Authors: Samantha James
His tongue? Claire was shocked. She had never imagined such a thing, but she must maintain her charade.
“Is that why you brought me here?”
“My dear Claire, at the risk of sounding boorish, I need not resort to seduction. There is no need.”
“Yet you’ve created the setting.”
“Yet you are here.”
A rush of heat stung her cheeks. The insufferable wretch.
“You are audacious.”
“I am honest.”
“That is your intent, then?” she asked. “To seduce me?”
He said nothing. That wicked smile merely widened.
“Are you as roguish as everyone says?” A voice inside was screaming a warning. Grayson Sutherland was far beyond her experience.
He pretended to consider. “There is roguish. And there is . . . charmingly roguish.”
“Charming? An insipid term for you, I suspect.” A part of her was aghast at her bravado, for that’s what it was. Sheer bravado.
He threw back his head and laughed. “I agree. ‘Charming’ is not a word one usually associates with me. I daresay, my mother would agree. But tell me, what kind of man do you think I am?”
Oh, but he would not want to know . . .
‘Ere the thought went through her mind, he shook his head. “Faith, don’t answer that.”
“I believe we both know the answer to that. From your own lips, you’re a rogue. Are you a jaded rogue?”
He was amused. “Is there any other kind?”
Claire caught her breath, trying hard not to tremble. Faith, when he laughed, he was breathtakingly handsome.
“The question has been posed,” she said almost primly.
“Good Lord, if you knew my reputation, you would scarcely ask.”
“Sometimes we are not always what we seem.” Even as she spoke, a little sliver of guilt needled her.
“Perhaps you’re a woman of mystery, then.”
“And perhaps you are a man of mystery.”
Thus they continued to parry.
“Come. Sit with me.” He extended a hand and saw her seated on the divan in front of the fireplace. It was hot, so no fire burned on the grate.
But Claire felt as if it did. And her entire body seemed to burn. Shadows flickered on the walls; she hoped Gray couldn’t see her face.
But she felt as if he did. He sat so near, their knees were nearly touching.
She watched as he poured another glass of wine for both of them. She sipped it nervously, aware of his eyes on her profile. He did not speak.
Finally he set aside his glass, and hers as well. He caught at her hand.
“Come here, Claire.”
She didn’t want to. She had to remind herself she had a role to play.
But then . . . oh, but then an arm slid around her back, bringing her into his chest. Her shoulder fit perfectly into the notch between his shoulder. It was as if she was made for him.
His eyes slid over her face. “Do you know what I want, Claire?”
Her hands were trapped between their bodies. “I—”
His mouth covered hers. Her fingers splayed wide on his chest. It was a kiss that gained fervor with every second. A kiss that gave rise to a dozen confusing feelings racing throughout her body. A kiss of almost blinding sweetness, pleasure such as she had never known—and fear of what would come next.
Their lips parted. Warm breath rushed over her cheek. “God,” he muttered against the corner of her mouth. “I’ve been waiting to do that all day.”
His mouth returned. It was Gray who controlled the tempo of the kiss. Controlled it—and thus controlled her. The fanciful daydreams she’d envisioned as a young girl hadn’t prepared her for this. His hold on her was commanding. Masterful. His kiss was far beyond any imagining she might have had.
She was trembling when he finally raised his head. The moment seemed to stretch out forever.
“What’s wrong, Claire?”
Speech was beyond her.
He released her abruptly. “You’re shaking! What are you frightened of?”
She leaned back. There was a shimmer of tears in her eyes. She tried to blink them back.
“Tell me what the devil is going on.” His voice was very low.
The truth was that she
afraid. There was an intensity about him that almost terrified her.
He wasn’t a man to trifle with. In that moment, she realized just how true it was. If he’d wanted, he could have laid her back, stripped her clothes from her, and taken her at his will.
And there wasn’t a thing she could have done to stop him.
But above all, she couldn’t allow that to happen. Her quest for revenge would be lost. She’d come this far. She wouldn’t quit now.
“How long were you wed?” he asked.
She opened her mouth, floundering.
