was bunched around her ribs. The nipples of her breasts puckered in the chill air, bared to the world. The world that was Vera and Rufus alone in this bedchamber.
In horror, she looked back at his face the moment he seemed to realize this, too.
His gaze tracked over her exposed breasts. The great heavy things she'd always abhorred, that made dressing herself a challenge without the aid of a skilled seamstress.
Dimly, she registered that horror was not her only emotion. There was something else there. Something else that stirred in the region between her legs. She recognized the sensation from when she browsed her erotic books.
His gaze roamed over her and she felt the hardening of her nipples beneath his dark-eyed regard.
"You're naked," she whispered.
"Aye," he acknowledged. "I had a blanket around my waist but I lost it on the stairs when I rushed up here. I thought you were being murdered."
She nodded dumbly, trying not to gawk at him even though all she wanted to do was look and look and look. And then look some more. She wanted to memorize this sight of him.
He added, his voice strangely thick, "Appears you lost your blanket, too, Vera."
Heat scalded her face. She tugged weakly on the blanket in a desperate attempt to bring it over her chest. It was hopeless. The quilt was tangled and trapped under her.
He continued his scrutiny, and she could not stop a whimper from escaping when his attention came to rest somewhere below her waist.
She wiggled her legs, feeling the slide of cool air over her thighs. Oh, dear. Was she—
She lifted her head to peer down at herself and squeaked. Her womanhood was on full display and he was staring directly at it. Heath flushed through her.
She started wiggling, trying desperately to escape from the cratered bed.
"You could give me a hand," she gasped.
He nodded. "I should."
Then, suddenly, he did.
Only not where she expected. His hand landed on her, his callused palm burning an imprint on her thigh.
His gaze snared hers. "May I touch you?"
"Yes," she breathed.
He watched her intently as his hand scorched her thigh, skimming upward. "I've always wondered what you looked like underneath your clothes, Vera."
"Did you?" she breathed.
"And what you would feel like."
"Me?" she croaked.
"You mean you didn't know?"
How would she know? They could not tolerate each other.
"I thought you could not abide me."
"I could not abide that you were resistant to my charms from the moment you came to live here."
She shook her head in wonder.
His free hand closed around his member then, and she saw it was turgid, jutting straight from his body, the head of him a deep rich plum. He stroked himself as his other hand continued its slow ascent up her thigh. "Like silk," he whispered. "Many a night I touched myself as I am now, thinking of you, after that fiery mouth of yours flayed me in half."
She couldn't help herself. A giggle escaped.
"You have not suffered a lack of female companionship," she challenged. "On the contrary."
"Only because I could not have you."
She rolled her eyes.
He growled. "You think I jest? You think me not serious?"
"I think you're saying what you think I want to hear to get me on my back." She sucked in a deep breath, partly because his fingers were high enough that they dipped into the crease of her inner thigh, and partly because she was watching him stroke his member and she wanted it.
"I already have you on your back," he retorted, one of his eyebrows arching. Suddenly, he lifted his hand away from her, holding the broad palm aloft. Keen disappointment stabbed her. She wanted that callused palm back on her, stroking her flesh. "But I'll walk away right now if you think me playing a game with you. If you think my words a lie."
She swallowed against the impossibly thick lump in her throat. It was not just her face burning now. All of her was an aching maelstrom. She wanted his hand back on her body. Not just her thigh either. She wanted his hands everywhere, the rough rasp of his palms all over her sensitive skin.
She wanted him to satisfy the ache at her core with his swollen shaft … the ache she had secretly longed for him to fill for years.
"I don't want you to walk away," she admitted with a lift of her chin. "But you needn't ply me with pretty words and promises in order to have me."
His look turned incredulous. "Are you inviting me to use you…and then cast you aside?"
She nodded once, marveling that he should look so offended. Wasn't that what he wanted? What he did...what all wicked men did?
"Let us be honest," she said. "This will merely be a liaison. There are no obligations beyond this—"
She blinked at his furious expression. "I beg your pardon?"
