Authors: Anthea Lawson
Tags: #regency romance, #regency short story, #enemies to lovers, #sexy regency
A shiver went through her - he felt it beneath his palms where they rested on the sweet curve of her waist. Slowly, he pulled her back until their bodies were nearly touching. Awareness thrummed through him. A delicious, scant inch of space separated them - the anticipation of touch, preceding the actual moment.
The pale skin of her neck looked smooth as cream satin. He could hardly wait to taste it.
He bent his head, inhaling the scent of orange-flower water drifting up from her hair. Slowly, so that she could feel the heat of his breath, he dropped his lips to hover at the delicate indentation of her nape. Feather-light, he brushed his mouth across her skin. Her stifled gasp made heat flare up in him.
Pressing his lips more firmly to her neck, he nibbled his way to just beneath her ear. Her pulse beat wildly beneath his mouth, though the rest of her remained still as glass.
“Delicious,” he whispered.
He raised one hand and pulled gently at the neckline of her dress, exposing her collarbone. Just there, a tracing of the tongue, hot and smooth against her skin. He swirled delicate circles back up toward her ear, and another tremble ran through her.
It did not take long for him to locate the hairpins restraining the glorious mass of her hair. He pulled them out, one by one, and let them land, unheeded, on the carpet. All the while, his lips mapped the arch and curve of her lovely neck.
One strand of hair came free, landing on her shoulder. Her hand flew to the back of her head, but it was too late. Robert pulled out the last pin, and her hair tumbled down in all its golden glory.
She whipped around, her blue eyes hot, her face flushed. “How dare you!”
“What?” He kept his tone light, amused, though the sight of her arousal made a dark tide stir inside him. “I can ravish your neck, but woe betide any man who touches your hair?”
It lay over her shoulder, gleaming like sunlight. He reached for it, he couldn’t help himself, and ran his fingers through the soft waves.
Narrow-eyed, she pulled her hair out of his grasp.
“Kisses are one thing,” she said, “but I did not give you leave to wreak havoc on my coiffure.”
“You prefer to leave that to your lady’s maid? She’s doing a terrible job of it, I must say. That style doesn’t suit you.”
“It’s none of your concern.” Juliana tossed her hair back behind her shoulders. “You’ve collected your payment for the day, my lord. Now I must bid you farewell.”
She had always been beautiful when in a temper. Not that her beauty was any excuse for her past behavior. Still, he enjoyed cracking the façade of the Ice Maiden.
Knowing it would unsettle her, he went down on one knee and swept up the errant hairpins scattered on the carpet. He glanced up and gave her his scoundrel’s smile.
“Shall I re-pin it for you?”
“No!” She took a step back, then held out her hand. “My hairpins, if you please.”
He rose and considered the bits of metal in his hand. “Perhaps I’ll keep them.”
Her eyes widened, a flash of something like desperation moving through them. “Give them back. Please.” The last word was strained.
Was she really so destitute, that she could not afford to replace a handful of hairpins? He thought back to the magnitude of her father’s debts. Well, perhaps she was. And she deserved it.
a voice inside him whispered,
she deserves to be penniless and afraid?
“Here.” He thrust the hairpins at her, then spun on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Juliana was cold and cruel. She deserved no sympathy from him.
Thursdays shadowed Juliana’s entire month. Two had passed, and on the whole, she wanted the next to never come. Yet late at night, while memory kept her wakeful, she wished the days would hasten forward.
If only her mother had not been so cruel, so fixed upon the importance of Juliana wedding a title. Then she and Robert might have married - and she would now be a countess. The irony was bitter in her mouth, and might-have-beens scorched her heart.
On Wednesday, Henrietta paid her a visit.
“Juliana - you look so pale! Come, ring for tea and we’ll have a cozy chat in your salon.”
“Not the salon.” She said the words too quickly, but the air there was too full of Robert’s presence for her to be comfortable. It would be impossible to sit and talk calmly, with the memory of his kisses hot upon her skin.
“Very well,” Henrietta said, tilting one eyebrow up.
