Authors: Allegra Gray
His own breathing accelerated as he took her lips with another kiss
. She welcomed him, her lips parting as he drove inside, his tongue stroking hers as he took what she so sweetly offered. God, she was a passionate little creature. His hands continued their caress, shaping the curve of her hips, slipping up her back to the delicate bones of her shoulder blades, pulling her hard against him.
He held her there, one hand at the small of her back, the feel of her hips snug between his thighs, his erection pressing against her stomach nearly sending all rational thought from his mind.
Theirs was hardly a proper courtship. But there were some lines a Maxwell did not cross. Which really only reinforced what he already knew: he was going to marry her. And he was going to have to do it soon.
Somewhere further down the path, a twig cracked.
Charity leapt, snapping suddenly to her senses. She squinted into the darkness, only to see one of the duke’s men make an apologetic gesture and silently disappear once more.
She blew out a breath.
“Are we being followed?” Lord Maxwell asked, incredulously.
Charity swore mentally
. Aloud, she simply sighed. “The duke’s guards. They are only making sure I…stay out of trouble.”
“You have guards
.” It wasn’t a question.
“Why does your family mistrust you so?”
She gave him a coy look. “Perhaps because I do things like this?”
He laughed, but didn’t drop the matter
. “You aren’t doing anything a thousand other young ladies haven’t also done before you. I bet you any lass with a Season under her belt knows the pathways at Vauxhall.”
He wasn’t going to allow her to flirt her way out of an explanation, apparently
. From behind the next row of hedges, they heard giggling. “You may be right,” she admitted. “Perhaps that is why the guards did not leap upon you and drag me away when we kissed.” She sighed, tempted to just tell him everything. But then he would know she was tarnished. It was so unfair—she’d been trying to do
, and look where it had gotten her. She settled for a half-truth.
It is not entirely a matter of distrust. My family only wishes to protect me.”
“Lass, they seem a tad overprotective.”
“They have their reasons.”
“Such as?” he prompted, when she didn’t elaborate.
“What have you heard about my family?” she hedged.
“Very little, to be honest
. I know of the duke. He is well-respected.”
. It is largely due to him that the other rumors have faded. When my father passed away, we had very little money left.”
“I do not care about that.”
She gazed at him. “Perhaps not, but my mother certainly did, especially with two unwed daughters. All of London seemed to know our circumstances. She and my uncle conspired to marry Elizabeth off to a distant relative who had no breeding. He cared only that our father had held a title. Nasty, he was.”
“And the duke swept in to her rescue?”
“If only. He wanted nothing to do with her, at first. They did fall in love eventually, but her first suitor was none too happy to be thwarted. He conspired to get my sister alone, and he treated her abominably. And
the duke swept in to her rescue.”
“So it all ended well.”
“It did, but neither of them has forgotten. Add those memories to the duke’s involvement in politics, and the threats he received during the war, and, well, he does his best to protect us all.”
. Charity was actually rather proud of herself. She’d left out the most critical detail, of course, but she’d managed to make her “guards” sound like an almost reasonable precaution nonetheless.
.” He drew her close again. “So, what you are telling me is that, if I were to kiss you again, those two great oafs would not do me bodily harm?”
“I rather doubt they could, even if they wanted to.”
“In that case…” His words broke off as his lips captured hers.
long moments, they kissed. Never had she met a man who kissed the way he did. She wanted it to go on forever.
But instead he broke contact
with her lips, holding only her gaze as he asked, “So, how soon can we be married?”
Charity stumbled, still reeling from the kiss
“Lass, ye canna kiss a man like that unless ye intend to marry him.”
“Oh. Oh, I, that is, I should be honored,” she stammered, desperately trying to gather her wits from the ends of the garden to which they had apparently fled. The brogue in his voice gave her the shivers—in a very good way. He wanted to marry her. Charity’s heart swelled until she felt giddy.
Yes, yes, yes
, her heart wanted her to say. Her mind, less quick to forget her troubles, forced her to ask, “But why the hurry?”
“Because,” he growled, “kisses such as those lead to other activities
. And those other activities are best suited to a marriage bed.”
Charity let out a strangled laugh. “Oh
, my. I see. Well, let me think. I suppose, for a proper engagement, and to plan a wedding as it should be done…perhaps a year?”
“Oh, but Lord Maxwell,” she continued, warming to her story, “the best venues must be reserved well in advance. And then there are the invitations to send out, gowns to order—the popular French dressmakers are months behind, and of course no fashionable lady would be seen in a lesser creation at her own wedding, and then there is time to hire the extra staff…” She nattered on, fully aware she sounded like an imbecile.
She came to an abrupt halt. “No?”
She eyed him doubtfully. “I suppose I could push to get things done faster, but I truly don’t see how it could be less than nine months.” Nine months was still enough time. She’d be better by then. Healed. The horrors of the past forgotten, just like her doctor, and her family, and herself, wanted.
, lass, I’m afraid not.” He tucked her arm into his and began to lead her back to the common area.
Charity felt a great weight drop in her chest
. Please, God, don’t let him leave her. No man had ever swept her off her feet—literally—the way he had. She did want to marry him. She was just scared. She bowed her head.
