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PRIMROSE
by Lisa Valdez
ISBN: TBD
Publisher: Berkley

On sale date: TBA
Available soon from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Powells.

 

 

 

excerpt

A LETTER OF TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCE

Luke, you pitiless husband-

How dare you leave me! How dare you-when you know I need you. And after you've rejected me so cruelly! How could you reject me-and on your birthday, when I have offered you the greatest gift I could ever offer-to sacrifice myself for your sake?

You don't love me anymore! You don't!

You think me some vile, unnatural creature. I know it, for I can read your thoughts as if they were my own.

But if I am a vile creature, then it is because of you! You forced my hand and now you blame me. You don't say it-you hide behind your oh-so-calm and carefully couched words-but I've seen the horror in your eyes! Your eyes that are so often turned away from me now.

But did you see the horror in my eyes that night you came to me-drunk? Did you see the horror in my eyes as you mauled me and infected me with your seed? You disgusting pervert, you killed me that night-you killed me! And none of your paltry apologies will ever change that!

Yet now you think you can just walk away from me? Where is your kindness now? Where is your comfort and care of me? Where is the man who used to sit all night at my bedside?

Gone!

I call and I call, but you do not come. My throat is raw from screaming your name. Why don't you come? You've always, always come.

Are you in those filthy stables? Do you think your damned horses are more important than me? That you can give all your love and attention to those dumb beasts, whilst you leave me to suffer? Alone?

I see now that you will never forgive me. Your rejection of my gift, my offering-your rejection of me-is proof. We will never be able to go back to the way we were. I will never be happy again.

Never never never never never never never never never never never never never...

How could you steal my happiness?

When I am dead, you will be sorry-sorry for everything! But it will be too late. You will be the one alone-alone and in anguish forever!

For even in death, I do not forgive you-
Lilith

CHAPTER ONE - PRIMROSE

July 22, 1852 ~ The Lake District

He was naked.

Primrose Eleanora Dare froze in her footsteps, her hat slipping from her fingers with barely a sound.

The man wasn't more than fifteen paces away from her. He stood in three-quarter profile. A pool of mirror-like water lapped at his hips. His face, ruggedly handsome, was tipped up to one of the slim fingers of sunlight that reached through the trees. His eyes were closed. More splashes of light dappled his wet skin, highlighting the sculpted curve of his shoulder and the smooth plane of his belly.

Prim drew a halting breath. It was her dream brought to life-her own private fantasy, conjured and imagined every single time she made the walk from her home to the little lake behind. Only she wasn't at home, and this wasn't a dream.

His black hair, sheared very short, revealed the even shape of his head. A day or two's growth of beard shadowed his jaw. More black hair covered his broad chest, tapering and thinning to his navel and pelvis before thickening again and disappearing below the surface of the water.

A warm tingle shimmered beneath her skin. Propriety dictated that she turn away-retreat back down the long, overgrown path she'd come-return to her aunt and cousin who were, no doubt, still happily lounging alongside the remains of their picnic lunch, debating matters of fashion and fabric.

But she couldn't turn away, because the moment she'd been anticipating for years was finally upon her. The man of her dreams, the man she was meant to spend the rest of her life with, stood before her. And she'd found him just as she'd always imagined she would-standing naked in a pool of quiet water. This was her dream, and the realization of it was so startling-the vision of him so breathtaking-that she just stared, filling in every tiny detail of the moment. The feel of the warm air, the verdant smell of green leaves and damp moss heated by the sun, the sweet soprano call of birds-and him.

Prim sighed softly.

Though his eyes were closed and his posture relaxed, a frown marked his brow and his mouth was set in a somber line. He was a man with cares-cares that prevented his peace even in this peaceful place.

Yet, he was so beautiful.

Not Adonis. Zeus.

Not a lean-waisted youth-but a man, fully formed and in his prime. A man with breadth of shoulder and chest. A man with strength and power in his torso and hip. A man-

His eyes opened.

Her heart fluttered, and her fingers twitched against her skirts.

He tipped his head to the side as if to stretch his neck. Then, rotating his right arm at the shoulder, he began to turn toward her.

She held her breath.

But, just then, he winced and briefly closed his eyes as he turned past her. When he opened his eyes again, she was looking at his profile. Seemingly absorbed in thought, he took two steps toward the embankment. The curve of his buttock came out of the water. He took another step and more of him was revealed. Then, suddenly, he stilled.

Prim didn't move.

But in the next moment, he whirled, pinning her with his gaze.

She blinked and, yet again, it occurred to her that she ought to turn and run away. But she couldn't turn from her own destiny. Besides, a dreamy immobility had suffused her and she was captivated by his stare, which had quickly shifted from angry, to surprised, to...

...entranced?

Was he as enthralled as she? Did he wonder if she were real?

As they looked at each other across the small bit of water and grassy shore, Prim saw something else in his gaze.

Hunger.

His lips parted and he took a step toward her as his gaze, hot and intense, moved over her.

Her heart skipped and her breathing grew shallow, for he had stepped far enough out of the water for her to see the proof of his desire rising strong from the black curls at his groin. Despite the fact that her cheeks felt on fire, Prim couldn't help staring, for his phallus was unlike any she'd ever seen-unlike Wilson, her butler, who enjoyed his daily fellatio from Mary, the upstairs maid. Unlike Jeremy Snap, the potter's son, who never failed to devise some way to reveal his prick to her every Sunday at church. And unlike her friend, Jack Gordon, who she'd once caught masturbating in the woods alongside her lake. This man's cock had a dense, meaty appearance, and it was crowned with an exceedingly large and bloated head that seemed to have overflowed from its thick, upward curving shaft. Below, his sac hung full and heavy looking.

Her cunny clenched and she felt a sudden moisture between her thighs. The fleshiness of him excited her. Trembling, she wet her lips and lifted her eyes back to his. He excited her-in a way that made her gut quiver and her breasts ache.

The silence stretched out between them. Energy hung suspended in the air, as if waiting for some decision to be reached.

Finally, his body inclined slightly toward her and he took a step.

Then another.

And another.

Prim's heart beat faster.

The water whispered gently as he moved through it, unveiling strong thighs, sculpted knees and well-formed calves. She swallowed when his feet stepped onto the embankment, the entirety of his tall, god-like form revealed. Desire coursed through her, as if some floodgate had been released. Then he moved through scattered patches of sunlight to come stand directly before her, only the breadth of her skirts keeping them apart.