“Tell me,” he said sharply. “Is it too soon?”
He made an impatient gesture. “Too soon after your husband’s death.”
She seized on it. “Yes,” she whispered. “I didn’t realize it until now . . .”
She had lowered her eyes. It did no use. His regard seemed to spear inside her.
He caught her chin between thumb and forefinger. “Don’t play where you are not willing to go, Claire. You’re not a green young girl. You’ve been married. Not every man would stop. You’re undoubtedly aware of that.”
What? Did he seek to play the role of gentleman now?
She pushed at her hair, which had come down around her face.
In the entrance hall the clock chimed.
“Come,” he said. “The hour is late. Let me take you home.”
ater that night, Gray strode into his oak-paneled study. At his desk, he reached for a bottle and poured a generous splash of whiskey into a glass. He was halfway through it when Dawes, his butler, admitted Clive.
“I saw your light aglow in here.” Clive helped himself to a drink and a cigar. “May I ask where your beautiful escort for the night is?”
Gray grimaced, watching the tip glow as Clive lit the cigar. “At home.”
“And sleeping in her own bed?”
He took a long draught of smooth Irish whiskey, reminded of the brandy he’d drunk with Claire.
Clive took a pull of the cigar. “Set you down cold, did she?”
His jaw tightened.
“I see,” said Clive with a laugh.
Gray thought of the lovely Claire Westfield, the way she’d pulled away from him. The memory had him gritting his teeth. A kiss was the least he wanted from the lady.
He’d wanted to drag her back into his arms. He wanted to crush his mouth against hers. Bury his fingers through the thatch of curls at the valley of her thighs and seek the scalding heat of her flesh. Mount her and drive into the sweet heat of her cleft, feel her melt around his cock. Ride her fast and hard. Yet even as those feelings seized hold of him once more, he wondered about his desire for her. Wondered and hated himself for it. It was too damned keen. Gray was a man with iron-clad restraint. He didn’t like what he could not hold sway over.
And he did not like what was happening with the lovely widow. What the blazes had he been thinking?
He hadn’t, he decided blackly. At least not with his head.
He didn’t take his women to his home . . . No one had slept in his bed beside Lily. Not here. Not at Brightwood. He’d loved only her. And when she died— He cut short the thought. Claire wasn’t his woman, he reminded himself. He did not have . . . women. He had lovers. He had bed-sport partners from whom he could disengage once passion was sated, women who wanted no more than he did. Women who graced his bed but not his heart.
Roses. Wine. Christ, had he gone mad? What a fool he’d made of himself!
He wasn’t used to being rejected. By heaven, he wasn’t through with the beauty just yet. He thought of Claire’s mouth, the slight pout of her lower lip, the way he’d run his tongue along the outline of her mouth. When he was with her, he could hardly take his eyes from it. He wasn’t satisfied. Not by any means. His pleasure had been cut short. He wanted to taste that delicious little pout that so entranced him. He thought of the grace with which she moved. He recalled the ripe lushness of her breasts against his chest, breasts that rose ripe and full above the neckline of her gown. Oh, yes, he wanted so much more from her. Sensation danced through him as he imagined her on her knees before him, his hands in her hair, holding her as she—
Son of a bitch
. He sucked in a breath and gave thanks he was sitting. The thought gave rise to a heavy flood of arousal that was almost painful. Desire stabbed through his middle. He was tempted to go find a whore.
But he’d much rather bed the comely widow—the sooner, the better. Then he could put her from his mind.
Clive gave a shout of laughter. “By God, Sutherland, if we didn’t know she’d been wed, she sounds like a veritable virgin. But it seems she’s a lady, eh? Not one of your—”
Gray fixed his friend with a glare. It was just as Clive said. If he didn’t know better, he just might think the woman was untried. He had no interest in virgins. They were too much trouble. He liked a woman with experience. But then, a sudden darkness came over him.
Lily had been a virgin.
Clive angled a brow. “Do you expect to see her again?”
Gray pulled himself away from the darkness of his dead wife and slanted his companion a look. “I can see what’s in your mind,” he growled. “And I have not changed my mind. Hands off, my friend.”
“I can see why you won’t share her. But when you tire of her”—Clive well knew that with Gray it wouldn’t be long—”send her my way so she may hearken to my arms for comfort.”
Gray gave a shout of laughter. “Since when do you take another man’s leavings?”
“I may be willing to make an exception with the lovely Mrs. Westfield. And remember, she isn’t
Mrs. Westfield yet.”
Gray’s jaw came shut. He cast his friend an acid glance. He didn’t like the idea of Claire in another man’s arms. The hell of it was that Clive might indeed be true to his word!
He leaned forward and filled his glass and Clive’s. It had been a long time since he was with a woman who didn’t tumble into his arms and his bed. He must be honest with himself, though. Claire’s denial didn’t make him want her any less.
If anything, it only sharpened his desire.
He was a man who had never given chase to any woman. It wasn’t arrogance that proclaimed it so. Even Lily . . .
The thought of her was like a stab in the heart. Lily and—
Raw pain rent his heart. God, would he ever forget her? Would he ever
“My mother has invited her to the birthday party she’s throwing for me next week. For God’s sake, I might as well be in small clothes.”
Clive’s smile ebbed. “She wants you to heal,” he said quietly.
Gray’s retreat into himself was almost palpable. He hated the reminder, and Clive knew it. His mother knew it. He had nothing left to give. Not anymore.
“I am healed,” he bit out, “and say no more if you wish to remain my friend.” He thought of his conversation with his mother last night.
Clive let it go. There was a part of Gray that was closed to everyone. He allowed no one to glimpse the blood on his soul. That was something that did not change. It would never change. Guilt would not allow it.
“Your country house party,” Gray said suddenly. “When is it?”
“The following weekend. Why?”
He smiled tightly. “Is the beautiful Mrs. Westfield on the guest list?”
Clive arched an aristocratic brow. “No. But I’ll see that it’s remedied.”
Gray’s eyes glinted his satisfaction. He leaned back.
Long fingers closed around the neck of the bottle. He poured both of them another drink. Their cravats untied, their shirts loosened, they drank nearly a bottle before Clive left.
But even that was not enough to dull the ache inside him. Gray welcomed the numbness that settled in with liquor, but tonight his mind would not rest. Oh, he knew why, and he almost hated Clive for daring to speak of Lily. Now, pushing back the covers, he rose. Naked, he stood at the balcony outside his room, staring out at the rooftops of London. A midnight breeze ruffled the draperies on the French doors behind it. Darkness closed in around him. It was then he heard it, a sound that shredded his very soul.
The sound of an infant crying.
Penelope came for tea the next day. It took but a glance for Claire to glean her friend’s mood.
She ushered her into the sitting room. “Pen, what is it? What’s wrong?” She searched Penelope’s face. “Is it the baby? Is everything all right?”
“It’s fine, Claire. He moves so often now. I do believe there are times when he never sleeps.” She tried to smile, a lackluster effort.
Claire’s heart sank. It was Theo, then. “Oh, darling, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Claire, I—there still has been no word from Theo.” Tears filled her doe-brown eyes. “I’ve had no letter for weeks now. It—It’s never been so long before.”
“Don’t cry, dove. I’m sure there’s an explanation. Perhaps the weather. Perhaps they are in an area where there’s no post.”
The tears overflowed. “Another commander, Colonel Stokes, he and his men have just returned from the Peninsula.”
“I went to him, Claire. He offered regrets that he had no news on Theo and his company. But he said—”
The tears flowed harder. Claire slipped an arm around her friend’s shoulders.
“The colonel . . . he said he had heard the fighting . . . has been fierce. That there had been many casualties.” Penelope could barely speak. “Claire, I’m so frightened. What if Theo—“
She tried to choke back a sob. It was no use.
Claire slipped an arm around her shoulder. “Hush, love. Oh, Pen, you cannot allow yourself to think in such a way. Yes, you’ve had no news, but take heart. All is not lost yet.”
She pressed a handkerchief into Penelope’s hands.
“Don’t cry, Pen. I know it’s hard, but it’s not good for the baby.”
