Page 22

Author: Anne Stuart


He scowled at her. “I may have just lost my appetite.”


“You’ll regain it. It appears you have a very fine chef. Though if you’re as tired as I was I might suggest you avoid the wine.”


“I’m quite well rested. You looked so peaceful lying there on the blanket that I gave in to temptation and napped myself, even though you kept encroaching on my side of the blanket. Has anyone ever told you that you’re quite a restless sleeper?”


“I’ve never slept with anyone.” She could have bit her tongue when the words were out, and she quickly reached for a sandwich.


“You surprise me. Then again, you had no siblings to share a bed with. I may assume you and Sir Thomas had separate beds?”


“This is hardly any of your business.”


“And that your pathetic excuse for a lover didn’t spend the night when you succumbed to his blandishments?”


She looked at him. She was feeling reckless, emotional, out of sorts, and she was tired of his constant hints. “I found the experience so unpleasant with Wilfred that I kicked him out lest he want to repeat the whole thing.” She shuddered. “I was expecting someone younger and healthier than Sir Thomas would convince me that lovemaking was worth the trouble. It isn’t. It’s nasty and ugly and dirty.”


He stared at her for a long moment. And then he spoke. “Dear girl,” he said softly, “don’t you know that any reasonable man would take that as a challenge?”


She jerked her head up to look at him, into those very dark green eyes. “Don’t be absurd. Why would anyone bother when there are so many willing females around? I’m too much trouble. And besides, I don’t consider you a reasonable man.”


His smile was fleeting. “I’m an eminently reasonable man.” And before she realized what he was doing she was back in his arms and he was kissing her, openmouthed and hot and wet, no teasing approach, just raw, sexual demand that should have filled her with disgust and dismay.


Instead her stomach tightened, her heart raced, and the place between her legs grew hot and tingling. For some reason she put her arms around him, and she’d automatically closed her eyes, reveling in the unwanted sensation of his kiss, the hard pressure of his mouth against hers.


At her compliance the kiss changed, no longer a fierce demand, now a teasing caress, a slow, languorous series of kisses as he caught her lower lip between his teeth, using his tongue, his lips, everything to bring her closer and closer to complete surrender. She was out of breath, her heart pounding so hard it was almost painful, and when he lifted his head she reached up and pulled him back to her, returning his kiss with all her inexpert passion.


He was teaching her, she realized dizzily. Demonstrating what to do with his tongue, leading her, showing her what pressure, what gentleness, could do. He lured her tongue into a sweet dance, until she could no more resist him than she could have flown. When he finally set her away from him she almost cried out and reached for him again, but something gave her the strength to put her hands in her lap, clenching them. She’d liked it. No, she’d more than liked it. She wanted more, and yet his kiss was like poison to her. It could lead to things, to feelings that could destroy her utterly.


“So I can respond to a kiss, Rohan,” she said, using his name in a deliberately informal manner. “I’m human, you know. And you kiss very, very well. Not that I’m a connoisseur, of course, but I expect you’re one of the best kissers around. I should take a survey from my girls, see what they think.” Her voice was cool, dismissive.


His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Now you’ve put me in my place. Sweet Charity. You don’t need to discuss me with your gaggle. I’ll tell you anything you want.”


“Doves don’t come in gaggles.”


“Yours do. And I think you’re a very dangerous woman, Lady Carstairs.” He reached for a sandwich himself, and she had to admire his tanned, graceful hand against the white of the bread.


“You do? How lovely!” She beamed at him. “What else can I do to terrify you?”


“You don’t really expect me to tell you, do you?” He glanced at the ruins. “I’ve already taken a quick look around the house. There’s no sign that anyone’s been there, and I don’t think the footing is safe. I expect I’ve seen enough. We should probably go back once we finish eating.”


“Don’t be absurd. We came this far for a purpose, one I intend to fulfill. You can’t fob me off with stories about uneven footing. You’ll find I’m hardier than most women of your acquaintance.”


“I expect you are…” he murmured. “Very well. But stay behind me and walk only where I walk.”


“Of course,” she said.


“You’re lying, aren’t you?”


“Of course,” she said again. “You may follow me.”


He ran a hand through his hair. It was dark, long and curling slightly, and she wondered what it felt like. It looked soft, like the fur on a wolf cub. “You really are driving me mad,” he said.