Her heart racing, she stared directly at his chest. Water droplets clung to some of the straight black hairs that lay smooth over his skin. The steady rise and fall of his breathing highlighted her own rapid and uneven respiration. God, his proximity was like a magnet, pulling at her. Not from without, but from within. As if the very blood in her veins were drawn to him.

Then, ever so slowly, he lifted his hand until one finger touched beneath her chin. The gentle contact sent a spark tumbling straight to her womb. Her eyelids fluttered. But as he tilted up her face, she kept her eyes open and followed the strong column of his throat to his whiskered jaw and cleft chin, to his sensual, unsmiling mouth, to his slightly crooked nose, and then...oh, God, such beautiful eyes. Eyes that looked like leaves on the forest floor-green and brown punctuated with bright, leaf-like patches of gold. Autumn eyes, framed by black lashes and brows.

Eyes that looked at her with such desperate yearning-yearning and something else.

Sorrow?

Prim's heart tightened. Before she knew what she was doing, she'd brought her hand to his cheek, feeling the firm plane beneath its half-shadow of whiskers. She touched the smooth cheekbone revealed above.

His eyes darkened and his frown deepened.

But when she started to withdraw her hand, he clasped it with both of his and pressed it back against his cheek. She glimpsed an aching vulnerability in his eyes before he closed them.

In that brief moment, her heart hurt for him. What pained him so?

Her breath caught as he turned his face into her palm and slowly lifted the inside of her wrist to his nose. His nostrils flared. When his lashes lifted the vulnerability had been replaced with a hot and sensual intensity.

All at once, he closed what small space remained between them and took her face in his hands. Grasping his wrists, she sucked in her breath. At the sound, his eyes dropped to her mouth. He brushed his thumbs over her lips, tracing them and pressing them gently. His eyes moved slowly and hungrily over her features as he stroked her temple and brow with his fingers.

Everywhere he touched she tingled.

Prim slipped her grasp to his forearms. She'd never been regarded so avidly-as though he were committing every detail of her to his memory, both with sight and touch. But then, she was engraving him into her mind as well. She noted the tiny lines that radiated from the outer corners of his eyes, slightly paler than the rest of his tanned face, as if he spent his days squinting in the sun. She noted the slight peak of his hairline, and the way his black hair, so short and straight, grew forward on his head. And then there was the smell of him-sandalwood, sunshine, and the faintest hint of horses, all evaporating from his moist skin.

His eyes were fixed on hers now, looking for something.

But what?

She didn't look away or drop her gaze. She just stared back at him. Slowly, he began to lower his head to hers. She trembled with anticipation. But then he paused-just above her mouth. She could feel the touch of his breath. Her clitoris throbbed eagerly. Kiss me. God, kiss me!

But he didn't move, so she stretched onto her toes.

The moment her lips touched his, he moaned low and deep, the sound strumming her senses. And then he was pressing down upon her, his lips opening over hers, his tongue thrusting. He tasted of fennel, sweet and fresh.

Prim gasped into his mouth as his arms came around her and pulled her tight. Melting heat bubbled up in her at the feel of his hard chest and strong embrace. He kissed her deeper and deeper-more deeply than she'd ever been kissed before. Her head reeled. Clasping him tightly, she gave him kiss for luscious kiss. For, Lord, these were the kisses she'd always dreamed of-the kisses she'd imagined as she'd laid her hands upon herself in the dark hours of the night.

Only they were more...so much more. For he was pressing them upon her, and he was warm and real in her arms.

* * *

She was vibrant and alive in his arms.

Luke felt the tightening of her fingers against his nape and shoulder, and then she was arching against him, kissing him back and thrusting her tongue into his mouth with a demand that was both urgent and sweet.

God in Heaven!

Moaning, he clamped his hand over the layers of her skirts and, pulling her hips tight to him, rubbed his starved and aching cock against her. He couldn't help it. It had been forever. And she was so... ...so goddamned sweet.

All breathless gasps and throaty moans, she smelled like a rose garden in the heat of the day. She felt both soft and resilient in his arms, and she didn't try to pull away from the thrusts of his ugly beast. No recriminations about messing her fine pink gown. Rather, she held him tighter and kissed him even more eagerly. His cock responded with a heavy throb.

Sweet Jesus. She was both innocent and forward at the same time-a delectable dichotomy that was making him break all his rules.

She surged against him and, with a little mewl, bit into his lower lip. Fuck! Another jolt of lust infused his veins.

Growling, he hauled her off her feet and, holding the back of her head, slanted his lips across hers. He thrust his tongue deep into her mouth even as he thrust his prick against her skirts in a quick, hard volley-a clear and obvious promise of consummation.

Moaning and drinking from his mouth, his beautiful ingénue clung to him, clearly anxious for the fucking she had coming.

And, damn his rules, he was going to fuck her. Because, despite the guilelessness of her big blue eyes, despite the fantasy of her innocence, she wasn't truly innocent. Innocent young ladies didn't allow themselves to be embraced and kissed by naked men. And innocent young ladies most certainly didn't exude the hot and reckless passion that was pouring from the straining body, clinging arms and warm mouth of the woman he held now.

How many have come before me?

The question came before he could stop it. And with it, came a hot and sudden rush of jealousy. What the hell? Tearing his mouth from hers and turning away his face, he quashed the ludicrous emotion and forced the question from his mind. It didn't matter. In fact, he should be bloody grateful.

He turned back to her. Her cheeks were flushed, her kiss-swollen lips parted and panting, and some of her coppery blonde hair had escaped its low bun. But her beautiful blue eyes were searching his, and two worried little creases had drawn together between her brows. Jesus Christ, she made both his heart and his cock ache at once. Her arms tightened around his shoulders, as if she feared he might set her down.

But there was no danger of that, for he couldn't let her go. Her eyelids fell closed as he used his thumb to gently smooth the creases from between her brows. When he finished, she looked up at him.

And then she smiled.

And for a heartbeat, time stopped.

Because it wasn't the sort of smile one might give a stranger, or even a friend. It was altogether more-brimming with happiness, trust and exuberant desire-and something he couldn't quite touch, but that touched him.