"I agree," he bit out. "Let us be honest. Finally." He leaned over her then, both of his hands gliding along the tops of her thighs and she gasped as the sensation. "There is nothing merely about this."
His hands moved around her hips, slipping underneath her to grip each cheek of her derriere and hoist her slightly higher. He dropped down on his knees between her splayed thighs and she gave small yelp.
"If I have you, as you so aptly described," he spoke between lavish, open-mouthed kisses along the insides of her thighs, taking turns on each leg until she trembled and quivered under his mouth, her hands grasping for the mattress that rose up unevenly on each side of her. "You will be mine."
She looked down her body, between the valley of her heaving breasts at him. He gazed up at her with eyes dark and fathomless deep. "I will be yours," he explained thickly. "There will ne no going back to before. That is my promise to you."
She couldn't breathe.
"Say you agree," he commanded. "Say you agree so I can devour this pretty quim."
It was difficult to agree when she couldn't breathe.
She nodded, and it must have been enough.
With a groan, he dipped his head and he buried his face between her legs.
As in so many of the illustrations she had studied, he pressed his mouth against her, licking and nibbling at her until she was writhing on the broken bed. His mouth found the little bud nestled at the top of her sex and he grazed it with his teeth before sucking it deeply in his mouth.
Tiny pinpricks of light burst before her eyes. She cried out, her hands diving into his hair as her climax rushed over her. She arched and the wrecked bed jolted and shuddered under, dropping her lower, away from his mouth.
She looked up into his startled gaze, her mouth open on a silent cry.
"Bloody bed," he growled.
He stood suddenly and hauled her to her feet as though she weighed nothing at all.
She stood to the side, watching as he seized the mattress with impressive strength, lifted it from the broken shambles of the bed frame, and flung it on the floor. Then he reached for her.
"Oh." His hands circled her waist and lifted her in the air. "Oh."
He lowered her to the mattress and came over her so fast she hardly had time to process anything before his mouth was on hers.
She sank into the mattress, melting as he kissed her, his heavy body a delicious weight on top of her, all but crushing her.
On and on he kissed her, his tongue sweeping inside her mouth, stroking her tongue until she was moaning and shamefully rubbing her breasts against his bare chest.
He lifted his mouth briefly from hers to pant, "You taste like berries."
That could have something to do with the bucket of blackberries she ate.
His head lowered to her chest. "What about these?" He stroked his tongue over one nipple. "Do they taste like berries, too?"
He drew the tip of one breast into his mouth then and sucked deep, moaning like he was tasting the most delicious of his desserts. "Sweeter," he pronounced, biting down lightly with his teeth.
Her hands went to his head, clinging to the dark strands as white-hot pleasure charged through her body. He settled his hips deeply between her splayed thighs and she felt his hardness.
She wiggled and shifted, longing for pressure where she most ached.
As he continued to lavish his attention on her breasts, she grew hotter and more needy.
She knew what she wanted.
She slid her hand between them and closed her fingers around his member.
He lifted his head from her breast with a gasp. "Vera, what are you—"
She pumped her fingers over him once, twice and then rubbed the head of him against her slick opening.
He sucked in a breath. "You're so wet."
"I'm ready," she whispered, and guided him in, taking him slowly, a little at a time. She was quickly reminded of his size. For all her eagerness, she had never done this before.
A slow breath hissed out from between her lips.
He was big. She'd never felt so full...so stretched.
"There," she breathed, stopping, feeling elated and thrilled and awed.
He trembled all around her. "Vera?"
"I'm not in all the way yet."
"What?" She blinked and shifted slightly.
His hands gripped her hips, his hard fingers sinking into her tender flesh. "Hold still. All your wiggling makes this...harder," he said between clenched teeth, and then he kept going. Filling her deep. Stretching her until the burning sensation generally subsided and there was just the ache. "I'm in," he pronounced.
"Good. I was starting to worry."
He panted heavily in her neck. "No worries. You feel so good, lass. We were made for each other. I'm going to starting moving now."