She handed her hat and gloves to the butler and gave Juliana a keen look. There would be no escaping Hen’s questions, and truthfully, Juliana was relieved that there was
she could tell.
“We’ll go up to my rooms,” Juliana said. “There’s no fire in the salon hearth today.”
Indeed, they could barely afford coals to heat the bedrooms. She had told the remaining staff how desperate the situation was, but reassured them she was taking steps to remedy the situation. The butler, the housekeeper, and one maid were staying - at least for now. Sadly, the cook had gone to another family. The housekeeper was taking over kitchen duties, with rather dismal results.
Henrietta settled on the window-seat in Juliana’s room, then gave her a searching look.
“You’ve cried off all invitations this past week,” she said. “Whatever are you thinking? There’s no way you can catch a husband if you spend all your time hiding.”
“I…” Juliana trailed her fingers down the slightly dusty curtains. “My circumstances have changed.”
“What? How?” Her friend leaned forward and studied her. “You certainly don’t look happy about it.”
“Father’s notes have been bought up. We’re safe from debtor’s prison.” She wet her lips and turned to stare out the window.
“Oh?” Henrietta’s eyebrows climbed. “His debts were paid… by whom?”
“Robert Pembroke, Earl of Eastbrook.” Juliana clutched the curtains in one hand.
“Heavens! That certainly changes things. Let me think.” Henrietta leaned back, pursing her lips. “I presume Robert has paid you a visit?”
Juliana nodded. How could she explain the knots of fear and desire twisting inside her?
“He must still be in love with you!” Henrietta said. “Is that why you’ve abandoned the pursuit of a husband? Does he have intentions toward you?”
“No. Not… in the way you mean.”
Her friend sat up straight, shock widening her eyes. “Never say he’s forcing you to be his mistress! What a dreadful - ”
“Hen, stop. I am redeeming father’s debts, yes. But it is only for five kisses.”
“Five kisses? Are you quite certain he no longer cares for you?” Henrietta shook her head. “And five kisses may
harmless, but look at where they could lead.”
“I know it.”
All too well.
“So far, I have not kissed him - he has kissed me.”
She tried to ignore the heat that flashed through her when she thought of his lips on her skin.
“Besides,” she added, “I’m certain his only motive is revenge.”
Although… there had been that look on his face, after she took her hairpins back. No. She must not torture herself by imagining he still cared for her.
“Juliana. Just because of what happened in the past, doesn’t mean - ” Henrietta clearly was about to launch into a lecture, when the maid knocked at the door.
“Come,” Juliana called.
She engaged Henrietta in chitchat about the balls she had attended recently as the maid set the tea things out. Finally, the girl finished and left the room.
“Tea?” Juliana moved to the small table and poured out a cup.
Henrietta surveyed the table dubiously.
“Whatever are these?” She poked at a plate of lumpy brown items.
“Scones.” Juliana tried to smile. “I know, they look dreadful, but with plenty of jam they are edible. Sadly, the housekeeper is not the best cook.”
Henrietta took a sip of tea, then regarded Juliana steadily over the rim of her cup. “Be sensible, Juliana. You may not have creditors turning you out on the streets, but you’re certainly not out of financial difficulty. It’s imperative you find a wealthy husband.”
“I suppose.” She dropped a lump of sugar into her cup, and stirred.
The swirl of liquid was like her own thoughts - going round and round, leading nowhere. But Henrietta was right. Staying at home would do no good. Her father was certainly not going to be of any help, either - it was up to her to restore the family’s fortunes.
“The Caswell’s ball is Friday evening,” Henrietta said. “Viscount Wrenforth will be there, and he is your best hope. You must attend. Oh, and do leave off stirring your tea. I’m quite certain the sugar has dissolved, and the noise is making me peevish.”
Putting Henrietta in a peevish mood was something to be avoided at all costs. Juliana quickly set her spoon down and took a sip.
“As usual,” she said, “nothing but pearls of wisdom fall from your lips.”