No one had ever smiled at him like that.

He trembled.

If only he deserved such a smile.

He buried his face in her neck and breathed in roses as he pressed kisses there. Fate, or chance, had brought them together for this brief moment of bliss. And whatever had happened before-for either of them-didn't matter.

Lifting her higher, he opened his mouth against her soft throat, laving and sucking as he grabbed at her skirts. She moaned and her head fell back.

He would pretend that they had a past-a happy past-and that they lay together, everyday, under this leafy green canopy.

She shivered as he squeezed her pantalet-covered bottom, and his cock pulsed painfully as he pulled her legs around his hips.

He would pretend they had a future.

Taking her with him, he dropped to his knees.

He would pretend he was her first and only lover.

He laid her back in the soft green grass.

He would pretend he deserved her glorious smile.

* * *

Such glorious feelings!

Happiness, passion and a wild abandon flowed through Prim's veins. Every nerve felt alive and, as he kissed along her jaw and pressed his weight between her legs, she felt the reciprocal press of the earth beneath her, spongy yet firm. She let herself settle against it and was suddenly filled with the sense that she was exactly where she belonged-where generations of women, all the way back to Eve, had been-between earth and man.

Moaning at the feel of his open mouth against her throat, she clasped him tighter and pressed her lips to his brow and temple. Though he was resting on his elbows, she felt his hands upon her-against her side and the outer curve of her breast. She felt the flexing of his muscles beneath his warm skin. She felt the strength of his nape and the unexpected softness of his short hair. Then, kissing along her jaw and cheek, he shifted higher.

Suddenly, Prim felt the probing of his cock through the fabric of her pantalets. The head pushed, searching for entrance.

Her breath caught. It felt bigger than when they'd been standing. He felt bigger.

A quiver of hesitation scurried through her.

Lord, this was not the time for pause. She thought of her sisters and the risks they'd both taken for love. Should she risk any less?

Soft, fennel scented kisses brushed sensually against her mouth.

No. Her lips parted on a sigh. This was it-the magical moment-the leap of faith.

Her eyes fell closed as he kissed her eyelids and brow. His hips eased then she felt his hand between them, finding the opening in her pantalets. Her clitoris throbbed.

This was the inexplicable rightness her sisters had spoken of-the absolute trust that seemed to exist without reason.

His head lifted. His hand guided his cock.

But, of course, there had been a reason.

She stared into his beautiful, autumn eyes. She felt the press of his swollen knob against her flesh.

Love.

He stilled. His gaze searched hers.

Yes, love.

Her heart felt full. His brow furrowed.

The sort of love that is so deep and so profound that traces of it stretch back to a moment in time before it's actual blossoming-a moment that prophesies its existence in the future-a moment that makes you say yes, when in all other circumstances the answer would be no.

Prim cupped his cheek and her whisper broke their silence. "Yes."

* * *

Her whisper was like a caress. Luke stared a moment longer at something beautiful that was in her eyes. His heart throbbed and his cock hurt.

"Yes," he moaned in answer.

And then he thrust into her.

He heard her sharp cry, felt resistance, and thrust again.

With a passionate wail, she clung to him, her face pressed against his chest.

He could feel her wetness, yet her cunt was so tight. "Fuck!" Clasping her close, he thrust again and again. His cock felt like steel and the cries she muffled against his chest only made him thrust harder and harder, until every last inch of his aching prick was buried inside her.

Holy Heaven! He couldn't remember ever being held so tightly. She held him with cunt, arms and legs. A part of him wished he could stay in her rose-scented embrace forever. But his heart was hammering in his breast, and his long-starved body was ravenous to fuck.

Strengthening his hold on her, he kissed the top of her head and breathed in the scent of her moistened hairline.

The muscles in his hips and thighs tightened.

And then he was fucking.

And fucking and fucking.

With his cheek against her hair, he drove into her so hard and fast that he had to grind his elbows into the ground to keep his purchase. Every muscle strained, every tendon pulled taut. His head swam as he grunted and groaned. "Fuck!" He wanted to slow-to last for her-but it had been so long, and he couldn't remember it ever feeling so good. She was the reason-her throaty moans so perfect and passionate, her cunt so small and tight. He pumped into her wildly, the friction on his inflamed knob exquisite.

The end was near! He wanted to see her face-to see that beautiful something in her eyes. He moaned. Long ago, he'd learned not to look, for fear of what he might see. But this time...

His sperm boiled.

...just this once...

His thrusts shortened.

...to see some passion and joy...

His shaking hand lifted her face.

He stared at wet cheeks and eyes awash with tears.

Despair stopped his heart and stilled his body.

What have I done?

Her hand came to rest against his neck. "I'm all right," she breathed. Her fingers touched his ear. "It's just a bit of flesh. The pain will pass."

As she spoke the words, he smelled her virgin blood. He looked down and saw it-bright red on her pantalets and smeared over his thick shaft.

"Oh, God..." A hot, possessive lust cut through him. His hips jerked and his prick began to spasm. But even as his sperm erupted, self-loathing turned his gut. He yanked back and, gripping his big knob, struggled to get to his feet.

Her fingers slipped down his arm. "No, I'm all right."

Snatching free, he stumbled down the embankment and into the water. He was still coming and his legs were shaking. Breathing hard, he squeezed his eyes shut and kept hold of his cock until he'd ejaculated the last of his seed into his fist.

Shit, why wasn't he softening? Trembling, he looked down and slowly opened his hand. It was covered in blood and sperm, and his ugly beast was still as hard as ever. Luke shivered with lust and loathing. His prick didn't care that he had blood on his hands yet again-didn't care that he'd hurt another woman-all it wanted was more.

More of her.

He looked over his shoulder and his phallus pulsed. She was sitting up and, pressing down her skirts, was trying to look between her legs, which were still cocked wide apart.

He snapped his head back as his cock pulsed again. This time a thick dollop of cum spilled from the stretched opening. He choked back a groan. Fuck! He wanted to leap back upon her and fuck her bloody little cunt until it was overflowing with sperm and clenching with rapture.

Guilt and revulsion overpowered him. Disgusting pervert!

"Really-it's all right." Her voice was gentle behind him.

"No, it's not all right!" He flung out his hand and then bent to plunge it in the water. He cleansed it of all traces of blood and semen then once, twice, brushed it over his cock before turning to her.