He used two fingers to tilt her chin back up
. “Do not look so sad, lass. You shall have a lovely wedding, if it is important to you.”
She bit her lip, uncertain how far she should push
. “Do you not agree, Lord Maxwell, that a lengthy engagement would only serve to increase the…ah,
, for the activities to which kissing can lead?”
He gave a bark of laughter
. “Lass, that level of anticipation may very well be the death of me.”
In which Graeme discovers why
difficult negotiations are sometimes aided by subversive plotting.
Graeme regarded his breakfast the following morning with a surliness the food had not earned. The townhome he’d rented for the Season had come with a small but perfectly adequate staff, including a cook.
His glance fell upon a copy of the latest gossip
sheets left near his plate. He ignored it. Trivial people poking their noses into one another’s business. He had problems enough without borrowing those of others.
His biggest problem came in the form of a stunning, sensual blonde
. She’d become his obsession. The taste of her lips, the curve of her breast, the soft moan when he cupped it… Why on God’s green earth did she want to
This was not something Graeme Ramsey Maxwell, Earl of Leventhal, Viscount of Kirkaldie, and one of London’s best matches of th
e Season, had planned on. To be honest, he hadn’t really given much thought to the
of getting married. He’d rather thought he would come to London, select an agreeable and attractive young lady, and that would be that.
d failed to consider that he might select a young lady with ideas of her own. A glaring omission on his part. Stupid. If he wanted his marriage to work, he had to choose a woman spirited enough to thrive in the Highlands. Since women with spirit tended to also be women with ideas, he should have seen this—or something like it—coming. Besides, there was really no question. Once he’d met Charity Medford, no other woman would do.
No wonder his
driver had remarked that acquiring a wife would take “somewhat longer than to acquire a horse.”
He was fine with her having ideas
. It was just this one
idea, of waiting a year to be married, he could not abide.
His gaze landed once more
on the newspaper. He might not find it interesting, but from the prominent placement his servants had given it, much of London clearly did. Perhaps it merited a moment of his attention after all.
. Don’t marry him. Marry him.” Charity idly plucked the petals from a daisy she’d found growing in the tiny yard in back of the house, wondering what to do about her most prominent suitor. Or rather,
to do it.
be a fool not to marry Lord Maxwell, for reasons more important than the one her mother had honed in on so quickly—namely, his title. Charity was not nearly as title obsessed as her mother, even if having a duke for a brother-in-law had saved them a time or two.
More interesting by far was
the fact that Lord Maxwell had been attracted to her
he knew her name…before knowing she had a dowry befitting a duchess, or that she’d once been considered the catch of the Season…or even that her popularity was waning as she gained a reputation as one who would accept no offer and who perhaps acted recklessly at times. Graeme hadn’t known any of that—meaning his attraction was real.
There was no judgment in the way he looked at her
. After months of pretending to ignore the skeptical looks, the whispers passed behind the protective screen of ladies’ fans, it was just so…so wonderful to have someone look at her and see none of that.
Even if it was nothing more than physical lust, it was lust for
. Best of all, a marriage to Lord Maxwell offered one thing she yearned for deeply, and which she could never have in London: freedom. Even if her fears about the return of the French spies would never entirely subside, at least she could be somewhere where every site, every street corner, did not remind her of the danger. Of her foolishness. She could have the freedom to be herself again, not someone whose life was defined by everyone else around her.
If only he loved her
. He’d called her “my love,” that once. But that was just an endearment. It wasn’t the same as actually saying he loved her.
Then again, he’d promised her marriage
She returned to her room
, still at loose ends and bored with the garden, if it could even be called that. Penny stood near the wardrobe, sorting and folding Charity’s winter garments for storage.
“If a man offers marriage, and calls one by endearing terms, would you say that constitutes a declaration of love?”
paused and cocked her head. “I could not say, miss, but if a fine lord called me sweet things and offered his hand, I’d not waste time wonderin’ what he meant,” she answered practically.
. “Yes, you’re right, I’m sure. My mother would agree, anyhow. ‘Don’t be such a silly twit,’” she imitated her mother’s voice. “`Ladies of the
marry for titles, or wealth. Both, if you’re lucky. Romance is only for novels.’” But her sister had married for love—and Elizabeth, in Charity’s opinion, was a far happier person than their mother.
“Oh, I don’t know about all that, miss
. I think Lord Maxwell is quite romantic. Why, he practically declared for you the very night you met.”
Charity’s heart warmed
. “He did, didn’t he?”
“Never you worry, miss
. Every bride-to-be gets at least one case of the jitters.” She returned to her folding.
. Is that what she was? Lord Maxwell’s bride-to-be? Charity stopped in front of the looking glass, pretending to experiment with a new style of braid, her head spinning. No formal engagement had been announced, but of course the whole household was abuzz with the news anyway, believing the matter all but settled. Only Charity knew better. She hadn’t agreed to a shorter engagement, and, as yet, Lord Maxwell hadn’t agreed to a longer one.
Graeme strode into White’s
that evening with a plan that didn’t make him proud.