She smiled sweetly, getting to her feet. “Then I’ve succeeded in my goal. Why don’t you clean up the mess while I go look around the ruins? It’s only fair since I set the food out in the first place.”


He jumped to his feet, going after her. “The mess will wait.” He took her arm in what might have seemed a polite social gesture, if it weren’t for the hard, possessive grip of his hand. And they started toward the towering spikes of the ruined building.


He should have been in a foul mood, Benedick thought, trying to hide his smile. After all, she’d insulted him, lured him, challenged him and even threatened him. She’d wept all over him, and he despised tears. He considered them a feminine weakness used to manipulate men into doing what the female in question wanted.


He couldn’t really blame Melisande, though. She seemed to want nothing but her bad-tempered husband back again, astonishing as that notion seemed. She also seemed to believe she really wasn’t interested in the sins of the flesh, even if her body rose to his every time he touched her.


He had no problem with allowing her to keep her delusions. She was safer believing she had an intrinsically cold nature, even if she burned hot against him. As long as she was convinced that celibacy was, to paraphrase the Shakespeare his mother was so addicted to, “a non-consummation devoutly to be wish’d,” then he had a much greater chance of being able to keep his hands off her. He had absolutely no idea why he found her so tempting, but the unfortunate truth was that he did. And he needed to get her back to London and to her gaggle of soiled doves so he wouldn’t be able to give in.


She’d already started off, without her bonnet, which she’d discarded at some point, and the sun had kissed her cheeks with a soft blush. He scrambled to his feet and followed after her. Damnable woman.


Whether she liked it or not he took her arm when he caught up with her, but to his surprise she didn’t yank away. It was rough going over the scattered rubble, and they picked their way carefully.


There wasn’t enough left of Kersley Hall to provide shelter for a family of mice. The fire had torn through the old place, devouring everything not made of stone, leaving only the outer walls and chimneys in place. She stopped in the cavernous front doorway, staring into the rubble beyond, and shook her head. “I don’t think anyone has been in here since the fire,” she said.


“I agree. Now can we…”


“What is that building?” She pointed to a neat cottage set off away from the house. The roof was partly burned, but most of it was in solid shape, and curtains were drawn across the deep-set windows.


“I have no idea. These outlying cottages can be used for any number of things. It might house a gatekeeper, or the head gardener, possibly the gamekeeper. It’s possible it might serve as a dairy or a laundry, though I would think there would be more chimneys. Perhaps it was simply a home for the housekeeper, though most often they prefer to live in the main house. If you’re thinking the Heavenly Host meets in such humble surroundings, you’re mistaken. For one thing, there would scarcely be enough room for a full-blown orgy in such a small place. For another, the Host only likes to pretend to endure privation. In truth they like warm bedchambers, plenty of the best wine and comfort above all else. They would hardly sink to the level of a housekeeper’s cottage.”


“Indulge me,” she said and started toward it.


He muttered a curse under his breath and started after her. “Wait.” An odd feeling was coming over him. She had already reached for the doorknob of the derelict building, and he caught up with her, catching her arm roughly. “Let me go first.”


No sooner were the words out of his mouth when the ground beneath them gave way. He saw Melisande sink, and he flung out his arms to grab her, going down with her, deep, deep into the darkness, her body held tightly against his.


16


Benedick managed to turn them as they tumbled, so that he landed beneath her, his body protecting hers from the brunt of the fall. He let out an inelegant “oof” as he landed, the combination of the fall and her body bouncing on top of his knocking the wind out of him. He struggled for a moment, still holding her, and then it came back with a whoosh of relief, and he could breathe again. She didn’t appear to be in any hurry to let go of him. She wasn’t moving, clinging tightly, and he had the sudden fear that she might be hurt. He moved his hands, touching her carefully, looking for broken bones, when she rolled off him, slapping his hands away.


He sat up, wincing slightly. “Melisande, are you all right?” he asked urgently.


There was dust and dirt in the air, and she coughed. “I seem to be,” she said finally. “What happened?”


He looked around him, slowly, taking it all in. “I believe we may have found where the Heavenly Host meets.”


“In a cellar?”


“Look around you. We’re not in a cellar. We’re in the middle of a tunnel, with torches and crude drawings on the walls. Not the kind of thing they use for mines. The combination of the fire and the elements must have weakened the ground overhead, enough so that our combined weight collapsed it.” He began to brush the dirt and dust from his abused coat, then realized it was a lost cause. Richmond would kill him.

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