She had tucked her legs to the side, and her eyes went briefly to his erection as he approached. But when he stopped before her, she lifted her gaze to his.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he bit out. "Why did you let me take your virginity-let me hurt you?"

Her brows quirked and she seemed to be searching for an answer.

"Why did you let me take your virginity?" he repeated.

She looked up at him unflinchingly. "Because I wanted you to have it."

She said the words so simply, and her eyes were so blue. Again, he was flooded with a possessive heat, but his reaction to her only made him angrier with himself. "And what if I don't want it? I can't exactly give it back, can I?" he snapped.

She frowned and hurt filled her eyes. "No. I suppose not." She lowered her gaze. "I just thought..."

He stared down at her. Tendrils of her coppery blond hair were loose around her face. "You thought what?"

She looked back up at him and her eyes were glistening. "I thought I should risk everything."

Risk everything? His gut slowly knotted as realization dawned.

Her lower lip began to tremble. "I-I did it because I thought you were the realization of my dreams."

"What dreams?" The words were ice on his tongue.

She seemed to search for an answer. Then she shook her head and her tears spilled over. "Dreams of happily-ever-after."

Fury burned through him as he whirled away from her. How stupid he'd been! How fucking naive! He crossed to the stone where he'd left his clothes, and grabbing his undergarment, shoved his legs in and hauled it up. His trousers followed.

God damn him, he should have known. No one was that perfect-that sweet, passionate and true. He hated that he'd believed. He hated that he'd wanted to believe. And most of all he hated that he still wanted her-the lying little sharp.

"Shit!" He struggled to button-up over his erection. It hurt and he winced at the pressure on his glans.

He could hear her crying softly, but he grabbed his shirt before looking at her.

She'd gotten to her feet and her face was a mask of sorrow.

He scoffed disdainfully. What the hell had she expected? That he would be overjoyed at being entrapped? That he would be so dazzled with delight over the gift of her blood, that he would happily skip with her to the altar? Or perhaps it was really money she was after.

"Who are you?" he sneered.

Her lips moved, as if she might speak, but then she clamped them shut.

God damn it! "Then perhaps I should ask, who do you belong to? Who will come knocking on my door to make me pay for this day?"

"What?" She looked confused for a moment and then she shook her head. "No one."

"Stop lying!" he hissed. "You think I'm not aware that everyone knows I'm arriving today? You think I don't know that my sister-in-law has told everyone in the county of my intention to remarry? What, you couldn't wait for the ball? You thought you'd sneak to the front of the line-sneak in front of Lady Wilton?" Bloody hell! He yanked on his shirt. "Tell me, did you deepen the rut in the road yourself? Or are you just a fortunate opportunist and I an unfortunate fool?"

Her blue eyes were wide. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I have no idea who Lady Wilton is. And I have no idea who you are either." Her voice trembled. "I thought I did, but I was wrong."

Why the fuck did the disappointment in her voice sting?

His anger flared higher. "You don't know who I am?" he shouted. "You don't know who-" He clenched his jaw shut and, drawing his breath through his nose, forced his emotions into tighter control. "So," he bit out, "you just happened to be in the vicinity today, came across a naked man, and decided that it was as good a day as any to fuck a stranger and rid yourself of your virginity?"

Tears slipped from her eyes. "It wasn't like that."

"No," he said bitterly. "It wasn't."

Silence stretched between them.

The birds had gone, and pain and anger hung in the air.

Luke forced his breathing to slow. "I assume there's someone waiting for you."

She held his stare. "Yes."

His chest hurt. "Go, then. And tell whomever it is that I will not be forced into marriage. Not by you, or anyone else."

Her blue gaze held his for a long moment.

Then she turned and, moving to the edge of the clearing, picked up a straw hat from the ground. She paused there then glanced back at him over her shoulder. Suddenly, she looked very young.

He clenched his jaw against the urge to say-what?

He watched her eyes lower. Watched her turn away from him. Watched her silently disappear down a narrow, overgrown path.

Alone again.

He let his head fall forward and stared down at the excruciating bulge in his trousers.

Alone and in anguish.

 

Chapter Two ~ Facing Family

"Well, here you are at last!" Aunt Matty shouted across the meadow. "Charlotte and I had begun to worry that some bog might have swallowed you up! We almost sent Mr. Peters to search for you."

Prim drew a shuddering breath. She'd worked so hard to compose herself, and now the comforting sound of her aunt's slightly indignant voice was going to make her cry again.

Her cousin, Charlotte, had gotten to her feet and was coming across the meadow to join her. She was still a few paces away when her smile suddenly faded. "What's wrong?" She hurried forward, her gray gaze moving worriedly over Prim as she clasped her hands. "Are you all right?" Staring at Prim's neck, her eyes widened. "Oh my God," she gasped.

Prim touched the spot and remembered the warm, wet pull of his mouth. She shivered and her tears welled.

Charlotte gripped her arms. "Were you attacked?"

"No." Prim shook her head. "No, I wasn't."

Charlotte looked unconvinced.

"Girls?" Aunt Matty called.

Prim looked directly into her cousin's eyes. "I promise you, Charlotte, I wasn't attacked. But I—" her tears spilled over, "I did something—with someone."

"Something with someone?"

"Girls!" her aunt called again.

Prim clutched Charlotte's hand. "I'll tell you everything later. Right now I just want to leave, and I—I don't know what to say to Aunt Matty."

"All right. But just tell me—this someone—he didn't hurt or harm you, did he?"

Prim's heart constricted. How did she answer that? Fresh tears spilled. "Not in the way you're thinking. His embrace was paradise and everything I did, I did willingly. But things didn't end well, and now I feel awful and foolish. Please, Charlotte..."

Charlotte nodded and, sweeping her lace fichue from her neckline, dabbed Prim's cheeks with it before arranging it around her neck. Then, taking her hand, she turned and pulled Prim with her. "Aunt Matty, we have to go," she called.

"Well, that's what I've been saying for the last half-hour," Aunt Matty shouted back. As they approached, she went on. "But I've been perched on this stool for so long now, that I'm quite certain I shall never be able to rise. And I told my dear Mrs. Littlebottom that we would, on no account, be late for tea. However will I explain to her that I was crippled by a stool? And to think we're over an hour's ride away—" Her gaze settled on her niece. "Good grief! What's happened?"