After all, he
come to London to find a wife, he reasoned. Charity Medford was available for the position. She was unmarried. She was willing. She was of good family. And there was no denying the frisson of attraction between them.
It was just her absurd insistence upon a lengthy engagement
that had him flummoxed. Men were the ones who were supposed to be hesitant to settle down, who needed time to sow their oats.
. That wasn’t it, was it? She wanted more time to play before settling down? No, he knew the attraction between them was stronger than that. There was something else…he just couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Leventhal, come join us.”
He recognized several men at the card table and greeted them in turn, but politely declined to join them.
So what if
Charity was a bit wild? She would settle into a more wifely role once she got used to the idea—he hoped.
suppose she would demonstrate great enthusiasm at moving to his remote home in the highlands. Then again, she might. He’d seen the tension between her and her family. If it were him, he’d have leapt at an excuse to move far, far away from a mother like that.
Regardless, he would have to bring Charity to Scotland
. Leventhal House was his home, his kingdom, where the local men, women, and children respected and relied on him. Where, without a partner, he was too often alone.
Graeme shoved that thought away
. They could work out the details of how, and where, they would live later. First, he had to marry her.
Ewan MacPherson? Surely this was not the one night his friend would choose to finally abandon his favorite haunt. To his knowledge, Ewan had spent virtually every night here since the night he’d sworn off matters of the heart. Somehow he seemed to find more steadfast companionship in a deck of cards than he had with the last of his ladyloves. Graeme was counting on him being here.
Finally, he spotted his friend among a group of men crowded around a gaming table.
“MacPherson. Thank God you’re here.”
Ewan looked around
. “Where else would I be?”
Ignoring the question, Graeme announced, “I need your help.”
help? With what?”
“Come have a drink
.” Ewan already held a drink, but both men recognized the invitation as code for “I don’t want anyone else to hear this.”
stepped reluctantly away from the dice game he’d been observing. A rousing cheer went up from the table just seconds later, and he looked back longingly.
“They’ll be playing the next night
. And the next.”
.” Ewan shrugged, settling into a seat at the corner table Graeme had selected. “What has the great and mighty Lord Maxwell so flummoxed as to seek out my help?”
A certain Miss Medford.”
Ewan slapped his knee, laughing
. “Oh, now this begins to make sense. I warned you, did I not?”
“I prefer to forget that.”
Ewan poured himself some brandy from the bottle the waiter discreetly left at the table. “But, Leventhal, she seemed quite taken with you the other evening at Vauxhall.”
“Did you argue with her since then?”
“Never tell me she turned you down flat.”
“No, not that either.”
“Then what is the problem?”
MacPherson, is that she thinks it perfectly reasonable for our engagement to last a full year.”
Ewan choked on his brandy
. “You, I suppose, do not.”
Nay. I do not.” He lowered his voice. “So that is where you come in. I need you to write an anonymous letter to the
, expressing concern over what you saw at Vauxhall the other night.”
“I saw nothing at Vauxhall
. Nothing of concern, anyway.”
“Then would you like me to explain what you
have seen, had you happened upon the same path where I strolled with Miss Medford? Shall I tell you how soft her lips are, and how they simply tempt a man to lose control?”
Ewan raised a hand
, shaking with mirth. “Nay. Please, desist. I am quite certain I have the gist of it.”
I am certain you do. And you, as an overbearing, gossipy matriarch, simply
relay your concern for London’s youth, lest other young ladies get it into their heads that such appalling behavior is to be tolerated.”
“I as a
“I think it would sound better coming from a woman, don’t you?”
Ewan just gaped at him.
After all, a man would simply congratulate me for stealing a kiss so thoroughly and move on.”
“She’s going to kill you.”
am not the overbearing, gossipy matriarch who is going to write the letter.” He lifted his glass to Ewan. He wasn’t proud of the plan, but he
confident it would work. “I am the one who is going to come to her rescue.”
Charity awoke earlier than usual on Monday morning
. Or maybe “awoke” wasn’t an accurate description, since she wasn’t certain she’d actually slept.
Thoughts of Graeme had kept her awake
. Good thoughts, of how he was determined and gallant, and
good thoughts, that made her nipples tighten and ache to be pressed against his hard chest, and scary thoughts, about their engagement and how long it would last and how her life would change very, very soon.
Charity went straight to the breakfast room, where that day’s copy of the
waited for her mother’s reading pleasure. Picking up a scone from the sideboard, Charity swiped the gossip rag and scanned it. Today might be the day her engagement was announced. They hadn’t come to an agreement on a wedding date, yet, but she had essentially agreed to marry him. The way they’d left things at Vauxhall, she hadn’t been confident they’d come to any understanding. But then Elizabeth had sent her a note, stating that her husband had received a calling card from Lord Maxwell the day after the Vauxhall outing, requesting a formal audient. The Scotsman’s insistence on that matter of propriety made her smile, especially as propriety hadn’t kept him from kissing her with more seductive power than London’s most notorious rakehells. She already knew the duke would approve, which was why she was eager to see the paper today.
smile fell away, though, as she discovered that, while the paper did indeed contain mention of her, the mention came not in the form of an engagement announcement, but in a letter to the editor: