Authors: Angeline Fortin
laughed merrily. “You doubt my skills, Lord Ayr? Choose another then.”
Ian stepped back a pace and scanned the wall
, picking out another that seemed nearly indefinable to him. Just an average farm scene edged in forests with a little farmhouse and wagon. “That one.”
Hmm,” Hero considered, drawing closer to the piece. “Constable for sure.
, I’m certain. Early 1820s.”
The Gleaning Field
. Palmer, 1833.”
. Georges Michel. French, eighteenth century.”
He pointed again and again and began laughing
gaily as she shot out the answers without hesitation. “Bernard Manskirch’s
. It should be in a museum, you know?”
Perhaps I should just donate them all,” he said lightly before pacing a few steps down the wall. Ian shook his head at the pleasure he was taking in this odd moment. Watching her face light with confidence and deviltry as she displayed her knowledge was as gratifying to him as her more appreciative glances. Taking joy in such a small thing was new to him. Ian felt he could have stood there all night listening to the laughter lurking behind her scholarly tones. “How about this one?”
It was a
night scene of a wooded park done in blues with a couple waltzing in the moonlight. It was a very romanticized scene. “That’s one of mine,” she whispered softly then, drawing Ian’s eyes back to her.
You painted it?”
No,” she amended. Her expression held sadness and … longing? Ian wasn’t sure. She went on, “I brought it with me when I came here. It’s Mongin’s
Vue de Marly
. It was painted around the turn of the century. I loved it so much as a girl that Papa let me take it when I married Robert.”
It’s certainly of a different feel than the other landscapes.”
Robert thought it romantic twaddle,” she told him more briskly, stepping back from the painting. “His words, not mine. I always thought it was lovely, if a bit fantastical. I mean, who would actually waltz alone in a moonlit park? It’s such a silly thing.”
I would if I were dancing with you, Hero.” Ian surprised himself with the husky tone of his voice, if not with his words, and frowned with no small amount of disgust. Where those sappy words had come from, he had no idea. He had never considered himself a romantic, had never seriously courted a woman—or wanted to—in all his days. Though he had read the great poets, like most men he considered voicing a recitation in earnest to be an insult to his manhood.
It just went to show
that a man should never say never. In the right situation, with the right woman, poetry was no longer mere words but so much more. Inspiration was obviously the missing element of his long-held dismissal of "romantic twaddle," as Hero had called it moments ago, and she was a most inspiring lady.
Still, it was a
n affront to his principles to spout such nonsense to a woman he’d just met. Ian shook his head to clear the thickening webs of desire away but they clung to him tenaciously. Aye, and wouldn’t that be just the thing to prompt her to leave Cuilean? The unwanted attentions of a man Hero considered a cousin.
But did she?
Ian studied Hero through heavy lids as she rubbed her palms down her skirts. She looked uncertain, with her brilliant eyes wide, but not chagrined by his words.
ilence fell around them but it was not as weighty as the desire that was pulling at him. Hero was so lovely in the candlelight cast by the wall sconces. Her golden hair gleamed, her skin shone like ivory, her lips were moist and full. The shadows ebbed and peaked over the swell of her breasts with every breath she took. Ian wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and to press those delicious curves against him, to feel those breasts well against his chest. He wanted to touch those lips. Make love to them—nay, worship them—with his own.
e wanted most was to know that the desire to do so was mutual.
Hero’s pulse beat visibly along her long neck as she stared at him in surprise
, making him believe that it was. If he ran a finger along that line, Ian wondered, would he find it fluttering as madly as his own? Whether her eyes were wide with excitement or the fear of a deer ready to bolt, Ian wasn’t certain. Clearing his throat uncomfortably, Ian took a pace back in an attempt to break the spell. “You mentioned you enjoy the ramparts as well. Would you care for a stroll before we retire for the evening?”
A deep sigh escaped her.
Disappointment? Gratitude? Ian wished he knew.
“Thank you, Lord Ayr.
I believe some fresh air would be lovely.”
“I thought we agreed you would call me Ian,” he reminded
her in a brogue still heavy with desire. Again he tried to cast it away, only to remain entrapped.
Hero’s lips parted with a swift intake of breath before she released it shakily.
“I’m sure that would be most inappropriate, Lord Ayr,” she countered softly as Ian led her down the length of the picture room.
. We are family, are we not?” he asked lightly.
Hero didn’t answer
immediately. Instead, she remained silent as Ian led her down to the main floor, through the library, and into the armory. From there a series of heavy doors separated the two parallel stone walls that surrounded the courtyard, a tall inner wall and a shorter outer wall that fronted the cliffs of the firth. The shallow passage between the two walls had been the first line of defense in ancient days, when attacks might be made on the castle from the sea.
Facing the Firth of Clyde, the narrow
outer wall of the ramparts stood no more than three feet in height and a foot in thickness. Periodically the wall was notched out into lower sections where the business end of a cannon might be aimed toward the firth to fight off invasion. Should that fail, the inner walls were ten feet in height and more than two feet thick.
motioned for Hero to precede him into the narrow walk of the embattlements and she walked ahead of him holding her hooped skirts up on one side, creating an angle to their bell shape that allowed her to fit down the narrow passage. She trailed her fingers along the top of the firth-side ramparts, lifting them over the gaps as she went.
… two … three.
Ian counted the spaces as she skipped across them, watching her delicate fingers drift
through the air before once again skimming the stone walls. The wind was even greater here than it had been on the upper balcony, but then Ian had noticed that the ramparts always seemed to be the windiest area of the castle. The breezes from the firth collided with the higher walls and, as if they knew not which way to go, would swirl about the ramparts, pushing and pulling against anyone who walked the walls.
That wind was pulling at Hero
now, and tendrils of her golden hair were escaping her once-neat coiffure and licking across her face and neck. The long streamers of her gown that had once lain tamely against the silk were dancing merrily about her skirts.
At the sixth break in the wall, Hero stopped and turned, seating
herself within the notch. After adjusting her skirts daintily, she propped an elbow against the higher portion of the wall and, brushing a piece of hair away from her face, considered him thoughtfully with her vivid azure eyes gleaming in the moonlight. “You see me as a sister then?”
Ian stared blankly at her for a moment.
He had been so taken by the picture she presented that his earlier words were the farthest thing from his mind. She was so lovely, so desirable. Angelic yet seductive. Brotherly affection was nearly the last thing he felt for her, but he’d be damned if he were going to admit it. This strange magnetism between them had already cost him a slap or two to his male pride. Leaning back against the inner wall, Ian crossed his arms over his chest. “You should be careful there. This wind has the force to push you over the edge, and it’s a long fall to the firth below.”
Almost 150 feet,” she responded, not bothering to look down. “I spent many an evening sitting just so; you needn’t worry for me.”
I find myself quite concerned.”
As for a sister?” she persisted.
Ian met her gaze.
Her words were bold ones, prodding even, seeking something that Ian hadn’t yet truly accepted. Hero was the Marchioness of Ayr, a woman worth more respect than his ogling and lustful thoughts had yet delivered. He wanted her. Still, it was more than that. There was an undeniable connection between them, something more than attraction or mere desire. He wanted her body beneath his, true enough, but it was what else he wanted that was eluding him.
An indefinable longing for something
The sentimentality of the thought
grated at Ian’s nerves, and his answer, when it finally came, was evasive. “I doubt I would want to waltz with a sister if I had one.”
Her airy rebuttal was immediate.
“A cousin, then?”
I haven’t many of those either,” Ian quipped lightly, but Hero didn’t respond. Instead, she merely watched him intently, as if she were waiting for something greater to emerge from his lips. What was she waiting for? A confession? Admission that he found her intoxicating, bewitching?
He’d be a fool to admit such a thing.
Their opportunity for comfortable cohabitation was hanging in the balance. If he said the wrong thing, Hero might feel the need to leave Cuilean, and he didn’t want that. Yet if she continued to prod him so with her steady gaze, Ian felt that he might find himself saying those very things.
Ian needed to stop
her questions before he said something he'd regret. He needed to break away from her probing gaze.
Won’t you say something?”
Ian shook his head.
He could either walk away or …
Pushing himself off the wall, Ian crossed the short space between them in a single stride.
Bending, he caught her around the waist, pulling her up and against him even as his lips descended. He took her lips in a fiery kiss full of the desire he’d been feeling all day and the frustration of these last few moments.