"Uh..." Prim felt her face flush.

"Prim has had a terrible fright," Charlotte answered. "Whilst on her walk, she surprised some beast in the woods. It growled at her most ferociously and she was forced to run away."

Aunt Matty's eyes widened. "A growling beast?"

"Yes!" Charlotte urged. "A wolf or a wild boar, perhaps."

"A wolf! A wild boar!" Leaping to her feet, Aunt Matty whirled around, the flounce on her lace cap fluttering against her silver hair. "Mr. Peters!" she shrieked toward the coach. The elderly driver slowly descended from his seat. "Come quickly, sir, we are surrounded by wild beasts!"

As Mr. Peters ambled over, Aunt Matty whirled back around, her face flushed with nervous excitement. "Well what are you waiting for, Charlotte? Take Prim to the coach! Oh, where is my reticule? If a wolf or a wild boar were to make off with my reticule, I should be very vexed!"

Prim and Charlotte climbed into the clean but rather worn old coach borrowed from their hostess, Mrs. Littlebottom, while Aunt Matty prodded Mr. Peters into speed with her startled exclamations of wolf! or boar! everytime there was a rustling in the bushes.

Prim sat across from her cousin. "Thank you."

Charlotte squeezed her hand. "You're welcome." She glanced out the window. "I only hope Aunt Matty doesn't rush poor Mr. Peters into an early grave."

As it turned out, Mr. Peters could be quite spry when he wanted to be. Though he protested loudly that wolves and boar were long extinct in England, it wasn't long before they were packed and on the road south.

But Prim had only just settled into her aunt's embrace when Aunt Matty began craning her neck out the window. "My goodness, what a horrid spot to be broken down. And what an elegant conveyance. Who do you suppose it belongs to?" She leaned forward eagerly.

Prim shrank back. ...did you deepen the rut in the road yourself? The coach must be his. What if he'd already returned to it?

Aunt Matty gripped the edge of the window. "We should inform them there are wild beasts in the area."

"No!" Prim clutched her aunt's arm. "I mean, must we stop?" She couldn't face him, not in front of her aunt and cousin. Tears stung her eyes.

Aunt Matty regarded her gently. "Well of course, my dear—if only to offer our assistance. My word," she stroked Prim's cheek. "I've never seen you so distraught."

"Why don't you come lay on this side," Charlotte offered. "Perhaps you'll feel better if you put your head down."

"Yes!" Thank God for Charlotte! Prim scrambled over and practically threw herself across the facing seat as her cousin took the place beside Aunt Matty.

"Better, my child?" her aunt asked as their coach slowed.

"Yes," Prim said low.

Nodding, Aunt Matty turned her eager attention back out the window.

They rolled to a stop.

"Why, Charlotte, that coach is as elegant as Mark and Passion's. And the coachmen's livery is so handsome."

Prim heard voices, then Mr. Peters enquiring if any assistance were needed. She couldn't discern the answer, though, because her aunt was so busy exclaiming over the quality of the coach's upholstery. And then, oh God, her aunt leaned her head out the window. "Excuse me, young man, but to whom does this coach belong?"

"To the Marquess of Rainsford, madam."

Prim tensed and shared a shocked glance with Charlotte. He was a Marquess?

"The Marquess of Rainsford!" Aunt Matty looked all about, clearly hoping to glimpse the man. "Well, my dear niece is the Countess of Langley. I wonder if the Marquess and she are acquainted?"

Oh, God! Her stomach turning at the thought, Prim exchanged another nervous glance with her cousin. Heaven forbid her sister knew him!

"I know not, madam."

"Oh, well..." Her aunt sounded disappointed. "By the way, young man, be sure to inform your lord that there are wolves and wild boar lurking all about this region. My young niece was almost mauled or gored. We're not sure which, but either way it would have been very bad. And had I left my reticule behind, I'm quite certain that some beast, with either claw or tusk, would have made off with it."

Their coach started again. Clearly, Mr. Peters was not inclined to wait for her aunt to finish her conversation.

"So, I hope you will be repaired and on your way very soon!" Aunt Matty called out the window.

"Thank you, madam," the man replied, not a trace of concern in his voice.

Aunt Matty sat back with a satisfied sigh. "There, now they're well warned. I'm sure the Marquess will be grateful. I do wish we had got to meet him, though. Don't you Charlotte?"

As Charlotte nodded, Aunt Matty smiled at Prim. "How are you, my dear? Any better?"

Worse and worse. "I'll be all right," Prim answered. Sitting back up lest she retch, she rested her hand against her quivering stomach. A Marquess? When she'd first seen him, with his short hair, unshaven jaw and tanned face, she'd been certain he was common born-common born, but with intelligence in his eyes and authority in his bearing. Then, when he'd spoken, she'd heard education and breeding. And then he'd mentioned a ball and a Lady Wilton.

But a Marquess?

Leaning her head back, Prim closed her eyes with a sigh. What did it matter? Regardless of his station, she was nothing to him.

"My goodness," Aunt Matty exclaimed under her breath. "That man is so tall, and handsome.."

Prim's head snapped forward and her eyes snapped open.

"…and dressed only in his trousers and shirtsleeves," her aunt continued, "though he does appear to be carrying a coat and some other articles."

Prim looked at Charlotte, and Charlotte looked at her. Then her cousin made a discreet but rapid downward motion with her hand. Prim pitched forward, pretending to search for something on the carriage floor. Her heart pounded as she prayed. Above her, her companions were silent. But, thank God, their carriage didn't stop! She heard her aunt release her breath, almost as if she'd been holding it.

"Heavens, what a striking man! Did you see, Charlotte, how he looked right at us and then towards Prim's seat. It was almost as though he were looking for someone."

"Yes, Aunt Matty."

Prim swallowed and tried to calm her breathing.

"Prim, whatever are you doing down there?"

"I—I'm looking for my glove. I seem to have dropped it."

"Well, look for it later, child. You're likely to get sick bent over like that. And you didn't see that man, did you? He gave Charlotte and me such a look."

Prim sat up slowly but then nearly leapt out of her skin when her aunt drew a sudden gasping breath and gripped Charlotte's arm. "You don't suppose that was the Marquess of Rainsford, do you? The cut of his shirt did look quite fine, and he walked with an unmistakable air of command."

