Page 21

Author: Anne Stuart


He slung the picnic hamper off his saddle, plus the woven coverlet Cook had provided as ground cover, and shoved them into her hand. “Here,” he said unnecessarily. “I’m going for a short stroll.”


She glared up at him. “And you expect me to arrange things?”


“Your fault for not bringing a servant as chaperone,” he replied.


“If you felt your chaste reputation was in danger you should have said so at the outset of our journey.”


“Would you have brought someone?”


“Of course not. But I would have enjoyed your discomfiture more.”


He had to hide a smile. She was so deliciously argumentative. He had no choice but to accept the truth of her earlier observation. A docile wife was going to be a dead bore. Fortunately he planned to spend as little time with his as-yet-unknown bride as possible.


“I’ll be back shortly,” he said, strolling toward the ruins.


“Don’t you dare start exploring without me!” she called after him.


He simply waved a dismissive hand and moved on.


It wasn’t that he wished to annoy her. At least, that wasn’t his main ambition. The wreckage of Kersley Hall might very well be dangerous, and he didn’t fancy having to rescue her from some potential cave-in. A brief reconnoiter was called for, even if she’d most likely be furious with him for doing so. Which was more than acceptable for him.


By the time he strolled back toward their makeshift picnic spot he was feeling both annoyed and relieved. He had seen no sign of any presence in the area, neither nefarious nor innocent, and they’d obviously made the trip for naught. He had every intention of taunting her, but when he crested the hill he saw the picnic blanket stretched out on the lawn and a veritable feast laid out on it. Charity Carstairs lay sound asleep amid the food, the sun dancing through the leaves overhead and leaving a charming, shifting pattern on her body.


He froze, looking at her for a long, contemplative moment, unsure what he was feeling. He’d brushed those curves the night before, but hadn’t had much time to explore. Her breasts were plump and pretty, and he wondered what they’d look like uncovered. Would her nipples be dark or pale? Would the hair between her legs be the same tawny gold? What kind of sounds would she make when she climaxed? Would she come silently, or would she scream?


He moved then, coming closer, and a wave of exhaustion rolled over him. Curse Brandon and his excesses. If it hadn’t been for him, he would have had a decent night’s sleep. If it hadn’t been for him, he would never have gotten involved with Lady Carstairs.


Which, he thought after a moment, would have been a damned shame.


He sat down on the coverlet beside her, expecting her to wake and break the languorous spell that had covered him, but she slept on, her eyes closed, her breathing deep and regular. A wicked smile crossed his face, and on impulse he lay down beside her, almost touching her, turned on his side to watch her as she slept. He let his eyes run over her, feasting on her, devising a thousand plans to get her into his bed, all of which he regretfully abandoned. She might think herself a woman of the world but she was most definitely an innocent compared to the likes of him, and everything he’d done to her shocked her. Seducing her would be the first step on the road to perdition.


She smelled like roses. The sun painted soft freckles on her nose, and he wanted to touch them, see if they brushed off. She hadn’t had them at the start of the day. Her maidservant was going to scold her quite fiercely. Assuming she even had such a thing.


He moved closer, brushing his face against her arm, breathing in her scent. Sun-warmed skin married with the roses and something indefinably female that stirred his senses. Danger, he reminded himself, his instincts well-honed. This was a very dangerous woman.


And then he fell asleep.


15


She dreamed she was in Thomas’s arms once more, but instead of the gentle, almost tentative hold of his frail arms, this time his grip was stronger, more possessive, and the body he cradled her against was young and strong, freed of the weakness of age and illness. She burrowed closer with a happy sigh, reveling in the feel of him, the scent of him, like sunshine and raspberries. He caught her hand and moved it across his chest, down his flat stomach to that most essentially male part, and it was a hard ridge of flesh, surprising her. She tried to pull her hand away, but he simply caught it and brought it back again, and she let her fingers dance along that mysterious bulge, discovering it, listening to his sleepy groan in her ear.


She edged closer. She was warm, but she wanted to move closer still, to lie against him, have him wrap his arms around her. He smelled like spring and soft green grass, which was silly. Thomas hated the outdoors—it aggravated his gout. But this was Thomas transformed, young and strong and wonderful, and she buried her face against the sun-warmed wool of his jacket, closed her eyes, and drifted deeper into sleep.