A squeal of surprise escaped Hero before Ian’s lips covered hers. For a moment the force of his body meeting hers startled her, so that she reached back to steady herself against the ramparts, lest they both tumble to their deaths, before realizing that Ian was as solid and supportive as the wall. Bending her over his arm, he allowed his mouth to slant across hers, parting her lips before his tongue swept in. Hero clung to his shoulders, astounded by his passion. Then her body recovered from the surprise and responded in kind. Fire unlike any she’d ever imagined burned in her chest and sizzled down her belly and thighs.
she dropped her head back, breaking the kiss, but rather than retreating, his lips seared a path down her neck and back up to her ear, raising goose bumps that were chased by a shiver of excitement. A low moan escaped Hero as she clung to Ian, but, rather than interpreting the sound as the surrender it was, Ian pulled back and met her eyes. Straightening, he steadied her before stepping back.
Hero stared up at him, all words lost.
The need to hear some confession from his lips—that he felt the same insane attraction for her that she felt for him—was gone. Ian’s dark, turbulent gaze pierced her, leaving her mind surprisingly blank and her body trembling.
That wasn’t what she
had expected at all. But how could she have? Hero had never known that a kiss could be so all encompassing, or that desire could prod someone to act so rashly.
Taking a step back, Hero steadied herself once more on the rampart
, dizzied by the new feelings that were assailing her. A part of her wanted to throw herself back on him much as he had just done and continue down this unknown path. The other part wanted to lift her skirts and run away.
Hero opted for a well-mannered retreat
, though her voice was shaky when she spoke. “It has been a long night. I believe I shall retire now. Goodnight, Lord Ayr.”
She executed a whisper of a curtsey and he returned it with a bow,
seemingly content to let her leave. Raising a trembling hand to her lips, Hero turned to walk away, her skirts dragging against the walls, since she was too preoccupied to lift them. She had little experience with what had just happened. Robert hadn’t been one for kissing, and certainly not so fervently. Hero wished she could go back and respond differently, not with such shock but with the enthusiasm she felt unable to express.
Of course, she hadn’t been expecting a kiss, Hero thought defensively.
She had sought only some small assurance that his affections—if he possessed any—were not of a fraternal bent. If they had been, Hero would merely have done all that was in her power to maintain a certain distance with the new marquis, avoiding any flirtation so that they might live in peace at Cuilean together.
She would have no peace now, Hero was certain.
His actions, however impulsive, had set her heart racing, her blood pounding, and her imagination soaring. Once she was able to gather her wits about her, perhaps she might be able to vocalize some thought on the subject rather than opting for an abrupt exit.
Ian must think her a ninny for her reaction!
Hero flushed in embarrassment as she hurried along, but Ian’s rough brogue broke the silence of the night.
In case you are still uncertain on the matter, Lady Ayr, a sister might be the very last thing I would consider you.”
Hero glanced back over her shoulder to find him leaning with a shoulder against the inner wall, arms crossed over his chest.
His hot, dark eyes followed her intently.
Swallowing deeply, Hero was torn by the urge to race back to him and fling herself recklessly into his arms.
Years of training on proper deportment held her back, but Hero’s eyes flashed. “Thank you for the clarification, Lord Ayr.” Hero considered him for a moment longer before adding lightly, “Should you be equally uncertain, please know I cannot consider you even the most distant of cousins.”
With a nod, Hero turned away and continued her walk back up the
ramparts and through the armory door. Sedately, she made her way through the castle, murmuring goodnights to the staff she passed. It wasn’t until she reached her rooms and closed the door behind her that a wide grin split Hero’s lips. Hugging herself, she twirled about the room before flinging herself across the bed.
What an interesting summer it was turning out to be!
ile Hero had nearly swooned from the intensity of Ian’s kiss, Mikah’s heart had soared. This was the man who had lingered at the edges of her dreams for nearly her entire life. The man who had prompted a sense of watchful anticipation over the years. She suddenly knew without a doubt that he was the reason she’d never been able to maintain a long-term relationship with another man, never been able to commit herself. Mikah had always felt that something was missing, and the other men had always left her feeling empty. No one had ever made her feel the way she had in that moment when Ian had kissed her, so full of joy, trepidation, and passion.
It pulled at her heart, invaded her soul.
She was complete in his arms, complete with him. This connection, this
, was what she had been waiting for. Coma, death … suddenly it didn’t matter any longer. If having this man who was in Hero Conagham’s life meant embracing her fantastical link within Hero, then Mikah was good with that. There might never be another lifetime where anything meant so much.
She lay on the bed grinning up at the canopy.
She had left the autumn behind in 2012 in exchange for a most interesting summer, indeed!
There was nowhere else she’d rather be.