Prim stiffened. Her aunt wouldn't hesitate to go after him and offer a seat in their coach if she believed he were the Marquess.

"No!" Charlotte frowned and shook her head. "I'm certain that man was not the Marquess of Rainsford. He was far too rough looking," she said dismissively. "And what Marquess do you know of who walks about in only his shirtsleeves?"

"Well," Aunt Matty raised her silver brows, "I can't say I actually know any Marquesses. But if I did, I suppose you're right, they would always wear at least a jacket and cravat. Those are the Marquessorial minimums, I'm sure." She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes. Look at our dear, Fitz Roy. He's only the son of a Marquess, and he's one of the most dapper gentlemen I know."

"I agree," Charlotte said. "I'm actually of the opinion that man might have been some sort of villain. His frown was so fierce. I think he may have been trying to determine whether or not to rob us."

Aunt Matty looked aghast. "In the light of day?"

"Oh, yes," Charlotte said, nodding. "Some of these northern thieves are quite bold."

"Really?" Aunt Matty sat back, her eyes sparkling. "Wolves, wild boars and highwaymen! I don't believe I've ever been in so much peril all in one day!"

Prim pushed into the corner of the coach. She'd felt imperiled herself. And now that it seemed she'd actually made her escape, her nerves were unraveling. She felt exhausted and overwrought, and the soreness between her legs only magnified her sorrow. Closing her eyes and drawing slow, even breaths, she used the last reservoirs of her will to keep from bursting into tears.

* * *

Her tears had been genuine.

Luke stared at the length of pink satin ribbon he'd found at the edge of the clearing.

But she'd had good reason for real tears. She'd 'risked everything,' and he'd been neither honored, pleased nor seduced.

He braced his legs against the rocking of his coach.

There would be no future, no 'happily-ever-after.' Only whatever money could be extorted from him.

Still, he regretted sending her away. He should have brought her with him, if only to force some answers from her. Damn it...

Crumpling the ribbon, he shoved it in his coat pocket.

If on horseback, it was quite possible that whomever she belonged to would already be awaiting him when he arrived. He crossed his arms over his chest. Something wasn't right, but soon he'd have his answers.

Soon he'd be home.

It had been over an hour since they'd fixed the coach and returned to the road. Then it had been another half hour stop at the dower house in the village so that he could have a shave and change of clothes. But now, he stared out the window at the landscape of rolling green hills, low rock walls and wooded copses.

Farmhouses of mellowed brick and stone dotted the view. And above it all...

Leaning closer to the window, he gazed upward.

...presided Castle Eden—home to the Edenton family for almost six hundred years.

Situated on the forward promontory of a high, broad plain that jutted from the mountainside, the castle overlooked the rolling valley and river below. Its curtain wall, towers and crenellated rooflines were tributes to its fortified past, but over the centuries it had been civilized by enlargement and renovation. The curtain wall no longer housed an armory and soldiers' barracks; it housed the Edenton Stables. And the decorative crenellation on the newer parts of the castle cloaked Elizabethan, Carolean and neo-classical interiors.

It was beautiful. He'd always thought so. And with its aged gritstone walls bathed in late afternoon sunshine, it looked warm and inviting.

He loved it. Even though its rooms and corridors had witnessed so many sorrows.

Luke sat back as his coach approached the long, tree-lined drive. The repairs of the wheelwright had best be sound, for they were quickly picking up speed for the traditional run up the hill. As they hurtled up the incline, Luke pulled on his gloves and brushed a speck of lint from his coat-sleeve. Once at the top, they burst through the gatehouse and into the courtyard where they finally slowed and drew to a stop.

The carriage still rocking on its springs, Luke picked up his topper. It had been almost five months since he'd taken that ride. He'd missed it. As his footman opened the coach door and flipped down the step, Luke took up the beribboned box at his side then angled his frame out of the coach. As he set his boots on the gravel drive, he put on his hat and turned in traditional observance of the raising of his coat-of-arms over the castle gatehouse. Only when the white bull was flying at full mast did he turn to greet those who awaited him—over a hundred staff, his brother and sister-in-law, and his son.

His fragile, seven-year-old son, who looked at him through the pale gray eyes of his mother.

His heart quickening, Luke crossed to him and bent onto one knee before the boy. "Hello, Arthur."

"Hello, Father." His small voice was contained, his gaze clear.

Luke released his breath and took a moment to take in more details of his son's appearance. His straight black hair was tucked neatly behind his ears. But though it was the height of summer, his skin looked pale. Sweeping his gloved hand over Arthur's small shoulder and arm, Luke felt how thin he was beneath his short-coat. His mother had been small and fine boned...and mad. Luke pushed the fear away. "I'm glad to find you well, Arthur. I enjoyed your letters very much."

A light flush rose in the boy's cheeks, and a small smile turned his mouth. "Thank you, Father. I enjoyed your letters, too."

Luke nodded. "It seems you grew whilst I was in the Americas."

"I did, Father," Arthur answered with a soft eagerness. "Aunt Caroline says I shall need new trousers if I keep it up."

"So you shall." Luke noted how his son's hands clenched and unclenched in the fabric of his trouser-legs. Was it a nervous tick? He held out the box. "I brought this for you. You may open it when we go in."

Smiling tremulously, Arthur reached out his hands and Luke gave him the gift.

"Thank you, Father." The box filled his arms and he held it tightly to his chest. His son's face expressed such tender happiness.

Leaning close, Luke quickly kissed his cheek. "You're welcome, Arthur." He touched the boy's hair as he got to his feet and turned to his sister-in-law. She, too, looked thin and pale, but also as imperious as ever. "Caroline," he gave her a long, slim box from the pocket of his frockcoat, "it's good to see you." Hopefully, the silk fan would elevate her mood.

A little of the pinch left her green eyes and then she smiled tightly. "Thank you, Luke. It's good to have you home."

"It's good to be home." What illness was beleaguering her now? "I trust you've been well since last we corresponded?"

"Not entirely." She pressed her temple. "These headaches—"

"Oh stop it, Caroline." Luke's brother stepped forward with a smile. "The man has just arrived. He doesn't want to hear of all your aches and pains."

Caroline lifted her chin and pressed her lips into a thin line as Richard gave Luke a hug and a few thumps on the back.

