Authors: Virginia Henley
In and out of the moonlight and shadows they walked down their own driveway, where the trees arched their branches to form a cathedral of dark green to guard their secrets.
As they skirted the house, the flower beds offered up their various perfumes to the hot night air. The spicy fragrance of the pinks mingled with the heady scent of the nicotine plants, and night-blooming stocks. "It evokes comparison with the Garden of Eden. It must have been similar to this. A paradise for the two who loved there," he murmured.
"Shall I be Eve?" she whispered.
"You shall," he affirmed, and brought her small hand to his lips. Each finger received his kiss, and she was enthralled with the pretty gesture. Their feet sank deeply into the cushiony green turf of the lawn that stretched down to the river. The water looked smooth as shadowed silk, and gave off a murmuring song that was soothing to the senses.
The insistent drumbeat had stopped, yet Nicholas's blood ran through his veins like rich red wine, and he knew he must curb his rampant male desire so that he would not frighten his young wife.
"Whenever I feel unhappy, the sound of the water always calms my troubles."
"Do you see this little path between the laurel bushes? I think we should put a garden seat in that alcove and call it a tranquility area."
"Yes, it's a hidden spot where a person could be alone."
"Where two people could be alone," he suggested, squeezing her hand. They stood beneath an oak that had a wisteria vine, thick as a man's waist twisted about its massive trunk. The mauve petals were floating on the warm breeze and dropping into the water. One fell and caught in Amanda's hair and as Nicholas reached out to brush it away, a tendril curled possessively about his fingers.
"One of life's sweetest pleasures is playing with a beautiful woman's hair," he told her softly.
Amanda felt as if she were melting with love. She couldn't trust herself to speak, as she sighed raggedly.
All logical thoughts fled his mind, but as he reached out his arms to crush her to him, he saw how untried she was, and forced himself to cool his ardor. He withdrew his arms, and they continued their walk, past the gin mill. The stable's aroma of horses and leather came to their nostrils in a rising miasma in the heated night.
Amanda had never felt so happy. She was entranced like a sleepwalker and would have stayed hand-fast with Nicholas the whole night through if he desired it.
They ended up back in the rose garden where their tryst had begun. He reached for a bloom, denuded it of thorns and placed it behind her ear. "Perfect for you-- a Maiden's Blush Rose." His fingers dipped to the neckline of her gown where he plucked the tiny cloth bag Jessie had given her. "You won't need this," he murmured.
Again she was wide-eyed with wonder. It was as if her husband could penetrate her thoughts, her soul. Nicholas was all the protection she would ever need.
He drew both her hands to his lips and murmured against them, "Amanda, tonight was for you and I alone. Let's not share it with the others."
She nodded, feeling exactly as he did. It was their delicious secret. No one would ever know. "Goodnight Nicholas," she breathed.
She carried his words with her to bed.
During the course of the next day neither Nicholas nor Amanda, by look or word, gave any indication that anything was different than it had been the day before. As usual they were never alone together, and Nicholas was careful to use the formal address of 'Miss Amanda'.
The summer heat had lasted right into the autumn months this year. If anything, today was hotter than yesterday, and the night brought little relief.
Jennifer came into the dining room carrying a large palmetto fan. "Ah declare this heat is just awesome. Can't something be done about it?" She looked coolly pretty in a blue sprigged muslin.
"Paradise is much cooler than our house," Amanda told her. "And dinner was cooked in the outdoor kitchen. It could be much worse."
"Ah don't know how. Nicholas, would you please get one of the servants to operate the shoo-fly?"
"Of course, Miss Jennifer," he answered formally. "Samuel, tell Fanny we need the ceiling fan worked, please."
"Yessir, shiftless wench shoulda had it gwine an hour since."
Nicholas smiled at his wife. "When I first arrived from England, the heat almost felled me, but now I'm so acclimatized, I welcome the warm nights." He caught her gaze and held it until she blushed and lowered her eyelashes. Nicholas hid a smile.
"I received a note from Mrs. Beverly inviting us to a corn roast tonight. Could we all go?" Jenny asked hopefully.
Nicholas declined. "I had something else in mind for this evening."
Jennifer looked to Amanda. "Your husband won't allow me to attend alone. You come with me, Mandy."
Amanda hesitated. "No, I'm sorry Jenny, but Laurel Beverly is a jealous cat and I don't care for her company."
With a straight face Nicholas suggested blithely, "I'd have no objection if Aunt Billie and Mammy Lou went along with you."
Jennifer's look of hatred almost pinned him to the wall.
Aunt Billie looked up eagerly from her glass. "I'll have to go up and get my wrap."
Amanda jumped up. "I'll get it Aunt Billie. You'll need your reticule with your tonic." Billie always carried a flask when she moved from home in case there was no liquor provided.
When Amanda left the room, Nicholas asked Jenny, "What is the trouble with Mandy and the Beverly girl?"
"Oh you can't blame her for not wanting to visit her friends, poor little thing. She gets teased something powerful for not being a real wife. I feel so sorry for her." She quickly put her hand over her mouth to give the impression that she shouldn't have let that slip out.
He gave her an intense look. "I cherish my wife so much, she is to be envied, not pitied. I think Amanda was closer to the mark when she mentioned jealousy."
Jennifer's lips compressed with her own envy. She said petulantly, "By the way, I shall be going to visit the farm in Blackville next week after all. Brandon has agreed to escort me."
"That is acceptable, Jennifer," he said quietly, giving his permission.
Jennifer was livid with him.
Damn him to hellfire.
Nicholas didn't jump to her bait like the other men she knew. She was a past master at the nuance of the sidelong glance, the tempting half-smile, flirting with her fan, but he didn't respond to her smiles, just as her tears didn't reduce him to apologizing and begging her forgiveness.
She vowed to bring him low, no matter how long it took. She knew instinctively how to defeat an enemy.
Revenge has four simple steps. First, make a friend of him; second, gain his confidence; third, maneuver him into a vulnerable position; and fourth, annihilate him.
"Excuse me, I must freshen up before I go to the Beverlys."
Alone with Billie, Nicholas said, "For a well-bred young lady, her morals are deplorable."
Aunt Billie cackled. "No woman is moral when the chips are down, take it from me. Morals are the first thing to go out the window."
Nicholas chuckled. "So, you think women are all sisters under the skin, do you Billie?"
"Human nature is human nature." She nodded sagely.
"How can I argue with such profundity?" he asked with a smile.
When Amanda went up to her room, she found a long-stemmed rosebud on her pillow. She caught her breath and wondered if it was an invitation. She inhaled its delicate fragrance deeply, and opened the door that led out to the balcony. She leaned against the railing and searched the shadows of the garden. There! Was that the glow from his cigar, or merely a firefly signaling an invitation to its mate? She was very still for a moment, then suddenly she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he awaited her. Her heart lifted and sang.
She bathed her hands and face with rose-scented water and slipped out into the garden. She floated on butterfly wings to the gazebo and climbed its steps. Her heart sank as she saw that it was empty, then it soared again, as he arose from a wicker chair.
"Nicholas." She was breathless.
"Sweetheart, I see you understood my invitation." He cupped her elbows and gazed down at the face that haunted him.
"When two people are attuned to each other, they don't need words," she breathed softly.
"Thank God for this Indian summer. I hope it lasts into December. I want us to meet here every night, Amanda. Promise me you'll come?"
"I promise," she said shyly, hoping the spell would not be broken.
His hands slipped up her arms as he drew her closer. Her vision was blocked from everything beyond his wide shoulders. He wore no jacket and her eyes lingered on the open neck of his shirt, where the strong, brown column of his neck disappeared beneath the fine material.
He bent his lips to her ear and whispered, "Each time I looked at you today, I was overwhelmed by the desire to kiss you... like this." His hands cupped her face and lifted it to receive his kiss. His lips took hers softly, tasting all her sweetness.
Her head was filled with the scent of him and when he released her mouth, she swayed toward him, intoxicated by his male strength. She had never known the bliss of being held captive against a powerful man's chest, arms wrapped about each other, mouths fused.
His arms tightened and his mouth possessed hers again. She could feel his hard body, and she drew back, alarmed at his intensity.
He murmured, "Don't let me hurt you."
She didn't know if she was relieved or disappointed when he took her hand and led her from the summer house. With fingers entwined they strolled to the end of the rose garden to where the swing hung invitingly. He stood behind it and held the ropes steady. She laughed and sat down, but before he began to push her, he bent over and dropped a kiss on her hair. She leaned her head back to gaze up at him. "Do you want to play... like children?"
His voice was husky. "I want to play like Adam and Eve."
She protested, "They were... " then she stopped, shyly.
"Say it," he urged.
"Naked," she whispered.
The silence enveloped them as the word hung between them. Finally he said, "That's what I want us to be."
"Hush Nicholas, you mustn't say such things."
"I will say such things, and we will do such things," he assured her firmly. "But not yet, not tonight. Not until you have lost your shyness with me, and I've shown you how to be a little wanton." He began to push her, sending her higher and higher until her toes touched the high branches.
She squealed and begged him to stop.
He walked around to stand in front of her and held out his arms. "Jump," he invited. "Trust me."
Always ready for a dare, she let go of the swing and sailed laughing through the air.
He caught her in strong arms and lifted her high as he swung her about, and then gathered her to his heart. His blood was up and it took all his willpower to stop himself from sinking to the warm earth and ravishing her. With an effort he set her feet down, and they walked through the topiary trees that cast peculiar shadows across the lawns, some amusing, some sinister.
"Amanda," he hesitated, "has this marriage made things awkward for you with your friends?"
She smiled a secret smile. "They have been pea-green with envy, and I'm only just beginning to learn why. They covet you!"
"We mustn't let anyone know we are in love Amanda. It would cause a scandal because of your age, and though that wouldn't bother me in the slightest, it would hurt you.
"I savor the secrecy; it has a strange excitement," she admitted.
He murmured, "Love snatched in a garden is doubly sweet." He brushed the tendrils back from her temples. "Your hair fascinates me. I love to touch it and smell it." He lifted a handful and touched his lips to it."
"I love your smell Nicholas. It's like wild cedar."
"The sense of smell has a lot to do with whom we fall in love. In ancient Rome the young men were so sophisticated they used one perfume on the arm they would put about a lady, and another on the shoulder where she might rest her head, and a different one yet upon the body."
"How would an ancient Roman kiss his lady?" she tempted.
"Like this." He drew her against his body. The kiss parted her lips and he caressed her with the tip of his tongue. His embrace hardened and the kiss began to demand and then to take.
She drew back, wide-eyed. Her apprehension was mixed with anticipation, and he knew he must stop while he still had a small measure of control.
Closer to the house, when he kissed her goodnight, he made sure it was devoid of passion. He whispered his demand. "Tomorrow!"
She nodded her joyous acceptance.
Nicholas knew that once again he had condemned himself to the orgasm of a voluptuous dream, but he could not forego the delicious torture of these nights in the perfumed garden.
Brandon showed up the next day and was astounded to find Nicholas out on his land clearing the withered stalks from the cotton crop. Also seedling pines and blackberry brambles had to be constantly cleared out before they encroached everywhere. Things grew so quickly, it was a continuing battle to keep ahead of the honeysuckle tangled with vines and smilax.
"Nick, 'fore God, I don't know what you do for pleasure." He dismounted and handed the reins of his hunter to Jim, his body servant.