Penelope’s tears began to stop. She dabbed at her eyes.
“Dry your eyes now.” Claire hugged her. “There, pet. That’s better.”
Penelope gathered herself. “Claire, oh, Claire! I don’t know what I would do without you. From the moment we met at school, you’ve been my dearest friend . . . well, except for Theo—”
Claire smiled. “That’s how it should be, dear. Husband and wife should be the greatest friends of all.”
Penelope began to calm. They talked about the viscount, and again Penelope expressed reservations.
“I know how much you loved Oliver, but what good can come of this?”
Claire went silent.
“I would urge you to abandon it, Claire, but I know you are set on this course. I will help you in whatever way I can.”
Claire squeezed her fingers. “I’ve always known I can count on you for anything.”
Once again they hugged. Their talk turned to other things. Penelope was preparing to leave when Rosalie rushed in, her eyes huge.
“Miss, the Duke of Braddock is here for you.”
“It’s him, miss, the duke.” Her eyes like saucers, Rosalie handed her his card. “What shall I do, miss? Will you receive him?”
Claire wanted to shriek. Instead she shook her head. “Rosalie—you cannot call me ‘miss’!”
“What shall I do, mi—ma’am?”
Claire smoothed her skirts. “Show him in. And will you bring tea?”
Penelope’s eyes went wide. “Here, I will hurry out the back—”
Penelope patted her tummy. “I doubt a man of Society will want to see me like this.”
“Oh, pooh. Babies are in the natural order. Besides, thank heaven for sashes and bows. There’s very little to see there!”
Both women curtsied as the duke entered. He took the hand Claire offered. “How lovely to see you again, Your Grace.”
“Indeed.” The duke had eyes like silver. His frame was lean, but it spun through Claire’s mind that he was nearly as handsome as Gray.
“Your Grace, may I present my friend, Mrs. Penelope Grove.”
He bowed over Penelope’s hand. “Charmed, I’m sure, Mrs. Grove. I believe I’m acquainted with your husband’s aunt, the Countess of Tilbury.”
“Yes, my husband is indeed the countess’s nephew.”
He turned to Claire. “Mrs. Westfield, I will take but a moment of your time. The Thursday after next, I am hosting a country house party at my estate in Kent, Waverly Park. It will be relatively informal, just a few friends, but I would be pleased if you would attend.”
Claire’s mind veered straight to Gray. Would he be present?
chided a voice inside.
She wasn’t sure if she was excited or anxious. Either way, this was an unexpected opportunity to place herself near Gray. She couldn’t refuse.
The duke turned to Penelope. “Mrs. Grove. Of course I would be pleased if you could attend as well.”
“Oh, no, Your Grace, I couldn’t.”
“Oh, Penelope,” Claire implored, “it will be good for you to get out of the city.”
Penelope started to shake her head. “But wait,” she said. “Your Grace, Waverly Park is in Kent?”
“We have very dear family friends in Kent whom I believe have purchased a summer home in Northrup, Lord and Lady Augusta Trahern. Is that near your estate, Your Grace?”
“It’s some five miles to the north.”
“Are you acquainted with them?”
“No, but if they have only recently settled, I’m not surprised.”
Penelope glanced at Claire. “Claire,” she said slowly, “I have an idea. If Lady Augusta should be so inclined to welcome me, this might be an excellent time for me to visit. We could share a carriage.”
“Capital idea,” the duke approved. “As long as your friends are willing.”
“Oh, I should imagine they will welcome me heartily. Before my parents left for the Continent, I recall Mama saying they should love to visit the Traherns upon their return. I will write as soon as I’m home.”
The duke wore a faint smile. His gaze shifted to Claire.
“I have a confession to make, Mrs. Westfield. I did not send a formal invitation ‘round because I thought it would be harder for you to refuse if I invited you here in the flesh.”
“Your Grace, I’m flattered.” No doubt that wicked little smile had turned many a lady’s head.
In the entrance hall, Rosalie handed him hat and cane. He bowed low and seemed well pleased with himself.
“Ladies, I bid you good day.”