"Richard." Luke returned his brother's embrace.

His brother pulled back then spread his hands out at his sides. "What, nothing for me?" he asked with a grin.

Reaching into his breast pocket, Luke pulled out an envelope and handed it to his brother.

"What's this?"

"Your winnings."

"Winnings?" Richard's brows shot up as he quickly opened the envelope.

"You asked me to place a bet for you at the races."

"Yes, but I didn't think you'd actually do it." His brother thumbed through the money before looking at Luke with a pleased smile. "You never gamble."

It was true. Yet today he'd gambled on her. Her gown, though simple, had been well cut. He'd seen that. But he'd measured it against her forwardness and determined that she was simply a young governess or well-to-do merchant's daughter who enjoyed a good toss. He'd gambled and lost.

"So why this time?"

Luke forced his attention back to his brother. "Because it wasn't a gamble. It was a sure thing."

Richard cocked one black brow. "If it were a sure thing it wouldn't have paid so well. I think you bet on your own fine eye for horseflesh."

Flesh, warm and wet. Why the hell did he still want her? His cock stirred. He frowned as he glanced toward the recessed entrance of Castle Eden. "Is there anyone here, waiting to see me?"

"No." His brother pocketed his winnings. "Why? Should there be?"

Yes, damn it. He wanted answers—wanted to know who she was and what he was facing.

Lifting his shoulder in a tight shrug, he turned to face his staff. Lambert and Mrs. Cole, his butler and housekeeper, stood in front of his household servants, who were lined up five tiers deep on the front steps. The extensive staff that attended the Edenton Stables stood in a long row beside the steps. Then followed the gardener and the keepers of the grounds, game and gate.

Luke forced the tension from his body. Now was not the time for preoccupations. Put her out of your mind. He was home and he had duties to attend to. You'll have your answers soon enough.

Releasing a slow breath, he stepped forward to inspect and greet his staff. "Good afternoon, Lambert. I trust everything is well."

The gray-haired butler looked as steady and composed as ever. He bowed before replying, "Good afternoon, my lord. Yes, everything is perfectly well."

Luke nodded then addressed his housekeeper. "Mrs. Cole."

She bobbed a curtsey. "Good day, my lord."

"How is your brother?"

The woman's brown eyes softened. "Entirely recovered, my lord. He says he can see better with one eye than he could with two."

"Good, then."

Just so, Luke moved reservedly through the ranks, nodding and exchanging greetings. He stopped to speak briefly with his stable master regarding the horses he'd brought from America. Having arrived a little ahead of him, they had already been settled into their stalls. Then he moved on to the rest of the stable staff and, finally, the gardener and keepers. It wasn't until he turned from the last servant that he realized his hand was in his pocket, his fingers threaded in her satin ribbon.

* * *

"The pink ribbon is missing from your hat, my dear," Aunt Matty noted.

"It is?" Prim trembled. It was only a ribbon. But as she stared at her unadorned hat lying on the window seat, the tears she had been holding at bay threatened, yet again, to spill over.

"Good Heavens!" Aunt Matty suddenly clutched her napkin to her breast. "Do you suppose the wild beast made off with it?" She looked at Prim and her expression softened. "Oh, my dear, you mustn't fret." She squeezed Prim's hand. "It is, after all, only a ribbon. Now had it been my reticule there would be cause for tears, for my dear Lord Rivers gifted me that reticule for my birthday. And inside it I have no small number of important items, including a lace handkerchief given me by your father. So, you see, your ribbon is nothing at all to my reticule." Smiling, she patted Prim's hand. "Nothing has been lost this day that cannot be replaced."

Prim's tears overflowed just as her aunt turned her attention to Mrs. Littlebottom. Taking the handkerchief Charlotte passed to her, Prim quickly wiped her cheeks, but her sadness was bone-deep. She'd lost something entirely irreplaceable; and the soreness between her legs was a relentless reminder that, in a very fundamental way, she was forever changed.

"Aunt Matty," Charlotte gently interrupted, "I think, perhaps, I should see Prim to bed."

Aunt Matty raised her brows. "The tea has only just arrived, and a bath is being drawn for her, Charlotte. I should think it rather rude if she didn't avail herself of it after all the trouble that has been gone to."

"I didn't mean to suggest she wouldn't have her bath...I just thought..."

Aunt Matty received her teacup from Mrs. Littlebottom. "Do you mean to say that Prim should bathe and go to bed without her tea? And after such a day? When her flesh might have been sundered and her blood drawn by some wild beast?"

Prim's chest tightened. Her aunt's words, so innocently spoken, kept striking at her heart as if they'd been fired with exacting intent. God and His angels were surely speaking their disapproval. She drew a shuddering breath.

Aunt Matty looked at her sympathetically before turning back to Charlotte with a stern frown. "Really, Charlotte, I should think you would have a greater care for your cousin. Everyone knows that there is no greater good for the health and the constitution than strong English tea."

"Actually, my dear," Mrs. Littlebottom interjected, "tea isn't English at all." She shook her head on its frail little neck. "It comes from the orient."

Aunt Matty lifted her chin and looked imperiously at her diminutive friend. "Tea may come from the orient, Mrs. Littlebottom, but it is England that has made it great." And with that she turned back to Charlotte. "As I was saying, I would be remiss in my duties as an aunt, and as an Englishwoman," she sent a quick glare at Mrs. Littlebottom, "were I to allow either one of you to forgo tea. And I am never remiss. In fact, I'm the least remiss person I know. Isn't that so, Mrs. Littlebottom?"

Anxious to return to Aunt Matty's good graces, Mrs. Littlebottom nodded. "It's true. I don't know a lesser remiss person."

Aunt Matty's brow quirked. "Lesser remiss? Is that right?"

Mrs. Littlebottom blinked. "Well, it wouldn't be more remiss, would it?"

Prim managed an appreciative glance for Charlotte while Aunt Matty and her friend worked out their grammar. Her cousin had tried to help. If either of Prim's sisters had been there, they would already have accomplished her escape. But, alas, Charlotte did not have the same influence with Aunt Matty. And Prim felt too fragile for the battle. So she drew her teacup close and, though her hands shook, slowly sipped her strong English tea.