“Hmph.” Henrietta could not quite hide her smile. “A pity we can’t string them into a necklace for you to sell. That would nicely solve all your problems.”
“A rich husband will have to suffice. Viscount Wrenforth is pleasant enough.”
Henrietta nodded. “And his annual income is
larger than his nose. It’s all a question of comparison.”
Indeed, that was part of the problem. Viscount Wrenforth did not compare at all well when measured up against Robert Pembroke. Juliana gave herself a mental shake, and forced herself to take a bit of scone as penance.
“Very well,” she said. “I will attend the Caswell’s ball on Friday.”
The memory of Robert might haunt her past, but she must look to the future.
The next Thursday, Juliana was again waiting for him in the parlor. She stood at the window, and despite the drab dress she wore, the light silhouetted her pert breasts. Robert smiled. He had plans for those breasts.
He closed the parlor door behind him, then prowled over to where she stood.
“Watching for me, Juliana?” he asked.
“Hardly. I would not still be gazing out the window, were that the case.”
She did not turn her head to look at him, which he found amusing. It was a sign of how deeply he was beginning to affect her.
Are you quite certain you are unaffected, in turn?
He shook off the ridiculous notion. His heart had finished with Juliana the day she had ground it under her bootheel.
He came up behind her and let his breath feather against the side of her neck. “Your hair is styled as deplorably as ever. Let me take it down for you.”
She shot him a glance over her shoulder. “Unless you are planning to kiss my hair, it will remain as it is.”
“Tempting… but it’s not your hair that I plan to ravish today.”
He set his hands at her waist, and felt her tremble, ever so slightly.
“You have kissed my hand,” she said, “and my neck - what is next? My elbow perhaps? My knee?”
He let out a soundless laugh, then drew one finger down her arm. “You were jesting, but the hollow of the elbow is very sensitive. As is the back of the knee.”
Her skin was warm and soft in the crook of her elbow. He made a lazy circle there with the tip of his finger, and she drew in a breath.
“Had we more kisses, and time,” he said, “I’d begin behind your knee and kiss my way up.”
He slid his palm down the side of her thigh, half-expecting her to bolt out from under his caress. But she stayed, her breath quickening. His prior study of seduction was serving him well.
“I’d let my lips explore,” he continued, “along the delicate skin of your thigh. Until I reached the most sensitive spot on a woman’s body. Do you know where that is, Juliana?”
She shook her head, ever so slightly. The scent of orange-flower water wafted from her hair.
“Here.” He moved his hand, letting it brush lightly over the sweet place between her legs.
At that, she gasped and pulled away. She whirled to face him, her cheeks pink with outrage. And arousal.
“You are scandalous! How dare you - ”
“Never forget what you owe me,” he said. “But don’t fear. The secret place between your legs is safe from my kisses. For today.”
Her eyes widened. Excellent. He’d planted the seed of an idea that would bedevil her - the anticipation of his final kiss. When he at last kissed her there, at her center, when he made her gasp and writhe and explode with pleasure, then his victory would be complete.
He would be branded on her soul, and she would never be able to escape the memory of him.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing to the settee. “It will be more comfortable for both of us.”
“Will you hurry and get this blasted kiss over with?” She perched on the cushions and folded her arms. “I’ve far more important things to attend to this afternoon.”
“Mm.” He sat next to her. “I have every intention of making you forget those things.”
She lifted her chin, and said in a haughty voice, “I doubt that, Lord Eastbrook. But by all means, proceed.”
Despite her words, he could see her pulse fluttering wildly. He leaned forward and slowly drew one shoulder of her gown down. She let out a breath and uncrossed her arms, but she said nothing more.
Good. He was done with talking. There were other, better, uses for his mouth now. He continued to pull her gown down, revealing the white fabric of her chemise. Her skin was pale, and smooth as satin. Slowly, he folded her chemise back, revealing the pert slope of her breast.
“Robert,” she whispered.
Four springtimes ago, he had longed to caress her this way. He had kissed her breasts through the fabric of her dress, not daring to do more. Now, though, everything between them had changed.