He pulled back and thrust in again. Deep. She gasped and arched at the pleasurable friction. Then again and again.
He plunged in and out of her until she was meeting his thrusts and rocking against him. She pleaded, calling out his name as she felt the build of another climax. Again? She had never realized a woman could climax more than once in the same night.
She started to shake.
"That's it," he encouraged, driving faster, harder. She clung to his thick shoulders, her nails digging dip into the firm flesh.
He seized her hips and lifted her bottom up off the bed, angling her so that his thrusts touched her deeper, stroking her in a way that lit up all her nerves. The tightly coiled tension in her body snapped and she cried out, the sound nothing she had ever heard from herself.
Spots danced in her vision as she floated back down, her body twitching in the aftermath, her nails relaxing from where they scored his shoulders.
He worked himself to completion fast on the heels of her climax, pumping a few more times and then shuddering, letting go a hoarse cry.
"Vera." He dropped on his side beside her, pulling her against him.
He held her close and it felt the most natural thing in the world.
You will be mine. I will be yours.
He was correct. She felt it. Perhaps she had always felt it.
They stared out the window together for some minutes, his fingers idly tracing circle on her shoulder as they watched the rain dancing down the mullioned panes.
"I love this cottage," she whispered.
He chuckled lightly. "I thought you were going to say you love me."
She lifted up on an elbow to stare down at him, to find him looking back up at her so intently, so...hungrily. There was something to his expression she had never seen before and she thought she knew all his expressions. In the last ten years she had, admittedly, made a study of them. If she had to wager, she would say the sentiment lurking in this expression was...vulnerability.
"Would you like that?" she whispered above him, so softly she could barely hear her own words. "Would you like me to love you?"
His hand reached up to cup her face. "It would be nice." His lips quirked in a tenderly crooked smile. "It would mean that you love me back...because I'm hopelessly in love with you, Vera Wells."
Of course. Of course he loved her. And she loved him.
She must have said the words aloud for he was kissing her again and whispering words of love and pent-up longing.
It felt a very surreal thing, except she knew it was real.
"I'll have to repair that bed soon so that we won't have to keep this mattress on the floor forever," he said almost casually.
She sat up on her elbow. "What do you mean?"
"You like the cottage?"
She nodded in bewilderment. "You know I do."
"We will live here naturally. It will always have special meaning for us. It should be ours. Our home."
Our home. The words rang sweetly in her ears.
She cautioned herself not to become too excited.
"Just like that?" She snapped her fingers. "You think you can move us in here with a—"
"After we're married, of course. The duke offered it to me a year ago."
"What?" The duke had offered him this cottage and he had continued to sleep in the tack room that smelled of hay and manure?
"I couldn't accept it then, of course. I wanted to be close to the house. To you."
He stayed at the stables at Haverston Hall for her?
"You mean..." She looked around at the chamber. "This truly can be our home?"
He nodded and she laughed, throwing her arms around them and sending them tumbling back on the mattress.
He laughed, as well, and soon they were talking of their dreams and their future together. Their conversation stopped abruptly when her belly growled between them.
She met his gaze with a sheepish grin. "I did not eat much of a breakfast today."
"Wait here." He was suddenly jogging from the room. She heard his steps on the stairs, and soon he was back with her basket.
He rejoined her on the mattress and popped a berry into her mouth.
She selected a berry for him.
"No, no." He took the berry from her fingers with a heated look. "This is how I want to eat all my berries in the future."
Lightly pushing her back down on the mattress, goose bumps broke out over her flesh as he rolled the cool berry over her nipple. She gasped when he crushed the fruit and the juices ran down her breast.
Sighing, she sank back into the mattress...and into a pleasure she knew would be hers forever.
Copyright © Sharie Kohler 2020
For more on what actually happened between Miss Charlotte and Kingston —and the
unintended consequences of Miss Nora's miraculous tonic—don't miss:
The Virgin and The Rogue
Coming April 28th, 2020
Preorder now wherever books are sold!
"The best in the series..."
—Kirkus, STARRED review for THE VIRGIN AND THE ROGUE
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