"Speaking of being remiss," Aunt Matty suddenly exclaimed, "I would be remiss—which we have already ascertained that I never am—if I did not discover from you, Mrs. Littlebottom, all that you know about this Marquess of Rainsford."

Prim tensed and her tea almost sloshed over the rim of her cup.

"After all," her aunt continued, passing Prim and Charlotte plates of watercress sandwiches, "I nearly met the man; it seems only right that I should know something of him. Is he, for example, married?" she inquired casually.

Prim felt cold. She knew the answer. But she hadn't known it when she'd lain beneath him. She'd been so immersed in her romantic dreams—dreams in which he was unmarried and awaiting her—that she'd never considered he could be anything other than what she imagined.

God, it all seemed so foolish now.

Mrs. Littlebottom finally swallowed her bite of sandwich. "The Marquess is a widower, my dear. His wife died three years ago in a tragic riding accident."

A widower? Prim's heart constricted and her teacup clattered against its saucer as she lowered it.

Her aunt barely spared her a glance. "Really? How sad," she said, not looking or sounding at all sad. She stirred her tea vigorously. "Is he young or old? Three years seems an awfully long time for a man to stay in mourning."

"Oh, he's young enough to take a second wife," Mrs. Littlebottom answered. "And there is no shortage of ladies who would love to be the next Marchioness, for the Marquess is..." she glanced at Prim and Charlotte and then leaned close to Aunt Matty, "well, he is very handsome, my dear." Mrs. Littlebottom actually blushed.

"Is he?" Aunt Matty breathed.

Yes. Prim's heart thumped painfully.

"Have you met him then, Mrs. Littlebottom?" Charlotte asked.

"No, Miss Lawrence. His estate lies quite some distance north of here. But I once saw him as he rode through town on horseback." Her small chin lifted and her eyes sparkled. "He bowed his head and touched his hat as he passed me by."

Aunt Matty nodded approvingly. "I knew when I saw the quality of the upholstery in his coach that he was a true gentleman-that he was nothing at all like that highwayman we barely escaped on the road. You should have seen the way he looked at us, Mrs. Littlebottom—as if he might tear us to bits, or....or even ravish us," Aunt Matty said almost gleefully.

"Oh, my dear!" Mrs. Littlebottom fanned herself excitedly with her small black fan.

Prim clenched her hands in her napkin. He'd been so furious with her. She was the cause of the anger her aunt had seen in his eyes.

"But enough about the highwayman." Aunt Matty glanced at Prim's plate. "Eat your sandwich, Prim. I'll not have you wasting away whilst under my guardianship." Her aunt turned back to her friend. "Now, my dear, how is it that the Marquess has evaded marriage all this time?"

"Well, it's aways been said that he was so in love with his first wife that he could never love another," Mrs. Littlebottom offered. "People have said that he wouldn't even look at the ladies because no woman could compare to her in his eyes."

Oh, God. Prim's head began to pound. While she'd been in her starry-eyed fantasy, he'd likely been thinking of his first and only love. Her gut twisted painfully.

"And she was, in truth, a great beauty. Her coach stopped once at The Crossings Inn and I saw her disembark," Mrs. Littlebottom continued. "Dark haired and petite, she was the very picture of delicate elegance."

Prim looked at her long-fingered hand holding the sandwich. It wasn't delicate. And she'd never claimed elegance. Her sisters were the elegant ones, the beauties. She was just Prim, fair-haired and lively.

"In the Marquess' eyes, I don't think anyone could surpass his late wife. Isn't that romantic?" Mrs. Littlebottom asked wistfully.

"Yes, quite." Aunt Matty sipped her tea thoughtfully. "Of course, it would be infinitely more romantic were he to fall in love with some sweet-tempered young woman despite himself." Her eyes flickered in Prim's direction.

Prim set down her sandwich, untasted. She would not be that woman. He'd called her a liar, and then sent her away with the promise that she would never have him.

"Well, as a matter of fact," said, Mrs. Littlebottom, "there has been some talk that he will marry Lady Wilton now that he has returned from America." Pain throbbed behind Prim's brow.

"America!" Aunt Matty exclaimed disdainfully. "Why on earth would a Lord of the Realm want to visit that land of ungrateful rebels? And who is this Lady Wilton?"

Lady Wilton would be at "the ball." She was the one at "the front of the line." Prim rubbed her aching forehead. She didn't want to hear anymore.

"The Marquess went to America to purchase horses," Mrs. Littlebottom replied. "The Edenton Stables are some of the finest in England, my dear. As for Lady Wilton, she's a beautiful widow. Some say that in the last year or so, she and the Marquess have come to be on...intimate terms." She whispered the last words. "But whatever the case, everyone is quite certain that their engagement will be announced soon."

Jealousy seared Prim's nerves. Perhaps it was Lady Wilton he'd been thinking of rather than his first wife. Or perhaps both women filled his thoughts. Regardless, it was clearer than ever why he'd been so angry. The Marquess of Rainsford didn't need a foolhardy virgin thwarting his marriage plans. He had a past and a future, neither of which included her.

"And I do believe it's for the best," Mrs. Littlebottom continued, "for a child needs a mother, and the Marquess' son has been without one for too long."

Another shock rattled through Prim's body. He had a son?

"He has a son?" Aunt Matty asked.

"Yes, but what is a child without a mother—a man without a wife? I tell you, Mistress Dare, Lady Wilton will soon be both. The Marquess and his young son will have a woman to once again make them a happy family."

Prim felt sick and closed her stinging eyes.

Today she'd happened upon the man of her dreams. She'd had such faith, such trust, that he was the one for her and she the one for him. She'd voiced the inexplicable yes.

But that had been absurd. He didn't exist for her. He had a life of his own-a son, a beautiful and elegant wife he'd loved and lost, and soon, a new wife-one with whom he was already on "intimate terms."

Suddenly she saw herself from his perspective—as nothing more than a fortuitous fuck—a willing partner in a brief, anonymous exchange of lust.

And what other conclusion could he have drawn?

She'd given him no reason to think otherwise...

...no reason to understand that she was an impulsive young virgin living out a dream-a dream that was supposed to end in a very real, and very happy, forever after.

Tears poured down her cheeks.

Tears for her lost flesh.

Tears for her lost dream.

Tears for the man she was supposed to love...

...and who was supposed to love her back.

 

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