He was there. He was the man she would have chosen, young and healthy, slightly bad tempered and strong-minded and protective. They would live forever, the two of them, and there would be babies and battles and laughter and tears. It wasn’t too late after all. Thomas had defied time and fate and come back to her.


She felt the wetness of her tears on her cheeks, and his fingers brushed them away before sliding behind her neck and tilting her face up to meet his. She knew him by his kiss, soft and sweet and persuasive, but Thomas didn’t like to kiss. Everything had changed, though, and she was dreaming, happy, feeling more alive than she’d ever felt before as she burrowed against him, his arms holding her close, and she slept, she slept.


She was cold. She was alone again. Thomas had left her, and the bed was hard beneath her, too hard, and someone was shaking her, hard. Her eyes flew open, she looked up into Viscount Rohan’s cold face, cold eyes, and she knew.


“Wake up,” he said in a rough voice. “You were dreaming.”


She managed to scramble away from him, her brain still fogged from sleep. And then she realized it hadn’t been Thomas at all, it had been Rohan who’d slept beside her. Rohan, not Thomas—who was dead, who wasn’t coming back—and to her complete shame a harsh sob broke from her throat, followed by another.


It was nothing compared to the horror in his face at her tears. “For God’s sake, Charity, it wasn’t my fault,” he snapped. “I was asleep, as well. You were the one who curled up beside me. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Another sob came from her chest, and he looked even more harassed. “I hardly meant to kiss you, but in truth you were climbing all over me, and I was three-quarters asleep myself.”


Her stomach hurt, her chest ached, and she wrapped her arms around her body, trying to force the overwhelming sorrow back into the secret place where she kept it locked, but it was too strong. She swallowed, but looking at him made it even worse, because he wasn’t Thomas, and because she wanted to kiss him, not Thomas, which was the final betrayal.


She’d almost managed to get it under control by biting down on her lower lip, when he ruined it all by saying, “It was nothing. It was just a kiss.”


And the dam broke, and she howled, throwing her hands over her face, weeping into them helplessly as Thomas’s elderly, dear, choleric face faded from her memory. She knew she should stop, calm herself, but the release of tears was a blessing. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she cried, but letting go felt good, and too bad if Rohan felt uncomfortable. She needed this.


She drew her knees up and pressed her face against them, sobbing and gasping, unable to calm herself. And then she looked up at Rohan’s horrified face, and managed what was no doubt a ghastly smile. “It’s…not you,” she managed to choke out between sobs and struggles for breath. “It’s Thomas.”


“Your husband?” he said, clearly confused. “Why are you crying about him?”


“I miss him!” she wailed.


He stayed perfectly still, and she stopped thinking about him, concentrating on her own misery. Through her blinding tears she could see the quizzical expression on his face, but she simply turned away, trying to burrow into her grief.


His hands startled her, but she was past fighting. He pulled her into his arms, but there was nothing lascivious about it. He simply folded her against him, his strong arms wrapped around her, protecting her as she had dreamed, and his heart beat strongly against hers as he tucked her head against his shoulder and pulled her onto his lap.


She should have struggled. Her tears should have dried up in outrage and she should have managed to break free from him, at least a small shred of her dignity intact. But she was lost, sobbing in his arms, sobbing for her husband, her dear friend who had unexpectedly become everything to her and then left her.


Rohan didn’t say a word. No soothing noises, no “there theres.” Just voiceless comfort as she finally released the last of the sorrow she’d kept bound up for so long.


He seemed to sense when she was ready to move away. All she had to do was tense her muscles and his arms loosened, and she knew he would release her as soon as she made a move to climb off his lap. Which she certainly should do, but instead she lifted her tearstained face to look at him.


There was no triumph in his eyes, no air of superiority. He simply looked at her, still and silent, and she suddenly remembered the kiss in her dream, a kiss that had come from him after all, not Thomas. The feel of male arousal against her hand. Again, from him.


But she’d been asleep. There was no need to acknowledge it. As far as he knew she didn’t remember, and she intended to keep it that way. And try not to remember the hard shape of him beneath his breeches.


“You tell anyone that I cried, and I’ll cut your liver out.”


“Do you even know where a human liver resides?” His voice was light, distant, the usual tone he used with her. Thank God.


“Yes,” she said, and punched him in it.


She slid off his lap as he groaned, clutching his side. “You should have seen that coming,” she said, much cheered. “Are you ready for lunch?”

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